Writer: Whites See Obama As A Black Exception

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In the latest installment of the series What If?, which explores the potential impact of a first-elected black president, writer and activist Tim Wise and writer Richard Rodriguez to discuss whether Sen. Barack Obama's popularity among whites does anything to change pre-existing negative perceptions of blacks in America.

CHERYL CORLEY, Host:

I'm Cheryl Corley and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. It will be a history-making night at the Democratic National Convention with an African-American becoming the official presidential nominee of a major party. That feat, coming after a bruising primary battle, creates a new chapter in the American political landscape, one that many may not be prepared to absorb. So that prompted us to also ask, "What if?" What if the United States of America actually does elect its first black president? What does that do to old stereotypes, to expectations? And how does that play into fears? And will that ultimately translate into the change that Senator Barack Obama has largely built his campaign around?

We've been asking influential leaders and political figures what they think. And for this latest installment in our "What If?" series, Tell Me More host, Michel Martin, speaks with Richard Rodriguez and Tim Wise. Both have written extensively about race and race relations in America.

MICHEL MARTIN: Tim and Richard, I want to ask you both. You've both written about race and what it means for a long time. Before we could have a question of what it means, I want to ask you, if you're honest with yourselves, did you think you'd see the possibility of a black man in striking distance of becoming president of the United States in your lifetime? Tim?

TIM WISE: Probably not by 2008 and perhaps in my lifetime. But if someone had asked me the last election cycle if this was possible, whether it was Obama or anyone else, I probably would have said no.

MARTIN: OK. Richard, what about you?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: If you had asked me eight years ago, I would have said - because I'm older, I think, from the two of us - I would have said no. I think I would have said that we're going to edge up on it. We were going to get our first woman, we were going to get our first atheist, we were going to get our first Muslim, but we were not going to quite get this far this fast. That he is brown and and not black, of course, complicates and makes more interesting his ascendency. And so maybe in retrospect, I think that since he belongs so much to this government, rather like the Tiger Woods of American politics, that maybe the inevitability of this moment is less surprising in retrospect.

MARTIN: That's interesting. I want to dig into that in a minute. But Tim, I want to go to you because in your article, "Uh-Obama: Racism, White Voters and the Myth of Color-Blindness," you make the provocative argument that rather than demonstrating the declining significance of race, it demonstrates just how powerful race remains. And in fact, far from disproving white power and privilege, it confirms it. How so?

WISE: Well, you know, I started thinking about this last November when the Wall Street Journal on the 10th of November of 2007 had a front-page article where they were quoting Obama's supporters, not his critics, his supporters, who were very enthusiastic. And they were saying that the reasons that they were so behind Obama - and I'd heard this kind of thing on the road from a lot of people - was that he, A, made white people feel good about ourselves. That was one of the quotes. B, that he had emancipated white people by his, you know, transcending race approach, which is an interesting term, to emancipate white people to finally vote for a black candidate. And then the final one that was the worst of all, a young man who said that what he liked Obama was he didn't have the baggage of the civil rights movement.

And when I put all that together, I started to realize that in some sense, Obama's success - and this is not a critique of him, it's a critique of the culture in which he finds himself and in which we find ourselves - that the only way that Obama has been able to get to this point is to make sure that white folks are comfortable with him. Now that may seem obvious to the point of being trite. It's a white-majority nation still. But the point I'm trying to make is that if you are a black candidate or a candidate of color - bi-racial, as some may prefer - and you have to make white folks view you as different from A, the traditional candidate of color, and B, separate and apart from the larger black or brown community, that's not black or brown power. That's white power expressed in a different way. It's racism 2.0, which allows for exceptions. It allows for the Cliff Huxtables of the world, the Tiger Woods, the Condoleezza Rices, but it still oftentimes comes with a negative view of the larger black and brown community.

MARTIN: But anybody who's going to become president is going to be exceptional. So why is this a particular burden of Barack Obama? At least, a particular - a manifestation of something in the culture.

WISE: I think the reason it's important to point out is that a lot of people - and I'm hearing it on the road a lot. I've heard it from folks who've emailed me after I've written these kinds of articles. White folks who really want to look at Obama and say that his rise, whether he wins or not, just to the point where he's gotten so far, is indicative of the diminution of literally the trumping of racism as a significant problem in America. And I think it's important to point out, number one, that his success says very little about the reality faced by 36 million other black folks, 38 million Latinos, 10 million Asian Americans on a daily basis, in the job market, in the housing market. And secondly, that his success is in large part based on his ability to be the Cliff Huxtable of American politics, the black guy with whom white folks are very comfortable, even as the survey data says that white folks are often not looking at the larger black or brown community in a positive way and still hold an awful lot of negative stereotypes about the average African-American or Latino person they see on the street.

MARTIN: Richard, what do you think?

RODRIGUEZ: I agree with Tim. I do think that there's been an emasculation of Obama. His aloofness is taken in very classical American ways as kind of the uppity behavior. He's not allowed to be angry. Although, we now urge him to fight back, but if he's angry, he's not quite the Huxtable that Tim was referring to. So there is this real caution that he has to exercise in being the first African-American presidential candidate of this magnitude. He's playing against a lot stereotypes and within a lot of stereotypes, and it's a very difficult game.

I would wish for him that he challenge America even more than he does, that he approach us as the bi-racial candidate, that he identify himself more powerfully, not simply as mixed racially, but also as a son of a Muslim father. But this becomes very difficult in America. We don't like this kind of complication.

MARTIN: Let's dig into that for a minute. I mean, maybe you don't interpret some of your writings as being critical of Obama but some people would. You criticize him for embracing the black and white narrative to the exclusion of brown. I wouldn't say necessarily to the exclusion of brown, but perhaps not embracing brown as his narrative, or mixed as his narrative. And I want to talk to you about that because for a lot of African-Americans, I mean, A, that hasn't been a choice. He's visually black, at least the way that's sort of perceived in this country, and that kind of gradation or continuum has not been part of American history. It was legally enforced well into this century. So I guess I'm wondering why you're not engaging in kind of the same thing that Tim is talking about here, which is to say, in order to be more palatable, you have to be less black.

RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, I think that I would argue with the opposite. I would say that the Tiger Woods example would be the more interesting one for me. The one who defies these categories and who announces himself with a different name,(unintelligible), precisely because he doesn't want to acknowledge the currency of these terms. That's seems to be the radical moment that Obama can't quite get himself to say, and particularly towards Hispanics.

Most of the Hispanics in the United States are mestizos and mulattos. We come to this country with the idea already of mixture. We are not a race. We are a culture, and within the culture we have racial mixture that extends for many centuries. When American talks about racial mix, they usually mean black and white. But if Obama would have to come to Hispanics and say, like you, I have lived my life between white and black America, I think Hispanics would more easily understand that as a narrative.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with writers Tim Wise and Richard Rodriguez about what the election of a black president might mean for America.

Tim, you say that Obama is rewarded for downplaying race. He's punished to the degree that he does talk about it. To the degree we can set partisanship aside, and I'm not sure you can, his speech on race was considered risky. It got wall-to-wall coverage. It was widely hailed as one of the most important discussions of the subject in a generation. How is he being punished except by partisans, people who have a partisan interest in seeing him fail or in painting him in the most negative light?

WISE: First of all, you know, let's be honest. He wouldn't have given that speech had he not been forced to by situations that were outside his control - the old issue around Jeremiah Wright. He wasn't planning on giving that talk. He was pushed into a corner, and he gave what was a pretty - as political speeches go - pretty incredible speech. But there were some things about it that still are evidence of what I was suggesting. The need to - I hate to used the word pander, but to some extent that's an accurate term - to the white electorate because that's where the power base still resides.

So for example, as he is talking about indirectly Jeremiah Wright and the anger that is often felt in the black community because of the history of white supremacy and racism in this country, he felt the need to balance the claim that, you know what, we have to understand black anger. He needed to balance that with, and we also need to understand white fear about affirmative action, as if those two were functional equals in this country. But they are not.

MARTIN: I'm sorry. But isn't that democracy, though? I mean, if you look at someone like Steve Collin, running for a seat in Tennessee, who's a white politician running in a majority black district in Memphis, Tennessee, who sponsored the apology for slavery and Jim Crow resolutions, successfully got that passed. A lot of people said, you know, you're just pandering to your constituents, and he said, you know what, I'm representing them. What's the difference?

WISE: Absolutely, but the problem is the image and the symbol of trying to balance that and say, you know, black folks have got a right to be angry, which I think historically is absolutely true. But to balance that by saying, and we've got to also understand the fear of white folks about affirmative action when in fact, all of the evidence suggests that affirmative action, the impact of that on white America is so miniscule compared to the impact of ongoing racism against and discrimination against black and brown folk in this country, that to put them in the same sentence is to create a balance that doesn't exist and an image that doesn't exist.

I understand why he did it. It was political, but as someone whose primary concern is challenging racism and these kinds of issues, it still concerned me and it made me think, again, what we are doing is trying to make sure that white folks are comfortable with him.

MARTIN: Does either of you have the fear that in fact Obama has less running room than a white politician would and would be - is less effective in talking about race because he would have the fear of being seen as favoring one group or the other? Richard, go ahead.

RODRIGUEZ: I think that Tim is - this is so interesting to listen to Tim because in some way, you know, it resurrects the whole - the point by Richard Nixon, that it took a politician, a Republican like Richard Nixon, to make overture to China. In some way, because of this complication that Tim is pointing to, Obama may be the least successful person challenging American racial politics at this moment. That it may not come from a so-called African-American president, it may yet await a so-called white president.

You know, if Tim were running for president and he said what Tim has said many times on speeches, that this whole notion of likeness is a fiction imposed upon European immigrants in this country as a means of their ascendancy, if a white man said that - and only a white man can say that, I don't think Obama could say that - in that sense, he is hamstrung and he may not be the political voice that this brown moment requires.

MARTIN: Talk to me, though, both of you live in the world of metaphor, you live in the world of language. Is there any important symbolic cultural importance to an Obama presidency, should it come to pass? Particularly as the - on any number levels, because he's bi-racial, because he's a - you know, a kid from a particular background, perhaps because he's the head of a functional African-American family. Is there any important symbolic cultural meaning that either of you sees? Tim?

WISE: I think there is. I mean, a couple of levels. One, I think there's no doubt some symbolic meaning on a global level, internationally, in the way that other folks around the world would view the United States. Good, better. Otherwise I think that there would be a sense that something had really changed. Again, now, substantively, whether or not real change would come from it is a different issue.

And I think the second level at which it is symbolically important, I've noticed as I go around the country, when you meet with young black and brown men and women in this country, I'm talking high school level and early college, there is an enthusiasm and a real sense of - pride isn't even the right word, but excitement. And I think that, on the one hand, is excellent because they have a sense that, wow, something is possible that they definitely did not imagine was possible and that every indicator would have led them to believe that throughout their life wasn't.

On the other hand, it is also risky, because the concern I have is that the hopes that will rise so fast, that will have this sort of rising expectations that won't be fulfilled, because very much as Richard said, the ability of this man of color to deliver on the issue of race is actually much more difficult. And so I think that as long as we understand that, we can make the symbol meaningful by doing the work ourselves, and doing the work that Obama did when he was a community organizer, so that he or whoever the president is has to follow the lead of the people. The people always are the ones who are going to make change on those issues, though.

MARTIN: And, Richard, to the degree you can indulge us in this, because I know how much you hate categories and being categorized particularly as a writer, do you think, though, that this candidacy, this election, should it occur, has some importance to other folks, other people who are seen as the other in this society? Who are Latino, perhaps, who are gay perhaps?

RODRIGUEZ: I've been traveling in Africa and the Middle East a lot lately, and it is true what Tim says, that this presidency would have an enormous impact on the world. In fact, perhaps larger than it even has on the United States. There is here, in California, there are children now who do assume mixtures so thoroughly, they don't indulge this racial conversation. And in some sense they would say to you that they don't see him as black. They don't see him as white. They see him as modern, as precisely living in this post-racial world of DNA complexity.

But you know, I'm having just come back from Middle East where I'm more and more of the opinion that religion will replace race as the primary category of separation in the 21st century. The largest disappointment I hear with Obama in the Middle East is his caution about announcing that he is the son of a Muslim. And I understand why Obama and his advisers would shoo away two Muslim women from the podium so that they wouldn't be behind him in the photo shoot. I think, nonetheless, for him not to say that I am a Christian as with the Jews and with Christians and the Muslims, we honor the same father, Abraham, and that I regard the Muslims, through my father, through my stepfather, as brothers, spiritual brothers. That kind of brown assertion, that kind of ability to say something more about himself than America perhaps wants to hear, would be radical and I think enormously useful in this dangerous moment.

MARTIN: Richard Rodriguez is author of "Brown: The Last Discovery of America." He joined us from member station KQED in San Francisco. And Tim Wise's new book is, "Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male." He joined us from Nashville, Tennessee. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

WISE: Thank you.

RODRIGUEZ: Thank you, Michel.

CORLEY: And Michel Martin spoke with Richard Rodriguez and Tim Wise earlier.

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