About the same time Barack Obama did his frosh year at Occidental College, I was an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara, fresh from my largely African-American, Jefferson Park neighborhood. Many things on campus were new to me — the affluence, the huge white birds outside of my dorm window, which made a hellish racket every morning — but the biggest surprise was that on cloudless days, the entire campus sat in the sun, tanning. Most people I knew in my neighborhood did not seek to get darker, and did not think sitting under the burning sun was a leisure activity of choice. In my new world, I was drawn to the ocean, the lagoon and the bluffs, but mostly I was drawn to the bikini-clad tanners who covered the beach.
As a testosterone-addled teenager, I thought those delicious young women wanted to be ogled. I would walk along the beach staring at them, unaware of what those women saw when they looked back at me, a big black man, dressed for the city streets of Crenshaw, with my faux black-militant styling. At best, I looked vaguely threatening; at worst, I resembled an overweight Cinque in search of my own Patty Hearst.
Soon, I realized how I appeared, and that my attire on the beach was wildly inappropriate. Quickly, I acquired the requisite shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.
I like to fancy myself as aware, but the truth is, I often have no idea how I come across. For the longest time I thought I wore a disarming smile that put a wary public at ease. But I’ve been told by someone close to me that I wear a perpetual scowl. It may be more genetic than cultural — my beautiful teenage daughter does the same. (But my odd humor, I think, speaks to my neighborhood, my upbringing.)
Eventually, I learned to make white people comfortable with me, but I was still unable to see myself through their eyes. I suspect that Barack Obama didn’t have these problems at Oxy; he must have known instinctively that it’s bad form to ogle sun-tanning women.
One of Obama’s great gifts is his preternatural confidence in his ability to understand how he’s perceived. It is quite a trick to see clearly that which is seen in you. It’s a desirable skill in any field, but for a black man running for president, he’d better be a genius at anticipating and diffusing suspicion and hostility from those who might be inclined not to trust you. Obama is a genius at searching for and finding that sweet spot of having the respect of whites without being overly accommodating or annoyingly macho. Even so, he still trails McCain with ethnic whites by a wide margin. By ethnic white, I mean those who view anyone who doesn’t look like them as suspicious or alien. That’s the consolation of numerical superiority — often you get to elect the worst politician imaginable, but at least he looks like you.
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In January, I confessed that I had voted in the primary for Hillary Clinton, something not easily admitted to as a card-carrying black man. I just couldn’t see how Obama could stay in the game. But with the end of the wildly successful Democratic National Convention, I see that Obama and his advisers have managed the minefield of racial politics better than I would have imagined. The demonization of Obama has failed to take root, no matter the attempts by the Rovians and the Swift Boaters.
It seems that the attacks on Obama center less on his being an angry black man and more on his being a strange fish with a complicated origin story — born in a distant universe but, unlike Superman, sent here for nefarious reasons. Obama just doesn’t do the angry-black-man thing. With intelligence and jazz-cool, he reacts to attacks after the beat, and improvises his responses, seemingly to throw off and disconcert his attackers. The most interesting attempt to tar and feather him wasn’t overtly racist; it was an attack on his patriotism, his Americanness. “He would rather lose the war than lose a campaign,” McCain accused. Vile but not necessarily a racial broadside.
Amazingly, Obama isn’t doing any worse than John Kerry at appealing to ethnic whites, and is probably doing incrementally better. But upon reflection, with the empire in the crapper, and the economy too, one imagines that he would have a greater lead. If Obama wins, it’ll be because white ethnics, mostly white male ethnics but also the disaffected Hillary voters, got to know him and saw beyond his ethnicity. Familiarity will still their wildly beating hearts, and they might view this election in political terms — a contest between the failed policies of the Republican Party and a resurgent Democratic Party. But more likely, these white ethnic males will think about the black men they’ve admired, the Colin Powells, the Tony Dungys, the Derrick Jeters, and they might just decide to give the black guy a chance — or at least not stand in his way.
He couldn’t do any worse than that last white guy. What do we have to lose? Maybe send in that new black kid with the big ears. He’s a little full of himself, a little arrogant, but he just might find that elusive sweet spot and get a hit, or knock it out of the park.