washingtonpost.com  > Print Edition > Inside the A Section > Opinion Columns

Black Like Whom?

By Vanessa Williams
Thursday, August 5, 2004; Page A19

I am stumped.

Scott L. Malcomson, writing in Sunday's New York Times, declares that Barack Obama, the Democratic Senate nominee from Illinois, "is not black in the usual way." To bolster his argument, he cited an article in the New Republic by Noam Scheiber, who voiced the opinion that Obama is "not stereotypically African-American."

How is one black "in the usual way"? What does it mean to be "stereotypically African-American"?


_____What's Your Opinion?_____
Message Boards Share Your Views About Editorials and Opinion Pieces on Our Message Boards
About Message Boards
_____Message Boards_____
Post Your Comments
_____Free E-mail Newsletters_____
• News Headlines
• News Alert

Malcomson tried to explain by emphasizing Obama's mixed-race heritage -- his father is a black Kenyan, his mother a white Kansan. He pointed out that Obama was raised by his mother and her parents in Hawaii, as opposed to being brought up in a black household. He argued that Obama's keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last week "did not . . . sound the familiar notes of African-American politics."

After noting that Obama identifies himself as a black man, Malcomson seemed to be trying to prove that the Senate candidate is mistaken about his own identity. "[W]hile he is black, he is not the direct product of generations of black life in America: he is not black in the usual way," Malcomson wrote. I wonder: Is there a "usual way" to be white?

This week more than 7,000 news media professionals are gathered in Washington for Unity 2004, a convention of African American, Asian American, Hispanic and Native American journalists. In addition to lobbying the industry to diversify its newsrooms, Unity's core mission includes a challenge to the media to "improve coverage of people of color by dispelling stereotypes and myths." It seems we still have much work to do.

In presenting Obama as some new template for black success, Malcomson offered an analysis as shallow as the one sometimes spouted by discouraged black teenagers (and roundly criticized by the black middle class): that to embrace the values and behaviors that lead to achievement is to "act white." Worse, his reasoning as to why white voters find Obama attractive is reminiscent of color biases many thought had long been retired: that society favors those black people with particular bloodlines, schooling and mannerisms, while seeing the lot of black Americans through almost-cartoonish generalizations from the dark days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

That those stereotypes persist in the 21st century is, in considerable measure, the fault of the news media. In the late 1960s the Kerner Commission, convened to study the causes of the decade's racial riots, criticized the news media for their failure to communicate to white America "a sense of the degradation, misery and hopelessness of living in the ghetto . . . a feeling for the difficulties and frustrations of being a Negro . . . a sense of Negro culture, thought, or history." Newspapers and television outlets responded by descending on charred inner cities to chronicle the "black experience." The squalid conditions and gross inequities it found -- dilapidated housing, high unemployment, disproportionate criminality and substance abuse -- were a legitimate story. But even then it was an incomplete story.

Nearly 40 years later the news media for the most part continue to cover black people in America through a narrow prism of extremes. I call it the first and the worst approach, focusing on black people who soar to unprecedented heights (Obama was the first black Harvard Law Review president) or sink to unspeakable lows (see the suspects on your local television station almost any weeknight at 11).

What of the majority of black people whose activities are not good enough or bad enough to attract headlines? How often do the news media include the names, faces and voices of African Americans in stories that are not about "black" issues, such as affirmative action, or that don't reveal the latest social epidemic?

The other byproduct of the media's inadequate coverage of African Americans is its creation of "black leaders," who are called upon to speak for all black people, regardless of the subject. In many instances these spokesmen are simply the nearest, loudest and glibbest people. Some of these quote machines have been speaking for "the black community" for decades, sounding like broken records on a tinny Victrola. Is it too difficult or time-consuming for journalists to go out and find black parents, wage earners and professionals who can speak for themselves?

Although Malcomson attempted to depict Obama as a brother from another planet, his life story does not seem all that alien to many black people. Obama's racial makeup is not all that unusual; many -- perhaps most -- black Americans have some "other" blood running through their veins. Like Obama, scores of middle-class black professionals have mastered the art of peacefully coexisting with -- and excelling among -- whites. And there are any number of post-civil rights era politicians, including D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.), whose centrist political language appeals to white voters.

Our universities, government offices and professional ranks offer two reminders for those who trouble to look: that while Obama may be a particularly attractive "package," the items that make up that package are not so rare. And for all the mental work avoided by stereotyping, there is no "usual way" to be black.

Vanessa Williams is an assistant city editor at The Post.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company