By William Jelani Cobb
Sunday, January 13, 2008
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when "black president" was synonymous with "president of black America." That was the office to which Jesse Jackson appointed himself in the 1970s -- resigned to the fact that the actual presidency was out of reach. In 2003, Chris Rock wrote and directed "Head of State," a film about the first black man to win the presidency. (It was a comedy.) And in the ultimate concession, some African Americans have attempted to bestow the title of black president upon Bill Clinton -- a white man.
In the wake of his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, Sen. Barack Obama has already permanently changed the meaning of that term. It is no longer an oxymoron or a quixotic in-joke. And this, perhaps more than anything else, explains his tortured relationship with black civil rights leaders.
The most amazing thing about the 2008 presidential race is not that a black man is a bona fide contender, but the lukewarm response he has received from the luminaries whose sacrifices made this run possible. With the notable exception of Joseph Lowry, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference veteran who gave a stirring invocation at Obama's Atlanta campaign rally in June and subsequently endorsed him, Obama has been running without much support from many of the most recognizable black figures in the political landscape.
That's because, positioned as he is between the black boomers and the hip-hop generation, Obama is indebted, but not beholden, to the civil rights gerontocracy. A successful Obama candidacy would simultaneously represent a huge leap forward for black America and the death knell for the reign of the civil rights-era leadership -- or at least the illusion of their influence.
The most recent example of the old guard's apparent aversion to Obama was Andrew Young's febrile YouTube ramblings about Bill Clinton being "every bit as black as Barack Obama" and his armchair speculation that Clinton had probably bedded more black women during his lifetime than the senator from Illinois -- as if racial identity could be transmitted like an STD. This could be dismissed as a random instance of a politician speaking out of turn were it not part of an ongoing pattern.
Last spring, Al Sharpton cautioned Obama "not to take the black vote for granted." Presumably he meant that the senator had not won over the supposed gatekeepers of the black electorate. Asked why he had not endorsed Obama, Sharpton replied that he would "not be cajoled or intimidated by any candidate." More recently Sharpton claimed on his radio show that the candidates' recent attention to issues of civil rights was a product of pressure from him.
Although Jackson is not entirely unfamiliar with the kind of thing that's happening to Obama -- Coretta Scott King endorsed Walter Mondale over him in 1984 -- he also got into the act. He criticized Obama for not championing the "Jena Six" cause -- the case of six young black men in Louisiana charged with beating a white classmate -- vigorously enough. After Obama's Iowa victory, Jackson demanded that the senator bolster "hope with substance."
Taken as a conglomerate, Jackson, Young, Sharpton and Georgia Rep. John Lewis represent a sort of civil rights old boy network -- a black boy network -- that has parlayed its dated activist credentials into cash and jobs. Jackson, a two-time presidential candidate, has become a CNN host; Young was mayor of Atlanta and sits on numerous corporate boards; and Lewis is essentially representative-for-life of the 5th Congressional District in Georgia. Sharpton is younger than the others but a peer in spirit.
To the extent that the term "leader" is applicable, these four men likely represent the interests of Democratic Party insiders more than those of the black community. Both Young and Lewis have endorsed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton; Sharpton and Jackson have acted ambivalent, alternately mouthing niceties about Obama and criticizing his stances on black issues.
It may be that, because they doubt that he can actually win, the civil rights leaders are holding Obama at arm's length in an attempt to build their houses on what looks to be the firmer ground. And there are certainly patronage benefits should Clinton win. She owes black pols, starting with Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), who first suggested that the party endorse her for a New York Senate seat. Rangel has also lined up behind Clinton.
There is far more to politics -- even racial politics -- than skin color. Still it is counterintuitive to think that Lewis, whose political career began when he was bludgeoned in Selma, Ala., fighting for black voting rights, is witnessing the rise of the first viable black presidential candidate and yet opts to support a white machine politician.
One of the most telling aspects of Young's YouTube commentary was his statement that he'd called his political connections in Chicago about Obama and been told "they don't know him." There are certainly reasons not to support Obama, but not having friends in common isn't one of them. Young went on to announce that Obama was too young and should wait until 2016 -- a curious statement considering that Young was apprenticed to Martin Luther King Jr., who was 26 when he launched the Montgomery bus boycotts that eventually toppled segregation.
The cynical braying about Obama's prospects has not been confined to the liberal civil rights quarters of black America. The conservative commentator Shelby Steele argued in his book "A Bound Man" that Obama isn't perceived as "black" enough to win over African American voters.
In fact, Obama strategists have been struggling to convince black voters that Obama can actually win over white voters and be a viable candidate. Many blacks want to support a winner and hope that Obama will become more attractive to white voters, not less.
Part of this disconnect is a generational divide, one that is apparent in Jackson's own household. Following Jackson's criticism of Obama in the Chicago Sun-Times, his son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., wrote a passionate defense of Obama's activist credentials.
As polls show increasing black support for Obama, Jackson, Sharpton and Young begin to look like a once-wealthy family that has lost its fortune but has to keep spending to maintain appearances. Obama's tepid early showing among blacks in the polls had more to do with name recognition and concerns about his viability as a candidate than with Jackson or Sharpton withholding their endorsement.
Ignoring Sharpton or Jackson is not the same thing as taking the black vote for granted. It is a reasonable calculation that neither of them can deliver many votes and certainly not enough to offset the number of white votes that their approval could lose Obama. Jackson and Sharpton might be holding out for a better deal in exchange for their support, but with Oprah Winfrey and Chris Rock among Obama's list of supporters, they have little to bargain with.
If Obama makes a strong showing in the South Carolina primary -- the first with a substantial number of black voters -- it will become apparent that the black boy network has begun bouncing checks.
The irony is that for generations of black "firsts," the prerequisite for entering an institution was proving that you were just like the establishment that ran it. (Think of Jackie Robinson's approach to the major leagues, or the host of "articulate Negro" roles in Sidney Poitier's body of work.)
Obama has been vastly successful by doing just the opposite: masterfully positioning himself as an outsider. In the process, he's opened the door even wider for black outsiders. Too bad his predecessors refuse to help push him the rest of the way inside.
William Jelani Cobb is an associate professor of history at Spelman College and the author of "The Devil & Dave Chappelle and Other Essays."