The Obamas Have Normalized Black Success

John McWhorter

The data are in: as the right has become fond of pointing out lately, Barack Obama has not made black America any richer. I’m not sure who actually thought he would. But we’re apparently supposed to be asking why black people retain their rather furious allegiance to him nevertheless.

Well, there are some very good reasons for such allegiance. However, they are less concrete than matters of wealth. They entail key transformations in how blacks are seen, as well as how they see themselves—i.e. the kinds of things a W.E.B. DuBois would have cherished more than a Booker T. Washington would have. When Obama was elected I was among those who hoped this would happen, and because the manifestations are the sort that settle in only gradually and do not make headlines, it’s time some attention was paid.

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1. The normalization of black success. The sheer existence of the urbane, polished, affluent Obamas in the White House has been central to getting America past the idea that “black” and “rich” are an uneasy fit beyond athletes and rappers. That the Obamas have come along with associates such as Valerie Jarrett and Attorney General Eric Holder has only reinforced the statement.

Let’s face it —Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice “didn’t count” in this sense for many, because they worked for a Republican, and deeply controversial, administration. That may not be fair: there is indeed something unpretty in the idea that being a Republican disqualifies you as meaningfully “black” and/or renders one a sinister individual who has some explaining to do. But real life isn’t pretty, and in the end, the Obama crowd make a positive point on blackness in what many process as the “realer” way.

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Not so long ago, in the late nineties, a book like Lawrence Graham’s Our Kind of People, chronicling the lives of rich black people throughout the 20th century, was received as a revelation. As recently as 2002, black Yale law professor Stephen Carter’s murder mystery The Emperor of Ocean Park, depicting the same set of black people doing things like vacationing at Martha’s Vineyard, commonly occasioned admissions by whites that they hadn’t even known such black people existed.

But now, the whole country has watched the Obamas and their set at Martha’s Vineyard and beyond for five years plus. Poverty is much less racialized in the American consciousness these days. Politically, witness the increasing popularity of affirmative action based on class rather than race. Culturally, think of MTV’s Teen Mom or of Breaking Bad, two shows built around poor white characters. The only question is why the Obamas would not be part of the reason for that sea change in what is presented to us by pop culture purveyors seeking to connect with what we deeply process as normal.

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2. Getting past the “hiphop revolution” distraction. In the nineties and into the aughts, many entertained a notion that rap wasn’t just good music, but could be a source of political realignment, if only we could unite “the hiphop generation” into political activism. I lost count of how many questioners, after talks I gave on race in those days, asked about this. The commitment was also clear through implication, such as book titles like that of the classic rap history Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop—subtitled A History of the Hiphop Generation, for the record—implying that the music was less filling space than moving toward something, in line with constant discussions as to where hiphop was “going” (nobody talked about where grunge was “going”—it just “was”).

The problem was that “hiphop generation,” like “Pepsi Generation,” had a dramatic sound but referred pragmatically to nothing significant. The chances of even the most “conscious” rap creating a return to the Great Society were nil. People were falling for an idea that the narcotic attraction of a catchy beat, a captivating kind of sequentiality that “can’t stop, won’t stop,” could through some metaphorical alchemy be transformed into forward movement—progressiveness, as it were—in politics.

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It was an idle distraction from the mundane realities of forging political coalitions—and since Obama’s election, it has been little heard from. Obama’s ascent, one suspects, was such a resonantly concrete example of black victory that the abstraction of a rap revolution seemed less compelling as something to hang on to, and since then we’ve just been enjoying rap as what it is: good music. You don’t have to take it from me—rapper Nas himself has noted the same thing.

3. The normalization of black mediocrity. Few at this point will deny that when Obama was elected, key to many whites’ interest in him was a certain Jesus complex attached to the man. There seemed a sense that his blackness alone lent him a protean kind of wisdom, power, promise—hope, we might recall. Imagine John Edwards trying to get by with intoning “Yes, we can!”, for example—only a certain “flava” made that slogan resonate.

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Today, however, the bloom is off the rose. Short of some major surprises, history will likely rank Obama as a competent but hardly ground-breaking president. Yet it’s key that blue America is now accustomed to accepting this black man as a mere mortal in a race-neutral way.

I hear the objections: Race certainly plays a part in how the right processes him. But that still leaves an equally robust segment of America—a segment large enough to have gotten him elected—for whom Obama is neither a evil secret Muslim operator nor the Second Coming, but just a man who has often been in a bit over his head.

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To them, it’s partly his lack of experience, partly his introverted temperament, partly an unprecedentedly recalcitrant Congress—but no one is thinking that, say, Obama’s problems with debt negotiations, Benghazi or the health-care rollout have been a “black thing.” The occasional attempt to identify coded racism in even liberals’ impatience with Obama hasn’t found much traction. Obama is—not by everybody, but by too many for it to be dismissed as static—being assessed according to the content of his character, in a way that was hard to imagine in 2008. It may be a useful exercise for assessing black people in general.

It’s a new time. Overall, we’re in an America more open to black people being prominent even for doing race-neutral things to an extent that would have seemed odd well into the era of broadband and cell phones. America’s favorite astrophysicist is black. At Slate, Troy Patterson does a column on gentlemanliness. We have Maya Rudolph, rather than, say, Tina Fey, headlining an attempt to revive the television variety show. There is no delineable straight line between Obama’s election and such things, but it’s all part of a pattern—it’s how social history works.

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Surely, for some, none of this will be as apropos as whether Obama has managed to put more money in black people’s pockets. But I suspect that in the grand scheme of historiography, the Obama era will go down as having much more sociological import than the mere matter that he was elected (twice)—or the fact that a certain number of backwards-thinking holdouts couldn’t quite get past his color. Who thought they would? History never marches perfectly straight ahead.

But it marches indeed, often beyond our present-day vision. Just by being there, Obama has made a difference. I, for one, am liking it immensely.

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