Early on in the presidential primaries, it seemed that Barack Obama had managed to do the improbable, if not the impossible -- transcend the thorny question of race in American politics. I had hoped this situation would continue.
It was not, alas, to be. The whole issue of Reverend Jeremiah Wright reared its head, once again bringing race to the forefront of the Obama candidacy.
I had wondered what stereotypes about Black men would bubble to the surface on the long, winding trail of the campaign. Raised in Washington, D.C., on the edge of the segregated south, I was familiar with many of them
Three major stereotypes about Black males, research finds, are The Sambo, The Brute, and The Respectable Black Man. Sambo is lazy, no-account, and not very smart, a comical, pathetic figure. The brute was personified by Willie Horton, and this particular stereotype has its own dubious niche in presidential campaign history. Imprisoned for murder in Massachusetts, Horton was on a weekend furlough when he committed rape and armed robbery. His face was used very effectively by George Bush pere to terrify whites and to discredit Michael Dukakis as being soft on crime. A variant of this stereotype is the Angry Black Radical, gun-toting, slogan-spouting and harboring nothing but ill for his (white) fellow Americans
The respectable Black Man looks like Sidney Poitier and talks like an Ivy Leaguer. He's too perfect, too polite. Melissa Harris Lacewell, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, told the Associated Press that learning to adapt is at the heart of being an American Black male.
"Black mothers and fathers socialize their sons to not make waves, to not come up against the authorities, to speak even more politely not only when there are whites present but particularly if there are whites who have power," she said.
I thought Barack Obama could not be imagined in either of the first two categories, and seemed too self-possessed for the third. His father was African and his mother was white, and so in many ways he doesn't conform to the typical African- American experience. Some have even complained that he's not Black enough.
So it's surprising that the stereotype that emerged in the campaign was the Angry Black Man -- embodied in Reverend Jeremiah Wright's sound bites. Even though the cool, urbane, extremely rational Obama is the antithesis of the hate-spewing radical, that is the image that the Republicans will surely use if he is the nominee. We've already been told that Obama isn't patriotic because he doesn't wear a flag-bedecked lapel pin, and because his wife intimated that she wasn't proud of being an American before her husband ran for president. Obama will be portrayed as a closet radical, his cool demeanor a benign cover for what he really believes. He's Stokely Carmichael in a tie, Huey Newton with a Harvard degree, a guy who believes in his heart that the U.S. deserved 9/11.
The irony is that while all this is simmering, Maureen Dowd in the New York Times has quite a different take: Barack's not radical, he's effete. She writes:
"His strenuous and inadvertently hilarious efforts to woo working-class folk in Pennsylvania have only made him seem more effete. Keeping his tie firmly in place, he genteelly sipped his pint of Yuengling beer at Sharky's sports cafe in Latrobe and bowled badly in Altoona. Challenging Obama to a bowl-off, Hillary kindly offered to "spot him two frames.
At the Wilbur chocolate shop in Lititz Monday, he spent most of his time skittering away from chocolate goodies, as though he were a starlet obsessing on a svelte waistline."
It's a bit daunting to have to contend with those two absurdly incongruent images. Maybe Barack should do a photo op where he's stuffing his face with a Ring Ding, wearing an American flag shirt and throwing his arm around a steelworker (if there are any left) who's sporting a White Power tattoo on his forearm. Then they could play a few rounds of pick-up basketball. (Or is basketball too Black these days?) Barack certainly isn't going to climb on a windsurfer as John Kerry did, or on a tank like Mike Dukakis.
It's a difficult line that Barack Obama will have to walk if he's the nominee. The assault from the far right will no doubt be fierce -- after all, these are the folks who accused a Vietnam vet who had lost three limbs in that war of a lack of patriotism. Unbelievably, Max Cleland lost his Senate seat (Georgia) due to this onslaught
John Kerry, another war hero, got himself "swiftboated" and didn't fire back fast enough to wipe out the insurgents. Obama can't make that mistake if he is the nominee. He will have to take a page from Clinton One and set up a rapid response team so that as soon as a scurrilous charge is made, it can be batted down and defanged.
As Bette Davis said, "Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night."
Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the author of "Selling Anxiety: How the News Media Scare Women (University Press of New England.)