Too black? Or not black enough? The questions that bedeviled Barack Obama during the campaign may have been eclipsed by derivatives and health care, but the Cambridge policeman who arrested Henry Louis Gates, Jr. managed to resurrect them, at least for a moment. Obama weighed in on the matter, and suddenly we were caught up in frenzied pronouncements about the death of the postracial dream.
Now that the dust from that dust-up has settled, a bit of perspective is in order. Glib invocations of a color-blind society were always too breathless. Still, that a single encounter between a citizen and a policeman, let alone the election of the first black president, could vindicate any simple verdict about the ambiguities of race in America was always a sketchy premise. Nor did catapulting the incident into a media circus make for illumination. From Tawana Brawley to Hymietown, from Duke Lacrosse to O.J., we seem irresistibly drawn to such spectacles, with their iconic encounters of victims and victimizers, righteous calls for apology and repentance, and overheated extrapolations from idiosyncratic events. Meanwhile, we cycle wildly between "we've gone beyond race" and "the chasm of race."
The "postracial" mantra implies an etiquette for crossover black leaders: don't parade too much love for your race; don't be so sensitive; and don't show too much anger. It's true that Jews have been accused of harboring dual loyalties, and nativists used to impugn Catholics for taking directions from the Pope. But even in an age of "we're here and we're queer" gays and evangelical presidents who laud "wonders to behold," blacks still bear a special burden. To borrow from Ta-Nehisi Coates, nobody talks about Joseph Lieberman as post-Jewish or Mel Martinez as post-Cuban.
This was the context in which Gates, a man whose scholarly feat has been to affirm black culture, encourage rigor, embrace pluralism, foment black-Jewish harmony, and explore the multiple ways of being black, was improbably fashioned by right-wing pundits such as Rush Limbaugh into "an angry racist." The primal issues at stake -- arbitrary state power and the rule of law -- were transmuted into the trivia of "attitude" and manners.
Obama's initial gambit was to proceed gingerly and not prejudge, but then he called the police "stupid" and intimated a prejudgment: "We know. . . that there's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact." An equally telling shift out of crossover caution was Obama's sardonic imagining that if he was fumbling with his keys in Chicago, he would have been shot. Despite the tacit racial premise of black vulnerability at the threshold, the gallows humor had the subversive feel of a Richard Pryor riff set in Amadou Diallou's vestibule. Or maybe Wayne Brady on the Chappelle Show.
The usually vigilant Obama is funniest on occasions less scripted than National Press Club roasts, when he yields to an impolitic impulse, often with a boyish inward smile, as if he's savoring a private moment in front of us. This wasn't the first time he played the wise guy with a racial twist. During the South Carolina primary debate, a black reporter asked, "Do you consider Bill Clinton the first black president?" Accepting the dicey role of arbiter of black authenticity, Obama cracked wise: "I would have to . . .investigate Bill's dancing abilities . . .before I accurately judge whether he was in fact a brother." Maybe the quip wasn't neo-minstrel pay-back (forcing the would-be black man to dance for the real one) but it did deny Clinton automatic admission to brotherhood.
Immediately after Obama's rumination on racial profiling, riled-up conservatives who had always discerned a black nationalist lurking behind the elegant universalist -- Jeremiah Wright as the backstage Dashiki version of Cylon Obama draped in Canali -- felt a certain vindication: Obama had shown his true color. In taking ethnic sides -- his black friend over the Irish cop -- it was as if he was channeling the black jurors from the Simpson trial and "letting a brother go."
The campaign to brand as a racist Justice Sotomayor -- who was said to have taken the minorities' side against another white ethnic hope, Frank Ricci, one of the fireman plaintifs in the New Haven affirmative action suit -- was a portent. Here Pat Buchanan, who has mainly been a lucid and affable presence on MSNBC, proved he wasn't quite yet post-Scotch-Irish; victim mongering, he showed that white people could play the race card, too. Basically, he said, the white men who made this country no longer can catch a break. Thus did he revert to his gamy 1990s reflections on "Zulus" in America but with the eerie echo of the 1920s Klansman who complained of becoming "a stranger in the land of my father."
Meanwhile, the ever-sleazy Dick Morris opined that he hadn't originally thought Obama was just like Jeremiah Wright but now he did. Over and over, said Glenn Beck, Obama has proved himself to have "a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture." If any of them needed further proof that the stealth black man was no longer stealth, here was Obama in Ghana in July, sounding like Marcus Garvey kvelling, "I have the blood of Africa within me."
Was that a "racialist" violation of the color-blind dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., as the strident Right has come to compress the righteous prophet? Not hardly, just another nuance in the postracial vision. When he was in Ghana to celebrate its birth, King, too, felt a powerful kinship of blood and history and he began to weep with joy as he heard the people crying out "Free-dom!" "And I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out: Free at last, free at last, Great God Almighty, I'm free at last." As much as he loved "all God's children," King really loved black people. Long before black power, he exulted in "fleecy locks and dark complexion." The "we" in King's "We as a people will get there" was not the American people; it was the black nation within a nation. "My people, my people," he tenderly orated after the long trek from Selma to Montgomery. "I'm in Selma," King told a mass meeting, "because my people are suffering." My people!
King could also be one angry black man. Embracing the Watts rioters as brothers, King confessed, "Now I know the temptation [to become bitter], I know the temptation which comes to all of us. We've been trampled over so long." As a child, King had gone through a period of hating all whites. As an adult, a glimpse of Malcolm X on television could start the old anger churning. "They kept us in slavery 244 years in this country," he once recalled, "and then they said they freed us from slavery, but they didn't give us any land. ... And they haven't given us anything! After making our foreparents work and labor for 244 years-for nothing! Didn't pay 'em a cent.'" Around the same time, he told a black church audience, "All men are endowed by their creator with inalienable rights. That's a beautiful creed." Moments later, King added, "America has never lived up to it. ... The men who wrote it owned slaves."
Ultimately, the whole Gates-Crowley-Obama brouhaha became a sideshow for cable TV and the hardshell right. Even as it distorted a richer understanding of the meaning of King's legacy and Obama's election, it told us less about race in America than Ricci's quiet dignity before the Judiciary Committee, his refusal to become an emblem of vintage, populist conservative resentment, and the inability of the right to excite the louche passions of decades past with the New Haven case.
If this seems too impressionistic, then consider the evolving moderation of Macomb County, Michigan Reagan Democrats. In the 1980s, they had heard a corollary of menace in Jesse Jackson's "Our time has come": Your time is over. In pollster Stanley Greenberg's words, they "expressed a profound distaste for black America ... Blacks constituted the explanation ... for almost everything that had gone wrong in their lives." But, as Greenberg and his associates discovered in their 2008 "return to Macomb County" focus groups, most of these voters rejected the idea that Obama was like Jesse Jackson or that he would put black interests first. "Welfare, crime, reverse discrimination, blacks and Detroit were never mentioned in the discussion of why the country and state are off track."
What Greenberg found in Michigan -- nothing breathtaking, neither "we've gone beyond race" nor "the chasm of race," but heartening nonetheless -- applies to America writ large, and no events since the election have vitiated it: "This is a very different Macomb." We ought to keep these subtleties in mind before we lurch into the next ersatz "conversation about race," staged in the glare of beer summits and cable shriek fests.
This piece was adapted by a longer article titled "'I'm Going to be a Negro Tonight': Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama, and the 'Postracial' Paradox," in the Michigan Quarterly Review.
Jonathan Rieder is the author of The Word of the Lord is Upon Me: The Righteous Performance of Martin Luther King, Jr.