White Lessons

05/15/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

He'll be the first black major party candidate for President, and the narrative is already in play: He's doomed by his inability to seamlessly engage those whom Beltway Insiders behind closed doors might refer to as "white trash." Unfortunately, I think they project. It's themselves to whom he seems out of place.

Beltway Insider Maureen Dowd asked, "Why does Obama, the one with the bumpy background and mixed racial heritage, the one raised by a single mother who was on food stamps, seem so forced when he mingles with the common folk?"

Of course, being black, male, and ambitious, Obama learned early to present himself with an air of cultured detachment to avoid being considered (by Beltway Insiders like Maureen Dowd) a "nigger." So it is between the rock and the hard place. He's either uppity or Al Sharpton scary. There's no in-between (except to express self-loathing and tacit contempt for blacks a la Clarence Thomas or to work so hard to erase any vestige of negritude from your presentation that you remove yourself from the category of human, a la Condoleeza Rice).

So now, he's supposed to be able to march his black ass into a white working class bar and not stand out. He's supposed to shoot hoops like a street corner denizen and, at the same time, remain non-threatening and non-aggressive enough to make us forget the negative associations we've learned to assign to his black American skin over the past couple of hundred years.

I was raised largely in white neighborhoods, attended overwhelmingly white schools, worked in overwhelmingly white worlds. I spent my young adult life on the West Side of L.A. and currently reside in a northern California town that is 99% white. After half a lifetime surrounded by whites, I have never been confident in Obama's November chances against a competent, passably sane white Republican (while the Bush administration remains in office and without a third-party challenge from the Republican right).

Cluelessness like Dowd's is why. It is omnipresent. And people are most susceptible to their deepest and darkest impulses when they don't even know (or refuse to admit) they're there.

I have spent my life watching how deeply the taint of this nation's history of race hatred stains us all--blacks, yes, but mostly whites. Most white men and women do not consider themselves racist. All things being equal, they have no open animosity toward blacks. However, when challenged and confronted by us, I have seen the beast too often rear its head.

Having worked in marketing, it's been my business to tweak people's deep-seated hopes, dreams and fears. If I were a ruthless Republican operative (is there any other kind?), I know what I'd do to defeat Barack Obama. I would paint him as challenging and confrontational on numerous levels. I would set in place exactly the narrative that's currently taking form.

In fact, he is challenging our national image of a president. He is confronting our long-held disgrace on the subject of race. He is doing so by his very presence, by the very fact of his skin, and by his acknowledgment of his association with the culture of the descendants of African slaves (as opposed to pulling a Tiger Woods). Of this, I would continually remind the national audience (very different from a local, state or district one). And then I'd wait. Soon, the poisons that lurk in the mud would hatch out.

If a Jeremiah Wright hadn't existed, he would have been created. In fact, he was. You saw no such histrionics when Jerry Falwell said that the US deserved the 9/11 attacks for tolerating abortions and gays. If not Wright, it would have been something else (and will be yet again). Perhaps another Michele Obama comment like the one about feeling proud of America for the first time. Perhaps an Obama daughters' grade school paper on slavery....

If Obama had a deeply ingrained national personality and record of political or military accomplishment, it would be more difficult to use this nation's historical memory against him. However, like many an ambitious politician, he succumbed to the fierce urgency of ego... I mean "now." The excitement was transitory because it had little foundation. Again, it's been mostly white folks projecting on him the role of black Messiah--all forgiveness and chimerical "unity" that exists, outside of World Wars, only in the national imagination. And it's been black folks rationally and predictably rooting for the home team.

As a nominee, I wish he had built a strong national political profile atop the foundation of literary and speechifying fame. It would have vastly increased his chances at the Presidency (don't we black folk have to take more time, do more groundwork, toil harder to get what whites are often handed on faith?) Instead, however, he seemed to buy his own "post-racial" press.

Most of my deepest, most treasured voluntary relationships have been with white men and women. However, I am not blinded to this country's racial realities. In fact, because I have been surrounded and confronted with them on a daily basis throughout my life, some might argue that I am too keenly aware. However, I've learned that when you're driving at midnight on New Year's Eve, the discomfort of vigilance is far superior to the damage of a crash.

Perhaps Obama has a "faith" in white Americans that I lack. But you see, without the softening of ties of blood, I have spent my life around them. I learned the hard way that I cannot afford that kind of faith. We'll see if he can.