Watching President Obama during the past few debates has given America an upfront seat from which to observe the struggle and penalties incurred by many highly educated African-Americans trying to promote their virtues during the course of their careers. Obama, like most African-American professionals, is constantly trying to please multiple constituencies by addressing their diverse aspirations and fulfilling their needs. Many may view Obama and fellow African-Americans with similar ambitions through a stereotypical lens, which causes them to walk a fine and somewhat treacherous line in pursuit of their ideals.
Like most African-American men who have overcome significant odds on their way to the pinnacle of success, Obama has had to rely just as much on good manners and conciliatory acts as he has on exceptional skills and penetrating insight. Obama and those of his peers who have achieved success in public life usually cannot go into a situation acting like Rambo or John Wayne, expecting to accomplish their hard-fought goals without being labeled as "angry" or even "threatening," and risking summary dismissal. In many interviews after the first debate, Obama described himself as "too polite." This was painful to watch because politeness was truly one of the traits that helped propel him to the most prized position in the United States. Being the first African-American to become president, he had to be polite and almost everything else to make most of America comfortable enough to cast their vote for him. He had to be viewed much differently than other African-American males, such as Willie Horton, Nat Turner, Malcom X, and even Jesse Jackson. This was no more evident than in his primary win back in 2007 in South Carolina.
A wave of hope swelled in the Palmetto State for Obama, a fact that was astonishing in itself. Ironically, many African-Americans in the state, especially elderly ones, initially doubted that an African-American male could become the Democratic nominee. Middle-aged African-American women also liked Hillary Clinton because she had suffered publicly and still came up fighting to establish her own legacy. Out on the stump, Barack began assuaging their doubts. He knew how to transition from his Harvard Law Review oratory to plain talk with black everyday folks at churches and auditoriums in rural areas. This talent for oratory and his likable demeanor also impressed enough non-African Americans in this particular primary to help him to withstand their scrutiny and cement their commitment to selecting him over Hillary Clinton in the confines of the voting booth. Now it seems that in the series of presidential debates of 2012, less value was placed on the way Obama talked or his ability to be cordial than how aggressively he was able to rattle off a list of his accomplishments and quote statistics.
Because Obama was amiable during the first debate, while his opponent came at him with an onslaught of criticism, some Americans incorrectly viewed his genteel mannerisms and absence of in-your-face forcefulness as a lack of leadership ability. Many mistook Obama's diplomatic, considerate discourse as a lack of passion, but ironically diplomacy is one of the critical factors that encouraged voters to take a second look at him during the 2007 presidential campaign. He has been both rewarded and penalized for delicateness which is confusing for anyone constantly having to communicate effectively.
After taking a thrashing in the press for his performance during the first debate, Obama came back and had an intensely forcible approach in responding to questions and defending himself against attacks from his opponent. During the after-debate analysis by some of the press, there were concerns he may have been "too aggressive" or "too sharp" in his attacks. So, again, many wanted him to walk this impossible fine line of being a nice guy but zealously addressing the issues and boldly defending any assailments on his record of accomplishments.
Many African American professionals watched the public's assessments of Obama's performance with sympathy because it also validated many of their experiences. If a Harvard Law grad who had also overcome gargantuan odds to organize effective campaigns to become president, and subsequently oversee and constantly attempt to work across the aisle in both Congress and the Senate, could be criticized for not perfectly walking the tightrope of perception, then it could happen to anyone.
When an educated, highly successful African American can be free to act and converse in accordance with his individual personality traits without the fear and burden of navigating the minefield of negative perceptions based on some people's shameful biases, then and only then will we be a fair, and truly progressive America.
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