Senate Majority leader Harry Reid apologized profusely for his unguarded quip that Obama's light skin and non-Negro dialect stood him well with Reid, and by implication, other whites. President Obama graciously accepted his apology and applauded him as a supporter and friend. But the embattled leader spoke the awful truth that millions did give Obama a racial pass. The pass did not win the White House for him; money, timing, a skillful campaign, and most importantly Bush blunders and GOP disgrace ultimately tipped the White House his way. But Obama's racial pass made a difference, maybe a crucial difference.
Two months before the presidential campaign wrapped, a survey found that one quarter of whites held negative views of blacks that were laced with the standard stereotypes. The respondents said that blacks use race as a crutch, are not as industrious as whites, they opposed interracial marriage, and are terrified of black crime (Obama mildly chided his white grandmother in his so-called race speech in March 2008 for saying she feared black men). Yet nearly a quarter of them claimed they'd vote for Obama. In every poll taken from the instant he declared his candidacy the overwhelming majority of whites were adamant that race had absolutely nothing to do with whether they'd vote for him or not. The difference was not just his lighter coloring, but his words, demeanor and political approach. His race neutral campaign was widely perceived as a soothing departure from the race baiting antics of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. But others liked him because of, and were plainly fascinated by, his racially exotic background. It supposedly didn't fit that of the typical African American. This was Reid's point.
Obama's light color, the downplay of his blackness, his clipped King's English delivery, and his tireless pitch as the blank slate, every person's candidate, made him personally and politically attractive. It also made him the textbook racial exceptional. There is a penchant for some whites to make artificial distinctions between supposedly good and bad blacks. It's apparent in the unthinking, infuriating, insulting, and just plain dumb crack made to some articulate, well-educated blacks in business and the professions that they are different than other blacks.
Racial exceptionalism stems from the ingrained, but terribly misplaced, belief that blacks are perennially disgruntled, hostile, and rebellious, and are always on the lookout for any real or perceived racial slight, and they ache to pick a fight over it. African-Americans who don't fit this brash, outspoken, faintly threatening type have been touted, praised, even anointed over time by some as the reasoned voice of black America. A century ago the mantle of the reasoned, exceptional African-American was bestowed on famed educator Booker T. Washington. He was showered with foundation and corporate money, honors, and fame.
In the 1920s and 1930s, NAACP leaders always found a ready welcome at the White House. They were praised in the press and bankrolled by some industrialists. In the 1960s Urban League President Whitney Young, NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins, and Martin Luther King Jr. before he fell out of favor with Lyndon Johnson after his too vocal opposition to the Vietnam War and turn to economic radicalism, were lionized for their reason and racial moderation.
In the 1980s, Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. actively cultivated and promoted a pack of younger GOP friendly academics, black business leaders, and black conservatives. Reagan and Bush Sr. plainly saw them as a leadership alternative to the black Democrats and the old guard civil rights leaders. The black conservatives were appointed to government posts, bagged foundation grants, were feted by conservative think tanks, and their columns were routinely published in major newspapers. They were continually cited by writers and reporters as a breath of fresh air among African-Americans mostly for their willingness to break ranks with and to blister Jackson, Sharpton, and the civil rights establishment.
Obama hardly fits the mold of a black conservative. And at no point during the campaign, and certainly at no point during his tenure in the White House has he said or done anything to personally distance himself from his blackness.
He has on occasion bristled publicly at the notion that he's in competition with or a critic of civil rights leaders, or that he is immune from racial jabs. He cited countless instances and times in his books where he felt the pang of discrimination, even racial profiling. He has repeatedly praised past civil rights leaders for their heroic battle against racial injustice.
But Reid and millions others didn't give Obama a racial pass because he put race at arm's length. He got it because of the nagging penchant to elevate some blacks above the racial fray, and declare them the exception. Reid, apology or no, simply spoke the awful truth and confirmed that.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book, How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge (Middle Passage Press) will be released in January 2010.