February 14, 2007

The Blackish Man In America


I don’t know if African-Americans feel the same way — but for whites, I think he’s colorless. You don’t notice that he is black. So he might as well be white, you know what I mean?

— Conservative Radio Host, Glen Beck (via Media Matters)

“I ain’t that black.”

— Colin Powell (via NYT)

An idealist would hope Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy would spur valuable conversation about race and identity in America.  So far, however, the media seems mostly diverted by the horse race, and a subtle agenda to “expose” a mixed-race Obama as “not black.”

The image above accompanies a piece by Orlando Patterson in TIME titled The New Black Nativism. Steering mostly clear of the politics, Patterson considers how Obama’s background — the product of a mixed race marriage, and a mostly white middle-class upbringing — doesn’t fit well with contemporary black self-identification.  He writes:

[D]irectly mirroring the traditional definition of whiteness as not being black is the growing tendency to define blackness in negative terms–it is to be not white in upbringing, kinship or manner, to be not too at ease in the intimate ways of white Americans.

Out of the starting gate, media attention is mostly focused on Obama’s “lack of pull” with the black electorate and specific leaders.  (Obama’s Appeal to Blacks Remains an Open Question — WAPOClinton, Obama Vying for Black Power-Brokers – NY Observer).  From The BAG’s standpoint, however, what is fascinating is how the visual press is effectively coloring Obama as either a racial misfit or a “closet white man.”

Take the shot above, for example (taken in good old Fairfax, Virginia).  As a study in extremes, you have Obama framed between a white, white, white-haired white guy on the left, and two very dark African-American’s on the right, both even darker for the shadows.  And “which way” does the candidate go?  In this editorial selection, you have Obama reaching out to and being embraced by a white audience, while the black man is either in his employment, running to catch up, or having to crane for a view.

If you want an even more skewed example (a painful one, if you ask me), look at the pic that accompaniedSo Far, Obama Can’t Take Black Vote for Granted” — the “Obama and the Black vote” offering from the NYT.  Descending the white marble stairs in the halls of Congress, Obama is framed by a white reporter and a white Senator, wearing a bright white shirt against a grand gold-framed portrait of the (white) founding fathers (partially obscured by the white glare).

And that story was about what, again?

With the media doing the leveraging, it seems Obama’s racial integrity can be questioned without fear of flak from either the African-American left or the hate-mongering right.  The result?  We are mostly stuck with the preoccupation with what Barack is not.

When it comes to politics, are we so far behind we can only do black-and-white?

(image: Brooks Kraft/TIME. Fairfax, Va., Friday, Feb. 2007. time.com)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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