Ellison and Obama’s Racial Tightrope Walk

My son Toby recently sent me the best article I have seen about the challenges of being a black president of a not-yet-post-racial America. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a fine African American writer for the Atlantic and occasional columnist for the New York Times, has some very interesting insights about Obama’s difficult tightrope act. As I read the article, I thought several times of The Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s magnificent novel on black identity.

I can’t do entire justice to Coates’ article here but I’ll note some of his observations. Coates points out that Obama can’t talk as much about race as previous presidents and that when he does—for instance, which he bridles over Henry Louis Gates being arrested for breaking into his own home or when he says that, if he had had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon Martin—he unleashes a barrage of accusations that he is being racist. Coates quotes a truism in the African American community—that to succeed one must be twice as good as a white man—and then adds his own twist: “And also half as black.” He quotes pollster Cornell Belcher: “ The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there. However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”

Coates situates Obama within a historical tradition going back to Booker T. Washington, who (for understandable reasons) was harder on his own race than he was on white society. Obama has had to distance himself from angry black voices (like Reverend Jeremiah Wright and his “God damn America”), even though there are very understandable reasons why Wright is angry. Obama captures a black dream of moving past that anger and no longer having to deal with racism. That’s why, Coates says, Obama hasn’t gotten more pushback from black progressives (although he’s gotten some). His presidency validates their own dream of becoming fully accepted. The image of him bending down and letting a young black boy touch his hair has electrified the black community.

But it has also threatened segments of the white community, especially those working class whites that now appear Mitt Romney’s primary target audience. As Washington Monthly’s Ed Gilgore has noted, Obama looks to them a combination of two things they hate the worst: “the incarnation of both the snooty secular-socialist `elites’ and the minority underclass.”

As a number of columnists have noted in the past weeks, it appears that the Romney camp, no longer confident that it can win with voter dissatisfaction over Obama’s handling of the economy, thinks its best bet is turning out such voters in record numbers.(Peter Beinart calls this “the Bubba strategy.”) After all, it can’t count on women, blacks, or Latinos, all of whom it has managed to alienate. Therefore we are seeing thinly-veiled racial appeals claiming that Obama wants to strip seniors of their Medicare and give it to undeserving minorities and that he will also reward these minorities with undeserved welfare. If Romney can get more white working class men and white seniors to vote for him than voted for McCain, he has a fighting chance. (He will work to attract them with a campaign paid for by billionaires and by a financial sector that has soured on Obama.) Without these voters, he will lose.

And that brings me to The Invisible Man.

I think one could argue that Obama is like the narrator (I’ll call him IM since his name is never given) in that he thought he could impress establishment whites by being smart and doing a good job. He chose not to prosecute bankers and other financiers, and he bent over backward to adopt conservative proposals (including cap and trade, a mandate for universal healthcare instead of single payer, and a rigorous deportation policy). But while the white establishment in the book is willing to pat IM on the back, give him a scholarship, and listen to his lofty speech, ultimately they want him to know his place. This they do by putting him in a boxing ring with poor blacks, one of whom pummels him. As we see unprecedented amounts of money unleashed against Obama by its wealthiest citizens, it appears that they too want to put him in his place.

One difference from the book is that the black underclass is not pummeling Obama, Harvard-educated and wealthy though he may be. They still see him as one of them.

And there’s another difference. Obama hasn’t been willing to suck up to the financial interests the way that IM, as a high school and then college student, sucks up to the whites. As Jane Mayer notes in a fascinating New Yorker article, Obama has been reluctant to schmooze wealthy donors. As a result, to quote a column by Richard Cohen in the Washington Post a while back, he “has lost the Hamptons.” Former wealthy supporters, feeling disrespected, are now supporting Romney.

When he goes off to his black college, IM, maybe like Obama going off to the presidency, thinks that he’s arrived. But he makes a serious mistake and doesn’t realize he has to be cagey. He thinks, for instance, that he can interact straightforwardly with one of the college’s white trustees, perhaps like Obama thought he could deal straight up with the GOP. IM finds himself in a situation he can’t handle and so for a while, facing Senate intransigence and Tea Party rage, did Obama.

In Ellison’s novel the college’s president, who is black,  sees IM as dangerously naïve and proceeds to sabotage his life. But while many progressives have seen Obama as naïve, there’s an important difference: Obama has more cards to play. After all, he actually is the president.

If I had more time, I could explore other parallels. I’ll just note that IM, like Obama, does not take a narrow ideological route like Jack, the communist organizer—Obama is a pragmatist, not (despite hysterical claims) a socialist—and he has never chosen to lash out as Ras the Exhorter does. Like IM, he is an eloquent speaker and a great community organizer. Unlike IM, he has found a way to transform those skills into a position of real power.

By the end of the book, IM has retreated into a place beneath the streets, where he wrestles with who he is and what his next step will be. If Obama loses the election—Romeny’s strategy could work—he too may need to do some sub-street wrestling with how to the opposition. In any event, as Coates’ article makes clear, Obama is undergoing an intricate dance with the racial complexities of being a black president, just as having a black president has prompted America to do its own intricate dance with its racial identity. Ellison’’s novel still has a lot to teach us about that dance.

Added note: In a column today, Mike Tomasky of The Daily Beast notes that Romney trails Obama by such a large margin on the likability scale (by 23 points) that he is in Nixon territory. Therefore, although Romney isn’t eaten up with resentment the way Nixon was, he may be opting for his own version of Nixon’s racially-divisive southern strategy:

And yet, different as they are, their campaigns, their appeals, are undeniably similar: Nixon led, and Romney is now leading, a vengeance campaign against an Other America, an America their supporters despise. Romney’s is a campaign that seeks to win, that can only win, by dividing the country into an “us” and a “them.” I confess that I’ve been genuinely shocked by the baldness of Romney’s lies about welfare and Medicare and about the way he’s racialized this campaign. I guess that’s precisely because, whatever he seemed, he did not seem sinister like Nixon.

And he may not be. But he is clearly a man who will do and say anything to be president.

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