Barack Obama: Way Too Black but Not Nearly Black Enough
This week (last Saturday), U.S. Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) surprised no one by officially announcing that he would seek his party’s nomination to run for president of the United States next year. As the first black presidential candidate branded as “viable” by the mainstream media, it is also not unexpected that much of the discussion this week centered on whether it was more likely for a black man or a white woman (i.e., U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-NY) to be elected president.
What many might have found surprising is the rather widespread discussion of how much support Obama has in the black community. We aren’t surprised one bit. This controversy centers on two axes.
On the one hand, whites generally perceive African Americans as a monolithic voting bloc. While it is true that black voters overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates, such support has been eroding for the past decade. One illustration of this is the slate of very strong black Republican candidates for high-profile statewide offices last year. But this assumption also rests largely on the tacit racist belief that blacks are less sophisticated voters than whites, and that no matter what a candidate’s position on issues or other qualifications, black voters will be drawn to black candidates by virtue of the commonality of their skin color. This is no more true than an assumption that women tend to vote for women candidates based primarily on their gender, which research has shown not to be the case at all.
The other element of this issue is more complicated, but something that our research has revealed to be increasingly common over the past five years. As more black candidates move through the ranks of local and state government and become legitimate contenders for higher positions, black candidates are running against one another, often in districts that are majority black or majority-minority. What we have observed is that when this happens, particularly if there is a generational difference between the candidates, some of the campaign rhetoric centers on what we have labeled “an appeal to African American authenticity.” That is, to compete for black votes, one candidate (usually the older one) will argue that he or she is blacker than the other candidate. This appeal varies from skin tone (literally blacker) to lived experience (the older candidate usually makes references to fighting during the height of the black civil rights movement in the 1960s) to education (particularly if one candidate was educated at an historically black college or a state school and the other attended an Ivy League school).
We saw these types of appeals in 2002 and 2004 in Alabama’s 7th Congressional District race between Artur Davis and Earl Hilliard; in Georgia’s 4th Congressional District race between Cynthia McKinney and Denise Majette in 2002; and in the 2000 and 2004 Newark mayoral races between Corey Booker and Sharpe James (see the excellent film Street Fight for documentation of this contest). In fact, Obama’s failed 2002 Congressional bid to replace incumbent Bobby Rush included suggestions of Obama’s lack of authenticity.
Obama’s perceived authenticity runs even deeper than his light skin (due to the fact that his mother was white) and his Ivy League education. Since his father was from Kenya and therefore is not the descendent of slaves, some have claimed that Obama does not have the right to claim to be African American (see Stephen Colbert’s interview with one of those folks here).
So, as we predicted in our December 1, 2006 blog, Obama has an uphill battle that is rooted in race, but not always in the ways we traditionally think of it. Many black leaders have long-standing associations with the Clinton family stemming back to the early 1990s, and such allegiances will be uncomfortable to sever, even if those leaders wish to shift support, which is certainly not a given even though there is a viable black candidate now in the race.
Read Some Other Stories About Black support for Obama at/in:
My Direct Democracy
Black People Speak
Philadelphia Star Telegram