By Imani Perry
A number of recent articles from legitimate news agencies have been devoted to considering why African Americans don’t consider Barack Obama a “real” black person. They quote individuals who mention that his ancestors were not from West Africa, (like those of most African Americans), that he is biracial, that he is only a second generation American on his father’s side.
I find it alarming that people are so ready to assume that these isolated individuals represent the perspective of some critical mass of African Americans without any evidence to support such an assumption. In fact, if one looks to the history of African American politics and activism, there is no tradition of particular suspicion for non-native born or descended Black Americans. Think about Shirley Chisholm, Louis Farrakhan, Marcus Garvey, Harry Belafonte, and Stokely Carmichael. None of these people ever suffered from “authenticity problems.”
I don’t believe the authenticity problem lies with African Americans. The authenticity problem lies with white Americans. The real question is: Why have White pundits, journalists and newscasters been so eager to comment on Obama’s being biracial and the son of an immigrant, rather than his history of civil rights activism or his long time involvement in African American social and political communities? Does it reveal a desire, among whites, that he not be authentically black (whatever that means), but somehow “different?”
The fixation on Obama as “different” appears to be an effort to exceptionalize him. He is seen as acceptable, in part, because he is considered to be unlike other African Americans, and in particular, African American men, who have been so widely commented upon as a “social problem” in the most prestigious news media in recent months. Joe Biden got in trouble for saying what many Americans are thinking, and that is a much bigger problem than a foot in the mouth.
While there is no particular tradition of African Americans being suspicious of immigrant political activists and leaders, there is a long tradition of African Americans being suspicious of Black leaders who seem to be eagerly touted by Whites as the “next best thing.” Why, we wonder, do people who seem to hold animosity for us as a group, make an exception for this individual?
African Americans are wise to be suspicious of the media image of Obama. But more importantly, we are carefully watching to see what concessions he will be forced to make in order to remain a viable candidate. Will he have to prove that he is not concerned with the particular inequalities faced by African American, Latino, poor and immigrant communities in the United States, in order to get the votes of the white middle class? Is it possible for him to be a “people’s candidate” and have that truly mean all people?
Like any other candidate, Senator Obama must earn all citizens votes. It is bizarre to expect that African Americans would blindly fall in line with him just because of the color of his skin. Given how much suffering there is in the world these days, and how deep the divisions are among Americans, we should treat all of our presidential candidates with a healthy dose of suspicion. Those who suggest that Barack Obama doesn’t merit such close examination from African American voters are either selling Barack Obama or African Americans short. In either case, it is unacceptable.