The meteoric rise of Sen. Barack Obama has some calling him
an anti-Christ and others praising him as the Messiah. At his rallies, women
swoon as if he�s a rock star.
A YouTube video, �Obama�s fainting ladies,� shows the
Democratic nominee downplaying the phenomenon, as he asks crowds to �Hold on,
we�ve got someone who�s sick� or �Make some space, they�re probably just a
little overheated� or �She�s fine � you probably didn�t eat lunch, that�s the
But for many the problem isn�t nutrition or whether Obama
and Satan are one. It�s that Obama believes he�s actually going to win.
�There�s a line smart politicians don�t cross � somewhere
between �I�m qualified to be president� and �I�m born to be president,�� AP
reporter Ron Fournier wrote. �Wherever it lies, Barack Obama better watch his
step. He�s bordering on arrogance.�
In fact, painting Obama as arrogant has little to do with
his supposed elitism. Nor have warnings for him to tone things down been
directed at him alone, but at the black community as a whole.
Similar warnings went out to African Americans at the turn
of the 20th century, after the first black heavyweight champion of the world
successfully defended his title against a white man.
�A word to the black man: Do not point your nose too high,
do not swell your chest too much, do not boast too loudly. Let not your
ambition be inordinate or take a wrong direction,� a Los Angeles Times
editorial said at the time.
Almost a century later half the entire nation seems to have
taken a wrong direction, with millions of white Americans prepared to elect a
black man president. That may be why the Republican National Committee launched
Audacity Watch, a Web site with articles like �It�s All About Obama,� �Obama
Has a Vision for the Lincoln Bedroom� and �The Audacity of Hype.�
Arrogant, ambitious, audacious -- whatever the latest label
being attached to Obama, the intent is to associate another word in people�s
Throughout America�s past the word functioned as a slur
against black people. If Sen. John McCain called his opponent uppity today, he
would be out of the race faster than he could say, �Uhh�.� Nobody, though, said
anything about not using synonyms.
With little to offer except the promise of reincarnating
President Bush, the Republican nominee has figured that the only way to win the
race is to focus on race itself. Thus �arrogant� or some variation of it has
emerged as the stock reference for all things Obama.
Playing the race card nowadays hangs on subtlety, which is
why it may work for McCain. One reason it didn�t work for Sen. Hillary Clinton
is that her supporters were too obvious: they forgot to speak in code.
Pennsylvania�s governor, Ed Rendell, for example, said
despite being �well-spoken, charismatic, good-looking,� Obama�s skin color
posed a problem for Pennsylvanians.
�You�ve got conservative whites here,� he said, �and I think
there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an
Democratic strategist Paul Begala added that Clinton was
better for the party, because she attracted �working-class white folks� whereas
Obama�s support base consisted of �eggheads and African Americans.�
Nuance failed many Clinton supporters, including Geraldine
Ferraro, the former vice presidential candidate, who said, �If Obama was a
white man he would not be in this position.�
More troubling is that even praise for Obama, from some of
his own well-wishers, often highlights things like his �transcendence� of race
and his �eloquence� and �speaking style,� as if the main thing he has going for
him is that he doesn�t speak Ebonics.
Still, Obama and McCain are at a statistical dead heat, and
so the election will be decided by undecided voters. The direction they take,
however, may be a foregone conclusion because of what is known as the Bradley
In elections pitting a white candidate against a non-white
candidate, many white voters are guided not by party affiliation or policy
positions but by melanin. Those who say they�re undecided, in particular, are
mostly being polite, the theory goes, because come November they vote for the
white candidate in droves.
�Welcome to the murky world of modern racism, where most of
the open animus has been replaced by a shadowy bias that is difficult to
measure,� Charles Blow wrote in The New York Times.
There was no difficulty measuring the animus on July 4,
1910, when thousands of white Americans swarmed Reno, Nevada, to witness Jim
Jeffries snatch the title away from Jack Johnson. Hailed as the �great white
hope,� Jeffries said he was �going into the fight for the sole purpose of
proving that a white man is better than a Negro.�
He had a captive audience.
�At ringside, a band played a popular song, �All Coons Look
Alike to Me,� while promoters led the mostly white crowd in chants of �Kill the
nigger!�� Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in �On the Shoulders of Giants.�
None of that fazed Johnson, who gave Jeffries a decisive whopping.
But Obama may have a harder time.
Skin color still counts for a lot in this country and his
remains a tough pill to swallow. Few will admit as much, the usual complaint
being that Obama tries too much to look like he�s already president -- as if it�d
be more appropriate for him to look like a plumber or a firefighter or a
professional scuba diver.
For his part, McCain doesn�t mind being judged on his
race since it matches that of every president until now. With a wink and a nod
and the well-placed synonym, he has reinvented himself as a �great white hope�
of modern times.
Whether he succeeds or not will prove just how modern (or
not) a nation we really are.
Salah Obeid at firstname.lastname@example.org.