Just Above Sunset
August 15, 2004 - Who Gets to be Black?

Home | Question Time | Something Is Up | Connecting Dots | Stay Away | Overload | Our Man in Paris | WLJ Weekly | Book Wrangler | Cobras | The Edge of the Pacific | The Surreal Beach | On Location | Botanicals | Quotes

I’m not sure my friend John is stereotypically African-American or not.  We worked together for a few years in Pasadena trying to hold the computer systems for a chain of hospitals together through the Y2K business and lots of real crises, and had a pretty good time.  He’s a Vietnam veteran about my age, and a pretty good photographer as you can see in Just Above Sunset here and here.


But I’m a white guy from Pittsburgh living in Hollywood.  What do I know about what is typically African-American?

John recently sent me a note with an attached article that that made me wonder about it all.

The note:


Well, well, well…. It was bound to happen.  A new way to be black.  Or is it really new?  Or does it matter?

How are Black Americans viewed when Bill Cosby makes a comment about some black households or this comment that Barack Obama "is not black in the usual way?”

What do the French say about such comments?  Do they ever hear them?  How about the Germans or Brits, or Russians?


Barack Obama, running for the open Senate seat in Illinois, is the son of black African exchange student and a white woman, and a bit of an overachiever – as in Harvard Law School and President of the Law Review.  His paternal grandfather herded goats in Africa.  Beat that story, Horatio Alger!  Now he is said to be presidential material – articulate, charismatic, generous, thoughtful, and positive - maybe our first black president somewhere down the road.  That is possible.  A rising star.

But John was referring to this –

Black Like Whom?
Vanessa Williams, The Washington Post, Thursday, August 5, 2004; Page A19

Williams, the assistant city editor at the Post says she is stumped.


Scott L. Malcomson, writing in Sunday's New York Times, declares that Barack Obama, the Democratic Senate nominee from Illinois, "is not black in the usual way." To bolster his argument, he cited an article in the New Republic by Noam Scheiber, who voiced the opinion that Obama is "not stereotypically African-American."

How is one black "in the usual way"? What does it mean to be "stereotypically African-American"?

Malcomson tried to explain by emphasizing Obama's mixed-race heritage -- his father is a black Kenyan, his mother a white Kansan. He pointed out that Obama was raised by his mother and her parents in Hawaii, as opposed to being brought up in a black household. He argued that Obama's keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last week "did not . . . sound the familiar notes of African-American politics."


Geez, I guess Obama doesn’t qualify or something.  [His speech in Boston was covered in Just Above Sunset here.]

I think the idea is the Democrats are trying to foist a fake black man on us, those crafty devils!

Williams says -


After noting that Obama identifies himself as a black man, Malcomson seemed to be trying to prove that the Senate candidate is mistaken about his own identity. "[W]hile he is black, he is not the direct product of generations of black life in America: he is not black in the usual way," Malcomson wrote. I wonder: Is there a "usual way" to be white?


Now THAT is a curious question.  I’m just doing my best, but I’m not sure I’m doing this white thing right, really.

Well, Williams was covering a Washington “Unity” convention for African American, Asian American, Hispanic and Native American journalists.  She says the group lobbies the industry to diversify its newsrooms, but its core mission is to challenge to the media to "improve coverage of people of color by dispelling stereotypes and myths."  And I guess it isn’t working.


In presenting Obama as some new template for black success, Malcomson offered an analysis as shallow as the one sometimes spouted by discouraged black teenagers (and roundly criticized by the black middle class): that to embrace the values and behaviors that lead to achievement is to "act white." Worse, his reasoning as to why white voters find Obama attractive is reminiscent of color biases many thought had long been retired: that society favors those black people with particular bloodlines, schooling and mannerisms, while seeing the lot of black Americans through almost-cartoonish generalizations from the dark days of Reconstruction and Jim Crow.


Okay, I take it back.  The idea wasn’t to foist a fake black man on us.  The idea is the guy is so popular because he acts white and isn’t threatening and is still black, sort of.

Some of us thought he was impressive because he made sense and inspired hope and offered fine ideas and was a good man – a natural leader - and that would have been true even if he were purple or green.  Ah but he was black, or something like it.

And we have to have the back-story, as we say out here in Hollywood, and this frustrates Williams -


… the news media for the most part continue to cover black people in America through a narrow prism of extremes. I call it the first and the worst approach, focusing on black people who soar to unprecedented heights (Obama was the first black Harvard Law Review president) or sink to unspeakable lows (see the suspects on your local television station almost any weeknight at 11).

What of the majority of black people whose activities are not good enough or bad enough to attract headlines? How often do the news media include the names, faces and voices of African Americans in stories that are not about "black" issues, such as affirmative action, or that don't reveal the latest social epidemic?


Well in a world where news is entertainment, that’s just not good material.  It’s just real.  Where’s “the hook?”

We want that hook, but Williams see a problem with this top-bottom no-middle media view of black folks -


The other byproduct of the media's inadequate coverage of African Americans is its creation of "black leaders," who are called upon to speak for all black people, regardless of the subject. In many instances these spokesmen are simply the nearest, loudest and glibbest people.

Some of these quote machines have been speaking for "the black community" for decades, sounding like broken records on a tinny Victrola. Is it too difficult or time-consuming for journalists to go out and find black parents, wage earners and professionals who can speak for themselves?


No, it is not too difficult or time-consuming.  It just doesn’t boost the ratings.

While Williams points out there are, “like Obama, scores of middle-class black professionals who have mastered the art of peacefully coexisting with - and excelling among – whites”  - but that is of course, boring.  That doesn’t grab audience share.

And John asks what the French say about such comments?  I suspect the French are laughing their asses off at this kind of crap.  From Sidney Bechet and Josephine Baker in the twenties to Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis and all the rest – and don’t forget the very gay and pretty black James Baldwin – folks just know where they are welcome.  Or where these things don’t matter as much.  Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs – the one back Parisian in the NBA – does not spend the off-season in Texas.  Why would he?

Are the French laughing their asses off?  Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, has a comment on that -

I don't think so. Sure the French like circuses, they like black comedy, and on rare occasions they'll vote for ultra right-wing Jean-Marie Le Pen for laughs, to 'send a message.' But, generally, people who are educated get respect - I write 'educated' and not 'rich' - so idiotic attacks on John Kerry and Barack Obama are more puzzling than funny.

They are also annoying. It's like the Republicans have drafted the Marx Brothers' 'Animal Crackers' and this is their whole campaign. They are running Jerry Lewis, but everybody here wants Dean Martin to win, because he's the real thing and old Jerry is the house buffoon….

Excuse me for using the Marx Brothers in this context. They would, if still around, be destroying the GOP with ridicule. Or maybe they wouldn't. The GOP is ridiculous, utter nonsense, and they are not doing too badly in the polls. Americans appear to be bamboozled.

No, I don't think the French are laughing.

My advice to John?  Don’t want to deal with this are your brilliant or a gang-member murderer stuff?  Go to Paris.  Meet Ric.  And why come back?  I’ll come along.  I like the place.

But this business that Barack Obama isn’t really black – or is a new kind of black – or something?  Okay.  Whatever.

But the joke is that Alan Keyes – the guy the GOP just decided to run against Barack Obama in Illinois for the open Senate seat – is the real black guy?  Whatever.

The joke making the rounds is Bush and his crew couldn’t find the WMD in Iraq, and now they couldn’t even find a black man in Chicago - so had to borrow one from Maryland.  A cheap shot, but funny.

Here’s the view from The Economist (UK) this week - The politics of tokenism.

The title says it all -


Three weeks ago in Boston, the Democrats witnessed the birth of a new black star in Barack Obama, their candidate for the open Senate seat in Illinois. Now the Republicans have conjured up a black star of their own to do battle with the self-described skinny guy with an odd name. Alan Keyes, talk-show host, holy-roller social conservative, Maryland resident and sometime presidential candidate, will take Mr Obama on.

The thinking behind this is beguiling in its simplicity: the Democrats have a black man who can give a rafter-raising speech, so we had better find a rafter-raising black man too. Beguiling, but stupid. Mr Keyes's Senate run will produce nothing but disaster—humiliation for Mr Keyes, more pie on the face of the already pie-covered Illinois Republican Party, and yet another setback for Republican efforts to woo minority voters.


A stupid mistake?  Republicans make stupid mistakes?  Couldn’t be!

And why is this a mistake?


Mr Keyes's problems start with his personality. The Republicans' new champion is the very opposite of cool. In 1996 he chained himself to the front door of a television station in Atlanta, Georgia, to protest against a decision to exclude him from a presidential debate (he was then mounting the first of his two bids for the presidency). His speeches can certainly be eloquent. But they can also be intemperate and plain weird, particularly on the subject of gays.

Mr Keyes's politics are of a piece with his personality. He is a genuine intellectual, a disciple of the great Allan Bloom, and has a PhD in political science from Harvard. But his intellectualism drives him to take absolutist positions on some of the most divisive subjects in American politics. He doesn't just call for a reduction of taxes; he calls for the complete abolition of the “slave” income tax. He doesn't just want to blur the line between church and state like George Bush; he argues that the division between church and state has no basis in the constitution. He doesn't just disagree with Mr Obama on abortion; he castigates him for holding “the slaveholder's position” on the subject.


Yeah, Keyes has been saying Obama is a tool of the white slave master and a vote for Keyes is a vote for what God wants.  Charming.

Oh, everyone has his or her little eccentricities.  But the real problem, as The Economist (and everyone else) sees?


The Keyes candidacy … smacks of tokenism. The candidate routinely denounces affirmative action as a form of racial discrimination. But what other than racial discrimination can explain the Illinois Republican Party's decision to shortlist two blacks for the Illinois slot—and eventually to choose Mr Keyes? He brings no powerful backers or deep pockets, and was thrashed in his two runs for the Senate in Maryland.

… The Illinois Republicans are not just guilty of tokenism. They are guilty of last-minute scraping-the-bottom-of-the-barrel tokenism. The local party has been undergoing a sort of collective mental breakdown ever since Jack Ryan's Senate candidacy collapsed in June over a sordid sex scandal. The party tried a laundry-list of candidates, including two former Illinois governors, two state senators, several wealthy businessmen, a former football coach and, according to Dennis Hastert, “a 70-year-old guy who was a great farm broadcaster in Illinois”, before turning at last to Mr Keyes.

To make matters even worse for the Republicans, Mr Keyes's numerous defects as a candidate are only magnified by the comparison with Mr Obama. Mr Obama has spent almost 20 years in Illinois—seven as a state senator—and is married to a woman from the South Side of Chicago. He won an impressive 53% of the Democratic primary vote against six strong opponents. He is optimistic where Mr Keyes preaches Sodom and Gomorrah, and moderate where Mr Keyes is intemperate. He is also a rising national star, with unrivalled support from the national party, while Mr Keyes is a serial failure.
The Republicans' fatal mistake was to think that the best way to counter a black man was with another black man. The point about Mr Obama—as the Republicans might have realised if they had paid greater attention to his speech in Boston—is that he is a post-racial candidate.


Exactly.  Obama could be purple or green and it wouldn’t matter.  What he has done and could do, what he thinks and is willing to consider, are what matter here.  A lot of the country would rather have things going better than worry about variations on blackness and all the rest.  That’s so last century.

Yes, the Republicans have made serious attempts to court blacks.  Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell aren’t chopped liver – even if their actions can be questioned.  But how have to agree the Illinois Republican Party's decision to choose Alan Keyes is not a serious attempt at outreach.  The folks at The Economist have it right.  It is a ridiculous parody of outreach.

It’s just sad.  Illinois wanted an election campaign based on issues, or one can assume that.  The Republicans think a minstrel show would be more fun.  They’ll lose this one – and look like pandering fools.


And then there is the matter of Teresa Heinz Kerry. See Just Above Sunset for information - here and here for notes on her background.  She was born and raised in Africa.

Rick, The News Guy in Atlanta, this week raise the question – So if Kerry wins, will that mean that Teresa will be this country's first African-American first lady?

My sometimes cynical friend John answered that – If Kerry wins and Teresa is loved by world and she does good things for everyone is showered with respect and admiration, the answer is NO.  Otherwise, the answer is YES.

The idea is if she turns out to be a fine first lady, well, she’s white.  Easier to deal with.  Fits the national narrative.

But then we get this odd story of, well, a white man who puts on blackface to call John Kerry's wife a fraudulent African-American.  Really.

The GOP Minstrel Show
A white tycoon in blackface race-baits Teresa Heinz Kerry.
Timothy Noah - Posted Thursday, Aug. 12, 2004, at 2:26 PM PT at SLATE.COM

Noah comments on the new radio advertisements this week by a nonprofit called People of Color United that rag on Teresa Heinz Kerry – saying she’s no African, or at least no African American.

The copy? Here’s some of it -


His wife says she's an African American. While technically true, I don't believe a white woman, raised in Africa, surrounded by servants, qualifies.


And there’s more of it.  I heard it all.

The spots run in minority communities of course.

Noah points out the odd part -


What's interesting about this blacker-than-thou statement is that it's underwritten by a white man. People of Color United, although run by a black woman named Virginia Walden-Ford, got nearly half the money for its media buy from a Caucasian insurance tycoon named J. Patrick Rooney. Walden-Ford confirmed … that Rooney gave the group $30,000 for a series of ads that are running in swing-state urban areas, and that the total ad buy thus far cost $70,000. Rooney, she said, was the group's biggest donor. All its funding information will eventually be public, but the law does not require People of Color United to file with the IRS before the ads go on the air. It will be interesting to learn whether a single person of color has written a check to People of Color United.


Hey, whatever works.

But Noah is angry -


I don't know about you, but when I hear a statement meant to inflame gratuitous resentment of white people, I prefer that it come from a black person. A white man who puts on blackface to call John Kerry's wife a fraudulent African-American is committing so many kinds of bad faith that I scarcely know where to start. Why did he do it?

The answer has nothing to do with the struggle for civil rights. Rooney is a medical-privatization pimp. His former company, Golden Rule Insurance Co., and its successor, Medical Savings Insurance Co., market private savings accounts of the type that Republicans are gradually using to displace health insurance provided by the government under Medicare and Medicaid (most recently in last year's Medicare prescription bill). In pursuit of this goal, Rooney, his family, and his employees have lavished more than $5 million on the GOP. Rooney's latest game, according to a recent story in Business Week, is to mau-mau hospitals into lowering rates for uninsured patients while simultaneously (and much more quietly) securing debt forgiveness for his company.


Well, Rooney claims he goes to an all black church – except for him I guess – and was elected to the church board.  He says he’s one of them.  Really.

So he’s got brass balls or bad eyesight – or both.

Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, shot me a few choice, terse comments.


She was born and raised in Mozambique.

Makes her an African-American, more than the 95 percent of black Americans. It's another case of someone knowing absolutely nothing - about Africa. If Americans whose forefathers came from Africa 300 years ago want to identify themselves with Africa they are making a serious mistake. They aren't 'Africans.' Teresa Heinz Kerry is. Millions of whites in Africa are.

This J. Patrick Rooney guy is a total, evil, witless buffoon.

But what has she got to do with anything? Is somebody putting her on a ballot? It's the kid's stuff again.

If we actually cared about Teresa Heinz Kerry's background in Africa, we might want to ask which side she was on in Mozambique. But let's not. It's old history now and she didn't have any choice when it came to parents.

From people I've met who were born or brought up in Africa, I've learned that they are Africans regardless of color. Isn't the business of saying Teresa is a 'fake' African just another way of saying she's 'not American' - a bit like Canadians are 'nice' because they're 'not American'?


Yeah, I guess that is the argument – she’s not one of us.  Fear of “the other” works in elections.

But Ric’s perspective comes from living most of his adult life in Europe, I’d guess – a much smaller place with many languages and cultural differences all jammed together on a chuck of land less than half the size of the United States.  The “other” for Europeans can be a two-hour drive down the road – where everything is different, where people speak a completely different language and eat odd food and all the rest.  One shrugs, and tries to get along.

We, on the other hand, have always had the luxury of relative isolation.  The exotic was always way far away and safe.  Fat men in lederhosen swilling beer and doing that dance where they slap each other, and telling what seem to be jokes in an incomprehensible agglutinated language – that was far, far away – except for some German polka halls in Cleveland, and no one goes to Cleveland.  Africa – we know that from “Born Free” and “The Lion King” – and all those old Tarzan movies MGM used to shoot down in Culver City (the back lot is now an apartment complex that still has a few of the little lakes they used for the river scenes – and I used to live there).  France we know from that Gene Kelly film with Leslie Caron.

And now Kerry wants to foist this odd woman on us.  It is un-American or something.

But was the exotic was always way far away and safe for us?  Ric in Paris wonders about that.


It you are ever in New York City an interesting trip is the one in the harbor to Ellis Island, which also includes a stop at the Statue of Liberty.

At one time, say from before the founding of the United States, until the 1960s or 1970s, America was exotic itself. Millions of 'exotic' foreigners were filtered into America via Ellis Island, and the statue was a result of a subscription made by the French.

From what I hear, many Americans are now only 'at home' if they live close to a 'mall' containing cloned shops, that are reproduced endlessly across the land. A narrow, twisty, Paris street evokes no affection or awe - it's too annoyingly complicated.

But to Europeans America is truly exotic. Even your hurricanes are exotic. Imagine - you can't leave the 'safety' of your house being destroyed by water and winds because of all the alligators flying around!

It's time for Americans to recognize the exotic at home. The risks of living in America are real. Coming soon - homemade 'boutique' cheese!


Indeed yes.

But it’s not, however, that we’re racist (the Obama-Keyes issues) or xenophobic (Teresa Heinz Kerry is too odd and neither black nor white).  We’re just… what?  Careful?

This is one interesting culture here.


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

This issue updated and published on...

Paris readers add nine hours....