In a very interesting Washington Post editorial (July 6th, “Obama’s Tightrope,” copied below), Amina Luqman argues that Barack Obama must present voters with only the whitest of credentials and speaking styles, and avoid blaming whites for black problems—while other candidates, particularly Hillary Clinton, remain free to stir up blacks by criticizing whites, and by using the passionate, rhythmic cadences and stirring challenges traditionally relied upon by black politicians and preachers. As Luqman watched the presidential debate at Howard University, “up seemed down and everything seemed out of sync” to her, because of this flip-flop in the rhetorical styles of these two candidates.
I don’t think Obama walks a race tightrope. I think he walks and talks and thinks just exactly how he walks and talks and thinks, and he doesn’t attack anyone, white or black, because that’s who he is. Somehow, Obama has learned not to bother with blaming anyone for anything, because blaming is a waste of time and spirit and resources, and besides, it only invites retaliation, which must then be defended against. Instead, Obama consistently accepts, “as-is,” all others, black and white, American and “other.”
Obama knows that everyone makes mistakes, and that the greater one’s power, the greater the potential for and impact of their mistakes. As Dr. King did, Obama encourages his audiences to move forward together to find solutions to unsolvable problems, to clean up impossible messes, to do better than the last generation, and he knows we can’t do it while carrying a burden of past guilt.
Not-blaming is a deliberate, habitual practice of Obama’s. He shares with King the best, most productive kind of humility: self-acceptance born merely—and spectacularly—from realization that they are God’s creatures, which is to say, imperfectly perfect, perfectly lovable, and forgiven.
In The Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s compadre regrets killing someone, but justifies it to himself by saying, “Well, he had it coming.” Eastwood answers him with, “We all have it coming.” We've all made mistakes, but it makes no sense to demand retribution for every mistake. Unless we’re delusional (as most of us are, now and then, including me) we can recognize our culpability in many things without insisting that each sin be punished.
Pointing fingers, assigning blame, piling on, creating scapegoats, and exacting revenge are all of one piece with the same fearful, guilty, hateful politics that keep us so mired down with old problems that we can’t solve anything new. Obama apparently holds to Jesus’ new covenant, which is all about forgiving, forgetting, lightening up and moving on to make things better.
More interested in mercy than in an eye-for-an-eye, Obama will leave worrying about others’ accountability to lesser humans. His positive, present-oriented spirit will bring him all the power he can use, and it will allow him to use all of that power for good. Of course he will make mistakes; all leaders do. Lovers of Shakespeare and classical theatre see demonstrated over and over how every person, however great, has “tragic flaws.” But because Obama tries to overlook the mistakes of others, he won't let his own mistakes become stumbling blocks that prevent him from pressing boldly on.
We all want second chances to do things right, to use our misdirected and under-utilized knowledge and talents and skills for good. We all want opportunities to redeem ourselves, because most of us eventually do learn from our mistakes. Obama seems to realize that only after he accepts others, as-is, can he accept himself, as-is. His safety, in fact, like Bill Clinton’s, lies in his reluctance to waste time defending himself.
I hope Hillary Clinton won't choose to stir up resentments, although resentments effectively unify antagonists against one another by polarizing and dividing. Radio demagogues also use fear especially well to pit one group against another, and all too many presidential elections have been won by fear-mongering partisans. Unfortunately, accusations and recriminations can't unify a nation, and stirring up ill feelings through blame cannot save one.
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By Amina Luqman
Friday, July 6, 2007; Page A15
The world felt topsy-turvy as I watched the presidential debate held at Howard University last week. Up seemed down and everything was out of sync as the front-runners for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, spoke. In this debate, as in others, we watched Obama remake the traditional persona of the black candidate and someone else take what might have been his place.
From the outset, it was clear that Barack Obama wasn't going to be Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. For every rhythmic alliteration Jackson would have offered, Obama gave us pauses and sentences in paragraphs. For Sharpton's quick wit and scathing candor, Obama offered even tones and grave calm. There was no push toward applause-filled endings. He begged for contemplation and understanding. Simple became complex, demands became propositions and “they” became “we.”
The average black American onlooker can't help feeling proud but also just a little hurt watching Obama. Proud of his ability to traverse minefields on a national political landscape and hurt by what America demands of black candidates seeking public acceptance and trust. During the debate, black Americans in the audience sat, hands poised, yearning to applaud a black candidate able to articulate our passions and sense of injustice. We wanted to hear that he understood and loved us — not in the general, “we the people” sense but in the specific. Yet we know that with each utterance about injustice, each puff of anger or frustration about racism, we lose the very thing we seek: a viable black candidate. The closer Obama comes to us, the further he would be from winning the nomination and the presidency.
That is a reality of race and national politics in America. Part of Obama's appeal to white America lies in his hopefulness. It's in the way he looks toward a brighter future, and it's in his promise to bring us all along.
Yet the subtext of his appeal is in what he does not say. It's in his ability to declare that things must get better without saying who or what has made them bad. It's how he rarely chastises and how he divides blame and responsibility evenly; white receiving equal parts with black, poor equal parts with rich. The “we” Obama has created leaves blank the space traditional African American candidates would have filled with passion or a clear articulation of the state of black Americans. It's left some black voters unfulfilled and some white voters with a sense of acceptance and absolution from past wrongs and present-day injustices.
We are all watching Obama's tightrope walk, his attempts to appeal to the white majority while maintaining some semblance of integrity regarding the plight of black Americans. It's a heavy burden. In contrast, Hillary Clinton is on relatively sure footing. Obama must tilt away from clarity and passion about issues disproportionately affecting blacks while Clinton is free to perform the black candidate's role. In last week's debate, it was she who took on the traditional black candidate's persona, she who was both passionate and rhythmic in her cadence. Her endings built to crescendos. Be it real or pandering, Clinton can openly connect and show solidarity with black Americans in ways that Obama cannot.
There is no better example than Clinton's comment about the disproportionate effect HIV has on black communities. She said that if “HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34, there would be an outraged outcry in this country.” For Obama to have said the same words in the same fiery manner could have been political suicide. By forfeit, Clinton essentially becomes the black candidate; it's not a space America would allow Obama to fill.
Not long after Obama announced his candidacy, the buzz in the media was, “Is Obama black enough?” Many black Americans privately laughed at this question. We know that it takes only a slip of the tongue about slavery's legacy or reparations, a hiccup about institutional racism or paying special attention to the needs of black Americans, and suddenly the love would be gone. We know that the question has less to do with black America than with whether white America trusts that Obama is not too black for its political taste.
We laugh at the question of Obama's blackness because we live with a version of Obama's tightrope dance every day. We do the same dance in our workplaces, with our supervisors, our neighbors and our college classmates. In that way we know Obama couldn't be more like us, he couldn't be more black. We along with Obama know that even the most skilled tightrope performance may not be enough to ensure that you land on your feet.
Amina Luqman is a freelance writer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.