To be black is to be separated from the larger society by a "vast veil.” (–W.E.B. Dubois).
The veil is woven out of myth: blacks are crime-prone, lazy, and, well, foreign. We saw this in the O.J. Simpson case when Howard University students cheered as O.J. was acquitted. To whites, he was a murderer; to blacks, he was a victim of a criminal justice system infected with racism.
It was as if blacks and whites were from different planets. But nowhere are blacks more alien to whites than at 10 o’clock on Sunday morning. The outpouring of emotion, the thundering sermons and the perceived differences in political perspective come to define a deep racial divide. The divide says, “They are not like us.”
It is the line between those who are like us and those who are not that determines what neighborhood we move into, whom we marry, and for whom we will vote.
But for a time, Barack’s identity was not marked as black, merely “American.’’ On the map of us and them, Obama had his feet firmly planted in the territory belonging to “us.”
Like Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Barack gained admission by his achievement and charisma.
Like Tiger Woods and Oprah, he was an exception. Half white, half-black an overachiever, so, “we can trust him,’’ whites might have said.
Yet he did not rid America of its stereotypes. We saw this in the comments of Geraldine Ferraro, who sought to portray Obama as an undeserving candidate, without substance, who got a free pass from the media – affirmative action – because of his race. The image of blacks as somehow inherently different, as inherently “other,’’ is ever-present in the subconscious of many Amer-icans. It lies around there like a loaded weapon. But as long as Obama did not associate himself with race, he was safe. He talked about race, but only as something we could get beyond. He invited blacks to turn in their anger for reconciliation. King’s famous aphorism- “We are all wrapped in the same garment of destiny,’’ is a central theme in Obama’s campaign. Obama spoke to a need for blacks to stop thinking of their problems in terms of a black struggle, but a struggle of outsiders of all races, genders and classes to join hands to take power back from the lobbyists in Washington.
There was a deep patriotic strand to this. In the film, Glory, Denzel Washington played an ex- slave who has become a union soldier in the all-black 54th regiment. His back was disfigured by the slave master’s whip, but his mind was more scarred with anger and bitterness. But at the critical moment when the flag was about to fall, Denzel’s character put down his anger and grabbed the flag to lead the others in a charge against the enemy. Obama is a Denzel-like figure holding the flag in one hand and a dream, that we can transcend race, in the other.
Enter Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
When someone unearthed a tape of Wright exhorting “Not God bless America, God damn America,” that was, in my mother’s phrase, the end of the perfect day.
It was out of context. It was guilt by association. But it linked Obama to black protest, to black anger, to ideas, values and people with which many whites are uncomfortable.
From the furor, it was as if he had been found having dinner with Farrakhan. Wright’s angry tirade made the gun go off. His exceptionalism may not be protection against the explosion. Critics argue he must have agreed with Wright because he didn’t leave the church. But this is not a logical argument. The critique, in my view, is not driven by logic. It is driven by a suspicion that Obama is not really one of us: “You can take them out of the South side but you can't take the South side out of them,’’ some whites might have said.
Obama has been blackened. The suspicion that blacks are different from other Americans, and more importantly, that these differences matter, is the gunpowder.
Rev. Wright was just the spark.
D. Marvin Jones is a professor of law at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.