Obama’s Color Lines

Juan Williams has an endorsement of Barack Obama in today’s New York Times, “Obama’s Color Line,” arguing, among other things, that Obama “is asking voters to move with him beyond race and beyond the civil rights movement to a politics of shared values.”

Perhaps Williams is right. Perhaps Obama does represent the Great White, or Black, hope of moving beyond race. But at this point in the race I’m afraid that Obama may be speaking “color lines” rather than providing a bridge across the color line and hence that Williams may be engaging more in wishful thinking than astute analysis. I find two aspects of his argument striking — one odd, and one simply unpersuasive.

The odd part has to do with his attempt to use the striking findings of a recent Pew Foundation study that only about half of all blacks see see blacks as belonging to one race. I quoted Williams discussing this study in the Washington Post, here, where he wrote:

Only half of all black people in the country (53 percent) say it is possible to think of blacks as one race. And young black Americans — ages 18 to 29 — are more likely than older blacks to say that blacks are no longer a single race.

The growing perception of two races is really a divide over values.

Over half of all Americans — people of all colors — believe that the values of poor and middle-class blacks are becoming more different. When the question is limited to black people, the answer is even more definitive: 61 percent say values are now more different between middle-class and poor blacks.

Today, relying on the same study, Williams writes:

Fifty percent of black Americans say Mr. Obama shares their values, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. But that still leaves another half who dismiss him as having only “some” or “not much/not at all” in common with the values of black Americans.

There is a widening split over values inside black America. Sixty-one percent of black Americans, according to the Pew poll, believe that the values of middle-class and poor blacks are becoming “more different.” Inside black America, people with at least some college education are the most likely to see Mr. Obama as “sharing the black community’s values and interests a lot.” But only 41 percent of blacks with a high school education or less see Mr. Obama as part of the black community.

Overall, only 29 percent of people of all colors say Mr. Obama reflects black values. He is viewed as the epitome of what Senator Joe Biden artlessly called the “clean” and “articulate” part of black America — the rising number of black people who tell pollsters they find themselves in sync with most white Americans on values and priorities.

Obama may well represent “the rising number of black people who tell pollsters they find themselves in sync with most white Americans on values and priorities,” but doesn’t that tend to confirm the criticisms of the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons that Obama is “not black enough” and is “acting white” — criticism that Williams dismisses as “mean-spirited”?

I believe there is a way that Williams could be right, that there is an opening for a black politician to appeal to blacks and whites to unite around shared values, but so far I have not been convinced that Obama is willing or able to do that, although there have been one or two encouraging hints. One of the most fundamental values that blacks and whites share, at least on one level, is a lingering attachment to the principle that has been discarded both by black “civil rights” leaders and white elites in academia, the media, and large corporations: the old core value holding that people should be treated “without regard” to race, creed, color, or national origin. (I continue to wait, in vain, for the day some brave journalist will ask Democratic presidential candidates whether or not they believe in that principle.)

Obama seems to recognize his opportunity, and the risk it entails for losing his “black” (for lack of a better term) support. According to Williams today,

In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this year, Mr. Obama acknowledged being out of step with the way most black politicians approach white America. “In the history of African-American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African-American community,” he said. “By virtue of my background, you know, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.”

The alienation, anger and pessimism that mark speeches from major black American leaders are missing from Mr. Obama’s speeches. He talks about America as a “magical place” of diversity and immigration. He appeals to the King-like dream of getting past the racial divide to a place where the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners can pick the best president without regard to skin color.

Obama may well believe that we should pick our president “without regard to skin color,” but does he believe colleges should pick their students and professors and employers should hire and promote their employees that way? With regard to the issue discussed in my post immediately below, does he believe law firms should hire and elevate to partner “without regard to skin color”?

If so, he’s been reluctant to say so. As I argued here, in a recent interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education his comments on affirmative action were a “model of waffling obfuscation.” As I argued here, Obama has been willing to say that his daughters should “probably” not receive any college admission preferences because they are “advantaged,” but he has not been willing to say that all similarly “advantaged” blacks should receive no preferences. In fact, quite the opposite: in Michigan he recorded an ad urging the defeat of Prop. 2, ultimately supported by 58% of the state’s voters, that wrote the “without regard” principle into the Michigan constitution.

Many, too many, of the current generation of black leaders defend the “without regard” principle of colorblind equality when it serves their interest, and they abandon it in favor of race consciousness and support for racial preferences at all other times. If Obama really is made of different stuff, he will have to do something he has not yet done: demonstrate that he believes in ignoring skin color in venues other than presidential elections.

I believe “shared values” do indeed provide a bridge that can unite the races, but, so far at least, it has proved to be a bridge too far for Obama to cross.

Say What?