Not Black Enough


In the clip below, David Remnick discusses Obama's loss to Bobby Rush for his congressional seat lo those many years ago. I've read the chapters on this and they're quite good at stringing together all of the many factors that eventually led to Obama's thumping. One factor that Remnick harps on is the idea that Obama was not totally accepted as authentically black by much of his constituents. Long-time readers know that I have my doubts about the actual force of the "not black enough" phenomena in the African-American community. Reading this book, and frankly debating it with you guys, have caused me to reassess, or at least contextualize, those doubts.

Part of this is the rather sloppy manner in which this thesis is often advanced. When Obama himself asserted that a kids in black neighborhoods who read are assailed as "acting white" it really annoyed me--mostly because I've been that kid all my life, known kids like that all my life, and I'd  never heard anything like that. I certainly heard "nerd" a lot, but not "acting white." I still think that it's a really sloppy formulation, but I also think that it's worth taking some care in  judging other black people's experience through your own. 

The fact is that while I read a ton, and got teased for it, I lived in the neighborhood and talked like people in the neighborhood. I was in gifted classes at school, but I didn't have the kind of parents who penalized for using a word like "irregardless." Moreover, I was, if not particularly cool, still really well liked.  My particular and specific black experience was that as long as you had some familiarity with the language, you pretty much were free to do whatever you wanted. That notion was reinforced when I went off to Howard and met black people from all parts of the globe united under the capstone. But what has become clear to me, is the limits of personal experience--there are black people who had to deal with this coming up, and you can't simply laugh and say "Well it wasn't like this for me, so it didn't happen." 

Remnick makes a really compelling case that, among other things, (and I stress among other things) Obama's otherness in the black community really hurt him. He was running against a guy who was a paragon of struggle, and he came from Harvard, Columbia, and Hawaii. I found this really hard to take, and mildly embarrassing. The obvious counterweight is that this isn't specific to black people. I'm almost certain that this happens in ethnic politics in general. And then there's the fact that McCain basically waged "Not American Enough" campaign against Obama.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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