Super-Cool Obama and the Spectre of the Angry Black Man

I'll start posting some of the reactions I've gotten to my current cover story that tries to make sense of President Obama's successes and failures in his first three years in office.

Not many people who have written in about the piece have said, "But gee, it was so short!" It's all of 12,000 words long -- but even at that scale, we left lots of stuff out. Among the cutting-room floor material was an attempt to address the issue this reader's message raises: how much of Obama's super-cool demeanor, which can seem so icily effective when it works and so ineffectively passive when it doesn't, is due to the pressures on him as America's first non-white president. If I, as a middle-aged white guy, am aware of the perils awaiting him at the slightest flash of being an Angry Black Man, I can barely imagine how much more profoundly he must have wrestled with this question.

I am therefore glad that Nancy Wallace, whose name I'm using with her permission, has written in about the issue:

I wanted to write to you because I think there's an important element of Obama's emotional responses and the perception of those responses that you didn't mention: race. I grew up in a family that was black middle-class; we actually were kind of the Cosbys. From the time I was in elementary school, I was aware, even though no one ever said it out loud, that was supposed to be "a credit to the race". I had a responsibility to be a role model which meant studying hard and going to church and getting into a good college and going on to professional school and marrying someone of the opposite gender. I was taught to deal with emotions by hiding them, because tears or anger would immediately slot me into a stereotype of Mammy or Jezebel.

In 1995, I had a nervous breakdown in the office where I worked at Harvard. I was on medical leave for two months. When I came back, I couldn't shake the sense that as the only black woman in my office, my failure to handle an unreasonable and excessive workload would reflect poorly on all black women, everywhere. It took a long time and a lot of therapy to realize that I was carrying a burden that wasn't mine, and that by repressing my emotions to avoid being seen as "too angry" or "hysterical,"  I'd just made everything worse.

Unlike me, Barack Obama IS a role model. Everything he does and says is, on some level, viewed through the prism of "First Black President". Knowing that has to constrain his public emotional responses, especially anger. If he raises his voice the slightest bit, then he'll be seen as an Angry Black Man, and Angry Black Man is scary. Jan Brewer claimed that the president was being "threatening" toward her, and I believe she probably did feel threatened because there was a tall black guy in front of her who didn't look all that pleased. At any moment, he could have whipped out a gun, or overwhelmed her with his brute animal strength!

Even the media narrative is quick to slap Obama with the "angry" label. After his speech during debt ceiling crisis where he directly criticized the GOP, his demeanor was described in some headlines as "angry", when in reality, he managed to hold it down to vaguely irritated. Can you imagine what would happen if he'd said, "Look, these clowns in the House? Dumb as a box of hammers. If they want to stop dicking around and get serious, I'm here; otherwise they need to stop acting like a bunch of spoiled whiny brats."

Jackie Robinson agreed that during his first year with the Dodgers, he wouldn't respond to any of the abuse he received from players, officials or fans, because even just yelling back would be seen as proof that "they" can't handle the pressure. I suspect Barack Obama is fairly laid back in general, but we'll never know because he can't be anything else.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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