I was thinking about this "meritocratic vs. democratic" notion this morning, and I think I hit upon a significant divide in how I'm processing things, and how many of my readers are processing things. The fact of the matter is simple---I am black. Most of the people who read this blog, in all likelihood, are white. Our history differs, and most importantly in this case, the make-up of our communities differ.
A guy wrote me yesterday arguing, as a lot of you have argued, that what Ross is really invoking is a "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" ideal. I wrote back asking why Barack Obama could not be a "Mr. Smith." He wrote back the following:
Because his talents are uncommon.
To put my point another way, if I said, "The average American voter simply can't understand complicated national issues." Your response would not be "You're wrong; Barack Obama understands complicated national issues." A response like that would make no sense--Obama is is a singularly talented individual; he's not just a representative American voter. In order to have faith in democracy, we have to believe that a majority of us, not simply the best of us, are capable of making the right call.
Obama doesn't work as Mr. Smith because Obama is not just your local boy scouts leader from next door. Obama is a brilliant man. His talent can't give me faith that my neighbor is making good decisions in the voting booth because Obama is much smarter than my neighbor.
That's why Obama's triumph isn't a victory for the "democratic ideal".
I think this is a pretty solid argument. But it makes assumptions about the American experience that some of us simply don't share. More to the point this "democratic ideal" is really a euphemism for white populism, and from a black perspective, even white tyranny.
The history is helpful, here. For most of this country's history, being black and brilliant was not something that set you a part from other black people--it was something that could get you killed by white people. A study of this country's history reveals to not be hyperbole. This notion that white people of medium talents could rise to rule the world was not simply "the democratic ideal," it was the tyranny of our lives--with depressing, disastrous effects. The idea that mediocre white people could rise to incredible levels of power was not so much an ideal for us--it was the whole point of white supremacy.
We obviously live in a different era. But still, one of the most depressing things about being black and "making it" is the incredible randomness of it all. I have said this many times--I was a terrible student. To the extent that intelligence is measurable, I sat in classrooms with people who were smarter than me, worked harder than me, and studied longer than me. I was not without my own gifts--I possessed an obsessive and singular curiosity. I had a vivid imagination. I was creative. But I was also immature and lazy, and if not for the steady prodding/pushing/spanking/cajoling of my parents, I don't think you'd be reading this blog.
When you're black, and likely when you're Latino, and likely when you're a kind of white, you see brilliant people all the time--and they get taken out in the most horrific ways. They have kids too soon. They get shot on the way home from school. They get hooked on crack. They go to jail. And then there is that one kid who makes it, who despite the wages of race in this country, goes on and does something big. To many black people, that person is Barack Obama.
Let's not conflate two arguments--one being the nature of the democratic ideal, the other being whether it's a good thing. I don't simply argue that it's a bad thing--I argue with the very notion of the "common man" which is assumed by many of my white posters. Rather, I argue that when we talk about the "common man" we actually aren't talking about the same thing.
The black community is intensely segregated--even at the level of the middle class. It is, by the numbers, the most segregated community in the country. Add in to that a long history of segregation, that segregation was specifically invented to keep black people around each other, and what you have is a community with a level of familiarity that is, on balance, likely less common than the broader, whiter country.
The use of the word neighbor is instructive--Barack Obama hails from the black side of town. And not just any black side of town, but the South Side of Chicago, a place that was the cultural and economic capital of black America for decades. Moreover he isn't simply from our side of town, he actually behaves like the people we know. He gives dap in the manner that we give dap. He plays basketball, our national past-time. He paraphrases Malcolm X. He bops through the Senate chamber. He's married to a black woman, and not just a dark-skinned black woman, but one who is the progeny of working class black Chicago. Before he became president, Barack Obama got his hair cut by the same South Side barber every week, and it looked tight. For black men, that is the democratic ideal.
That he was raised in Hawaii doesn't really mean much to us. I've said this before, if we had to disqualify every black person who was raised around white people, the population at Historically Black Colleges would plummet by a third.
That he's biracial doesn't mean much. If we had to disqualify every biracial black person, we'd lose, in one fell swoop, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Jason Kidd, Halle Berry and Etta James. In short, we'd be in a world of hurt.
That he's Ivy League doesn't mean much to us. I live in Harlem, and some of my black friends here are Ivy League grads, and some aren't. But all of us get off the subway in the evening, look at the kids standing on the corner, sigh to ourselves, and mutter "Damn," under our breath.
My lovely partner Kenyatta, is going to Columbia in the Fall. I guess she's Ivy League, now. But to me, she's still the girl whose great-grandparents were ran out of Mississippi. She's still the girl from Covington, Tennessee. She's still the girl I met at Howard. She's still, like Obama, the product of a single-parent household. She's still raising a black boy in these times, with all the fears that that entails.
I don't want to gloss over the differences in the black community, in terms of class etc. We are human, and, as with any community, we have our fault lines. There is also something to be said for the notion of "acting white," even if it's not clear exactly what. But our differences are not such that we'd look at Barack Obama's election and say, as Ross puts it, "Don't even think about it." Indeed, the response of so many black people has been exactly the opposite--"Now, I can tell my child that he/she can truly do anything."
To the broader country, Barack Obama is exotic. From a black perspective, he is certainly atypical. But what has to be understood is that the whole point of white racism was to lump all black people together. Thus we're quite use to "exotic" black people. Malcolm X's mother was a biracial woman from Grenada. W.E.B. Du Bois was from overwhelmingly white Great Barrington, Massachusetts and traced a mixture of dutch and black ancestry in his family. Arturo Schomburg, the great chronicler of black diasporic history and culture, was Puerto-Rican. Marcus Garvey was Jamaicain. And so on...
Perhaps if you are white, Barack Obama represents the end of the idea that your next door neighbor could be president. But you should consider that just because Barack Obama isn't your next door neighbor, doesn't mean he isn't mine.