The TNR Primary: Part Four

by John McWhorter | January 25, 2008

Two summers ago, I wrote that the main reason for the excitement over Barack Obama was whites piggybacking on him to prove their non-racist bona fides. I still believe that this was true at the time, when he was a littleknown quantity. However, since then, we've gotten to know him better. I like what I have seen, and I would like him to be the next president. Ironically, his color has a lot to do with that decision.

It's not the only reason, of course. After eight years of a president disinclined to reflection, we could use one given to weighing all sides of an issue. If there is a danger that Obama's quest for change would be hindered by his being too caught up in pleasing all sides, I would prefer that to the more single-minded tendencies of the current administration and the grievous results therefrom.

Yet Hillary Clinton is a thinker, too. Obama wins out for me partly because of his work in the Senate on legislation for prisoner reentry programs and bringing absent fathers back into helping raise their children. While Obama would not lead as a "black president" per se, I assume that concerns such as these, especially crucial to the black condition, would be on his radar screen.

Yet, even there, Senator Clinton does have ample concern for the lives of the poor. The reason I find myself rooting for Obama, ultimately, comes down to something I am ordinarily chary of: symbolism.

When people wield it as a self-indulgent battering ram, such as assailing Clinton as insufficiently "careful" about Martin Luther King's legacy in mentioning that Lyndon Johnson got the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, then, as Mr. Goldwyn said, include me out.

When it comes to the prospect of an Obama presidency, however, I get it. A President Obama, with his black wife astride the planet with him and their children growing up before our eyes, would mean something that, as a Race Man, attracts me.

The number of black poor would remain disproportionate, and pranksters would still hang nooses now and then. However, Obama would stand as ineluctable proof that something has truly happened.

Each year, from January 15 through the end of Black History Month, the sage mantra is, "We've come a long way but we have a long way to go." The implication is that the long way we've come is worth genuflective attention, at best. But, if the voice of America were a black man, there would be an elephant in the middle of the room 24/7.

The kids are especially apropos here. Black is so mainstream in modern America that an apple-cheeked Disney TV film like High School Musical has three black main characters and a hip-hop number. Obama would be received as the "coolest" president in American history, despite not playing the saxophone. As events in Iowa have demonstrated, he could help galvanize political participation among younger people in a way that Senator Clinton, with all of her pluses, never could.

If Obama was not a thinking man and had shown no interest in legislation targeting black people, none of this symbolic value would sway me. But he is, he has, and then there's the symbolism, too.

Obama, with his message of unity, is fond of saying "we" in his speeches rather than "I." Well, include me in.

Part one: Randall Kennedy

Part two: Judith Shulevitz

Part three: Erica Jong

Part four: John McWhorter

Part five: Paul Berman

Part six: Graydon Carter

Part seven: Allison Silverman

Part eight: Alan Wolfe

Part nine: John Anderson

Part ten: C.K. Williams

Part eleven: Todd Gitlin

Part twelve: Daniel Alarcón

Part thirteen: Larry Kramer

Part fourteen: Alan Dershowitz

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//article/the-tnr-primary-part-four