The meteoric rise of Sen. Barack Obama has some calling him an anti-Christ and others praising him as the Messiah. At his rallies, women swoon as if he’s a rock star.
A YouTube video, “Obama’s fainting ladies,” shows the Democratic nominee downplaying the phenomenon, as he asks crowds to “Hold on, we’ve got someone who’s sick” or “Make some space, they’re probably just a little overheated” or “She’s fine — you probably didn’t eat lunch, that’s the problem.”
But for many the problem isn’t nutrition or whether Obama and Satan are one. It’s that Obama believes he’s actually going to win.
“There’s a line smart politicians don’t cross — somewhere between ‘I’m qualified to be president’ and ‘I’m born to be president,’” AP reporter Ron Fournier wrote. “Wherever it lies, Barack Obama better watch his step. He’s bordering on arrogance.”
In fact, painting Obama as arrogant has little to do with his supposed elitism. Nor have warnings for him to tone things down been directed at him alone, but at the black community as a whole.
Similar warnings went out to African Americans at the turn of the 20th century, after the first black heavyweight champion of the world successfully defended his title against a white man.
“A word to the black man: Do not point your nose too high, do not swell your chest too much, do not boast too loudly. Let not your ambition be inordinate or take a wrong direction,” a Los Angeles Times editorial said at the time.
Almost a century later half the entire nation seems to have taken a wrong direction, with millions of white Americans prepared to elect a black man president. That may be why the Republican National Committee launched Audacity Watch, a Web site with articles like “It’s All About Obama,” “Obama Has a Vision for the Lincoln Bedroom” and “The Audacity of Hype.”
Arrogant, ambitious, audacious -- whatever the latest label being attached to Obama, the intent is to associate another word in people’s minds.
Throughout America’s past the word functioned as a slur against black people. If Sen. John McCain called his opponent uppity today, he would be out of the race faster than he could say, “Uhh—.” Nobody, though, said anything about not using synonyms.
With little to offer except the promise of reincarnating President Bush, the Republican nominee has figured that the only way to win the race is to focus on race itself. Thus “arrogant” or some variation of it has emerged as the stock reference for all things Obama.
Playing the race card nowadays hangs on subtlety, which is why it may work for McCain. One reason it didn’t work for Sen. Hillary Clinton is that her supporters were too obvious: they forgot to speak in code.
Pennsylvania’s governor, Ed Rendell, for example, said despite being “well-spoken, charismatic, good-looking,” Obama’s skin color posed a problem for Pennsylvanians.
“You’ve got conservative whites here,” he said, “and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.”
Democratic strategist Paul Begala added that Clinton was better for the party, because she attracted “working-class white folks” whereas Obama’s support base consisted of “eggheads and African Americans.”
Nuance failed many Clinton supporters, including Geraldine Ferraro, the former vice presidential candidate, who said, “If Obama was a white man he would not be in this position.”
More troubling is that even praise for Obama, from some of his own well-wishers, often highlights things like his “transcendence” of race and his “eloquence” and “speaking style,” as if the main thing he has going for him is that he doesn’t speak Ebonics.
Still, Obama and McCain are at a statistical dead heat, and so the election will be decided by undecided voters. The direction they take, however, may be a foregone conclusion because of what is known as the Bradley effect.
In elections pitting a white candidate against a non-white candidate, many white voters are guided not by party affiliation or policy positions but by melanin. Those who say they’re undecided, in particular, are mostly being polite, the theory goes, because come November they vote for the white candidate in droves.
“Welcome to the murky world of modern racism, where most of the open animus has been replaced by a shadowy bias that is difficult to measure,” Charles Blow wrote in The New York Times.
There was no difficulty measuring the animus on July 4, 1910, when thousands of white Americans swarmed Reno, Nevada, to witness Jim Jeffries snatch the title away from Jack Johnson. Hailed as the “great white hope,” Jeffries said he was “going into the fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a Negro.”
He had a captive audience.
“At ringside, a band played a popular song, ‘All Coons Look Alike to Me,’ while promoters led the mostly white crowd in chants of ‘Kill the nigger!’” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in “On the Shoulders of Giants.”
None of that fazed Johnson, who gave Jeffries a decisive whopping. But Obama may have a harder time.
Skin color still counts for a lot in this country and his remains a tough pill to swallow. Few will admit as much, the usual complaint being that Obama tries too much to look like he’s already president -- as if it’d be more appropriate for him to look like a plumber or a firefighter or a professional scuba diver.
For his part, McCain doesn’t mind being judged on his race since it matches that of every president until now. With a wink and a nod and the well-placed synonym, he has reinvented himself as a “great white hope” of modern times.
Whether he succeeds or not will prove just how modern (or not) a nation we really are.