black / blak / adjective
1: of the color black;
2: of or relating to African-American people;
3: dirty, soiled;
4: thoroughly sinister or evil;
5: connected with the supernatural and especially the devil
– adapted from Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary
Last year, Sen. Joe Biden made a comment some people considered racially insensitive toward Sen. Barack Obama. Obama's response was a mild one – he called Biden's remark “historically inaccurate.” This earned him a harsh rebuke from one of my readers. Obama, this gentleman told me via e-mail, had just lost his vote by acting like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, i.e., an angry black man. “Up to now,” the reader wrote, “I did not see him as an Afro American.”
Which brings us to our question for the day: What does black mean?
By now, I suspect Obama sees black as the horror movie monster who returns to life (string music shrieking) after the hero has seemingly killed it and turned to walk away. Can you blame him? In the last 20 months, we've had the “Is he black enough?” controversy and the crazy preacher controversy, we've had Bob Johnson going off his meds, we've had Geraldine Ferraro calling Obama an affirmative action candidate, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland calling him “uppity” and Rep. Geoff Davis calling him “boy.” Lately, I've heard some African-Americans – including Obama supporters – griping at the notion that voting for him is their racial duty.
Now there's a new poll by The Associated Press, Yahoo News and Stanford University, which finds that a third of white Democrats have “deep-seated racial misgivings.” Given a choice of negative adjectives – lazy, boastful, violent – and asked whether they applied to African-Americans, significant minorities of whites said one or another of them did.
Apparently, then, “deep-seated racial misgivings” is the AP's preferred euphemism for racism.
It's worth noting, however, that larger numbers of whites imputed positive descriptions (good neighbors, determined to succeed) to blacks. And God bless the very canny 5 percent who refused altogether to play the sucker's game of trying to describe 36 million people in one or two words, whether positive or negative.
Still, at day's end, there remain those “deep-seated racial misgivings.” So when we ask what black means, well, pollsters say it may mean as many as six percentage points in lost votes for Obama.
This is the tightrope African-American politicians have walked since Tom Bradley ran for mayor of Los Angeles if not before, trying to be black without being BLACK, as in that angry bogeyman that haunts white America's dreams. At one level, it's only smart politics: who'd want to vote for anyone who ran on a platform of grievance? At another, though, it is something else: recognition that there is a reflexive white fear of black claims upon conscience. As in my reader who insisted he had not previously seen Obama as black.
It's a silly statement, but it made sense to him because to him, black means only grievance and anger seeking to burden his conscience. And he fears that enough that he processes even Obama's mild chastisement as if the senator had become some fire-belching combination of Louis Farrakhan and Huey P. Newton.
Obama has walked this tightrope about as well as anyone could, has answered racial questions when they have been unavoidable, but has visibly striven not to be defined or confined by them, to make his candidacy about something other than his paint job and his culture. But race is never quite slain and I suspect that by this point, Obama realizes this.
And realizes, too, that ultimately our question of the day is not his to answer.
What does black mean? We'll find out in November.