Obama’s Black Tax and the “Badge of Black Intellectualism”

What’s up fam, we have a special guest contributor today in the form of Clarence Wardell, a colleague from my days at U of Michigan who is a political activist when he is not working on his Ph.D. in Industrial and Systems Engineering. Enjoy!

There is a scene in the movie “Something New” where Sanaa Lathan’s character and Blair Underwood’s character have an exchange over their exasperation with having to constantly deal with the “black tax” in their respective careers. The “black tax” is the notion that a Black person has to work twice as hard as a White person to gain the same level of recognition and compensation within the work environment. Whether or not it continues to exist in some circles is debatable, but whether or not such a figurative tax ever existed is undeniable. Given such a standard once existed it is hard to completely erase it from the memory of a people, even when faced with stark evidence that it no longer does.

Such a tax is undoubtedly unfair, and has been, and perhaps continues to be a source of frustration within the Black community. Thus, it baffles me, beyond comprehension, why, when faced with the very real possibility of helping one of our own ascend to the democratic nomination for President of the United States, we continue to saddle him with this unfair and unjust tax that has frustrated us for decades.

Given our insecurities as a race, it seems as though we have become an instrument of sorts, where one needs only to pluck the right string or strike the right key to get the desired response out of us. At the outset of Sen. Obama’s candidacy, it became apparent that he was a highly intelligent and highly accomplished individual with moderate to liberal views that would be palatable in a serious bid for the presidency. And of course, he was Black, so he naturally had the electoral power of that demographic sewn up. Right? Well, so you would think, but this is one of those strings that I alluded to earlier. In general, no one likes it when someone else assumes that they know what decisions or actions that individual will undertake. However, Black folk in particular seem to have become rather sensitive to such assumptions, and bristle at the notion that their political alliances are somehow a foregone conclusion (An increased defection of Blacks to the republican party in the last election can be cited as evidence of this), even when the assumption is exceedingly appropriate. In an effort to undermine the assumptions about what the Black voter would do, and spurred on by the mainstream media, we began to raise questions about Sen. Obama’s legitimacy as a candidate, and most insulting of all his authenticity as a Black man.

The question of Obama’s authenticity as Black a man, or better known as the “Is he Black enough?” question, has bothered me for quite a while. It doesn’t necessarily bother me that this question was raised in the first place, but that it lingered for so long (and still does too certain extents) at the behest of not only the mainstream media but prominent figures within the Black community (e.g. Dr. Cornel West). For the sake of brevity I will refrain from exploring how this question in general is rather foolish, but one of the reasons why is that it pre-supposes that there is some type of “enough” bar to be met by not just Black political candidates, but by Black folk in general. In the absence of any concrete “enough” there are several angles from which one can approach this question. 1) Does his political ideology and policy proposals benefit the Black community, and in general do they line up with the majority held views of our community. This is where people like Clarence Thomas, Alan Keyes, and Condoleezza Rice either begin to falter or fail outright on the “enough” question. 2) We can also attempt to answer this question from the standpoint of; does the person in question participate within and/or identify with the Black community?

On the issue of policy, a quick visit to the Senator’s website (www.barackobama.com) will show that he has comprehensive ideas and plans for a plethora of issues effecting the Black community including, Education (he has some very strong policy ideas in this area, perhaps more so than any of the other candidates), Civil Rights, the Economy, Healthcare, etc. Outside of the ideology espoused on his website, Sen. Obama has an 8 year track record in the Illinois State Legislature of actually ACTING on some of these proposals (http://thinkonthesethings.wordpress.com/2007/06/13/obamas-voting-record-in-the-illinois-state-senate/). One of the problems that Obama faces from the Black community is that he does not preface his policy positions with, “This is what I’m going to specifically do for Black folks, “ and while I can understand where some of the criticism derives, I don’t believe any Black candidate for the presidency can make a successful bid with a platform of Black only issues. But what a lot of folks who raise this criticism fail to realize is that issues of healthcare, education, civil rights, and the like, are our issues, along with everyone else’s. So, to say the Sen. Obama does not address Black issues is patently false, and represents a shallow understanding of the issues that affect our community.

On the issue of identification with, or participation within the Black community, I think Sen. Obama has probably done more introspection and participation than 99% of those within the community who have raised this question. The thing with Sen. Obama is that he has written two books; one being a very open auto-biography in which he poignantly examines has racial identity, and the other, also an auto-biography, with a decidedly more political slant. The questions regarding Sen. Obama’s racial identification, and work within the community, can in large part be answered (and I understand this might be asking a bit much) by reading his first book, “Dreams of My Father.” Being born as a bi-racial child, and raised by only his White mother and grandparents, he had to make a more concerted effort than most to find his place within a community he longed to be apart of but felt no direct connection to by virtue of his upbringing. Eventually finding his way with respect to this issue Sen. Obama has spent much of his adult life WORKING within this community from the ground level, as an organizer on the Southside of Chicago, all the way up the ladder to the highest level of policy formation. Sen. Obama did not go to law school to become a wealthy lawyer working at a prestigious firm, but went with the intention of expanding his skill set so that he could come back to the Southside of Chicago and affect further change. Guess what? That’s exactly what he did. My issue with the “enough” question stems from the fact that this question was not posed to any other candidate, and thus becomes an un-fair taxed levied on Sen. Obama that was not assigned to anyone else. How many times have you heard, “Is Hillary Clinton woman enough?” my guess is none, yet she is widely expected to carry the female vote. And, at the end of the day, the “enough” question must be placed in the proper context. If you’re asking whether Sen. Obama is “enough” compared to Al Sharpton, then maybe not, but if you’re asking is he “enough” compared to the rest of the presidential field, then I think he is more than “enough.”

The “enough” question still lingers in some arenas, but has for the most part subsided. However, one issue that I’ve been very frustrated with is what I call the “Badge of Black Intellectualism.” I will return to that notion in a minute. Anyone who knows me knows that I have been an active supporter of the Senator pretty much from the time he was first introduced on the national stage in 2004. When he announced his bid for the presidency in February of 2007 I immediately sought ways that I could get involved with helping get him elected. Wrapped up in my initial naivety, I thought Black America would share my same enthusiasm. Shame on me. Over the course of my participation with the campaign, and discussion with friends I have definitely met those who carry the same enthusiasm and unwavering support. However, I’ve also met those who fall into the category of, “I love Obama, but America is not ready, and so I’m going to support candidate X.” Really? America will never be ready if you can’t be ready. If you can’t have a little faith, and put yourself on the line for a cause you believe in, then why should you expect anyone else to do the same? While this rationale is disturbing to me, it is another group of Black folk that bother me more, and this is the group of Blacks that in my experience usually hail from the college educated ranks who see themselves as too intelligent to get washed up with the rest of us into supporting this inexperienced and non-substantive candidate. It is this group that wears their lack of support for the Senator, it seems, as some sort of “Badge of Black Intellectualism.” The position of those in this category is pretty much summed up by this quote taken from Rep. Charles Rangel of NY in a recent MSNBC article (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/22618856/), “Even though there’s no question in my mind that Hillary can do a better job, we’re dealing with a lot of emotion and racial pride,…” Upon first glance the comment seems innocuous enough, but what it reeks of is the same attitude that I hear from quite a bit of the college educated Black population, and other Black politicians still beholden to the Clintons. It is effectively saying, that if you can put such simple notions as your emotion and racial pride to the side you would see that clearly Hillary (or any other candidate X) is the best choice, and that Sen. Obama clearly lacks the experience and substance that she is teeming with. This sentiment is usually expressed with some level of pride in what they see as their ability to transcend the simple traps that the rest of the Black Obama supporters are not intelligent enough to circumvent. What I find most disconcerting about this position is that this group, in an effort to not fall into the “trap of racial pride,” severely discounts the experience and accomplishments of Sen. Obama, while overstating the accomplishments of someone like Sen. Clinton.

At the end of the day I don’t believe in telling anyone else how to vote. I stand behind Sen. Obama not because his policies differ drastically from the other candidates (truth be told Obama, Clinton, and Edwards don’t differ very much policy wise), because I believe he is someone who has actively carried out, is currently carrying out, and will continue to carryout the change mantra that he speaks of so often. For someone else, they may be an adamant pro-lifer and could never bring themselves to vote for a candidate who is not. Although I don’t agree with you from a policy standpoint I respect your right to that position. But whatever your position is, don’t sell yourself short for the sake of posturing. We saw it a lot in 2004 when it became the fashionable thing to say, “The Democrats have been taking us for granted for too long, I’m going to vote Republican.” Huh?!? What!? By not fairly evaluating Sen. Obama within the same context of the other candidates you are just as guilty as those you accuse of using race as the basis for their support.

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2 responses to “Obama’s Black Tax and the “Badge of Black Intellectualism””

  1. Ed McDonald says :

    Clarence, it’s scary how you broke it down so thoroughly. The next time someone shines their badge of black intellectualism in my face,in terms of not supporting obama, your article will definitely be a tool to help them see the light.

    Peace and Best Wishes

  2. trebo12 says :

    Excellent commentary!! I agree 1000%

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