Whether by calculation or coincidence, Hillary Clinton and Republicans who have attacked Barack Obama for elitism have struck a chord in a long-standing symphony of racial codes. It is a rebuke that gets magnified by historic beliefs about what blacks are and what they have no right to be.
Clinton is no racist, and Obama has made some real missteps, including his remark last week that “bitter” small-town Americans facing economic hardship and government indifference “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them.” Perhaps he was being more sociological than political, and more sympathetic than condescending. But when his opponents branded him an elitist and an outsider, his race made it easier to drive a wedge between him and the white, rural voters he has courted. As an African American, he was supposedly looking down from a place he didn’t belong and looking in from a distance he could not cross.
This could not happen as dramatically were it not for embedded racial attitudes. “Elitist” is another word for “arrogant,” which is another word for “uppity,” that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.
At the bottom of the American psyche, race is still about power, and blacks who move up risk triggering discomfort among some whites. I’ve met black men who, when stopped by white cops at night, think the best protection is to act dumb and deferential.
Furthermore, casting Obama as “out of touch” plays harmoniously with the traditional notion of blacks as “others” at the edge of the mainstream, separate from the whole. Despite his ability to articulate the frustration and yearning of broad segments of Americans, his “otherness” has been highlighted effectively by right-wingers who harp on his Kenyan father and spread false rumors that he’s a clandestine Muslim.
In a country so changed that a biracial man who is considered black has a shot at the presidency, the subterranean biases are much less discernible now than when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. They are subtle, unacknowledged and unacceptable in polite company. But they lurk below, lending resonance to the criticisms of Obama. Black professionals know the double standard. They are often labeled negatively for traits deemed positive in whites: A white is assertive, a black is aggressive; a white is resolute, a black is pushy; a white is candid, a black is abrasive; a white is independent, a black is not a team player. Prejudice is a shape shifter, adapting to acceptable forms.
So although Obama’s brilliance defies the stubborn stereotype of African Americans as unintelligent, there is a companion to that image — doubts about blacks’ true capabilities — that may heighten concerns about his inexperience. Through the racial lens, a defect can be enlarged into a disability. He is “not ready,” a phrase employed often when blacks are up for promotion.
When Clinton mocked Obama for the supposed emptiness of his eloquence, the chiding had a faint historical echo from Thomas Jefferson’s musings in “Notes on the State of Virginia” that “in music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time,” but “one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid.”
This slander that blacks had more show than substance was handed down through later generations as a body-mind dichotomy, with physical and mental prowess as opposites. Overt “compliments” — they’ve got rhythm, they can dance, they can jump — were paired with the silent assumption of inferior intellect.
Clinton surely had no racial intent, but none is needed for a racial impact. In a society long steeped in stereotypes, such comments reverberate. The incessant loop of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. cursing America and repeating old conspiracy theories has revived fears of black anger among whites whose threshold of tolerance for such rage has always been low. No matter that Obama seems anything but angry. A few sentences from his pastor are enough to incite such anxieties.
The nation is testing how its racial attitudes have evolved. As the campaign continues, we are likely to be both pleased and disappointed with ourselves.
David K. Shipler is the author of “A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America” and “The Working Poor: Invisible in America.”