The Great White Hype

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 whooping. 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 till 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 or he succeeds or not will prove just how modern (or not) a nation we really are.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Diane said on August 23rd, 2008 at 2:50pm #

    Last year Australia voted out a neocon lookalike for a Labor Party led by a catholic intellectual, almost as bad as being black here 🙂
    As an outsider who follows your elections closely, due to your ability to impact on the world severely, one thing seems to stand out
    In Australia we seem to be less interested in the ins and outs of the candidates and more interested in what they can deliver, ie we are more interested in policies it may also indicate that we still have some faith in democratic processes, Silly us.
    From what I can see, from regularly watching the Jim Lehrer News Hour, it seems that there is a head in the sand, everything is really ok mentality, which reduces to, we are all good old boys, and there is no real need for change.
    Seems very dangerous to me

  2. Michael Dawson said on August 24th, 2008 at 11:46am #

    Obama is losing, but it’s not because of his confidence. It’s because of his craven conventionalism. Hell, he just chose running mate that not only voted yes on the war, but less than a year ago massively insulted African-Americans and called Obama “not ready.”

    No doubt a solid half or two-thirds of whites remain racist fuckheads. But this is about Obama selling out and betraying liberals, who remain the large majority of potential voters.

  3. John Hatch said on August 24th, 2008 at 5:31pm #

    I think to tell the truth in American politics makes one unelectable, and to toe the neo-liberal line makes the whole exercise irrelevant.

    Whether it’s Obama or McCain, it’ll be business as usual. Bad business.

  4. Rich Griffin said on August 25th, 2008 at 6:04am #

    I want both McCain and Obama to lose. They are both despicable. I truly believe we are in for four years of awful McCain rule, and that he will pick my least favorite person on the planet, Mitt Romney, as his running mate. Either way, we all lose. If everybody would just WAKE UP and vote for McKinney or Nader. (insert huge sigh).

  5. Lloyd Rowsey said on August 25th, 2008 at 6:12am #

    I remember driving back east to my second year in college in 1960, and hardly thinking about this guy JFK. And I believe the vietnam war was his war, unless we give it to the fool who wants it most, Robert Strange McNamara. But JFK, quite visibly, changed. And Barak O. could too.

    Before he disappeared into the wooods in Northern California, in…oh…1980 or so, my psychotic friend Michael Chilton – who’d served on a destroyer off Vietnam in 1964 – said, “Without hope, there is no…hope.”

  6. Martha said on August 25th, 2008 at 9:46am #

    I feel insulted having read this article. Barack’s not qualified and he’s not Black. He’s biracial. This Black woman will be voting gender and race in November: Cynthia McKinney. I’m so sick of seeing this kind of garbage at Dissident Voice. Salah’s the little boy worshipping on Jordan one moment, Nas the next. He goes through heroes like toilet paper. Cynthia’s the real deal.