Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Obamas are not elite...and that is fine with me

Crossposted from Aunt Jemima’s Revenge

Every time I hear mainstream media journalists and right wing pundits call Barack and Michelle Obama elitist, I become absolutely more convinced than ever that white America has absolutely no clue about the lives of black people, other than what they see on television or the movies or what other people tell them.

Let's make this clear - Barack and Michelle Obama are not elitist, they are not members of the black elite, period, end of discussion. If the requirement for being elite like the Obamas is having an Ivy League degree, really good jobs with decent salaries, and a nice house, then a whole lot of black people are elite. And we all know that's far from the truth.

The Obamas are not rich nor wealthy by any elite standard, in fact until Barack Obama started writing best-selling books that earned him significant financial gains, Michelle Obama was the family breadwinner, earning more than double Barack's salary. Truth be told, Barack and Michelle Obama are barely one generation removed from poverty. Far from elite indeed.

Unless the Obamas are leaving this information out of their personal biographies, the Obamas are not members of The Links, Jack and Jill of America, or The Divine Nine. The Obamas don't have a summer home on Martha's Vineyard or Sag Harbor, where many of the real black elite are currently sipping mint juleps right now. I also don't believe that either Obama had a cotillion that "introduced" them to society.

Even black billionaires like Oprah Winfrey and Bob Johnson cannot be considered elite. They like the Obamas are one generation away from poverty. And Jay-Z and his new wife Beyonce, are certainly in the billionaire range when financially standing together, but no one is going to call them elitists anytime soon, no matter how many Gucci bags or Bentley's they buy. No black actor or athlete either. Director Spike Lee and his wife Tonya can be considered more of the black elite than the Obamas. Lee's money may be new, but his wife's social pedigree makes the difference.

Lawrence Otis Graham who wrote, Member of the Club and Our Kind of People, can tell you who and what makes one a member of the black elite. These are black folks that even the average black person maybe unaware of and most certainly the average white person is clueless about. Black generations of wealth, power, and prosperity, like the Kennedys, the Bushes, and the Vanderbilts. (You don't actually believe that CNN's Anderson Cooper has to work, with his mama being Gloria Vanderbilt?) The Johnsons of The Johnson Company and Ebony magazine are part of the Black Elite, three generations removed from their founding grandfather's humble beginnings.

With that said, it's not a criticism to say the Obamas are not elite, it's more of a correction. A correction that is important. The Obamas are like a lot of everyday successful people, black or white. They came from humble beginnings and overcame all the obstacles to become successful. If they desire a larger slice of the American dream, more money, more power, more advantages for their children, that does not make they elitists, it makes them ambitious, hardworking, and driven.

Successful people are successful because they have dreams and goals, they don't stop once they have achieved their dreams and goals, they make new ones, like running for president of the United States. That's not elitist, that's the American dream.

Tami’s Note: Prof. Tracey—Thanks for letting me crosspost this. I would like to add that as someone whose mom is a Link, who grew up in Jack and Jill and who participated in a cotillion, even those of us who are part of those groups aren’t all elite. Like Tracey said, most black folks who make it to the middle class or upper middle class or upper class are but a generation or two in--even folks in the "elite" groups above. We retain a connection to the working and agrarian classes, because that is where we were, like, two seconds ago. The Obamas are not like the Bushes or Kennedys or Kerrys or Gores. How is it that some people believe the Obamas are elite, but George and Laura Bush are “just folks?”

Readers—a good companion to Professor Tracey’s post is Erin Aubrey Kaplan’s article “
Who’s Afraid of Michelle Obama” on Salon. (When you go over to read the full article, do take a peek at the comments, which have convinced me that I can safely allow my subscription to the online magazine to lapse.)

Portrayed by the media as extraordinary, Michelle at heart is an ordinary black woman whose life experience and ambiguity about making it in white America resemble those of every other 40ish, middle-class black woman I know. This is
wonderful news for us -- we finally see an accurate reflection of ourselves in someone who may one day occupy the most exclusive address in the country. But for a good part of the nation, this is exactly the problem. Michelle's frankness about the ills of America and how they're connected to race taps into an anxiety about such a story becoming prominent and representing us all. Like so much about the whole Obama phenomenon, this has never happened. The black story has always been marginal by definition; now, suddenly, it isn't. And Michelle's is a story that's much more nuanced and challenging than the hardcore urban tales or middle-class fantasies we're used to ascribing to all black folk. Michelle's very presence is forcing the possibility of an enormous paradigm shift we've never had to make -- that is, from whites at the top assessing blacks in America to blacks at the top assessing America itself. Not exactly flattering, right? Not quite what happened in high school history, right? No wonder people are at a loss.

Not just people, but also the media. Even the most sophisticated outlets struggle to make sense of Michelle. When conservatives decried her "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I'm really proud of my country" remark as hateful, few in the media dissected the charge. The Los Angeles Times, in covering a campaign speech Michelle made to working-class blacks last year, wondered how on earth the wealthy Obamas
could relate to that demographic. (Funny, I don't remember anyone questioning how former presidential candidate and millionaire John Edwards could relate to poor whites.) The scrutiny got tighter, at times resembling a National Geographic Channel show on the lifestyles of isolated populations in remote corners of the world: Who is this woman and what does she mean? What 's the significance of the fist bump? Why did she write that thesis in college about the struggles of racial assimilation? Lacking answers, pundits denounced Michelle even louder. Fox News slung an ultracheap shot in labeling her "Obama's baby mama."


Anonymiss said...

Hey Tami,
This was a great post. It's nice to see people who still adhere to to the actual definitions of words rather than redefine them to suit their agenda.

The only reason that the Obamas are "elite" is because they're well-educated, upper class, Black, and can string their sentences together pretty well. Leave out the last two parts of the previous sentence and they'd be no different from the Bushes in the White House (namely Dubya).

Not even the Clintons are elite so only God knows where Hillary got the gall to call Obama an "elitist."

slag said...

Agreed. The problem is that we've (intentionally) confused being smart with being elite.

And just have to say: Cutest damn picture evah!

Brother OMi said...

I think there is a difference between elite and elitist.

Are the Obama's elite? yes
are they Elitist? no

who is elite? according to the Merriam webster dictionary:

"the best of a class" or "a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence " ...
one does not have to be wealthy to be elite. do they hold power? much more than the average person. This goes back to when Obama was a state senator.

now elitist is a snob or someone who looks beneath those who are ina lesser status then he or she is. I don't think the Obamas are elitist.

McCain and Clinton are both elitist. just check out how they try to hang out with working class folk. something they don't know a thing about and they actually insult our intelligence.

blackwomenblowthetrumpet.blogspot.com said...

Hey Tami!

The Obamas are not elite but why do they have to be? The Clintons were not from the upper classes. They are both from working class backgrounds.

W is from wealth but Jimmy Carter was not from an upper crust background.

Reagan was an actor...not from the upper crust.

I don't know why there is a focus on class background with the Obamas....


MacDaddy said...

Very insightful post. I didn't know that, until recently, Michelle was the breadwinner in the family.

You know: I don't see Obama as any kind of savior. But I do think that, with some pushing from us, he will pass and implement some good policies. And I think it will be attributed to the fact that he's basically a nice guy from a solid black family. Blessings.

rikyrah said...

May I cross-post this as JJP and Mirror On America?

I think it needs to be said.

Ok, I have my own addendum. One of my guilty pleasures is ' The Black Socialite'. (don't laugh).

I wrote the site owner and asked why there had never been a post on Michelle Obama - the potential First Lady.

She wrote back an ever polite note about how it was a blog about socialites and Michelle Obama didn't really fit...

But, um...they put Dark Sith Ford's marriage announcement in a post.

I'm just a-sayin'.

I HEAR ya, Tami. I understand the distinctions.

Which is why I'd love to cross-post this post.

rikyrah said...

I don't know why there is a focus on class background with the Obamas....


Because 'class' is another word for UPPITY.

And, you know that's what they want to call Obama - Uppity.

Saw that clown, Campbell Brown.

Is Obama ' Arrogant'.

Any Black person with self-respect and self-confidence, has been called arrogant.

Been there. Done that.

Tami said...

Hey, rikyrah,

Professor Tracey wrote this. I'll let her know that you want to crosspost.

SheCodes said...

"Because 'class' is another word for UPPITY."

Rikyrah, you nailed it. Some of these pundits look ready to explode from the pressure of having to hold back from calling the Obamas 'uppity negros', lol.

Accusations of Barack & Michelle being "angry" and "radical" will have to suffice for them!

Evan Carden said...

Brief response: I think the problem is more general than that. The definition of elite that you and I have is not anything like the one that the media seems to hold.

Example, a recent editorial by Maureen Dowd (I hate her, by the way) informs me that all of our presidents have been elites, even Andrew Jackson.

Stealing from his wikipedia biography: "He received a sporadic education in the local "old-field" school. During the American Revolutionary War, Jackson, at age thirteen, joined a local regiment as a courier.[4] Andrew and his brother Robert Jackson were captured by the British, and held as prisoners of war; they nearly starved to death in captivity. When Andrew refused to clean the boots of a British officer, the irate redcoat slashed at him with a sword, giving him scars on his left hand and head, as well as an intense hatred for the British.[5] While imprisoned they contracted smallpox, and after their mother secured their release, Robert died a few days later. Jackson's entire immediate family died from war-related hardships that Jackson blamed upon the British, leaving him orphaned by age 14."

Sounds like a member of the elite to me.

Oh, wait, no, sounds like the opposite of the elite.

One might, barely, argue that Senator Obama is an elitist (a fact I've seen no evidence of) but I don't actually have a problem with that.


Angel said...

Thank you for such intelligent insight on what I, too, think is a ridiculous assertion. I read Lawrence Otis Graham's book also and as you said, Barack and Michelle are CLEARLY not part of that demographic.

It boils down to the masses of America -- both black and white -- not knowing what to do with two well educated black people in a loving, stable marriage, who know what it means to set goals and achieve them and then, set higher goals; who believe in striving toward the achievement of BEQUEATHABLE wealth for their two children (rather than a Prada purse, Bentley and the IMAGE of wealth) .... I could go on but you've already covered it quite well.

Personally, I'm just thankful for the "ordinary" folks out West who, very early on, helped get Obama where he is now -- front and center -- because left to the folks here on the East Coast (read: Bob Johnson of BET fame and his crew) ... he'd be an afterthought.

Just my .0002 cents,


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