Friday, January 18, 2008

Do you boogie?

When the Clinton campaign unleashed its followers to attack Barack Obama's loyalty to the black community, it demonstrated (Karl) Rovian shrewdness. Clinton is tapping on Obama's Achilles heel. For what is a successful person of color accepted by the mainstream to do? If Obama sets out to prove his blackness--as if it needs to be proven--by calling in to black radio talk shows, hanging in the pulpits of black churches and dropping by barbershops in the hood--his race will become too apparent for many white voters. He'll start looking like an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, and we all know how their presidential campaigns ended.

But this isn't just about race.

Hillary Clinton has a similar Achilles heel--gender. Many of the panelists on last night's Black Women's Roundtable (listen using the widget in the right-hand column) believe that Obama holds the black community at arms length. If that is so, then Clinton can be accused of holding women at arm's length. How often does she address "women's" issues--reproductive rights, the wage gap, violence against women, sexism? How often does she talk about being a woman and the disadvantages that brings in a patriarchal society. I bet it's not easy being a girl in the Congressional boys' club. But too much woman talk turns a viable candidate into a man-hating, hairy-pitted "feminazi."

Obama and Clinton both do the dance that people of color and women who achieve success in a racist and patriarchal society must learn. Women of color know it particularly well. Call it the race-gender boogie, a delicate two-step where the dancer is true to herself and her culture, but not too much, lest she be seen as "different" and not fit it.

A-one and a-two and a-step, shimmy, step...

The boogie requires letting numerous race- or gender-based slights go, but not too many. The dancer must find a comfortable fit between being seen as prickly and overly-sensitive and being the clueless token who laughs along with noose and "dumb broad" jokes.

During the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal, I never got the people who marveled that Hill hadn't raised a stink and made complaints on Thomas while in his employ. I understood very well why she stayed silent.

A-three and a-four and jazz hands...

For some people of color, the boogie requires code switching, stifling an accent, making speech crisper, to be seen as "clean and articulate." I heard some radio announcer smarmily point out that Oprah and Obama sounded "different" when addressing black crowds in South Carolina. Of course they did.

A-five and a-six and twirl and dip...
For a woman, the boogie means being aggressive enough to get ahead, but not so aggressive that people perceive her as bitchy and cold. And I don't need to tell you that a bitchy and cold man is called a hell of a businessman or a good proactive student or a real go-getter...never a bitch.

And a-seven and eight and tap ball change...

And if you are "the only" the dance gets really intricate. Try being the only black male professional in a company where every other person of color is support staff, or security or maintenance. I do not demean those positions, which are valuable, honest work. But we all recognize the hierarchy in corporate America. So does a black executive spend most of his time being chummy with those at or above his corporate "station?" That's what his white counterparts will do. But how then to answer the charges of "siddity" or "sell out" or "bourgie" from blacks in the office, eager for signs that the black exec is still "down" with his people?

And a-nine and a-ten...and big finish!

That's the race-gender boogie, my friends. I should note, gay men and women know how to do a mean boogie, too. Can you blame a member of any marginalized group for participating in the dance?

I was listening to a black political talk show on Sirius yesterday. Some members of the civil rights industrial complex (TM What About Our Daughters) were challenging Obama's blackness and calling for him to spend more time with old guard black community leaders and more time talking about black issues. But I am convinced that if he does this, he will surely lose the Democratic nomination. And what will the black community have won?

The fact that Hillary Clinton can go down to South Carolina and rub elbows with black leaders and chat about racism, does not mean that she cares more about black folks. It just means the race boogie isn't hers to dance.

Should black voters simply accept that Obama has a civil rights plank to his political platform and also addresses things like universal health care, poverty and education that greatly impact black Americans, and not ask him to make a misstep in the dance to prove his loyalty to us?

What is the right thing for Obama to do to both address black voters and run a winning campaign?

Do you boogie? If so, which boogie do you do?

And because I always have to give my candidate some time, here is John Edwards' platform for ending predatory mortgages.

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