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."

...and justice for all

What if there was a movement dedicated to achieving equality for ALL people, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, class, geography or ability? A movement that gave equal value to the needs to all humans? No, I'm not one of those naive "I wish we didn't have to talk about 'isms' cause everyone is the same and can't we all just get along because we're all human and I don't see color..." types. I understand that as much as we are all human--the same under the skin--the world sees us differently, based on many of the factors above. We each have our own unique crosses to bear. But it seems to me that there is one basic principle behind most progressive movements:
 
Every being has value and deserves equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
 
That's it, isn't it? That's the important bit. But it gets all muddled--partly because we are all focused on what lurker Satsuma calls "our primary injury," the societal offense that effects us most, and partly because fighting for someone else requires that we bother to try to understand someone else's life experience--and that's so messy, complicated and time-consuming.
 
So I, a middle-class, educated black woman, am attuned to slights against my race and gender (I'm trying to convince Satsuma that there can be more than one "primary" injury.), but clueless about how our society is biased against fathers. I was surprised at how vehement many black men were in their displeasure about Barack Obama's Father's Day speech. Many white feminists decry the sexism in the 2008 presidential campaign, without ever noticing the racism (or at least not finding it very important). They don't understand why feminists of color are so offended by the declaration (by women of the majority race) that the challenge of gender trumps the challenge of race. Feminists of all colors, while vigilant against the sexism thrown at Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, let gender-based slights against Cindy McCain pass by, because she's not one of us. And while discussions of race center around black and white, with maybe Latinos thrown in if they are lucky, Asians and Native Americans are forgotten. Many who are concerned about poor, urban blacks, forget about poor, rural whites. And the list goes on.
 
I have been startled over the last few months at the prevalence of progressive myopia--the ability of progressives, who proclaim to exist under a big tent, to be so obsessively dedicated to their primary causes that little else matters. We too often forget that:
 
Every being has value and deserves equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
 
That is the important bit. Our efforts become about winning for our side...for the people who look and live like us. Ironically, that's the charge we often level at the conservatives.
 
The shitty thing is that the people who benefit from maintaining a status quo with themselves on top aren't so myopic. Somehow "The Man" is able to keep his foot on the necks of people of color, poor folks, white women, immigrants, the under-educated, the differently abled, transgendered men, military veterans, the sick and on and on.
 
So, sometimes I fantasize about all marginalized people coming together under one umbrella--the black, suburban mom joining hands with the under-employed Appalachian man joining hands with the Puerto Rican lesbian from Alabama--demanding their due, each recognizing the challenges of the other and the ways that even marginalized people can benefit from "isms" that aren't their own. I dream that progressive activists finally agree that:
 
Every being has value and deserves equal access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
 
I know...I know...But I can fantasize can't I?
 
 

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