In fact, in May, 2007, The New Yorker ran an Obama profile entitled "The Conciliator." His background and actions suggested a highly pragmatic, malleable politician. Voting for him, primary supporters made a statement about themselves (see Salon magazine's "It's okay to vote for Obama because he's black"), and made assumptions based on the "black saint/black radical" historical narrative, assuming that this decidedly centrist politician was going to somehow "heal the divisions" in America (for the first time in its history) and/or usher in a radically progressive renaissance.
Blacks, seeing his skin and appreciating his adoption of black culture, ignored his actual distance from it. A white mother and an African father means he formatively absorbed none of the cultural heritage of American descendants of African slaves. But overwhelmed by the historical first, and being ourselves largely blind to our own cultural distinction, we rallied behind a candidate choice George Will properly identified as "eccentric."
Neither blacks nor whites can overtly mention his race save to highlight his "first" status. Blacks can't because doing so would "raise the topic" and if it's a topic, he loses. Raising it is tantamount to a race crime. White conservatives can't mention it because their entire modern association with race has been to exploit suspicion and hatred for electoral success. White progressives can't mention it outside a very narrow perimeter because if they do, they're accused of racism, as Bill Clinton was for comparing Obama's vote totals to those of another black candidate in a state with a large black voting bloc.
We must all pretend to believe that race isn't there. The Washington Post quoted John McCain as saying "He brought up the issue of race; I responded to it. I don't want that issue to be part of this campaign. I'm ready to move on. And I think we should move on."
He retreats behind the playground retort, "I didn't start it. He did!" But McCain's statement acknowledges that the issue exists. He refers to it as "that issue." He just doesn't want to be seen addressing it directly. However, he is more than willing to address it indirectly by insisting that his opponent has addressed it by simply acknowledging his own blackness. Very clever.
Race is an issue in this campaign. Whether or not Americans are willing to see a black man--even a half-white one with no inherent ties to America's racist crimes--occupy the highest office in the land is the issue that dare not speak its name: What do some Americans fear about a black man in the Oval Office? Do they fear he will seek revenge for historical crimes against blacks? Do they fear he will be too strong an advocate for black Americans?
Do they feel he will give short shrift to white Americans? Do they fear that he will simply remind them of the bulk of this nation's history that they'd rather forget? Are racist impulses still strong enough that many simply fear or hate the idea of a black man with power over them? These are the unasked questions. To ask them would unleash America's demons, the snarling beasts we've locked in a cage in the basement, whose diminished, yet still menacing growls we pretend not to hear.
If race, its place in American history and the American present are all unwelcome topics, it only stands to reason that the people at whom the word "race" is most often focused--Afro-Americans--are equally objectionable. We are, after all, the reason that the caged beast exists. Our very skin is the source of all of that discomfort.
On Tuesday, July 29, the House of Representatives quietly passed a non-binding resolution apologizing to African Americans for the crimes of slavery and the Jim Crow laws that stood until 1965. It was the first time the Federal government had apologized for those crimes of the distant and recent past. Oddly, it was not big news; no front page status. Stories that appeared highlighted fears that an apology would bolster calls for reparations, that most discomfiting topic.
The New York Times recently reported that even doctors, the stalwarts of the "deny and defend" strategy, are learning that earnest apologies dilute the anger that fuels expensive lawsuits. The most maddening thing to the injured is the insistence that they were not wronged, when the facts state otherwise. When they know in their hearts and souls--when they hear in the voices of their parents and grandparents--the pain and humiliation, the results we all still live with, such denials gall. To deny the injury is to deny the wronged--to deny their rights, their value, their very humanity. It's a re-perpetration of the original crime in schematic.
Until Americans realize that if we take pride in America's greatness, we must also take responsibility for her crimes, we will continue to lie to each other and to ourselves about what we see in black skin. We will continue to inwardly cringe at its associations and wish that it, and therefore its wearers, would simply fade away. We will continue our vain attempts to emotionally disappear 12% of our population and the vast majority of our history. And we will do so with all the grace and dignity of John McCain's Britney/Paris TV spot.