Ben Carson, President Obama, and the politics of a 'real black president'

A single tweet from Rupert Murdoch Wednesday has revived debate about who should speak for black voters.

Charlie Neibergall/ AP
Republican presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson waits to address an audience in Iowa in October.

What does “a real black President" mean?

When media mogul Rupert Murdoch tweeted about his fondness for Dr. Ben Carson and his wife Candy Wednesday night, musing “What about a real black President who can properly address the racial divide?” he reignited a remarkably complicated, difficult question that might speak volumes about progress Americans have or haven’t made in the past eight years – and possibly the next four.

Since Barack Obama’s first days as a senator, debates swirled about whether he was “black enough”: For what? To attract African-American voters? To attract white voters? To advance civil rights?

Vice President Joe Biden’s early-on comment that Mr. Obama was the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” scandalized voters who saw it as proof of some Americans’ racist assumptions. Was the biracial, Harvard-educated, half-Kenyan politician’s problem being too black, or not black enough? 

And now Mr. Murdoch’s comment, for which he later apologized, seems to set up a two-man contest between Dr. Carson and Obama: who can get the "black enough" equation just right?

If Murdoch wanted to wade into identity politics, he certainly got his wish. “I only listen to authoritative voices on black identity, like Rupert Murdoch,” writer and former White House adviser Ronan Farrow tweeted scornfully

But casting doubts on Obama’s bona fides as a “black president,” and wrestling with what exactly that means, is nothing new.

In “The Paradox of the First Black President” The New Yorker’s Jennifer Senior records some black activists’ disappointment with Obama’s record on contentious race-related issues, from the campaign trail to Ferguson, Mo.

According to Fredrick Harris, a Columbia University political scientist interviewed by Ms. Senior, the timing of the Black Lives Matter movement seems to be “one of the fundamental paradoxes of Obama’s presidency.”

But as Ms. Senior notes,

In a country whose basic genetic blueprint includes the same crooked mutations that made slavery and Jim Crow possible, it is not possible to have a black president surrounded by black aides on Marine One without paying a price. And the price that Obama has had to pay — and, more important, that African-Americans have had to pay — is one of caution, moderation, and at times compromised policies.

Nevertheless, Obama still pulls overwhelming support from African-American communities: 84 percent, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. In his last year in office, he seems determined to push through prison and criminal justice reforms, which disproportionately affect men of color, and some suggest that his speeches on race, few but powerful, have made history.

“Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” the President told Americans after George Zimmerman’s acquittal. If nothing else, the remarks confirmed that Obama is indubitably “black enough” to have experienced discrimination himself, from being followed by store clerks to watching strangers tense up as they see a young black man cross to their side of the street.

And Carson? How black voters view him is somewhat unclear: Gallup finds that 22 percent of black voters hold a favorable impression of him, but another 18 percent say the opposite, while 40 percent simply say the name's "familiar." 

He has written passionately about the problems facing black communities, but cautions his listeners “We’re right to be angry, but we have to stay smart.”

In a USA Today opinion piece, Carson decries some institutions undermining equality, from poorly-performing schools to the entertainment industry:

The actions of rogue police officers take black lives one at a time. Our public school system has destroyed black lives not in the ones and twos, but in whole generations.

But his specific advice tends to be individualistic. “If a police officer stops you, don’t give him a bunch of lip,” he told Michigan college students. In the USA Today op-ed, he praised his mother for saving her children from a life on the streets “with nothing but a library card.” 

Carson’s individualistic focus provides “validation” for conservatives who resist acknowledging structural racism, American University professor David Lublin told US News & World Report. 

No matter their politics, however, it seems both Obama and Carson are “black enough” to bear what Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “the burden of representation”: “the homely notion that you represent your race, thus that your actions can betray your race or honor it.”

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