Guess who's coming to dinner?
David K. Shipler: Guess who's coming to dinner?
In a campaign in which race is a magnifying factor,
'elitist' traces back to 'uppity.'
By DAVID K. SHIPLER
Last update: April 19, 2008 - 4:10 PM
Whether by calculation or coincidence, Hillary Clinton
and Republicans who have attacked Barack Obama for
elitism have struck a chord in a long-standing
symphony of racial codes. It is a rebuke that gets
magnified by historic beliefs about what blacks are
and what they have no right to be. ¶ Clinton is no
racist, and Obama has made some real missteps,
including his recent remark that "bitter" small-town
Americans facing economic hardship and government
indifference "cling to guns or religion or antipathy
to people who aren't like them." Perhaps he was being
more sociological than political, and more sympathetic
than condescending. But when his opponents branded him
an elitist and an outsider, his race made it easier to
drive a wedge between him and the white, rural voters
he has courted. As a black man, he was supposedly
looking down from a place he didn't belong and looking
in from a distance he could not cross.
This could not happen as dramatically were it not for
embedded racial attitudes. "Elitist" is another word
for "arrogant," which is another word for "uppity,"
that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for
At the bottom of the American psyche, race is still
about power, and blacks who move up risk triggering
discomfort among some whites. I've met black men who,
when stopped by white cops at night, think the best
protection is to act dumb and deferential.
Furthermore, casting Obama as "out of touch" plays
harmoniously with the traditional notion of blacks as
"others" at the edge of the mainstream, separate from
the whole. Despite his ability to articulate the
frustration and yearning of broad segments of
Americans, his "otherness" has been highlighted
effectively by right-wingers who harp on his Kenyan
father and spread false rumors that he's a clandestine
In a country so changed that a biracial man who is
considered black has a shot at the presidency, the
subterranean biases are much less discernible now than
when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
They are subtle, unacknowledged and unacceptable in
polite company. But they lurk below, lending resonance
to the criticisms of Obama. Black professionals know
the double standard. They are often labeled negatively
for traits deemed positive in whites: A white is
assertive, a black is aggressive; a white is resolute,
a black is pushy; a white is candid, a black is
abrasive; a white is independent, a black is not a
team player. Prejudice is a shape shifter, adapting to
So although Obama's brilliance defies the stubborn
stereotype of blacks as unintelligent, there is a
companion to that image -- doubts about blacks' true
capabilities -- that may heighten concerns about his
inexperience. Through the racial lens, a defect can be
enlarged into a disability. He is "not ready," a
phrase employed often when blacks are up for
When Clinton mocked Obama for the supposed emptiness
of his eloquence, the chiding had a faint historical
echo from Thomas Jefferson's musings in "Notes on the
State of Virginia" that "in music they are more
generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears
for tune and time," but "one could scarcely be found
capable of tracing and comprehending the
investigations of Euclid."
This slander that blacks had more show than substance
was handed down through later generations as a
body-mind dichotomy, with physical and mental prowess
as opposites. Overt "compliments" -- they've got
rhythm, they can dance, they can jump -- were paired
with the silent assumption of inferior intellect.
Clinton surely had no racial intent, but none is
needed for a racial effect. In a society long steeped
in stereotypes, such comments reverberate. The
incessant loop of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. cursing
America and repeating old conspiracy theories has
revived fears of black anger among whites whose
threshold of tolerance for such rage has always been
low. No matter that Obama seems anything but angry. A
few sentences from his pastor are enough to incite
The nation is testing how its racial attitudes have
evolved. As the campaign continues, we are likely to
be pleased and disappointed with ourselves.
David K. Shipler, the author of "A Country of
Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America" and "The
Working Poor: Invisible in America," wrote this
article for the Los Angeles Times.