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Guess who's coming to dinner?

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/17924564.html?page=1&c=y David K. Shipler: Guess who s coming to dinner? In a campaign in which race is a
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 21 8:08 PM
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      http://www.startribune.com/opinion/commentary/17924564.html?page=1&c=y

      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. ΒΆ 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
      themselves.

      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
      Muslim.

      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
      acceptable forms.

      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
      promotion.

      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
      such anxieties.

      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.
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