July 29, 2009

Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and the African-American Master Class

Countless pundits have debated whether the Henry Louis Gates Jr. brouhaha is about race or class.

In truth, Barack Obama’s maladroit but heartfelt interjection of his own prejudices into the controversy stemmed from a quite precise intersection of race with class. Obama spoke out in defense of Gates’s tantrum because they are both members of the tiny (but increasingly potent) black overclass.

Obama’s feelings of class solidarity haven”€™t been widely discussed, largely because they are rather boring. In a world bedazzled by black entertainers and athletes, and troubled (but intrigued) by black criminals, the black upper class goes almost unnoticed as they engage in respectable rituals such as relaxing at Martha’s Vineyard, where “Skip” Gates has summered for 27 years and the Obamas will be vacationing next month.

This Affirmative-Actionocracy’s access to power and wealth stems largely from their claim to theoretically represent 40 million African-Americans, especially the troublesome and puzzling black underclass. Yet, they try to associate with less lofty blacks no more than necessary, and they especially don”€™t want their daughters to marry them. Hence the constant inward socializing.
The black upper class has been portrayed in books by Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter (The Emperor of Ocean Park) and in movies by third-generation Morehouse graduate Spike Lee (School Daze). Their most vivid chronicler, however, might be Tom Wolfe. In his portrait of 1990s Atlanta, A Man in Full, key roles are played by two former Morehouse fraternity brothers, the mild-mannered, Stravinsky-loving lawyer Roger White II (a.k.a., Roger Too White) and the light and bright mayor, Wes Jordan, who takes up golf as an excuse for tanning.

This ongoing need for high-caste black leaders to prove themselves black enough is especially evident in Obama’s longtime Afrocentrist pastor, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., whose background is not exactly straight outta Compton. Indeed, this Ph.D. proponent of “€œblack liberation theology”€ is so pale that he is almost a dead ringer for the 2008 Libertarian Party candidate, former Republican congressman Bob Barr (who considers himself white, although many blacks in Atlanta claim he’s passing).

Wright’s father was a prominent minister in Philadelphia’s integrated Germantown neighborhood, and his mother was vice-principal of a leading girl’s high school. He attended the prestigious Central High School when it was four-fifths Jewish.

Wright’s elaborately intellectual leftism served as rationalization for his lucrative leadership position over other blacks.

Wright’s other famous congregant in the 1980s was Oprah Winfrey, but she tired of his shtick and stopped attending altogether by the mid-1990s. In contrast, Senator Obama donated $53,770 to Wright’s church from 2005 through 2007. Alison Samuels explained in Newsweek in May 2008 that Oprah could quit Wright because, unlike Obama, she was black enough:

Friends of Sen. Barack Obama … insist that it would be unfair to compare Winfrey’s decision to leave Trinity United with his own decision to stay. … “€œEarly on, he was in search of his identity as an African-American and, more importantly, as an African-American man. … Winfrey wasn”€™t going for that. She’s secure in her blackness, so that didn”€™t have a hold on her.”€

Strikingly, Barack Obama Jr.’s 2009 concern for the welfare of black elites such as Dr. Gates carries on the central theme of Barack Obama Sr.’s 1965 article, Problems Facing Our Socialism, which appeared in the East African Journal after he earned an M.A. in economics at Harvard. (It was discovered in the UCLA library by Greg Ransom.) Obama Sr. didn”€™t favor socialism for the sake of ideology, but because socialism was most convenient for expropriating Kenya’s white- and Asian-owned businesses and putting blacks in charge, especially blacks of Obama Sr.”€˜s tiny class of foreign-educated intellectuals.

The President’s inner social circle consists almost solely of affluent and well-educated blacks, what W.E.B. DuBois called “€œthe talented tenth.”€

Consider his most trusted adviser, Valerie Jarrett, whom Obama describes as “€œa sibling.”€ Jarrett, who is the color of the third cup you try to boil out of an Earl Grey teabag, was born in, of all places, Iran, where her geneticist father James Bowman worked on foreign aid projects. Educated at boarding schools in New England, Jarrett became a central cog in the Chicago Machine as an assistant to both black and white mayors, and then as CEO of the government-financed for-profit slumlord Habitat, which mismanages public housing projects for the city.

Talent turbocharged by minority set-asides and political connections is the common trait of Obama’s male friends, such as Martin Nesbitt, who runs 35,000 airport parking spots; John W. Rogers Jr., who manages 11-digits worth of pension funds and other politicized investments (Rogers”€™ mother, by the way, held deputy Cabinet secretary rank in two Republican administrations); and Eric Whitaker.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich placed Dr. Whitaker in charge of the budget of the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board after Obama put in a good word for his friend from Harvard with Tony Rezko. (The power behind Blago’s throne went to prison in large part for bribing the majority of that board.)

Despite Obama’s self-congratulation at his press conference over passing a bill in Illinois against racial profiling, his memoir, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, shows him profiling blacks himself. One night, the rumble of rap music brings the community organizer out of his apartment, where he is confronted by four black youths sitting in a car. Obama immediately assumes that they threaten him with violence”€”just as he accused his dying grandmother in his celebrated 2008 race speech of assuming the worst about a black man who accosted her at her bus stop. In that moment of peril”€” “€œThe engine starts, and the car screeches away. I turn back toward my apartment knowing that I”€™ve been both stupid and lucky, knowing that I am afraid after all”€”€”Obama experiences what may be an epiphany (at least as far as one can tell from Dreams‘s serpentine prose style):

As I stand there, I find myself thinking that somewhere down the line both guilt and empathy speak to our own buried sense that an order of some sort is required, not the social order that exists, necessarily, but something more fundamental and more demanding; a sense, further, that one has a stake in this order, a wish that, no matter how fluid this order sometimes appears, it will not drain out of the universe. [p. 270]

I think this means Obama finally realized that, when his own personal life is on the line, he’s on the side of the cops, not the crooks.

Thus, the Obama was highly prudent about exposing himself to the disorganized dangers of the Chicago communities he claimed to organize. He lived within the Green Zone security perimeter (between 39th St. and 64th St.) provided by the University of Chicago’s hard-nosed private police force. A friend writes:

There is a fierce and drastic difference between neighborhoods within and outside the University of Chicago Police boundary. When I was a student there, it was apparent … they were only dimly aware of things like Miranda or the presumption of innocence (for anyone, that is, other than students, faculty, black women, and black men dressed like Barack Obama”€”geez, I wonder who that leaves?).

There’s no record of the U. of Chicago’s Constitutional law professor protesting any infringements of the Constitution by his personal protectors. But that’s just the way it is: the rules are different for certain people.

[Photo of Henry Louis Gates Jr. on an Adult Tricycle: Martha’s Vineyard Magazine]


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