A year and a half ago, I wrote about "The Double Bind of Articulateness," i.e., the faint praise of African-American politicians as great speakers. The most common reading of the "articulate" compliment is that it denigrates the majority of blacks as inarticulate or unintelligent. The reading I advanced is that praising a black politician's speaking style is a way of reinforcing a certain limit on black politicians' roles, boxing them in as the moral prophet or racial spokesman while denying them positions of national leadership.
Since then, we've seen that frame at work over and over again, most notoriously in Hillary Clinton's characterization of the roles of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson in pushing through Civil Rights Legislation: King was a powerful speaker and moral force, but "it took a President to get it done."
Now, maybe, I'm touchy, but does anyone else see this operating in the opening graf of Paul Krugman's op-ed in today's NYT?
Fervent supporters of Barack Obama like to say that putting him in the White House would transform America. With all due respect to the candidate, that gets it backward. Mr. Obama is an impressive speaker who has run a brilliant campaign — but if he wins in November, it will be because our country has already been transformed.
Now it's true that some supporters of Obama like to reflect on the symbolic value of his election: what it would signal for our country's progress or how it could motivate further racial soul-searching, motivate a generation of young black children, and so forth. But, I think when most of them say an Obama presidency would transform America, they are at least also thinking about a set of policies that he would enact, from ending the war to health care (even granting that this is the source of Krugman's Obama Derangement Syndrome). In fact, this is what Clinton spent most of her time dwelling on in her concession speech, despite the ink devoted to the symbolism of both her and Obama's campaigns.
I think we need to get over the idea that we need a black man to be our moral bellweather, and get used to the idea that we may very well soon have Barack Obama as our President.