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Senator Joe Biden shot his presidential campaign squarely in the foot recently when he referred to fellow senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
It’s interesting how people are all up in arms about this comment the same week we’re celebrating the first black head coach to win a Super Bowl. The only reason Biden’s remarks made people uncomfortable is because they happen to be true.
No one wants to hear this, because everyone wants to believe a black man can become president while looking, talking, and acting like a black man. Maybe that will be so in the year 2044. However, it isn’t true now, and most of us know this.
When Biden said Barack Obama was “mainstream” and “nice-looking,” he was basically saying Obama is acceptable to white people. No one wants this to matter, but face it: It has to. Whites are the voting majority.
You can haul out your past examples of bright, well-spoken black presidential candidates all you want. If Biden was wrong, Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson would already be president. Barack Obama represents the first black man with a real chance of winning. Which isn’t to say that he will—just that he’s the first with a chance to.
Americans want presidents who remind them of themselves. They want presidents who seem to verify the myth that if only you brush your teeth, do your homework, and generally behave like you’re supposed to, you, too, can grow up to be president someday. One of the most common things you heard about Bill Clinton was that, love him or hate him, you wouldn’t mind having a beer with him. George W. Bush has also enjoyed a “regular guy” persona, only without the part about the beer, since who wants to drink with a recovering alcoholic?
Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton wouldn’t remind Americans of themselves. They would remind Americans that there was a black man in office, because being black is the main thing Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton talk about. White Americans don’t identify themselves by their color, and they don’t want a president who does.
Barack Obama may be black, and his blackness may be a story, but the reason it’s a story is because it feels like it wouldn’t be once he’s in office. Obama seems too bright, well-spoken, and nice-looking to focus on such things. He resembles a white politician more than a civil rights activist.
At the end of the day, that was Joe Biden’s point.
Should African-Americans resent that a black man must appeal to whites in order to win the White House? Maybe. But crazy, two-headed white people who live in the woods haven’t had a president yet, either. For that to happen, a crazy, two-headed white man would have to convince other whites that crazy two-headedness isn’t his thing.
The same goes for Jews, Hispanics, women, T.G.I. Friday’s employees, people with Restless Legs Syndrome, and any other minority or section of society who has yet to be represented in the highest hallways of American power. More than anything else, Americans want their politics to reinforce their ideas of normalcy. And normalcy, for most Americans, is being white and not really thinking about it.
If you don’t like this, don’t hate the players—hate the game. The majority gets what it wants when the majority rules.