Whether a more traditionally black candidate could have won election this year is impossible to say. But that Obama was uniquely equipped to become the "first black president" — specifically because he could run as a half-white candidate — is undeniable (and fortunate, for those of us who wanted him to win). Ignore this fact, or treat it as insignificant, and you just can't offer a credible account of his path to the presidency.
Recent history lessons
So that's one reason to question the first-black-president meme. After all, we're already seeing the first flurry of books dedicated to What Obama Means, including Ifill's The Breakthrough and Jabari Asim's (appropriately titled) What Obama Means. And while academic historians will be debating the significance of Obama's election for years, the popular take on its significance is already calcifying. In other words, now's the time to set the record straight.
But it's not just a matter of getting recent history right. We should also be acutely aware of the potential political uses and abuses of Obama's now-celebrated status as an African-American trailblazer — and how easily the significance of Obama's election could be misconstrued. (Race issues? Solved!)
By way of example, consider a recent column by contributing National Review editor Jonah Goldberg, author of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (Doubleday), titled "What Obama Brings to Conservatives." Citing Obama's aforementioned remarks about the power of his own example, Goldberg argued that conservatives, too, should be cheering the new president — or at least the cultural implications of his victory. Not only has Obama urged blacks to raise their children as couples, and to prize academic success, Goldberg wrote; he's also a walking counterexample to the premise behind affirmative action — i.e., the notion that pervasive racism justifies the continued use of racial quotas.
Whatever you think of affirmative action, though, it's really not that simple. Obama's election didn't prove that, if you're a black kid, you could grow up to be president. Instead, it proved that, if you've got a white mother from the Midwest and a black father from East Africa — and if you're raised by your white grandparents in Hawaii, and spend a great deal of time pondering your own biracial identity, and then fold that biracial identity into a broader political vision aimed at bridging seemingly unbridgeable political and cultural divides — you can grow up to be president. That's quite a difference.
There's a hefty dose of irony here. In the past, Obama has voiced concern that his example might be used, in some way, to suggest that race is simply a non-factor in American society. "[W]hen I hear commentators interpret my [2004 Democratic National Convention] speech to mean that we have arrived at a 'postracial politics' or that we already live in a color-blind society, I have to offer a word of caution," Obama wrote in The Audacity of Hope, his second book. "To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters, that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems that minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted."
It would be an odd twist if — by embracing the overly simplistic racial nomenclature that's predominated in recent weeks — the president helped bring about this very outcome. Fortunately, nothing is keeping him from returning to the sophisticated, thoughtful, precise approach he used as a candidate. Meanwhile, those of us in the media should think about putting down our black-and-white inaugural pompoms and dealing, instead, in shades of gray.
To read the "Don't Quote Me" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/medialog. Adam Reilly can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.