by Dr. Boyce Watkins
About eight years ago, I wrote a book called “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” The book was designed to analyze the vast impact that skin color has on our outcomes in a historically racist society. The summarized conclusion of the project was that disparities in the educational, economic and criminal justice systems give black men a much smaller margin of error than the one they would receive if they were white. A white kid in college caught using dope in a frat house gets a slap on the wrist. A black kid in the projects doing the same thing might lose his entire future.
Right around the time I finished the book, a legendary radio show host out of Milwaukee by the name of Keith Murphy asked, “Have you heard of this guy named Barack Obama?” My first response was “Who is he?” and my second question was “How do you say his name again?”
Murphy explained that Obama was a senator from Illinois that “everyone is excited about.” I did my research, and later on CNN, noted that Hillary Clinton may end up getting competition from the guy who was so sharp and charismatic.
Years later, after reflecting on how dumb it was for me to pour my soul into the first book about George Bush, I asked myself the corollary question: “What if Barack Obama were a white man?”
I started off by asking the readers on my Facebook page, a group of highly-intelligent black people who give me perspectives from across the board. Then, I looked in the mirror and asked myself the same question. Not only can I say that I don’t yet know the answer, I can also say that the question led me to several follow-up questions.
What’s worse is that someone then said to me that the article should actually be titled, “What if Barack Obama were a Black Man?” But I thought that such a title would be flat out mean. I don’t have the right to question President Obama’s blackness, but we all have the to question his commitment to serving the black community as readily as he seems to serve everybody else. Thus far, he has treated his black skin to be a burden, as if not mentioning his blackness will make the Republicans overlook his “disability.” But then again, I’m just speculating and thinking out loud, wondering why the man we love so much seems determined to pretend that we’re not even there.
If Barack Obama were a white man:
1) Would Cornel West be going after him in such a vicious way?
2) Would Tom Joyner, Steve Harvey, Melissa Harris-Perry, Michael Eric Dyson and Al Sharpton be defending him so unconditionally?
3) Would Michelle Obama’s presence still validate his blackness the way that it does in the minds of some who wondered if he was ‘black enough?’ Does that validation serve as a replacement for substantive policy?
4) Would black people have given him 93% of the vote and had such extraordinary turnout in the last two elections?
5) Would he have been able to defeat Hillary Clinton?
6) Would I be writing about him right now? Would so many of “us” be interested in politics? Would black church folk have grown this much in their acceptance of gay marriage?
7) Would he still be afraid to talk about racial inequality in public? Would he be allowed to get away with it?
8) Would the Republicans still be questioning his place of birth and saying that they need to “take their country back?”
9) Would people still be putting up those ridiculous pictures of him sitting next to Martin Luther King Jr?
10) Would he be afraid to be friends with great black men like Jeremiah Wright and would he be allowed to freeze Rev. Jesse Jackson out of the White House?
Again, I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions, but I can say that our ability to isolate the impact of President Obama’s skin color would tell us a great deal about ourselves and our country. It might also help us separate substance from symbolism moving forward to learn the difference between having a black leader and having a leader with black skin. Those two things are certainly not one and the same, and the stakes are too high for us to forget that.