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Jonah Goldberg: Obama and the shifting ground of race

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Princeton's Cornel West, one of the most famous black intellectuals in America, says that President Obama is afraid of "free black men." Because of Obama's atypical upbringing, West says, "when he meets these independent black folk who have a history of slavery, Jim Crow, Jane Crow [sic] and so on, he is very apprehensive. He has a certain rootlessness, a de-racination."

With whom does the rootless cosmopolitan-in-chief find himself most comfortable? Jews and rich white men, says West. No surprise given the professor's view that Obama is a "black mascot" and a "black puppet" for Wall Street and corporate America.

Meanwhile, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking Democrat in the House, offers a far more familiar if no more persuasive take: "The president's problems are in large measure because of his skin color."

If forced to choose, I'd say West has the slightly more plausible position, only insofar as there's an argument to be made that Obama has been a puppet of Wall Street. What that has to do with his skin color is beyond me (a community organizer with a phobia about "black folk" married to a black woman strikes me as the makings for a hilarious Tyler Perry sitcom).

Still, I find the whole thing fascinating. Here are West and Clyburn, two of the most influential black people in America, bitterly clinging, as Obama might say, to ideologically racial views — He's not black enough! He's too black for racist Americans! — that have less and less relevance. This is not to say that there is no racial animus against Obama. Of course, there is. But is it significant, as Clyburn suggests? Well, certainly not enough to keep him from being elected president of the United States (!) or being the establishment favorite to be reelected.

Clyburn's take strikes me as the left-wing version of the right-wing theory — popularized by Dinesh D'Souza — that everything Obama does can be explained by his allegedly "post-colonial" worldview. Simpler explanations are available. Obama's a liberal Democrat. He does things a white liberal Democrat would do, and he receives mostly the same opposition a white liberal Democrat would receive. If a President John Edwards (shudder) had rammed through the economic stimulus or "Edwardscare" the same way Obama did, Republicans wouldn't say, "Well, since he's white, it's OK."

Take the "tea parties," which have been accused of racism by the NAACP, the Congressional Black Caucus, mainstream media outlets and such entertainer-activists as Janeane Garofalo, who proclaimed they are "about hating a black man in the White House. This is racism straight up." So, after nearly two years of "experts" telling us that the typical tea party member is two holes in a white sheet shy of being a Klansman, guess who is arguably the most popular tea party candidate for president? Herman Cain, a black businessman.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the changing racial landscape comes with voting patterns, though not at the ballot box. Blacks — particularly among the young and educated — are voting with their feet by leaving cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit in huge numbers and moving to places like Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas. Clement Price, a Rutgers history professor, told the New York Times, "The black urban experience has essentially lost its appeal with blacks in America."

(One reason that might be the case: Black entrepreneurialism skyrocketed from 2002-07, according to the census. Perhaps the rise in black-owned small businesses breeds disenchantment with big city bureaucracy?)

For years, liberals have glibly smeared the GOP as racist because it is disproportionately Southern. Obviously there are historical reasons behind the charge, but in 2011? If the region is so racist, why are blacks so eager to flee to the less "progressive" South?

Blacks are still largely lock-step Democratic voters and will probably remain so for a while. But when you listen to the likes of West and Clyburn, never mind silly white liberals like Garofalo, one cannot help but be reassured that the ground is shifting under their feet as inexorably as it shifted under the feet of racists more than a generation ago.

jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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