Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Commonplace genius and white supremacy

One of the best posts I've read lately.
Obama doesn't work as Mr. Smith because Obama is not just your local boy scouts leader from next door. Obama is a brilliant man. His talent can't give me faith that my neighbor is making good decisions in the voting booth because Obama is much smarter than my neighbor.

That's why Obama's triumph isn't a victory for the "democratic ideal".
I think this is a pretty solid argument. But it makes assumptions about the American experience that some of us simply don't share. More to the point this "democratic ideal" is really a euphemism for white populism, and from a black perspective, even white tyranny.

The history is helpful, here. For most of this country's history, being black and brilliant was not something that set you a part from other black people--it was something that could get you killed by white people. A study of this country's history reveals to not be hyperbole. This notion that white people of medium talents could rise to rule the world was not simply "the democratic ideal," it was the tyranny of our lives--with depressing, disastrous effects. The idea that mediocre white people could rise to incredible levels of power was not so much an ideal for us--it was the whole point of white supremacy.

We obviously live in a different era. But still, one of the most depressing things about being black and "making it" is the incredible randomness of it all. To the extent that intelligence is measurable, I sat in classrooms with people who were smarter than me, worked harder than me, and studied longer than me. ...

When you're black, and likely when you're Latino, and likely when you're a kind of white, you see brilliant people all the time--and they get taken out in the most horrific ways. They have kids too soon. They get shot on the way home from school. They get hooked on crack. They go to jail. And then there is that one kid who makes it, who despite the wages of race in this country, goes on and does something big. To many black people, that person is Barack Obama.

Perhaps if you are white, Barack Obama represents the end of the idea that your next door neighbor could be president. But you should consider that just because Barack Obama isn't your next door neighbor, doesn't mean he isn't mine.
I often like to tell the story of how I got into Harvard because of a cement-truck accident. Imposter syndrome, or just wry acceptance of the randomness underlying the alleged meritocratic ideal? We all know those kids---old friends, maybe---who were sharp and intelligent and somehow derailed. There but for the grace &c. And in their place, the privileged and marginally competent?
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