The Trouble With Transcending Race

Why the Double O's are standing on shaky ground.

Posted:
 
oprah

They both have unique names and amazing life stories. They have legions of adoring fans who find them inspiring. They have sold millions of books and can fill stadiums like rock stars.

Few black Americans have occupied the rarified status of Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, two "racially transcendent" blacks whom white admirers find appealing and admirable. But it seems the pedestals on which the "Double-O's" have been perched are very wobbly these days. Pennsylvania shined an ugly light on Obama's very real problem with white working-class voters. And, since she endorsed him, Oprah's approval ratings with her adoring white public have dipped, too.

Could it be that because of unpleasant and race-loaded issues like the "scary" and "angry" Rev. Jeremiah Wright (Oprah went to his church, too), flag pins and uppity comments about "bitter" white voters, that Oprah and Obama no longer seem so special or different from, you know, other black people? Are they starting to seem kind of ordinary black?

In the quest to continue the interracial honeymoon, Obama has always had higher hurdles to clear than Oprah. He is a black man, not a black woman. And his road show is not merely a feel-good gabfest on how to "live your best life." He wants to run the free world. And, in that context, for some, race becomes impossible to ignore. An exit poll conducted during the Pennsylvania primary last week found that 19 percent of all voters said that race played an important role in how they voted, and that 13 percent of those voters where white and voted for Clinton -- or depending on how one looks at it, against Obama.

But in a surprising instance of collateral damage, people's considerations about Obama seem to be hurting Oprah, too. A new national survey shows Oprah's favorability rating among television viewers has dropped noticeably since she endorsed Obama. A widely cited article in The Politico last week tracked several polls over the past 20 years showing Oprah with consistently high favorability rankings – At one time 78 percent of Americans held a favorable opinion of her and in one survey she ranked second only to Mother Theresa – until she endorsed and campaigned for Obama.

"Ten days after she went on the stump for Obama, Oprah's favorability ratings dropped to 55 percent, the lowest level of favorability ever registered for Oprah in opinion surveys," the article states. "Oprah's negatives also spiked, with one in three respondents (33 percent) reporting unfavorable impressions of her."

So what is happening?

If some white people are rethinking their feelings for Oprah and Obama, it's because those people's unrealistic expectations of the two have been betrayed. Oprah and Obama were idealized blacks. They were supposed to be above reproach, neutral on all matters of race, unencumbered by the tiresome legacy of American race relations, colorblind in their politics. They were not supposed to associate with people like Jeremiah Wright, let alone consider them friends.

They were supposed to reflect blackness in the way that made white people comfortable, a blackness that lacked any hint of anger, resentment, or dare we say it, "bitterness." They were also supposed to pretend their blackness didn't matter. Oprah could be the black girlfriend who white women felt good about themselves for having, Obama could be the black candidate they felt good for supporting.

Whites have long felt comfortable with black people entertaining them. Politics is not entertainment – at least not intentionally. Still, it's hard not to wonder if the massive white crowds that came out for Obama's speeches early on weren't also seeing him as some kind of eloquent performer, and now it's sinking in that Obama really isrunning for president and not for American Idol, and that he comes, like all Americans, with some racial baggage. Could this be why so many white people are now asking, more than a year after Obama launched his campaign, if they can really trust him and basing those doubts not on his political record but on the speeches of his minister?

Comments
The Root encourages respectful debate and dialogue in our commenting community. To improve the commenting experience for all our readers we will be experimenting with some new formats over the next few weeks. During this transition period the comments section will be unavailable to users.

We apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your continued support of The Root.

While we are experimenting, please feel free to leave feedback below about your past experiences commenting at The Root.