Does Obama Have Less Room for Error?

Michael Steele's comments aside, America has long struggled with accepting blacks in leadership roles.

Years ago, while writing an article on efforts to diversify corporations, I attended a seminar for middle managers at major corporations led by Dr. Price Cobbs, a psychiatrist and co-author of the 1960s best-seller Black Rage. During the session, blacks and whites unburdened themselves of their anxieties about working with people of different races. African-American managers chafed at casual racial remarks and worried they would not get a fair shot. Whites stereotyped their black colleagues as lazy or less competent even in the face of evidence they were performing as well or better than their white counterparts. Later, Cobbs told me that the crux for white executives was: “Can you put your fate–or that of your company–in the hands of a black man or woman?”

While we have undoubtedly made much racial progress since I attended those sessions in the early 1980s, I often wonder if that lingering doubt about black ability persists, the sense that it’s always a gamble when a black person rises to leadership. I wonder if that doubt is at the heart of decisions not to hire or promote someone of color because they are perceived as different, and not because they are truly less competent or less deserving.

And it’s not just a conservative thing. We shouldn’t forget the hysterical doubt among liberals over the progress of Obama’s health care reform bill. From the Huffington Post to The Nation to Bill Maher, liberal pundits accused the president of being spineless, too conciliatory–and lacking in cojones. Suddenly he was too intellectual, lacked passion or too disconnected to be a successful president.

Too many liberals assumed that the president would automatically agree with their positions because he is black. When he disagreed, some suggested he wasn’t really black–one more reason for him to avoid being cornered on race.

Of course, the liberal tune changed when health care reform became law, but it surely must have been stinging to the president to find such a lack of faith among his own allies. For in the case of Barack Obama, the question many Americans must confront is, “Are you comfortable putting the fate of your country–and your own future–in the hands of a black man?” I thought the voters answered with their votes in November 2008. But whenever the president seems to falter or a new external threat arises, the instant panic suggests that for too many, the answer is, “I’m not sure.”

Doubts about Michael Steele, on the other hand? You’d be dumb not to have them.

Joel Dreyfuss is managing editor of The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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