"On Obama" is a weekly column about Barack Obama and American politics.
On the morning of Nov. 5, 2008, the day after Barack Obama's election, I sat in the office of my Chicago apartment, filled, like most Americans, with a peculiar sense of hope. It seemed that in electing the country's first black chief executive, we'd finally taken a huge step toward becoming a true meritocracy. My friends — an educated, well-traveled, multiethnic bunch, very much a reflection of Obama's world — were convinced that the moment signaled the country's new understanding of the tricky road talented African Americans climbed toward professional success — the "double consciousness" that W.E.B. Du Bois described.
Post-civil rights era blacks who'd invested years overachieving at the best schools and cultivating key relationships at top firms now had more reason to believe that we'd have a credible shot at making partner. Or becoming senior managers at new-media outlets that had apparently broken from the old guard.
Of all the narratives crafted about Barack Obama's presidency so far, few have seriously explored a richly distinctive vein: What is Obama's tenure teaching America about how black executives — particularly men — lead? And what role will race play in his assessment this November?
These are hardly trivial questions. Nearly a half-century after the civil rights movement's peak, senior black executives remain a relatively rare phenomenon. The pot of Fortune 500 CEOs who are black is so small, they can be counted on one hand: notably Ursula Burns, of Xerox; Kenneth Chenault, of American Express; and Clarence Otis Jr., of Darden Restaurants, the $7.5 billion purveyor of Olive Garden and Red Lobster.
In many ways, Obama is like any other senior black executive at a blue-chip firm — except, of course, his case is extraordinarily magnified. It takes a certain mix of restraint and audacity to believe that one can climb from organizing residents on Chicago's South Side to the corner suite — or the White House — and still keep a sense of blackness, however that's defined, intact.
By nearly any measure, Obama fits the American presidential ideal: well-educated, highly analytical, empathetic, with a global view. He identifies with nearly everyone, yet remains enigmatic to much of the broad coalition that elected him.
This November, Obama will be assessed — fundamentally, and rightly — by the same tangible metrics used to judge his predecessors: the country's economic health, his policies on the environment and education, the closing of the Iraq War and his handling of the Afghan conflict. Our judgments will be influenced by who we are — and the factors that shape our worldview, including race.
To flesh out this theme, earlier this week I called Ashleigh Shelby Rosette, a brilliant professor at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, whose research centers on black executives. The first observation, confirmed by data, is this: In the U.S., the ideal leader is white. In this 2008 paper, "The White Standard: Racial Bias in Leader Categorization," from the Journal of Applied Psychology, Rosette's team concluded that white leaders were evaluated most favorably because their race was more easily matched with success, but not necessarily because of stereotypes about blacks.
"Any black trailblazer frequently has to ask the question," Rosette says, "Is the critique based on merit, or because of race?"
Indeed, the Tea Party movement can arguably be viewed as a racialized reaction to Obama's presidency. So can Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican, shouting, "You lie!" during one of the president's speeches before Congress. How else to interpret Newt Gingrich's description of Obama as "the best food stamp president in American history"?
The subtle and blatant indignities that Obama faces reflect the challenges many black professionals encounter daily — on a far grander scale. The president handles it in much the way we do: Simply walk out of meetings rather than confront obvious ignorance, just as Obama walked away after Gov. Jan Brewer waved her finger in his face on an Arizona airport's tarmac.
This, again, is where Rosette's research is insightful: Black men who display "warmth" and "communality" are evaluated more positively than those who show decisiveness and aggression — the very attributes we associate with prototypical executive leadership. White men, in contrast, are evaluated favorably, regardless of how these behaviors are displayed. "That explicitly tells us that black men are burdened with having to manage this perception of anger that white men don't have to worry about," she says.
There's little substantive work — in academia or monochromatic quarters of elite media that set much of the country's agenda — examining Obama as a black executive. I've witnessed it firsthand, having been told by a White House correspondent: "Obama — he just married into the black thing." Which basically meant: No need to cast him in black terms. One editor bluntly told me this about race: "It's an old story."
Obama should be examined as a president. To some degree, the willingness to view Obama through a de-racialized lens is a sign of progress. But that view is naive because it ignores one of the most distinctive aspects of Obama's presidency and how his worldview shapes his policies. It's tricky, projecting our hang-ups — about race, class — onto any figure. The full truth of Obama's experience will never surface until his presidential memoir is published.
Part of the Obama mystique — and gift — is that he constantly offers a baffling cocktail of lessons. He is slowly changing perceptions about black men, and black leadership, although there's clearly much work to do: In 2010 the unemployment rate among blacks with advanced degrees (pdf) was nearly twice the rate among whites. So understandably, much of the optimism we felt nearly four years ago is gone.
In just a few months, Obama will face his grand evaluation, hinged on a key question: Can he maintain the broad coalition of voters — especially educated, politically independent suburban whites? But really, the question will be whether America is ready to examine one key lesson Obama has presented us: the meaning of black executive leadership.