The Trouble With Transcending Race

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Illustration for article titled The Trouble With Transcending Race

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.

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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.

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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?

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If Oprah's troubles are, indeed, somehow linked to Obama — and not merely to Ellen DeGeneres' hard-earned hot streak — it's a sad statement on race in America. Oprah's not seeking keys to the White House. Can the country only stand one transcendent black person at a time? A sampling of recent blog posts suggests that something bigger than Ellen is at play:

"She spent her entire career promoting women, yet for the first time in history, a woman is running for prez, and she rejects Hillary for a man ," said another reader. "…Oprah is a fraud. I lost all respect for her."

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"Oprah is a backstabber in more ways than one. So are the rest of the black people who turned their backs on Hillary……"

"The support of white women made Oprah her billions. While she has every right to vote and campaign for whomever she wants, she stabbed all women in the back. She used her clout against the first viable white woman. Hope she sinks into oblivion. I will never forget."

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Perhaps the last comment was the most telling. It reflects the patronizing attitude that white support should be appreciated and met with unquestioning loyalty and gratitude by blacks who receive it.

In this odd political season, nothing is certain. Obama, now emphatically distanced from Rev. Wright, may find a way to connect with those elusive, working-class white voters – and, more importantly, with superdelegates. Oprah for one, unlike Obama, has proven her staying power. She is a billionaire and will remain one even if some of her fair-weather fans stay mad.

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But the undeniable truth is that black celebrities and politicians are held to ridiculous standards of acceptability. As long as white people are defining those standards, "transcendent" black leaders will continue to walk a racial tightrope, and everyone is destined to end up disappointed.

Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.

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