Less Angry or Less Guilty?

In yesterday’s New York Times (10/1/08), Steven Erlanger had a piece looking at the French reaction to the U.S. presidential election. He quoted French writer Bernard-Henri Levy:

Obama is, certainly, black…. But not black like Jesse Jackson; not black like Al Sharpton; not black like the blacks born in Alabama or in Tennessee and who, when they appear, bring out in Americans the memories of slavery, lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan – no; a black from Africa; a black descending not from a slave but from a Kenyan; a black who, consequently, has the incomparable merit of not reminding middle America of the shameful pages of its history.

“He goes on for a while, but you get the idea,” Erlanger wrote dismissively.

But why so dismissive? Levy is only making a point that has been made frequently by brand-name pundits and outlets here in the U.S. (Extra!, 3-4/07).

The Washington Post‘s Michael Shear observed (2/18/07) that with a father who “was not descended from African slaves, Obama is unlike Southern black candidates, steeped in the slavery and civil rights struggles that tore at the region for more than a century.” Time‘s Joe Klein observed (10/15/06), “There was none of the crippling psychological legacy of slavery in his family’s past.” NBC host Chris Matthews (1/21/07) praised Obama: “No history of Jim Crow, no history of anger, no history of slavery. All the bad stuff in our history ain’t there with this guy.”

Of course, the difference between the U.S. pundits and Levy is that the Americans see the lack of slave ancestry as making Obama a better kind of black person: no “anger,” no “crippling psychological legacy.” Levy, on the other hand, sees this genealogical difference as making whites feel better: It’s not about Obama being less angry, it’s about pundits feeling less guilty. Which way of looking at it, do you think, more deserves to be dismissed with a sneer?

Update: Correction of Levy’s misspelled name.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.