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Social Studies

Black on Black

By Vincent Williams | Posted 9/30/2009

I'm fascinated by the political battle between the Obama administration and New York Gov. David Paterson. Reportedly, the president has urged Paterson not to run for re-election next year because of what many see as his slim chances of winning. Paterson has very publicly rebuffed the president's wishes and, in fact, has gotten a lil' greasy with his verbiage, blaming some of his political woes on what he sees as commentary on the president's job performance. Adding to the intrigue, GOP chairman Michael Steele, like that kid egging on a fight in the schoolyard, noted on Face the Nation that New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has similar poll numbers but Obama didn't ask him to drop out, insinuating that Paterson's race had something to do with the request.

So, just to bring everyone up to speed: The black president asked the black governor not to run, the black governor tough-talked the black president, and the black chairman of the GOP wondered if the black governor's race had anything to do with the black president asking him to drop out . . . and no one black has uttered a peep about it. Welcome to 2009, where black people disagreeing doesn't necessarily have to turn into some black stuff. I say "necessarily" because, frankly, Steele has a point. David Paterson isn't the only Democratic incumbent who's looking a little vulnerable these days. And perhaps some of Paterson's weakness could be traced to a general racial animus in the air in response to Barack Obama's victory. So, yeah, I think Steele is right that race is in play.

Of course, the word is that this is more personal than racial. If you're one for political gossip and, hey, who isn't, this is payback for Paterson not giving Caroline Kennedy the tap for Hillary Clinton's New York senatorial spot, and Obama is down with the Kennedys because of Ted's early backing, and blah, blah, blah--OK, I lied, a lot of political gossip is boring. I do like the fact that the heart of the conflict is something as pedestrian as the politics of friendship. Still, there's a very specific type of racial dynamic unfolding. The president has the leeway to request Paterson step down because of race. If a white president asked a black governor to step down, all hell would break loose. But, because Obama is also African-American, again, the response has been surprisingly muted. Besides Steele, who, let's be real, has another agenda, no black leader or pundit on a national level is calling President Obama out about this thing. And that's not surprising. In just one year, Obama has displaced Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, and Frankie Beverly as Black People's Favorite Black Person. Here's the thing, though: No one is criticizing Paterson for sticking up for himself. Considering the events of the past year, I find that extraordinary.

Historically, some type of intraracial scuffle occurred, it seemed like a lot of black folks picked sides and if you weren't on the side picked, well, you were an ass-out Uncle Tom who got his Black People Card revoked. Hell, it's a bunch of folks in the Congressional Black Caucus who bet on Hillary last year that still get a little static about going against Obama. I don't think Tavis Smiley is ever really going to recover his standing for the way he carried himself during the election. I mean O.J. is in jail over some other stuff; is Chris Darden allowed to go places yet?

Y'know, I distinctly remember the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991. Being in barbershops during that period was like watching a black civil war unfold right before your eyes. Oh yeah, Thomas is vilified in many black circles now but, at the time, having conversations about him was like listening to children picking sides for a kickball team. Sure, there was a heavy dose of sexism mixed up in the debate, but at the heart of it was this contention that somehow it was a zero-sum equation and you had to pick sides and decide whether Thomas or Anita Hill was blacker than the other.

And now here we are, and the country gets to see first-hand that black folks can have disagreements that don't have anything to do with the manner in which we define race. Regardless of how race informs the fight, ultimately, Obama and Paterson have a conflict based mostly on ambition and, perhaps, a dollop of personal stuff. And who do I side with? Well, honestly, I don't have a side between the two. And how great is that?

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