Why Even Hardened Racists Will Vote for Barack Obama

In the Electoral Marketplace, He Had to Pass the Halle Berry Test

By Published on .

A few years back, a relative was visiting from out of town and showed us a snapshot. It was his son posing with a new acquaintance. Big smiles all around. The acquaintance was a priest. And he was black.

Why carry around this otherwise unremarkable photo and make a show of it?

Because the son is a five-alarm racist, and so is his dad -- the guy proudly displaying the snapshot. The subtext here -- about one micron below the surface -- was: "See? A black friend!"

Why did these folks feel the need to show off this man as if he were a two-headed goat? Did they imagine it negated the decades of "nigger" talk? God knows. But the episode demonstrated two things for sure:

1) Even hardened racists feel the impulse to believe they are no such thing.

2) Hence, they are always in the market for someone "acceptably black."

Yes, the market. And, yes, acceptably black. We used that term the other day on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" to talk about Sen. Barack Obama and watched the interviewer visibly flinch. "I'm gonna take some of the edge off of what you just said," he said.

What edge? Acceptably black means being nonthreatening to white people inclined to feeling threatened by black people. It means standard English, clean-cut appearance (or, as Joe Biden fumbled, "clean") and the most Caucasian features possible. These obviously are not objective measures of character or worth; just as obviously, they are measures of what sells to the vast, white audience. Halle Berry and Denzel Washington are acceptably black. Your local news anchors are acceptably black. Tupac was not.

Flip through a magazine and check out the ads. In any group of three or more models, one invariably will be black. (If there are six or more models, one will be Asian and one Hispanic.) Same on TV. In any commercial for beer or snack food, one of the guys on the sofa is always black. This probably misrepresents the incidence of interracial hanging out, but it isn't just tokenism. It's a harmony fantasy, buried deep in the collective conscience.

It's the snapshot of the trophy priest, writ large.

The phenomenon has many social and cultural ramifications, one of which is opportunity -- including political opportunity.

The subject of the "Hardball" exchange was Obama's latest commercial, "Unify," which deftly trades on the presidential hopeful's extraordinary ability to seduce and inspire his audiences with his messages of hope and uncompromising determination. "We have the chance to bring the nation together," he says. "A nation healed, a world repaired." He's said it so often it sounds almost perfunctory -- but Obama's version of perfunctory can still send a chill up your spine.

Matthews wanted to know if the Baptist-preacher cadences would "work with that white crowd out in Iowa." Yet when we replied, "There's a world of white people who would love to pull the lever for a black man" -- on the above-stated grounds -- and invoked the concept of acceptable blackness, that's when he flinched and felt the need to point out Obama's sterling political credentials.

Well, of course. The gentleman from Illinois does seem to be the real deal. (Disclosure here: He's the first presidential candidate of any party to impress us in our lifetime.) But to have access to the electoral marketplace, he still had to pass the Halle Berry test -- whereupon the hitherto disqualifying racial factor suddenly conferred advantage. We have no idea what will become of Obama's candidacy, but we're pretty sure he will win the racist vote.

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