Postracial Black Politicians

Let’s imagine a politician frequently described as “professorial”, who at various times made a living as a professor.

This politician also struggled to define a political identity in a biracial political environment where some whites suspected him of being a black militant and many black leaders debated whether he was “black enough.”

And, when this politician faced a right-wing populist uprising that protested public spending and taxation, the stuff really hit the fan. Critics accused him of taking his election as an “anointing as king” and accused him of wanting to confiscate their wealth to distribute it to political supporters and welfare deadbeats.

And, when those critics attempted to remove him from office, leading him toward the embrace of a previously skeptical black civil rights establishment, white critics went absolutely berzerk, treating this politician’s rallying of supporters as a betrayal of a tacit bargain to ignore race in the public sphere. As one editorial put it, “We thought that [Politician X] would be one black public official who wouldn’t run for racial cover the minute he feels heat. We were wrong.” In this construction, not only is the politician in question criticized, that criticism is embedded in not-at-all concealed stereotypes about black leadership generally. While this editorial validated readers’ stereotypes of black political leaders as incompetent and prone to bad faith invocations of racial oppression (the notorious “race card”), it shifted blame for continuing that stereotype onto an individual who had been presumed to depart from it. Another contemporary editorial asserted that “if we are ever going to be able to smother racism in this country, a good place to start would be to stop blaming it on racism every time a black person gets into trouble.”

I’m sure it’s obvious that, while I’m encouraging you to think of Barack Obama, I’m actually describing former Fulton County Commission chair Michael Lomax, who was the target of anger during an explosive tax revolt in 1991. I’ve written about that tax revolt and its consequences here before, but the reason I’m addressing it now is that the terms of engagement by which many white moderates accepted Barack Obama, and indeed under which Obama himself laid claim to legitimacy as a presidential candidate–that he address race as little as possible under the banner of postracial politics–were rehearsed in Atlanta’s metropolitics a generation ago. Lomax’s position in the tax revolt was an eerie precursor to Obama’s in the face of the Tea Party: a cerebral centrist with pretensions to creating a biracial political coalition, beset from the right by a populist anti-tax movement with substantial, though unacknowledged, racial undertones, but ideologically constrained from referencing the racial component of that opposition, and severely chastised by the media for “going there.” Most people outside of Atlanta would be unfamiliar with Lomax’s political career, but he exemplifies both a precursor to Obama-type “postracial” minority politicians and an early warning of the ways that evolving racism constrained them.

Historians have a great deal to contribute to developing understandings of color-blindness as a dominant racial ideology–engaging with the work of sociologists, political scientists, social psychologists, and increasingly media scholars. But I think it’s particularly important to identify metropolitan space as a formative arena for this mode of politics, a master space, if you will, that connects and organizes ideology, institutions, and media, and creates social and material stakes for negotiations and conflict around racial identities.

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