If President Obama had to run against Senator Obama of 2008, he’d probably be crushed. Back then, Obama seemed superhuman; today he is merely mortal. His victory in 2008 was historic, breaking the race barrier in the nation’s highest office. But an Obama victory in 2012 would say something even more profound about how far our country has come.
Granted, Obama’s election (or not) is merely one of many factors that will tell us where we are on race in America. But it is a big one. In 2008, Obama had to overcome racial bias that a recent study by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in economics, suggests may have cost him as many as 3 to 5 percentage points in the election.
Obama had to be extraordinary, which reminds me of something my mother told me when I was a boy: that being black meant I had to be twice as good to get ahead. Obama more than just good; in many ways, he was the embodiment of that staple of film and literature, the magical Negro.
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The magical Negro is a character full of knowledge and wisdom, sometimes with supernatural powers, whose job is to help a white protagonist reach his full potential. Jim in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is the classic example. More recently, there were Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile and Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus in The Matrix, who offers Keanu Reeves’ Neo a red pill that will change his life.
In 2008, Obama was Morpheus and America was Neo, a nation of great potential that had lost its mojo and did not understand reality. Obama offered America the red pill — the chance to vote for him — and we swallowed it. In The Matrix, the red pill took effect immediately, and it wasn’t long before Neo revealed himself to be the One — the Jesus-like figure Morpheus had thought he was. In the real world, change happens much more slowly. When Obama took office, it felt as if the sky were falling and we were close to a depression. We avoided that fate. But it has been a rough few years marked by problems (not all of his making) that include a historic recession, Washington gridlock, the passage of controversial health care legislation, the failure to close the Guantánamo prison, the Middle East explosion and the rhetorical blunder of “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” by which the great orator handed the GOP a gift it could mangle into a slogan. After all that, it’s impossible to view Obama as a superhuman magical-Negro figure anymore.
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Obama has been brought down to earth, and he now admits, as he said in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, invoking the words of Abraham Lincoln, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.” Yet despite his failings and mortal humility, Obama remains the favorite to win: he leads 48% to 45% in the latest Gallup poll and 48.9% to 44.9% in the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
All incumbents have natural advantages, but for Obama, incumbency is a double-edged sword. Given the super-human expectations placed on him when he took office, it’s not surprising that he has disappointed some of his followers.
So those poll numbers suggest something very interesting about this country in terms of racial progress. They show American voters embracing a non-magical black man. The magical Negro concept arose from a need to rectify supposed black inferiority with the undeniability of black wisdom by suggesting that wisdom is so alien that its origins cannot be explained by normal scientific methods.
While some may think it complimentary to be considered “magical,” it is infantilizing and offensive because it suggests black excellence is so shocking it can only come from a source that is supernatural. To accept a black leader who is extraordinary yet so human that he cannot be magical is an entirely different prospect than electing a black superhero. Anyone would vote for a superhero who lived up to my mom’s standard of having to be twice as good. But for it to embrace a nonmagical black person who cannot promise anything but hope, intelligence, sweat and experience, now that comes closer to equality. Equality is freedom from having to be twice as good to get ahead.