By Eugene Robinson
WASHINGTON—How weird is this presidential election? So weird that I’m about to give a nod of appreciation (of sorts) to Geraldo Rivera, of all people—and also to, gulp, Fox News.
On “Fox and Friends” last week, the mustachioed infotainer gave his take on Barack Obama’s borrowing of his campaign chairman’s words: “When I saw that they were the same words that Deval Patrick, the black guy who won as Massachusetts mayor—as Massachusetts governor—had used, I said to myself, it seems so premeditated. It’s almost as if they went to a camp where these black geniuses got together and figured out how to beat the political system. ... What’s the other formula that they’re going to use on me?”
Ridiculous? Of course—this is Geraldo, remember. But it’s absurd in a way that’s new and refreshing. If Fox viewers are being invited to entertain the notion of a Black Genius Camp where young Afro-brainiacs are busy plotting world domination, something has changed.
Whether Obama wins or loses, his campaign has made it impossible for anyone so inclined to cling to certain racist assumptions—just as Hillary Clinton has blown some old sexist assumptions to smithereens.
In this day and age, no one can claim to be surprised at encountering an African-American man of superior intellect. But whether or not you think Obama would be a good president, his campaign brings the often-overlooked reality of mainstream black America into the nation’s living rooms every day—and into the nation’s subconscious.
We in the media spend a lot of time and energy covering African-American dysfunction, and with good reason. Far too many young black men are in prison (although Obama is wrong when he says more are in jail than in college). Far too many young black women are single mothers. Far too many black communities are marred by drugs, crime and mindless violence.
But that’s just part of the story. Since the great civil rights victories of the 1960s, a huge mainstream African-American middle class has risen via the traditional path of hard work and education. This successful black America gets very little coverage, for the obvious reason that good news isn’t really news in the traditional sense. The headline “Family Celebrates Daughter’s Graduation from Princeton” did not greet Michelle Obama when she received her degree.
The Obamas are the real-life version of our first great illustration of black success: “The Cosby Show.” That family, too, was a picture of upper-middle-class rectitude, ambition and achievement. The fictional Huxtables, however, lived in an almost exclusively African-American world. The school that both Cliff and Claire attended, and to which they sent their daughter Denise, was the historically black “Hillman College.” The school that Barack and Michelle Obama have in common is Harvard Law.
The Obama campaign hasn’t just had success on black America’s terms, but on white America’s terms. For all the impact of Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric, he wouldn’t be where he is without a campaign organization that is second to none. He’s the one with more money and more offices. He’s the one who made the better decisions about where to spend resources. Obama has won overwhelming support from black voters, but there’s nothing stereotypically “black” about his campaign. It’s as if a black American is beating white America at its own game.
So when Clinton made an issue of how a passage from a Deval Patrick speech found its way into a Barack Obama speech, Geraldo Rivera imagined some sort of secret conclave of black geniuses who had developed a foolproof formula for winning elections. He didn’t envision a basketball camp, or a prison camp; he saw a genius camp, presumably for African-Americans who had figured out just how white America works and just what buttons to push. How diabolically clever.
Hey, if I’m trying to catch a taxi late at night, I’d rather have the cab driver wondering if I’m secretly plotting world domination than thinking I’m about to mug him.
Who else attended Black Genius Camp? Will Smith must have spent at least one summer there—he’s the most bankable star in Hollywood right now. And Tiger Woods, who has conquered our whitest sport. Condoleezza Rice enjoys sitting around the campfire, entertaining everyone with corny knock-knock jokes in Russian. And Oprah’s a regular, of course; she even has her own “cabin,” although it looks more like a luxury hotel.
Oops—I think I’ve said too much. Forget I mentioned it. And pay no attention to Geraldo’s paranoid fantasies.
Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group