What do President Barack Obama, Tiger Woods, and yours truly have in common, besides the fact that all of us are at least forty percent Black or African? We’ve all — between the mass scale of a mouse and the cosmic — experienced some hell as a result of success. Any success at all in a society not known these days for sportsmanship, patience or proper etiquette usually leads to folks on the other side losing their minds. Despite all of the talk about this being a world of significantly less racial animosity in the early twenty-first century, it’s fairly obvious that race is intertwined in much of the disagreements and snide statements about all three of us.
For President Obama, his is the most complicated of situations. He walks everyday a presidential tightrope between the powers of his office, the needs of the nation, the demands of the international community, the pressures of the market, and the laser-sights of the media, regardless of ideological perspective. So Obama’s taken a middle-of-the-road approach to governing and policy. From everything from clean energy to the tax code, his is an administration that is about one or two nanometers further left than Clinton’s, but is more intellectual and vocal about it.
Yet at every turn and with every statement or decision, dissenters abound. Now, we still have a First Amendment, and we still should use it to the best of our abilities as a nation. In many cases, we use it sparingly. Not so with Obama. The crazies have been out in force since the primaries last spring. Even now, there are folks blogging about whether he’s an American citizen, or Muslim, or the Antichrist. This week alone, Obama’s been accused of being an anti-Catholic baby killer and an anti-Jesus-in-the-closet-Muslim, one who somehow bowed to Saudi royalty on Monday while also neglecting to mention Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount analogy in his Georgetown speech on Tuesday. Not to mention the 200,000 or so protesters nationwide on Tax Day (that’s a bad protest day for any major US city, much less the nation) who came out angry about taxed Obama hadn’t raised and guns he hadn’t taken away. Even Clinton didn’t face this kind of heat until he started talking about an executive order lifting the ban on gays in the military back in ’93.
Whatever else one can say, no one ever accused Clinton of not being an American citizen, or part of a global conspiracy to put an evil Muslim in the White House, or someone who’s really the Antichrist and will enslave us in the evils of socialism or destroy us all. What a crock! Americans, unfortunately, are incredibly predictable when it comes to diversity and power. When someone, no matter how well meaning, intelligent, good-looking, or well-prepared they are for a certain task, they are metaphorically jumped on like flies swarming a turd in the hot summer sun. When Rush Limbaugh yelled, right around election time, that “IT WAS ALL ABOUT RACE! Let me say it again…IT WAS ALL ABOUT RACE,” it’s the most truth he’s likely ever spoken.
Except this isn’t about President Obama and his supporters playing the race card. It’s about dissent, but dissent based not so much on policy, politics or ideology so much as it’s based on envy. Jon Stewart said it best when he opined that the Republican Party and many conservatives were just “sore losers.” These folks don’t like Obama because he’s popular, articulate, smart, driven, successful, thoughtful (for the most part) and ready to actually do something to improve our country. And of course, no matter how White Obama actually is, he’s still Black in their eyes. It bothers many a conservative to no end that Obama beat them at their own game in the election, and has been hammering at them ever since.
That’s why folks like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Tom DeLay, Michelle Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney have been stirring the pot for events like “Tea Bagging” Day. Or claiming that President Obama’s coming after American gun owners who want to hunt with an Uzi. Or saying that the country’s headed to hell in Satan’s hand basket with Obama in charge. Bottom line: they’re jealous, they’re embarrassed, and they’re angry. The usual tricks didn’t work last year, because they know most Americans want someone, anyone, who can help solve our deepest problems, even if they are Black. That’s not to say that President Obama’s answers are correct or enough. From the stimulus package to education reform, from CIA operatives and torture to his plans for universal health care coverage, I disagree with my president. But at least, I’m not up in arms about him not invoking the name of Jesus at every turn in order to satisfy evangelical conservatives. Like that did us any good with our previous president!
Of course, we don’t behave this way with folks of color in the world of sports and entertainment. That requires a different set of skills, a different mindset toward intellect, and Blacks in particular have been doing well here for decades. True, but not in every sports or in every entertainment medium. Although, maybe not so true. The Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons-Pistons fans brawl on November 19 of ’05 bore that out, with angry White fans yelling at Black basketball players and throwing beer on one of them in the process. But of course, race wasn’t an issue here. Alcoholism and an on-the-court fight that went into the stands was.
I digress. Golf certainly is a sport/game/”a good walk spoiled” where competitors of color have been about as common as Blacks and Latinos in graduate school programs. Then along came Tiger Woods in ’96. Even now, even after rehabilitating his left knee and missing most of the ’08 season, it’s obvious that Woods is larger than life. But even with all of the majors, all of the money won and commercials generated — for himself and for golf — all of the records and glory, Woods isn’t well liked by his peers or by many segments of the American public. From the moment Woods put on his first green jacket on April 13 of ’97, he faced pressures that no professional golfer has ever faced. Between all of the death threats while winning the Masters in Augusta, Georgia (a bit of irony there, right?) and Fuzzy Zoeller’s comments about hoping that Woods doesn’t put “fried chicken” and “collard greens” on the Champions dinner menu in ’98, the jealousy was immediate and palpable. Although, as Zoeller claimed, it was a joke about that “little boy,” a twenty-one-year-old Woods at the time.
And that jealousy remains. Look what happened when Woods showed flashes of brilliance at the Masters earlier this month, matched up with Phil Mickelson as he was. Ratings for the event shot up, the crowd followed them around like it was a rock concert. The golfers in the lead in the final round had to beg CBS for a camera to show them playing shots. Don’t tell me that doesn’t generate more envy, even as this Cablinasian makes them all richer.
Some would argue that the race issues with Woods are more obvious than with President Obama. Are they? It seems to me that when people irrationally stock up on firearms in order to protect themselves from the government when the Obama Administration hasn’t said a word about the Second Amendment, that’s an obvious sign that race was part of the fear factor. The Secret Service has noted that death threats against the president are at an all-time high, and that was a month ago. Now why would this be? Because Obama’s advocating socialism? Because conservatives are out of power in Washington? Or because Obama race and success both inspires and creates an unbelievable amount of jealousy? Take your pick.
On a much, much, much smaller scale, I can relate to a bunch of what Obama and Woods have faced and are facing. I’ve only gotten a couple of threats, from former graduate students who didn’t like the fact that a Black professor didn’t give them an A (in both cases, their grades were A-). They weren’t death threats, but I looked over my shoulder anyway. One of them emailed me so often about changing her grade and what she would do to me if I didn’t that I ended up reporting her to my department chair. I’ve had students who were obviously uncomfortable with me as their professor, or assumed that I was an airhead. Then, when I opened my mouth to teach, I often scared those students with ideas, facts and opinions that were based on my expertise as a historian. Their thoughts, for better and for worse, often showed up in their evaluations of my classes at the end of the semester.
But that’s only part of my experience, and not the most significant part when it comes to the issue at hand. My five and a half years as a grad student at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon were years where my colleagues and some of my professors felt the urge to tell me exactly what was on their minds about me. From telling me right from jump street how I didn’t belong in grad school to telling me how amazed they were that I finished my master’s in a year.
That was my former professor Reid Andrews by himself, but not alone in his assessment. From assuming that I never studied because I seldom “looked” stressed to making insinuations that I somehow plagiarized my papers. The chair of the history department at Pitt in Richard Smethurst once asked me — in the only conversation I had with him in two years of grad school at Pitt — if the reason I was there was to play basketball.
The kicker was in the first few weeks after I’d been awarded a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship in April ’95. It was somewhat of a surprise to me, but it a pleasant one. By then I was finishing up my second year at Carnegie Mellon. Not so for my advisor Joe Trotter. There was this look absolute shock and horror on his face when I told him the good news. I’ll never forget that “I can’t believe it!” look of dread Trotter had on his face. It lasted for a good three seconds before he found himself again, managed a weak smile, and told me to pass on the good news. The moral of this story is that even Black folk can have a race-based jealousy toward another Black person or person of color, despite popular opinion
It didn’t end with my advisor. Among my colleagues, John Hinshaw stopped speaking to me — for two years! At least four others walked up to me and gave me their gut-churning congratulations while telling me how envious they were of me. One wanted to know how I did it, considered that every time they saw me I was out in hallways of Carnegie Mellon “talking to” someone. By this time, my standard answer was, “When you don’t see me, that’s when I’m hard at work.” Which was the truth, of course. Yet it was entirely unrelated to their point. The real question for them was, how did I, some Black guy who often didn’t sound like an indecipherable theoretician or genius, pick up a grant without holding a gun to the head of the Senior Program Officer of the Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellowship Program?
It’s not that I think that all Whites are envious of the success of others of color, or that all successful people of color face petty and really serious jealousies that spin off into other, more serious threats. It’s that in our nation, any success that is based on more than sheer athletic, comedic, or musical talent for folks of color is subject to greater degrees of jaw-dropping and shock than it would be for Whites. Intellectual, academic and political brilliance — not to mention golf, a thinker’s game — even with so much evidence to the contrary, isn’t something that most expect from people of color, and men of color especially. So of course there’s greater scrutiny, jealousy, fear and embarrassment when “losing” out to one of us. I’m hardly justifying it, though.
How do we as a society overcome this? How do we deal with the envious and not-so-well-adjusted out there, who, whether conservative or just plain bigoted, would prefer to see President Obama fail, Woods’ knee explode and me to disappear, and worse? We can only live our lives, step ever more boldly forward on our respective paths, to see through whatever it is we hope to achieve. And hope that we have time enough to achieve it. That, or we can leave for greener pastures.