Cory Booker and Kamala Harris kicked off their 2020 campaigns like no other black presidential candidates ever have, including the only one who has won. Perhaps that’s a privilege only they have – afforded only after eight years of the first black US president.
There is a hilarious Key and Peele skit that sums up how President Barack Obama sometimes navigated his blackness.
Going through a receiving line of blacks and whites, he greets the whites with a stiff “How are you? Nice to see you.” With the blacks he is all hugs and hand pounds, his blaccent on fleek.
The point – Obama’s blackness was situational, reserved for black people who keenly understood that code-switching and both-siderism on matters of racism were the only path for the first black president.
As they vie to become the second black president, Booker and Harris are making a different calculation.
Booker strolls through Newark, backed by a drum line. He announced on the first day of Black History Month. His tag line – we rise up – borrows from one of Maya Angelou’s most famous poems.
Harris launched in Oakland, where she grew up and the Black Panther Party was founded. She announced on Martin Luther King Day. She skee-weed with her sorors in South Carolina. And nodded to Shirley Chisolm in her logo.
Obama announced in Springfield and nodded to Lincoln and the less radical version of King. He praised Ronald Reagan. He had to give a race speech to distance himself from a black pastor who preached. Obama ran as a racial healer, without acknowledging racial pain. In his first two years in office, he mentioned race less in speeches than any other Democratic president since 1961, according to political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion.
In front of black audiences, he became the scold, pointing to what he saw as pathologies in black behavior, urging black boys to pull up their pants, as if this would mean they would be treated better. He would studiously say, he wasn’t the president of black America, he was the president of all America.
But guess what? None of this prevented the birther lies or the racial animosity he and his family faced. The outrage that came when rappers (oh no – not rappers!!!) were invited to the White House or when he wanted to offer a back to school message to kids. For some, his skin color automatically made him illegitimate and no amount of skirting race and blackness could counter that.
So Harris and Booker aren’t even trying it. They are saying the word racism, acknowledging that it is ever present and must be confronted. Neither seem worried about being the “scary black man” or the “angry black woman,” stereotypes that the Obamas dealt and dispensed with.
This is progress. And couldn’t have happened without the Obamas. (Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s run has allowed Kristen Gillibrand to run with gender as a theme and for women lawmakers to say plainly – it’s time for a woman to be president).
Still, with Booker and Harris, there is a lingering and uncomfortable question that many black Americans will have amongst themselves.
Could Booker, if he looked like Kasim Reed, have been able to navigate the white political power structure as successfully? Same for Harris, if she looked like Stacy Abrams?
There is certainly more space for symbolic displays of black culture in a political context that so often pathologizes black culture. This is a good thing.
But there is a seeming demand that black people seeking power and entering into the homes of white America must look a certain way. Getting past that color line will take far more work.