Barack Obama has vast support among African-Americans, but that doesn't mean everyone agrees with him, or cheers his tactical moves. "Obama is a political opportunist who is driven more by interests than feelings," Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of urban education and American studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, wrote in March during a long-running debate in The Root, a new, black-oriented Web magazine.
When Obama first distanced himself from his former mentor and pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., Hill wrote: "By standing close to Wright, Obama was able to convince local people that he was 'black enough' to represent their political interests. Now that Wright is a political liability rather than a source of street cred, Obama has decided to throw his mentor under the bus to protect his own image."
Melissa Lacewell-Harris, a political science professor at Princeton University, immediately shot back, "I refuse to buy into any Barack bashing on this topic." She added, "I wish we could have a reasoned conversation about race in this country. . . . But I think it is somewhat unfair to ask Obama to perform this same function in the middle of an election with a racially tone-deaf audience."
The Hill-Lacewell-Harris exchanges reflect an explosion of political debate on the black side of the Web, which has been energized by the presidential race. One site, Black Blog Watch, simply alerts surfers to new postings.
Much of the commentary scalds the major media for their coverage of racial issues. "First Obama wasn't black enough," blogger and memoirist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, responding to a piece in The New York Times (by Times reporter Marcus Mabry, himself African-American). "Then he was so black that he couldn't win the nomination. Now the question is 'How black is too black?' "
Writing from a liberal perspective, Coates argued that Obama has been handling the race issue just right: "Obama emphasized race about as much as most black people on the street emphasize race . . . the same issues that keep white folks up at night — the war, the economy, health care — are the same damn issues that keep black folks up at night."
Journalist Marjorie Valbrun questioned his decision to start wearing a flag lapel pin, after some criticized its absence. "People who don't support you are not going to be swayed by a pin on your lapel," she wrote. "I suspect they point to the flag pin as another reason that they don't like or trust you."
Some commentators are ranging past the views of black Americans, and past Obama himself. Author John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute, argued in a Web video discussion that some white voters were being tagged as racists simply for opposing Obama on the grounds that his appointees would run to the likes of Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan. "That's not, to me, racism," said McWhorter, who brutally critiqued hip-hop culture. "That's a kind of ignorance, [a] kind of grand view of history that doesn't take detail into account. But that person doesn't hate black people."
In an exchange on The New York Times' Bloggingheads Web site, McWhorter's discussion partner, Brown University economist Glenn Loury, agreed, taking McWhorter's point even further. "Race is a central aspect of my being," said Loury, a conservative turned liberal. "Am I willing to grant that some whites might have their 'race' — I use the word with inverted commas — also to be a constituent aspect of how they understand themselves? . . . How can you have the blackness genie out of the bottle . . . and not have the whiteness genie out of the bottle?"
Others in the black commentariat were focusing on another kind of white genie.
"Jill Tubman," a pseudonymous blogger on the Jack and Jill Politics site, echoed another black Web commentator who ridiculed the discredited rumor that Michelle Obama had denounced "whitey." Citing a sitcom from the 1970s, Tubman noted, "The only person I ever heard saying 'honkey' or 'whitey' growing up was George Jefferson on TV. . . . This rumor was started probably by someone who wasn't black."
Black Agenda Report publishes blog-style pieces and longer articles that grow out of left-wing and sometimes black nationalist perspectives. "To make himself acceptable to whites, Obama finds it necessary to shout out how unacceptable he finds the conduct of other Blacks," the site's executive editor, veteran journalist Glen Ford, wrote about Obama's denunciation of male irresponsibility — explicitly including black males. "Can one imagine Obama or any other presidential aspirant repeatedly hectoring any other ethnic group on moral issues? . . . But there are large regions of the white body politic in which it is not only acceptable, but damn near required, that politicians demonstrate their impatience with the alleged moral shortcomings of Black people."
Clearly, whatever the effects of Obama's candidacy on black America, promoting lockstep conformity isn't one of them. One of his toughest, politically conservative critics sees political diversity on the upswing among African-Americans. And he says it promotes — rather than weakens — black identity.
"What black America needs more than anything is individuals," says Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. "In white America there is this clear right and left division, and people on both sides have legitimacy. We're just getting there in black America, but we are getting there. So I feel very much a member of the group."