It is one of the primary arguments of my other blog, Too Sense, that “black problems” don’t really exist, that issues in the black community are an exacerbated microcosm of larger American issues. So there is something to be learned from the flare-up of white identity politics over Obama’s “bitter” comments.

Hillary and McCain’s attempts to cast Obama as “elite” is a classic example of what Taylor Branch called the “inversion of history,” wherein the privileged become the oppressed. Obama was raised in a single parent working class home and despite his recent success, you don’t get much more elite than earning 16 million a year from making speeches and a family of high level military officials.

The way this works on a racial level cannot be ignored. Hillary’s supporters have worked for months to cast Obama as the recipient of some magical form of affirmative action, through proclaiming that his only appeal comes from his blackness and that Hillary “should be winning.” These further invoke the myth of the unqualified black masses stealing jobs from hardworking whites. The twist of the knife is in the subtext, which is simply, “this black guy thinks he’s better than you.” Whether this is deliberate or not is irrelevant, this is the emotional level at which this argument resonates.

All of this resentment serves to obscure the obvious: That we want our presidents to be elite. We want them to be extraordinary, not ordinary, and Obama shouldn’t have to apologize for being “elite” any more than any black kid should have to apologize for getting good grades.

These kinds of identity politics are based on a racialized premise of American identity, that “real Americans” are working class white people who own guns and don’t like gay people or immigrants. I cannot stress the degree to which this is a prime hustle, a path to power for the most irresponsible and self serving of politicians.

Black folks know this better than anybody. We’ve been bamboozled by generations of black elected officials like Marion Barry, Sharpe James and Kwame Kilpatrick, whose ties to the hood were supposed to make them effective mayors. They didn’t, and it was only by invoking those ties that they managed to stay in power as corrupt, greedy, and self-serving as they were. Only now are black folks beginning to recognize that privilege has not inured the Cory Bookers and Adrian Fentys of the world from their responsibility to the community. (James famously said on national television that Booker was not black, but Jewish, As though that made James any less corrupt or ineffective as Mayor.)

Cultural dominance of the media has worked to effectively shield white people from the same kind of self-examination. While the flagrant identity politics of black elected officials has been a topic in the media for years, the same kind of white identity politics from people like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan has gone unnamed.

Yet, the phenomenon is the same. A politician uses his/her cultural currency to distract from issues of substance, he uses whatever connection to a community he has to appeal to their sense of familiarity, which serves to obscure his competence and priorities. Hillary Clinton and John McCain are attempting to do this now; to appeal to America’s basest senses of cultural intolerance, defining “American” and “middle class” in such culturally and racially exclusive terms, and the media has for the most part embraced these definitions.

But this is how white folks “keep it real,” by demanding that Rhodes Scholars tell folksy stories to hide their intellect, by rewarding New England blue bloods for wearing cowboy hats and talking in affected southern accents, by punishing C students as elite because they ordered Swiss on a cheesesteak. Prioritizing cultural norms at the expense of a substantive debate is no less a hustle for Clinton and McCain than it was for Marion Barry.

If there’s a lesson working class white folks can learn from the black community, it’s that these people are hustlers, and just because they look, talk, or act like you, doesn’t mean they will do a thing for you.

It bears mentioning that any sociologist or historian will tell you Obama is factually correct. There is a reason the Ku Klux Klan’s rise and rebirth occurred during the two most economically depressed moments in the history of the American South, Reconstruction and the Great Depression. There is a reason radical Islam appeals to the destitute, and there is a reason Louis Farrakhan and Chuck Colson find so many converts in prison.

Not that it matters, this is not an issue America is ready to confront itself on, and Obama has already asked much of the United States. He should know how to play the game better than this. And if he doesn’t begin to play better, he will lose.

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