Mayor vs. Journalist: Evading the Presumption

NYT reporter Matt Bai has a thumbsucker-with-interviews in this coming Sunday’s Times Magazine entitled Is Obama the End of Black Politics? I thought the following passage was the most amusing, and perhaps the most insightful.

I asked [Philadelphia Mayor Michael] Nutter if, during his private conversations with Obama early in the campaign, the subject of race and the historic nature of his candidacy came up. He stared at me for a moment. “Um, I knew he was black,” he said finally. “I’d really kind of picked up on that.”

Later, when I mentioned that it could be hard for a white journalist to understand all of the nuances of race, he looked over at his press secretary, who is black, and interrupted me. “He’s not black?” Nutter deadpanned, motioning back at me. “You guys told me it was a skin condition. I thought I was talking to a brother.” Nutter is known to have a dry sense of humor, but I also had the sense that he was tweaking me in these moments, watching with some amusement as I tried to navigate subjects that white and black Americans rarely discuss together. He seemed to think I was oddly preoccupied with race.

In fact, Nutter seemed puzzled by the very notion that he should be expected to support a candidate just because they both had dark skin. “Look, I never asked anybody to be for me because I was black,” he said. “I asked people to be for me because I thought I was the best candidate when I ran for City Council and when I ran for mayor. I’m proud of the votes I received. I’m proud I received the votes of the majority of the African-American community and the majority of the vote from the white community. But I never asked anybody to give me anything because I was black. I asked people to give me a chance because I thought I was the best.”

For most black Americans, Obama’s candidacy represented a kind of racial milestone, the natural next phase of a 50-year movement. But for Michael Nutter, the reverse was also true: not supporting Obama’s candidacy marked a kind of progress, too. The movement, after all, was about the freedom to choose your own candidate, white or black. In a sense, you could argue that it was Nutter — and not those black politicians who embraced Obama because they so closely identified with his racial experience — who represented the truest embodiment of Obama-ism. Here, perhaps, was a genuine postracial politician, even if that meant being, as John Lewis put it, on the wrong side of history.

I asked Nutter if he found it insulting to have me come barging into his office, demanding to know why he didn’t pick the black guy.

“It’s not insulting,” he answered. “It’s presumptuous. It demonstrates a continuation of this notion that the African-American community, unlike any other, is completely monolithic, that everyone in the African-American community does the same thing in lockstep, in contrast to any other group. I mean, I don’t remember seeing John Kerry on TV and anybody saying to him, ‘I can’t believe you’re not for Hillary Clinton.’ Why?”

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Filed under democracy, publishing, U.S.

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