Does Obama have to be better because he’s black?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson | 2/17/2009, 7:41 a.m.

Does Obama have to be better because he’s black?

A recent CNN poll appears to confirm what a majority of African Americans and a significant percentage of whites seem to think — that President Barack Obama will have to be better at his job than his predecessors because he’s black.

Loosely translated, this means that at Obama’s first screw-up, real or perceived, there will be howling along the lines of, “That’s what you get when you plop a black into any position that requires a brain and skill.” There’s a simple undercurrent coursing through this warped, race-tinged point of view: Blacks are expected to fail in important positions because they’re perceived to be grossly unqualified, having only arrived in those positions as the result of affirmative action policies or persistent white guilt.

Of course, this screwy rationale ignores the savvy, ability to think, preparation and/or education that often net African Americans top spots in corporations, universities, politics and other walks of professional life. Obama certainly had the right stuff to bag the biggest political prize of all, the presidency. The great what if, though, is would former President George W. Bush have bagged the grand prize if he had been black? The CNN poll doesn’t answer that. But it raises another question: Why have some observers set the bar so ridiculously high for Obama when said bar was virtually nonexistent for a mediocre white politician?

Obama is well aware that the old racial double-standards might be applied to him, too; that he will likely face a brighter, hotter spotlight than any president in American history; that there will be packs of voters who hope, even pray, that he flops; and that race will be the only reason why many of them will wish him the worst.

Surveys conducted during the presidential campaign found that even some of Obama’s most passionate backers engaged in racial gymnastics that separated their man from other blacks. Even as they raved about Obama’s political genius and hailed him as the right person to lead the U.S. out of the Bush morass, many still said that blacks were more crime-prone and less industrious than whites. A month after Obama’s triumph, not much had changed. A long-term study of racial attitudes by the National Academy of Sciences found that a significant share of Americans still see color as the major factor in determining who committed a crime and who was most likely to be poor.

Obama acknowledged the racial wariness of some near the beginning of the campaign when he said that there were some people who would not vote for him because he’s African American. He said the same thing again, albeit more subtly, in his triumphant speech on election night in Chicago’s Grant Park when he said that he wanted to reach out to those who did not vote for him.

During the campaign, the political stars aligned for Obama as they hadn’t for any other Democratic presidential candidate in a decade and a half. There was massive public fatigue from Bush policies, rage at Republican corruption and ineptitude, a laughingstock vice presidential candidate tailor-made for “Saturday Night Live,” a catastrophic financial meltdown and a crumbling economy.