No Higher Calling Than To Serve.

Obama the Waiter?
Illustration by Mike Flugennock

Shortly after the election, Katherine Rosman, writing for The Wall Street Journal, talked about a party she’d attended as a freelance writer, before she’d joined the esteemed newspaper, and about her chance meeting that night with a politician from the Midwest.

On a warm weekday evening in 2003, a group that can fairly be described as representative of the media elite gathered at one if its favored venues: the garden behind the Manhattan apartment of journalists Tina Brown and Harold Evans.

The occasion was the publication of “The Clinton Wars,” by Sidney Blumenthal, a former aide to President Bill Clinton. Editors from the New Yorker and the New York Times were in attendance along with media figures like Steven Brill and Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner. The guests mingled and sipped wine. Even Clinton showed up, instantly becoming the epicenter of attention. …

Standing by myself I noticed, on the periphery of the party, a man looking as awkward and out-of-place as I felt. I approached him and introduced myself. He was an Illinois state senator who was running for the U.S. Senate. He was African American, one of a few black people in attendance.

We spoke at length about his campaign. He was charismatic in a quiet, solemn way. I told him I wanted to pitch a profile of him to a national magazine. (The magazine later rejected my proposal.)

Senator Barack ObamaRosman then recalls watching that same senator, a year later, give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Later that same year, she saw him become a U.S. Senator. She continued to study him from a distance, with more than passing interest, as he became the biggest story in U.S. electoral politics, then the world.

Then, the week of her article, “Barack Obama was elected the 44th president of the United States.”

Needless to say, particularly for a journalist of her gifts, it had been a fascinating trek.

But what made it uniquely remarkable for her, says Rosman, what she also remembers and always will, was one detail from that night at Tina Brown and Harold Evans’ home.

As I was leaving that party in 2003, I was approached by another guest, an established author. He asked about the man I had been talking to. Sheepishly he told me he didn’t know that Obama was a guest at the party, and had asked him to fetch him a drink. In less than six years, Obama has gone from being mistaken for a waiter among the New York media elite, to the president-elect.

What a country.

One of the aspects of Obama’s election that has been most grating to me is the self-congratulatory tone that many white people have struck, in the wake of his ascension.

November 4 celebrationWe’ve been told, for example, that his election was “historic.” Objectively, this is true, particularly because a) it happened, and b) it hadn’t happened before, to him, or to any other Black person. I mean, typically, when an an American, particularly a white one, starts talking about history, I want to start walking in the other direction, as it’s the subject they almost always seem to know the least about, but about which they have the most to say. However, clearly, Obama’s election is “historic,” because it’s new.

Another way that white people immediately spoke about Obama’s win, for example, was in terms of America’s “maturity”—you heard that word a lot, right after the election. In part, that’s the implication of Rosman’s closing line, “What a country”: That, in electing Barack Obama, America has reached down and pulled out some kind of character that it may not have previously possessed, even five years ago.

November 5 edition of The Bakersfield CalifornianAffirmed, as well, was America’s decision to change itself, as reflected in this somewhat typical headline from The Bakersfield Californian, right: “A Nation Changed.” That is, a nation, changed…by a nation. To some degree, of course, any election night news text with the word “change” in it was mostly playing off of Obama’s campaign mantra, but not solely, especially when one saw, or read statements like, “America has changed forever.” As I recall, Obama never promised change that long.

But the biggest problem about the story of Obama’s election is this: Driving the discussion most—dominating it—are those white people whom benefit most, directly or indirectly, from racism.

Put another way, the people best able to say how much “America” has changed are not the ones who got power from its supposedly old or former ways. They have a conflict of interest, here. The people best able to say this are the non-white people under them.

Brian Williams, anchor, NBC Evening NewsHowever, white people, aka “media,” are still telling us what happened, what it means, and controlling that narrative. Non-white people do not enter the discussion, for the most part, except, perhaps, as jumping and dancing ciphers from news footage taken of Black celebrants early Wednesday morning. In the wake of the election, “Lately, I’ve been seeing Black people walking a little taller, holding their heads a little higher,” I’ve heard Black and white people say.

Really? Mere body language is our contribution to the analysis of critical events in our country, and to the incessant editorializing on how race functions, post the election?

Please: Name one thing that white people were willing to do to Black people on November 3rd that they are now unwilling to do to us, as of November 5th. Then, tell me how this was decided and by whom.

KTVB-BoiseAmerica’s media is still blindingly, unapologetically white, whiter even, statistically, than corporate, golf club-swinging America (of which it is, of course, an appendage). They not only have an interest in both speaking approvingly of how white people mistreat Black people, generally, but, even more, they have always done so, regardless of the so-called racial climate at the time.

Not only are white people still acting as the gatekeepers—the ones with the last word—on the discussion of what the election means regarding racism—they were the first ones to declare this “new” era “post-racial”; you better believe Black people didn’t come up with that—but they are sizing up their own development in ways that flatter them. This is typical under conditions dominated by white supremacy.

What a country, Katherine Rosman writes. What she may, or may not, realize is that some white person, possibly one that Barack Obama knows, would, on January 20th, probably ask him to fetch them a drink, were he not surrounded by the all that will demarcate him as president.

In other words, it will probably happen to some other Black person at the White House on inaugural night—some attorney, doctor, financier, or teacher—and they won’t even have to make the fashion, or racial, mistake, first, of wearing a white evening jacket. Watch.



#1 DeAngelo on 12.18.08 at 12:11 pm

Very interesting post. I like your thought that non-white writers aren’t the ones claiming Obama’s election is evidence of “post-racial” politics. And what the hell is post-racial anyway?

Check out this piece that discusses this topic from a non-white perspective:

#2 giles on 12.18.08 at 1:11 pm

Excellent post sir.

#3 Sandra on 12.18.08 at 4:50 pm

Thanks Harry. Loved this piece.

My favourite response to those white people who would beseechingly and partially self-congratulatorily say “but oh, things have changed soooo much”, is “yes, well, how would you know”.

Following this piece perhaps I should also add on “so, what is it that you and other white people you know now do differently”.

Of course, simple, blunt responses with a built-in question to white people will always garner the “you’re so angry” response and off they’ll go seeking some other black (Indigenous to Australia) person who might cuddle them back rather than respond to them with agency.

#4 C. Edwards on 12.18.08 at 5:18 pm

Name that author please.
Anyway USA is still run by the same old Who’s…
The very people, Slave Traders of Old, turned Bankers, now running the media where Black People are kept under heavy manners.
Free? I don’t see it yet. Same Old Same Old.
Shysters and Vengeful trixters still at work and raking it in.
Peace and Knowledgement

#5 sirensongs on 12.19.08 at 3:14 am

Good call, on the self-congratulatory nature of white-dominated media announcing how far they “we” have come. Like Obama’s victory was somehow their own over their own racism….

My Ameriasian friend was asked to clear a table at the DC country club where both he and his (white) dad were members. Someone thought he was an immigrant busboy. …

#6 Robert Galinsky on 12.19.08 at 8:38 am

Great commentary. As a white person reading this I can only hope that other white readers don’t run from your observations and your laser perspective.

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