When a Black public figure openly disagrees with President Obama, White people listen—often giving said Black person a platform to speak even louder. Consider the latest GOP hand-rub: the media-hyped ideological showdown between President Obama and Dr. Benjamin Carson, Sr. (the subject of the movie Gifted Hands, based on his book of the same name).
After Carson expressed opinions on tax and healthcare policy that differ from President Obama’s at last month’s National Prayer Breakfast, he was vaulted to the GOP shortlist for President in 2016. Fox News personality Sean Hannity told the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins he would vote for Carson in a heartbeat should he choose to run.
Though Carson says he is a registered Independent, he was invited to speak at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, sharing the podium with Republican and Tea Party leadership including former candidates for President Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, and onetime VP-hopeful Sarah Palin. Controversial radio personality Rush Limbaugh praised Carson as “everything Obama pretended to be from 2004 to 2008: post-racial, post-partisan, a healer”.
Ironically, in many ways, Carson is everything the GOP likely hoped Michael Steele would be when they elected him the first African-American chairman of the Republican National Committee, in the same year as Obama’s historic victory. Or what they hoped Herman Cain would be when he contested for the Republican nomination for President last year. Or the impact they hoped actress Stacey Dash would have when she came out in support of the Republican Presidential ticket.
The rapt attention America pays when African-American leaders openly criticize each other, or Black people in general, is bigger than the GOP. When Rainbow Coalition leader Jesse Jackson, Sr., not realizing his mic was on, famously groused that Obama was “talking down to black people”; the clip went viral on-air and online across liberal and conservative outlets. Likewise, scholar Cornel West and PBS host Tavis Smiley’s sharp critiques of Obama have drawn lots of ink; as have Obama’s own sermons about the absence of Black fathers, and Bill Cosby’s assertion that African-American communities take responsibility without blaming the White man.
This phenomenon is nothing new. The same was the case when 19th Century intellectuals Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois sharply disagreed on how to solve America’s race problem; and when Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X presented opposing strategies for winning equal rights in the 1960s.
At the heart of this giddy fascination with Black on Black criticism is the culture of tokenism that continues to plague America—and the power that comes with being recognized as the singular voice for Black people. A recent New York Times piece tracks the rise of the Obamas alongside the trajectory of Jesse Jackson’s family, quoting a one-time Obama aide as saying “[The Jacksons] were the biggest thing in African-American politics… they got eclipsed [by the Obamas].”
The thinking seems to be that there can be only one or two Blacks who represent the race. Anyone who makes the Oedipal venture to topple this order breaks out into his or her own celebrity—or is crushed by other Black people under an avalanche of labels such as traitor, Uncle Tom, or hater.
West and Smiley were castigated for their critiques, while African-Americans pilloried Stacey Dash for her support of Mitt Romney. But Dash’s opposition also had some benefit. The actress, who had just departed her role on VH1’s Single Ladies, was invited to discuss her opposing views on Piers Morgan, one of CNN’s highest-rated shows.
The idea that a united front is more important than acknowledging internal divisions is something the Black community continues to grapple with. “Airing our dirty laundry” is seen as one of the biggest sins precisely because it often serves to feed the agendas of those who have little interest in seeing the racial balance of power equalize.
That said, the quest to elevate African-American ideological opponents only underscores Martin Luther King Jr.’s message: it’s a mistake to confuse the color of a person’s skin with the content of their character. It’s not an anomaly that King and X, DuBois and Washington, or West, Smiley, Dash, Carson, and Obama don’t agree on everything. Newsflash, African-Americans aren’t in lockstep on every issue—no group is—and we can’t be lumped into the same category. America is just going to have to let the token go.