Nevertheless, the strategy of hiding race — in particular changing names — can be soul-piercing. It prompted one African-American reader of the article to write that he was reminded of the searing scene in the groundbreaking TV miniseries “Roots” when the runaway slave Kunta Kinte is whipped until he declares that his name is Toby, the name given to him by his master.
Black job seekers said the purpose of hiding racial markers extended beyond simply getting in the door for an interview. It was also part of making sure they appeared palatable to hiring managers once race was seen. Activism in black organizations, even majoring in African-American studies can be signals to employers. Removing such details is all part of what Ms. Orr described as “calming down on the blackness.”
In “Covering: the Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights,” Kenji Yoshino, a law professor at New York University, wrote about this phenomenon not just among blacks but also other minority groups. “My notion of covering is really about the idea that people can have stigmatized identities that either they can’t or won’t hide but nevertheless experience a huge amount of pressure to downplay those identities,” he said. Mr. Yoshino says that progress in hiring has meant that “the line originally was between whites and nonwhites, favoring whites; now it’s whites and nonwhites who are willing to act white.”
For reasons that are obscure to me, those qualities we cherish in our artists we condemn in our politicians. In our artists we look for the many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility. The apogee of this is, of course, Shakespeare: even more than for his wordplay we cherish him for his lack of allegiance. Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing, he is black and white, male and female—he is everyman. The giant lacunae in his biography are merely a convenience; if any new facts of religious or political affiliation were ever to arise we would dismiss them in our hearts anyway.
Every preacher who has been around a while finds consolation in the promise of Isaiah that “the word shall not return void.” To preach well is success. I recall rallies when, in the course of his preaching, King would hold forth on the theological and moral foundations of the movement. The klieg lights and cameras shut down, only to be turned on again when he returned to specifically political or programmatic themes. “Watch the lights,” he commented. “They’re not interested in the most important parts.”
Steele’s deepest worries about Obama are not about his political chances but about his personal authenticity. Whether as bargainer or challenger or some creative mix of the two, Steele thinks, a black leader must don a mask, forging a persona that will charm or manipulate whites. In taking on this task, Steele contends, black leaders lose themselves, for they are never able to locate what they themselves really think. Steele wonders: Is Obama running for president because of his deep convictions or simply because he is aware of “his power to enthrall whites”?
But questions of authenticity can be raised about every politician. The peculiar job of a politician is to fashion repeatedly points of agreement between people with different and shifting points of view and to project a public persona that can elicit action and be the vehicle for people’s hopes. If personal authenticity is your quest, politics is the wrong medium. We can wish for congruence between the inner and the outer person of the politician, but in the end what matters for the voters is the direction of the policies chosen and the decisions made.
Today, cities are refashioning themselves as trendy centers devoid of suburban ills like strip malls and long commutes. In Atlanta, which has among the longest commute times of any U.S. city, the white population rose by 26,000 between 2000 and 2006, while the black population decreased by 8,900. Overall the white proportion has increased to 35% in 2006 from 31% in 2000.
In other cities, whites are still leaving, but more blacks are moving out. Boston lost about 6,000 black residents between 2000 and 2006, but only about 3,000 whites. In 2006, whites accounted for 50.2% of the city’s population, up from 49.5% in 2000. That’s the first increase in roughly a century.
Smith’s rules for how to be a global black superstar, then?
1. Keep it easy and breezy. Heroes must work for the good of the white folks (especially families and romantic pairings) in the movie, often to their own detriment.
2. Don’t risk putting off the white folks/foreigners in the audience with an excess of what pundit John McWhorter might derisively describe as “a surfeit of explicitly black presentation.” (Unless, like Denzel in Training Day, you are playing a degraded, corrupt cop; then you get an Oscar.)
3. Do not—EVER—make a movie whose subject matter treats or concerns the facts of black life in America in an accurate or illuminated way, this even when said facts are somehow encoded or embedded in the conventions of genre or some other filmmaking trick.
NYT reports on an NEA census: “Among artists under 35, writers are the only group in which 80 percent or more are non-Hispanic white.” Tayari Jones responds, “A question worth thinking about is whether this means times are good or hard for writers of color. On the one hand being so darn rare makes us attractive, or at least it does, theoretically. But on the other hand, the scarcity suggests steep challenges.”