As the McCain spin machine continues to beat up on Obama for his alleged messianic or prophetic pretensions (I say prophetic, Waldman says undeserved), the worry in a number of black quarters is that Obama is not prophetic enough–or more precisely, that his candidacy threatens to undermine the ability of black America to lift up its voice in that way. Writing about Tavis Smiley in last week’s New Yorker, Kalefa Sanneh offers up this comment of Glenn Loury’s (made in a TPM post after Obama’s speech on race):
My fear is that, should Obama succeed with his effort to renegotiate the implicit American racial contract, then the prophetic African-American voice—which is occasionally strident and necessarily a dissident, outsider’s voice—could be lost to us forever.
This seems to me a hyperbolic concern. As diverse and visible as the African-American community has become, that dissident outsider’s voice will still be there. The real question when it comes to Obama is whether (if he’s elected) there will be the ears to hear it–among the powers that be, or (perhaps better) the unwashed white majority. That concern is expressed by Alabama congressman Artur Davis in Matt Bai’s piece (“Is Obama the End of Black Politics”) in the New York Times Magazine today:
“If Obama is president, it will no longer be tenable to go to the white community and say you’ve been victimized,” Artur Davis told me. “And I understand the poverty and the condition of black America and the 39 percent unemployment rate in some communities. I understand that. But if you go out to the country and say you’ve been victimized by the white community, while Barack Obama and Michelle and their kids are living in the White House, you will be shut off from having any influence.”
Maybe so, but influence with whom? The African-American prophetic voice has had precious little to show for itself over the past few decades. Crying in the wilderness has its satisfactions, I suppose, but to get something done, it may be time to change the terms of the discourse.