CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Jabari Asim (juh-BAR-ee ah-SEEM) says you could see it coming. He thought a black president was inevitable. Just not quite so soon.
“Early on, I was definitely one of the people who didn’t think he (Obama) had a shot,” says Asim, a scholar-in-residence in African American studies and in journalism at the University of Illinois, and the author of “What Obama Means” (William Morrow), being published on Inauguration Day.
Asim, who also wrote “The N Word,” takes readers through a reflection on the nation’s cultural history that cites the influence of figures such as Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Sidney Poitier, Prince, Diana Ross, Will Smith, Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey, and the fictional President David Palmer of “24” on television.
The younger voters who broke heavily for Obama in the election “grew up watching Will Smith movies, watching the Cosbys on television, cheering for black baseball, football, basketball players, having black posters on their walls,” Asim said.
Advertising, as well, “has really advanced the image of African Americans,” he said. Television commercials have become “a bastion of diversity.”
Negative portrayals of blacks in the media are still widespread, Asim said, but often overlooked are the numerous positive portrayals that are out there at the same time. “And white people have demonstrated that they are judicious enough to know the difference,” he said, despite long-held black fears to the contrary.
His prime example, perhaps, is that of “gangsta” rappers often decried for their violent and misogynistic lyrics, but who sell most of their albums to white teenage boys, pitch products, and are “very welcome in America’s living rooms.” By comparison, he argues, “how threatening can a black guy with a Harvard Law School accent and a suit and tie be?”
This is not to say that the U.S. is “post-racial” or that relations between the races are healthy, even if moving in the right direction, Asim said. But he concludes that “people are more complicated and sophisticated than we often give them credit for,” and that the electorate overall has matured.
Along with whites overcoming prejudices, blacks have had to overcome “deeply entrenched cynicism about what the possibilities are,” and Obama was “really bold and really challenging” in motivating them to do so, Asim said.
Obama also represented a major and largely generational shift in the nature of African American leadership, away from an outlook and methods based exclusively on protest, Asim said. Many questions were raised early in the primary campaign, for instance, about whether Obama was “black enough,” but Asim said the questions came mainly from white reporters, and not the black community.
The primary questions Asim heard in the black community, he said, were whether Obama could win, and then whether he could survive.
In the end, Asim writes in his epilogue, the fears about a Bradley effect or hidden racism proved to be unfounded. “The remnants of old-school racism that reared up in certain quarters prior to Election Day were not revealed as omens of a November surprise but exposed as the last gasps of a dying pathology,” he writes. “In the end, it was about hope, not hate.”
Editor’s note: To contact Jabari Asim, call 217-333-7781; e-mail: email@example.com.
Craig Chamberlain, Social Sciences Editor 217-333-2894; firstname.lastname@example.org WEB: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign