Poitier, Jordan paved way for Obama

As he was growing up, Jabari Asim's father repeatedly told him to "work twice as hard to get half as far."

Asim, editor in chief of the NAACP's Crisis magazine and former deputy editor of the Washington Post's Book World, doesn't say that to his five children because times have changed. That change is evident in the election of Barack Obama as our 44th president.

Some of the walls of prejudice that once impeded the progress of blacks were knocked down by members of his father's generation, and others will be knocked down by people like Asim himself.

"My father meant well," Asim said last week by phone while traveling in Atlanta. "He tried to protect me so I wouldn't get my heart broken."

Asim is more optimistic about race relations than his father, whose racial views and perspectives were shaped by events and circumstances of the mid-20th century. And, Asim said, his children's views are even more optimistic than his own because of their life experiences during the turn of this century.

But Asim didn't think Obama would be elected president when the campaign began. "I believe I had a good reason to have that attitude," he said.

Young people, however, didn't think that way, and still don't. That's why parents "are obligated to teach (children) the history and then get out of the way," Asim said.

Obama understood that dichotomy far better than many of us, he said.

In his book, What Obama Means: Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future, published in January, Asim looked at Obama's candidacy from a cultural perspective and found it to be a continuation of successes made by other blacks in movies, music and athletics since the 1960s.

"But the best thing about being a cultural critic is that it gives you permission to plunge head-first into popular culture, so I read a lot of books, watched a lot of television and movies," he said.

What he found was a thread leading from successful black people in pop culture to Obama's victory. Actor Sidney Poitier's Academy Award, for example, and Michael Jordan's basketball greatness broadened the minds of a lot of people who could then accept the advancement of black people in the business and political arenas.

Whites had to accept African-American males as leading men in entertainment and athletics before they could accept them as leaders in other areas, said Asim.

In politics and the social arena, people such as civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.; Shirley Chisholm, who ran for president in 1972; Barbara Jordan, who delivered the keynote address at the 1976 Democratic Convention; and activist Jesse Jackson hoed significant rows from which Obama harvested.

African-Americans who had been elected to offices in majority white districts in recent years, including Norman B. Rice, who was elected as Seattle's first black mayor in 1989, and Douglas Wilder, who was elected as Virginia's first African-American governor in 1989, also played significant roles.

"They all had to emerge and prove some things," Asim said, before Obama could be acceptable. "But all that was just one of the ingredients," he admitted. "The cultural development made an African-American president possible, but he became president because of timing, and the vision, eloquence and charisma of Obama."

But lest we think all is well racially in America now that Obama is head man in charge, up popped an editorial cartoon in the New York Post last week. In the cartoon, two police officers are depicted shooting a chimpanzee and saying, "They'll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill." On the page before the cartoon was a picture of Obama signing the measure into law.

The cartoon ran after police shot a chimp that had viciously mauled a woman earlier in the week in Stamford, Conn. On Friday, the newspaper apologized to "those who were offended by the image."

And there was the avalanche of criticism against this nation's first black Attorney General, Eric Holder, who said during his Black History Month address to justice department personnel, "Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards."

Critics think we talk enough about race.

"Racism has greatly diminished, but it hasn't vanished," Asim said. "It won't go away because we have an African-American president."

Particularly for the poor, he said, who will "not be poised to take advantage of the opportunities" that Obama's visibility will bring.

Asim is scholar-in-residence at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, as well as the author of The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn't, and Why, published in 2007, and several children's books. His next book, due out in 2010, is a fictional work entitled Nappy Days.

In addition to his position as editor of the NAACP's Crisis magazine, founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1910, Asim was also a deputy editor of The Washington Post's Book World for many years.

While Obama's election is a culmination of decades of racial progress, it is also a starting point that indicates the sophistication of voters, Asim said. But if racism still exists and the acceptance of the marginalized into pop culture can lead to acceptance in leadership roles, why didn't a woman win the Democratic presidential nomination?

Asim said a woman who has charisma, eloquence and vision, as Obama does, will be elected president one day. But Obama's timing and understanding of the times we live in won out.

Why do black candidates and female candidates have to possess those characteristics when their predecessors, who were white males, did not?

"The white male is the default setting," Asim said. "They can take advantage of the standard they themselves established."

Maybe it is not quite time for black parents to bypass that lecture on working twice as hard to get half as far.