The Poitier effect

Like many people in this country I spent this past Friday evening at a debate party. My friend Peggy graciously lent us the use of her giant flatscreen TV. Everybody brought some food, and promptly at 9 PM eastern standard time we all crowded around in front of the screen to see what would happen.

Since this was a party in Manhattan, it was a safe bet that everyone in the room was rooting for Obama. After the debate ended there was intense conversation about what we had just seen. Everyone agreed that Obama had come across as the more reasonable and thoughtful of the two candidates whereas McCain had seemed rather disdainful and jingoistic.

And yet people were unsatisfied. There were so many opportunities for Obama to wield a knockout punch, and he took none of them. Sure enough Maureen Dowd made pretty much the same observation in her column this last weekend in the New York Times. And this rather obvious observation has left a number of people wondering: since Barack Obama is evidently the smartest guy in the room, why isn’t he jumping at the many opportunities for a clever and bitingly decisive attack?

Could it be that for all of his knowledge and intelligence, Obama simply does not have good debating skills? I don’t think that this is what’s going on here. It was quite apparent throughout the debate that Obama was visibly holding himself back, carefully not saying things that one could plainly see were going through his mind. He was deliberately avoiding any opportunity to cleverly one-up McCain.

A conversation I had at the debate party got me thinking about his reticence, and what it might mean. A friend of Peggy’s told me that she had recently been to a dinner party at which a woman had told her: “I could never vote for a black man”. The woman who had told her this was extremely well educated and much admired for her professional brilliance in a demanding field.

Peggy’s friend told me that she hadn’t responded to the woman’s statement because she had felt completely at a loss. The statement seemed so outrageous on its face that anything she could think of to say would have resulted in a rapid escalation of hostilities.

Of course the woman who made that statement, as much as she might have believed that she was speaking as an enlightened individual, was actually making the mistake many people make when they assume that democracy is an entitlement, that the freedom our citizens enjoy is simply a given, when in fact it is something that must be defended and affirmed in every generation.

Unaware of the full measure of her own words, that woman was actually expressing an ugliness at the core of our society. Somehow Americans have developed the myth that we as a nation are morally superior. We look with smugness at what happened to the Germans in the 1930s and we tell ourselves that we could never be capable of such atrocity. Yet in that moment, the woman who made that statement might as well have been wearing a Nazi armband or the white sheet of the Ku Klux Klan. She was that villager with a burning torch, the angry white mob burning houses and lynching innocent people in Springfield Illinois in August 1908. And it is the burden of this monstrosity, this hateful and stupid viciousness just beneath the surface of the American soul, not John McCain, that is Obama’s real opponent in November.

With this in mind, I have come to the conclusion that Obama’s strategy is deliberate, and that he is cognizant of what might be termed the Poitier effect. I name this, of course, after the great American black actor Sidney Poitier. In 1967 he starred in three films: To Sir with Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. We are concerned here only with the latter two films, each of them a notable examination of race relations in the United States.

In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Poitier plays a kind of white ideal of the brilliant black man. Although he is a Yale educated doctor, highly learned, widely read, and clearly an intellectual leader in his field, nonetheless he is modest, unassuming, and unfailingly polite to all around him. White Americans might have little problem voting for a guy like that, a guy who (as that woman might have said) knows his place.

In his film In the Heat of the Night, Poitier plays quite a different brilliant black man — one who stands up to white prejudice with proud defiance. Perhaps the most memorable line, in a film that is filled with memorable lines, occurs when his character says to Rod Steiger (as the Southern sheriff who has been calling him “boy”): “They call me Mister Tibbs!” Audiences clearly admire this quality in an ethnic minority when they see it in a movie, but many are made uncomfortable when it shows up in real life.

Obama must have been tempted many times during this debate – and during these past weeks – to hurl the moral equivalent of this line at the Republicans who have been baiting him with racial code words like “disrespectful” and “uppity”. But to do so would cause him to lose more votes than he would gain, because the ugliness that is in the soul of this nation has not gone away. It has simply learned somewhat better ways to disguise itself.

Those of us who realize that the fiscal, civil, and military crises brought about by the current administration can only be fixed through competent leadership must be patient with the senator from Illinois. It’s a numbers game, and in order to get into a position where he can effectively begin to undo the damage that has been done to this country in the last eight years, he needs to watch every word he says, so that he does not inadvertently trigger the latent racism that will send too many voters scurrying, against their own self interest, toward the white sheets and coiled ropes.

Trust him — he knows what he’s doing.

One thought on “The Poitier effect”

  1. My husband and I had this same conversation after the debate. He was the one who couldn’t understand why Obama didn’t deliver a knockout punch; I knew exactly why. You see, I’m from the South. (Notice I said “from” the South–I hopped on the first train headed north after I turned 18.) Obama can’t afford to look like an angry black man. You’re right on, Ken!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *