Fear of a black president

What I learned when I ran for office

The author on the Ooltewah High School varsity, fall 1978.
The author on the Ooltewah High School varsity, fall 1978.
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joseph Williams
January 13, 2008

IN 1980, THE year I ran for president, the country was mired in inflation, the malaise of the Carter administration was about to be overtaken by Ronald Reagan's Morning in America, and like a lot of the country, Ooltewah High School was swept up in disco fever.

Tucked next to White Oak Mountain, about 20 miles outside Chattanooga, my school had something else in common with America: a stark division between the white majority and the black minority. Alone among the three candidates for school president, I had a foot on both sides of that divide.

My father was in the Air Force, and my sisters and I were children of integration, among the handful of black kids tossed into overwhelmingly white schools on Air Force bases.

I watched "Soul Train" most Saturdays, pleaded with my sisters to perm my nappy hair into an Afro, and was a member in good standing at Ooltewah High's "black table," where the small group of African-American students ate lunch in the cafeteria. But I had much in common with Ooltewah's white kids, too - a suburban upbringing, a taste for Space Invaders, Monty Python, SCTV, and the Who. And when I talked, I sounded a lot like them.

Whenever pundits begin talking about Barack Obama's chances to win the presidency, and about race and politics, I think back to my run for office. It was years ago, and it was only high school, but even then it was clear that the question of whether a black man can be elected president was more complicated than just a vote count.

For a black person seeking power - moving outside the black sphere to court white people as well - the decision forces an uncomfortable dance of identity and compromise. And for black voters, it means giving up something important as well.

. . .

I had no real craving for power, but a friend nominated me for student body president. Like Obama, I had some assets: a high profile in the school, the support of some teachers, and informal polls of the student body that suggested I could win. I was a captain on the football team. There was some ego involved, and some ambition - it would look great on my college applications.

I didn't doubt that the black students would vote for me. Courting and winning over the white kids, the majority of the school, would be the key.

I knew I could walk on both sides of the racial divide, but to say I fit in with either group would be an overstatement. It wasn't unusual to hear white peers tell me, "You're different than the other black kids," or "You speak so well," compliments that also carried the sting of racism. Being an "only" - the only black kid in class, at the party, in the English club or in the tight circle of best-friends-for-life - had gotten really old.

But there was a distance between my black schoolmates and me, too, a lingering sense that liking what I liked, speaking the way I did, and hanging out with white kids made me inauthentic to my race. No one outwardly called me an Oreo - I had enough friendships and took enough stands to maintain my racial bona fides - but I felt as uncomfortable as I did with the white kids.

My presidential run only heightened this anxiety. I look like a brother but sound like a white boy. White kids will see my black face and never vote for me. Black kids probably think I'm a sellout.

Campaigning meant wearing what poet Paul Laurence Dunbar described as "the mask," the public, nonthreatening identity a black person assumes to navigate through a world dominated by white people. Wearing "a face that grins and lies," as Dunbar wrote, is a common survival tactic that becomes second nature to most black people.

There was just one campaign speech, before the student body. Delivering it meant a decision: I had to sound "credible." That meant I would have to use my white-boy voice before an assembly that included my black peers. In front of everyone, I would have to wear the mask.

. . .

In the decades since then, the forces I faced in the auditorium of Ooltewah High have surfaced, again and again, in increasingly significant forms. At my alma mater, a small Baptist university in Virginia, the black table became more of a statement of solidarity. I pledged a black fraternity, though unlike some of my hard-core brothers I still made friends and dated across the race line. As a journalist, I bypassed historically black newspapers in favor of large, mostly white papers, with the promise to myself that I would push them to cover stories important to black people.

Four years ago, when I was the local news director at a large Midwestern newspaper with a mostly white staff, I was reminded that reconciling two starkly different worlds can sometimes lead to head-on collisions between them.

A few weeks after I arrived, a drug dealer with a long record publicly accused the police of beating him and sodomizing him with a plunger. The charges aggravated the city's racial tensions, and some activists pointed to my newspaper as part of the problem - until a case like this, or a homicide, or a riot, they said, we all but ignored the community.

On the paper's behalf, I met privately with a group of African-American leaders to make our case and tacitly let them see that a ranking news editor was black. As I walked out of the meeting, our toughest investigative reporter - a middle-aged white man on the team covering the story - saw me, planted his feet, and fired off questions.

What were you doing back there with them? he demanded. Who were you meeting with? Whose side are you on?

Now I work in Washington, where black and white are congealed into separate national power bases, and where "black politics" and American politics look as different as they ever have.

I'm awed each time I walk through the Capitol Rotunda, the centerpiece of our shared American history, but I'm angry when I consider that most of that history wasn't really shared, and that an all-white Congress didn't grant equal rights for black people until after I was born. I'm irritated that Obama is the only black face to be seen in the Senate, but also irritated with black leaders who criticize him for "acting white," not speaking up enough for the race - as though he could have been elected any other way.

When it comes to power, it's fair to say, white people tend not to follow any black leader who doesn't transcend race - that is, who doesn't speak impeccable English and doesn't act or dress like someone from the middle class. African-Americans, in turn, are cool to any aspiring leader who doesn't speak in their vernacular, who goes against the civil rights orthodoxy, and who seems too close to the white man.

Both attitudes are toxic. The former is a latent, subtle expression of racism, as limiting as a black person's physical appearance used to be under Jim Crow. The latter confines black people to a prison of our own creation - a rejection of the sort of multicultural fluency required of any leader in 21st-century America.

. . .

Obama's success so far has led some pundits and political analysts to celebrate the day Martin Luther King dreamed of, when a black man is judged - or voted for - on the content of his character.

But it's as true in America as it was in my high school that only a certain kind of aspiring black leader has a shot at power: A nonthreatening person who keeps the mask on in a tacit agreement not to remind white people of persistent inequality and lingering bias, the legacy of slavery.

When such a person is elected, be it Obama or anyone else, black voters are likely to be disappointed. Because the first black president won't - can't - be a "race leader," someone who has stood out front on black issues, made a career of calling white leadership on the carpet. It will be someone like Obama. When white and black high school students clashed in Jena, La., and the black students were punished harshly, the country's black leaders declared it blatant racism and organized a march on the town. Obama kept his distance, issuing a nonjudgmental plea for unity.

That's how I played it, too, when I took the podium in my speech for the presidency of Ooltewah High.

I had spoken proper English on the campaign trail and I did it in my lone campaign speech, vowing to work with all students and teachers to make the school - our school - a better place for everyone. Internally, I fought the notion that I had downplayed my race to advance my ambitions. I promised myself that if I won I'd represent all students, black and white. I had to be the person I was.

When election day came, I lost by 44 votes.

In the decades since, when I've dusted off those memories, I've often wondered why Bobby Lollar, a genial, smart, but low-profile student, defeated me. Was I too black for the white students? Too inauthentic for my black classmates? Did I let the mask slip in some way?

I eventually concluded that Ooltewah High in 1980 just wasn't ready for an African-American to lead its student body.

It's taken about as long for me to accept my cross-racial fluency as an asset, not just a source of conflict. If my generation is the first to have a real, legitimate chance at presidential power, perhaps the generation behind us - white and black kids reared on rap-metal, interracial romances on television, and images of the first black man to seriously contend for a presidential nomination - will be the first with a chance to enjoy it.

Joseph Williams is the deputy chief of the Globe's Washington Bureau. He can be reached at

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