Blacks keep high hopes on down low

There has been no premature celebrating from African Americans.

By Thomas Schaller

Published November 4, 2008 10:09PM (EST)

I have held off two weeks before writing this post because I didn't want to give some jerk like Sean Hannity or Rush Limbaugh any opportunity to exploit the private thoughts of African Americans about the prospects of Barack Obama winning the White House.

In any case, what follows is an email that was circulating through inboxes of some black professionals in the Baltimore area that was eventually forwarded along to me by a friend. I’m suspect it’s not the only communication of its type, and I have no doubt that sentiments like those expressed in the email are common when blacks were communicating in private about the election this year.

But let’s get to the email first, and then I’ll offer some reflections after:

Good Morning My People:

After watching the final debate the other night, it dawned on me that Obama could actually win this thing. If that happens, there will be a lot of people (some of our co-workers included) who will be afraid that an Obama presidency will usher in the end of days. They’ll be watching us on November 5th (the day after the election) for signs of the end times.

To keep the peace and keep a lot of folks from getting nervous, I think we should develop a list of acceptable celebrations and behaviors we should probably avoid -- at least for the first few days:

  • No crying, hugging or shouting “Thank you, Lord” -- at least not in public

  • No high-fives -- at least not unless the area is clear and there are no witnesses

  • No laughing at the McCain/Palin supporters

  • No calling in sick on November 5th. They’ll get nervous if too many of us don’t show up.

  • We’re allowed to give each other knowing winks or nods in passing. Just try to keep from grinning too hard.

  • No singing loudly. We’ve come this Far By Faith (it will be acceptable to hum softly)

  • No bringing of barbeque ribs or fried chicken for lunch in the company lunchroom for at least a week (no chittlings at all … this may make us seem too ethnic)

  • No leaving Kool-aid packages at the water fountain (this might be a sign that poor folks might be getting a break through)

  • No Cupid Shuffle during breaks (this could indicate a little too much excitement)

  • Please no Moving on Up music (we are going to try to remain humble)

  • No doing the George Jefferson dance (unless you're in your office with the door closed)

  • Please try not to yell “BOOOO YAH!”

  • Just in case you're wondering, doing the Running Man, cabbage patch, or a back handspring on the highway is 100% okay.

If I’ve missed anything feel free to add to the list. I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page when Obama brings this thing home on November 4th.

Now go get your early vote on and let’s make this thing happen!!!

[name withheld]

The first thing to observe about this email is its confirmation -- or news, to those who may assume otherwise -- that blacks traffic aplently in sarcastic self-deprecation, often by invoking the very sorts of language and stereotypes that would be less appropriate or inappropriate in mixed company. (Making fun of stereotypes delegitimizes them, of course.) You don't have to attend a Chris Rock show to witness such comical self-criticism, but it is rare in mixed company, especially in work or school environments, for the obvious reason: The risks to African Americans are greater.

But what's most interesting about this email is the underyling worry that, even once all the votes are counted, blacks still ought to mute their enthusiasms somewhat. Throughout Obama's historic run, black America has been very careful not to celebrate prematurely: Lips have been sealed or bitten; giddiness or anticipation systematically suppressed. As for high-profile black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton? They have been so invisible I kept waiting to find their faces on milk cartons. And I can't tell you how many black colleagues and friends -- and I'm talking educated professionals -- simply refused to admit to themselves until very late in the campaign that, as the email says, Obama "could actually win this thing." Given their electoral experience, rife as it is with disheartening tales of disenfranchisement (one need only go back to the 2000 bogus felon purge in Florida), African Americans of course have cause to be very, very wary.

But those doubts are fading, that wariness slowly giving way to elation and, tomorrow, maybe even some demonstrative public celebrations ... some of which may spill over to a watercooler near you. To which I say: Let's all join in. I like to BOOO-YEA as much as the next guy.

Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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