Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Do the White Kids Have to do This, Too?

Consider these Backgrounds

Barack Obama:

  • Columbia University
  • Harvard Law School, first African American editor of the Harvard Law Review
  • Notably successful community organizer
  • Constitutional law professor, University of Chicago
  • Effective state legislator for seven years, popular on both sides of the aisle
  • History-making U.S. Senator
Sonia Sotomayor:
  • Princeton University
  • Yale Law School, editor of the Yale Law Journal
  • Professor and Lecturer at Yale and Columbia
  • Federal judge for the past 17 years, nominated for positions by both Democratic and Republican presidents
Colin Powell:
  • Four Star General
  • National Security Advisor
  • Only African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • First African American Secretary of State
Bill Richardson:
  • Congressman
  • Ambassador to the United Nations
  • Governor and Chairman of the Democratic Governor's Association
  • Secretary of Education
  • Harvard Professor
  • International Diplomat

I began with this list just by looking at President Obama and Judge Sotomayor, both of whom have such similar biographies. As I was putting together their list, I also though of General Colin Powell, who provides a representative from the right. He reminded me of Governor Richardson, who also has exceptional foreign policy bona fides.

What all four of these individuals represent are successful and socially accepted minorities with exceptional resumes. Success at Ivy League universities. A diversity of experience. The ability to excel at complex task. Great respect among colleges. Looking at them, I can't help but wonder, why don't we require the same from potential white leaders?

Consider George Bush, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. By now we all know that Bush was able to go to Yale and Harvard in large part because of his father. He did not perform particularly well at these schools, and went on to be a rather unsuccessful business man. John McCain also performed poorly at the Naval Academy, although he did earn our nation's respect by showing genuine heroism as a prisoner of war. He went on to become a long-time U.S. Senator. Sarach Palin didn't do poorly at just one college - she went to five in six years to get her bachelor's degree. Of the three, McCain is the only one who can make a real claim to being a better than average elected official.

Would we accept such a resume from a non-white public figure?

What if Barack Obama was a sub-par high school student, but was admitted to Columbia and then to Harvard only because they needed to fill a quota of African Americans and didn't care who they got? What if when he got to those schools he performed poorly? What if as a community organizer he had run the organization he lead into bankruptcy and chaos? What if as a state legislator and U.S. Senator he had done very little of note? Would he still be President of the United States?

Or, what if he had attended Michigan State and Temple Law school - two quality schools with much less prestige - and still performed very well there? Would we have as much respect for him?

What if Sonia Sotomayor had struggled at multiple schools over six years to get her bachelor's degree, barely made it out of law school, barely passed the bar, and, a year and a half ago stumbled into a federal judgeship? And what if, during that brief time as a judge, she came under fire for ethics violations? Would she still be a legitimate possibility to fill a Supreme Court vacancy?

Or, again, what if she did very well at a less notable school? How would we look at her?

Now, go back to my original question - why don't we hold white people to the same standards? Why is it that non-whites must be exceptional - better than all the rest - in order to qualify? Why, when it's OK for whites to be good, do blacks have to be great? Why would a John Edwards cross the threshold of acceptability as a presidential candidate before Barack Obama? Why Joe Biden over Bill Richardson? How are Republicans questioning the qualifications of literally the most experienced SCOTUS nominee in 100 years?

And, what does this mean for me, and the thousands of non-whites like me who don't go to Ivy League schools, and who will likely work "regular-people" jobs when we graduate? For all the hoopla and national "good jobs" that surrounded President Obama's election, I still wonder "can I be president of the United States? Can I as a black man with a less than 4.0 GPA from a semi-public, North Philly university really be president?"

Why do we think it's a good thing to tell little black boys that they can be president if they work hard like Barack Obama? We don't tell them they could be president if they slack off like George Bush. The "Be Like Barack" movement is nothing more than an acceptance of inequality: "You still have to work twice as hard to get as far as white people, but you can still do it, so it's all good."

It's not all good.

Scratch that.

It ain't all good.

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