No Country for Old Satirists
August 06, 2008, 04:39 AM
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... because the Serious People are too funny for a parodist to compete with. I can't make up stuff as good as this tiff between the Wall Street Journal and Slate over whether it's racist to mention Obama's skinniness.

Timothy Noah of Slate claims:

When "Skinny" Means "Black:" The Journal stumbles over racial subtext.

In the Aug. 1 Wall Street Journal, Amy Chozick asked, "[C]ould Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability?" Most Americans, Chozick points out, aren't skinny. Fully 66 percent of all citizens who've reached voting age are overweight, and 32 percent are obese. To be thin is to be different physically. Not that there's anything wrong, mind you, with being a skinny person. But would you want your sister to marry one? Would you want a whole family of skinny people to move in next-door? "I won't vote for any beanpole guy," an "unnamed Clinton supporter" wrote on a Yahoo politics message board. My point is that any discussion of Obama's "skinniness" and its impact on the typical American voter can't avoid being interpreted as a coded discussion of race.

… But I firmly disagree that a racial reading of Chozick's story is "ridiculous," and I would counter that any failure on Chozick's part to recognize such is just a wee bit clueless.

Let's review the basics. Barack Obama is the first African-American to win a major-party nomination for president of the United States. African-Americans are distinguishable from other Americans by their skin color. This physical attribute looms large in our nation's history as a source of prejudice.

The promise of Obama's presidency, in many people's minds, is partly that America will move toward becoming a post-racial society. It's pretty clear, though, that we aren't there yet. When white people are invited to think about Obama's physical appearance, the principal attribute they're likely to dwell on is his dark skin. Consequently, any reference to Obama's other physical attributes can't help coming off as a coy walk around the barn. A whole genre of humor turns on this reality. A Slate colleague informs me that an episode of the TV sitcom Happy Days ("Fonzie's New Friend") had its 1950s-era characters nervously discussing the fact that a black man in their midst was so … skinny. Was it true that skinny people liked fried chicken? That they were good at basketball? And so on.

It might be argued that body weight differs from certain other physical characteristics (apart from skin color) in that it has never been associated with racial caricature. Chozick wasn't asking (and, I feel sure, would never ask) whether Americans might think Obama's hair was too kinky or his nose too broad. But it doesn't matter. The sad fact is that any discussion of Obama's physical appearance is going to remind white people of the physical characteristic that's most on their minds.

Oh, boy ...

First, I find it highly unlikely that Obama's svelteness is going to hurt him at all. There hasn't been a truly fat President since William Howard Taft. The last Presidential nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerry, were in terrific shape for men of their ages.

Second, Obama's skinniness is a racial trait, but virtually nobody in America knows that. Obama is half Nilotic, and Nilotic people, such as Kenyan runners and Sudanese basketball players, are, on average, skinnier than anybody else in the world when they are in good shape. Physical anthropologists refer to Nilotics as "elongated." Anthropologist Carleton Coon wrote: "The Nilotic Negroes, who live in extreme heat, particularly in summer, may turn out to be the world's leanest people." Obama's Luo tribe, whom Obama described as "tall, ink-black" compared to the "short, brown Kikuyus," are not as extreme as the Dinka or Nuer of southern Sudan, but they tend in that direction.

However, Nilotics are extremely rare in America—the only time I've stumbled across a large number of American Nilotics is when looking up star high school cross country runners (boys with East African names accounted for 9% of the top 300 high school cross country times). So, nobody thinks of skinniness as a racial trait.

Indeed, African-American women tend, these days, toward fatness (think Oprah and Queen Latifah among even celebrities), while African-American male celebrities tend to be muscular (Lebron James, LaDainlian Tomlinson, 50 Cent, and Will Smith), or, in the case of rappers, fat.

Third, Obama has always been nearly all about race, although in more sophisticated ways than most pundits can grasp. You can't go from being a state legislator to President in four years if you are a normal white or black politician. Even if you are the son or wife of a former President, it takes six to eight years as governor or U.S. senator. (That's why the Bush dynasty couldn't run their Chosen Son, Jeb, in 2000—because he'd gotten beaten in the 1994 Florida gubernatorial race, so only had 2 years in the governor's mansion by 2000, while the Prodigal Son, George, had won an upset victory in Texas in 1994.)

It's the mythopoetical aspects of Obama's racial heritage—the heir foreordained to unify two warring dynasties — that makes him the Presidential frontrunner. After his defeat by Bobby Rush in 2000, Obama finally figured that out. That's why he devoted the first 380 words of his debut speech at the 2004 Democratic convention to his ancestral background.