Modern Melting Pot

What's new in racism.

Spiritually Liberal, Socially Conservative

Did Barack Obama lie to us, or did we lie to ourselves?

Back in the early 1970s, I interviewed a young Jewish woman, Sara Levy (a pseudonym), whose family was totally, I mean totally, committed to the Black Liberation Struggle of the 1960s. Both she and her mother had gone on Freedom Rides, those dangerous, racially integrated bus trips into the Deep South to challenge American Jim Crow laws. In Alabama she was trapped on a bus that was set on fire and she almost died. Her family was so committed that they encouraged her to date a black man, Virlon Glover (a pseudonym). Glover was a graduate of Howard University with a scholarship to go to the Wharton School of Finance for an MBA.

She fell in love with Glover and so she happily paid for the apartment and living expenses in Philadelphia while he was attending Wharton. He graduated and she expected him to go with her to San Francisco to help the Black Panther Party and to join the Peace and Freedom Movement. Instead he took a job with a Wall Street investment firm.

I thought of Sara Levy when I read on a Huffington Post blog what Marianne Williamson, a white liberal democrat, had to say after one year of the Obama presidency. “It's hard to own the disappointment I feel over our moderate corporate Democratic President. The whole Obama phenomenon brings up memories from my distant past: the good-looking guy who talks real good, whose line you don't buy immediately but whose charm is so dazzling that he gradually convinces you that this time it will be different.”

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She had supposed that Barack Obama was a liberal. In fact, both the political right and the political left took him to be a raging left-wing radical. In truth, of the Democratic candidates for president in 2008, Dennis Kucinich, was by far the most liberal. In my view, John Edwards was next. Then came Bill Richardson, Joe Biden, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Barack Obama seemed from the start a moderate corporate democrat.

To complete my book, Until We Got Here: From “We Shall Overcome” to “Yes, We Can”, I interviewed Sara Levy again after the 2008 election. We laughed when I read notes of what she had said about Virlon Glover in the 1970s interview. “He betrayed me. He betrayed me. He is nothing but a user. He’s not a true black man. His skin is black, but he’s not black.”

“Oh, my God, did I say that?” she asked. “I did love him, but he was such a little Republican. He was born and raised in inner-city Newark, but he was always a Republican. I knew that for the entire two years that I lived with him, but I never accepted it.”

“He voted for Obama too,” I said and watched her body language closely. Noticeable tension was there. She and her family had spent much of the last 40 years helping dispossessed black folk. I tired one of the themes of my book on her. The themes grew out of more than 40 years of reporting on blacks and whites in America. “Black folk are spiritually liberal but socially conservative. . . you know, all God’s children got wings, spiritually liberal, but they all have to straighten up and fly right, socially conservative.” 

“Yes, I found that to be true with a vengeance about black people.”

“I’m not saying I like the socially conservative part, but I’m just saying it’s what I’ve seen.”

“It’s true,” she said. “even in Acorn. I raised money for Acorn long before the last election and when I listened to some of the people who have lived in poverty all their lives, they are not all that liberal. . . .Have you interviewed Virlon since the election”?

“My partner has. He gave permission for me to give you his telephone number.”

“No thanks! Did he marry the mother of his baby?”

“That’s right, you knew about her. He was still with her when he was with you. . .so did he lie to you?”

“No more than I lied to myself.”

“So in a way you lied to each other.”

“Or no one exactly lied.”

“He married the mother of his baby and they’re divorced. His son graduated from Yale. Virlon got remarried to a former dancer with the Dance Theater of Harlem. He lives in Harlem.”

“Harlem? Virlon?” The irony baffled her for a moment.

I tired another theme on her: White liberals permitted the entry of black people into the mainstream of American life, so blacks often pretended to be liberal in order to ‘mainstream.’ At heart, black people remained very socially conservative.”

“Virlon didn’t even have to pretend. I thought that certain things were true about him simply because he was black.”

“As Americans, we are betrayed by the connotations of our language, the canons of our educational system, our history books and the stories that we allow to be told about black people,” I mimicked the lectures I gave to my college classes. “There is not one novel in our language that tells us what successful, intelligent, educated, well-adjusted, self-loving, each-other-loving, black people think about life. Not one!”

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is Until We Got Here.

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