Since Barack Obama's victory celebration in Grant Park, the chattering class has been atwitter wondering what, exactly, his election will mean for African Americans. On Meet the Press, Tom Brokaw asked about the "impact ... on the black community and in those neighborhoods where there are dysfunctional families." To many pundits, both black and white, Obama's election to the White House signals the end of black America's unchallenged status as sore losers and complaint-mongers. "African Americans have just entered the no-excuses zone," Jonetta Rose Barras wrote in the Washington Post. Obama "won't tolerate ... the long-standing narrative of victimhood that has defined black America to itself and to the mainstream for more than a century." The writer John McWhorter, in New York magazine, went so far as to suggest that Obama will finally end the bullying of the black nerd: "Whenever a black nerd gets teased for thinking he's white, all he has to say is four words: 'Is Barack Obama white?'"
That's terrible advice for a kid. But it's in line with those who think of Obama as a messiah who can give black people some manners, a God-child descending from the heavens to teacheth benighted African Americans the virtues of books and proper English and the evils of Pacman Jones and blaming the white man. It pains me to deliver this sobering news to those who think Obama will wave his hand and erase whole ghettos: Barack Obama is a black President, not black Jesus.
In fact, the very idea that Obama should transform African Americans into the black Waltons is flawed. It rests on the notion that the black community, more than other communities, is characterized by a bunch of hapless layabouts who spend their days ticking off reparations demands and shaking their fist at the white man. The truth is that the dominant conversation in the black community today is not about racism or victimization but about self-improvement. In a 2007 Pew survey of black America, Bill Cosby was rated second among public figures believed to have the best influence on African Americans; Oprah, not exactly a doyenne of black complaint, ranked first. That same year, a study of young people by the University of Chicago found that while black kids consumed more rap videos than their white counterparts, about 60% of them thought the portrayals of black women were offensive.
Obama has made a particular point of invoking the individual will of African Americans, but anyone who has spent time in a black church or barbershop--or just watched the crowds when Obama puts forth the message--can tell you that it isn't exactly a tough sell. When Jesse Jackson claimed that Obama was "talking down to black people," there was no real rush among blacks to defend Jackson. That's because, in terms of their outlook, their belief in hard work and family, African Americans aren't any different from white Americans. (See pictures of Barack Obama's family tree.)
The belief in Obama as a force for moral reform rests on another shaky pillar--the idea that people should get their values from what they see on television. This goes for entertainers and Presidents. Obama can't do the work of the family. It's not his job to buy your kid a belt or teach him to box. His job is to monitor this nation's nuclear arsenal, not your daughter's iPod.
In this post--civil rights age, with the media hungry for a single black narrative, there is a strong desire to have one voice speak to--and for--us all. But that impulse is wrong, whether it's focused on Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton or Barack Obama. It's wrong because it distorts and flattens the very complexities and contradictions that ultimately make black people human. In 2006, this magazine reported on a University of Minnesota study that found, not surprisingly, that blacks were more likely than whites to see racism in the world. But the same study also found that blacks were more likely than whites to blame the lack of black progress on individual factors like hard work.
The truth is that the people create the conditions for the leader, not the other way around. Obama isn't bringing moral values to the black community; he's responding to the community's own innate, quasi-conservative embrace of those values. Thus the question of what Obama has to teach black people is exactly backward. The real question is what black people, through Barack Obama, have to show America and the world.
Coates is a contributor to TIME and the Atlantic