Paving the Way for Obama
By John Feehery
It all started with Cosby.
While the civil rights lions of the 1960’s deserve great credit for giving black people the tools to participate fully in the political process, it was Bill Cosby and a handful of other African-American superstars that made Barack Obama’s victory possible.
Bill Cosby showed us how a middle-class black family lives in his top-rated show in the eighties. And what he showed us was that middle-class black families live pretty much like everybody else, with the same concerns, the same challenges, and the same opportunities. Cosby was definitely black, but he was also at the same time, everyman, a guy who had the twin challenges of keeping his wife happy and his kids on the straight and narrow.
At about the same time Cosby topped the prime-time ratings, Oprah Winfrey arrived to dominate the daytime. Like Cosby, Oprah was non-threatening yet non-compromising. She galvanized America’s working and traditional women, offering advice, entertainment, wisdom, and, most importantly, leadership. She wasn’t a black celebrity, she was just a celebrity. And like Cosby, she helped make America look beyond race.
And then came Michael. Michael Jordan became the first black superstar to inspire absolute adoration among white kids. Everybody wanted to be like Mike. Jordan was avowedly non-political. He was photogenic, with a smile that electrified the stratosphere. He was skillful. He was the ultimate competitor. And he was a winner. He made the NBA the hottest sport. And he transformed the American culture.
These three black stars helped prepare America for the next generation of African American leaders. And that next generation of leaders includes Tiger Woods and Will Smith.
Both Woods and Smith represent the best of America, not just the best of black America. Woods smashed the idea of racial superiority when he marched into Augusta National and beat his all-white competition by the biggest margin in the history of the Master’s Golf tournament. But Woods was also avowedly non-political and seemingly post-racial. He calls himself cablanasian, a nod to his mixed heritage. That doesn’t mean that Woods “acts white”. He acts like Tiger Woods, and he inspires others to act like him, whether they be white, black, green or orange.
Will Smith, who first entered the public stage as a rap artist and entered America’s consciousness as the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”, is now the biggest box-office draw in Hollywood. He is the hardest working man in show-business. He has a beautiful wife and beautiful kids. He has a positive vision of the future. And he stars in roles big and small, roles that are designed for black actors (“Ali”), and roles like in the science fiction movie “I Am Legend”, that have nothing to do with race.
And now comes Barack Obama.
Much will be said about how his success is due to those who struggled in the civil right movement forty years ago, and there is no doubt that Obama owes a debt of gratitude to Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson and John Lewis. But those guys only helped Obama open the door.
It was Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan who completely changed the outlook of white America towards African-Americans. Tiger Woods and Will Smith broke down the last bits of racial resistance through their commitment to excellence. These leaders didn’t use protests to tear down the walls of racism. They used their talents to inspire all Americans, and by doing so, they made the racists irrelevant.