America’s Cool Black Friend

We can learn many things about life from watching TV. For instance, every apartment in Paris has a view of the Eiffel Tower, everyone in the world uses Apple computers, and all doctors and lawyers are incredibly good-looking and horny. Most cops too.

TV also teaches us that every group of three or more people will always include at least one black person. Partly, this is because casting directors want to preempt accusations of racism in the entertainment industry and demonstrate their sensitive, multi-culti bona fides. But also it’s because of the enduring American myth of the Cool Black Friend.

Our culture has designated the black person as the totem of style, savvy, wisdom, and well, coolness. Stuff that is popular among black people (or rather “urban” people, as the marketers say) is the stuff that’s considered good and cool–clothes, music, slang, etc. Because everybody wants to be cool, white people all want a black friend (or two, maybe, but not too many, y’know, because then there goes the neighborhood, am I right Buffy?), and they feel somehow lacking if they don’t have one. Just listen to how defensive white people are when you ask them about their black friends. “I know black people!” they plead. “I have lots of black friends!” As if they’re not just explaining who they hang out with but defending their own legitimacy as a decent human being.

You only have to take a quick look at the attitudes toward our new president to see how this ingrained cultural standard plays out in real life. For an example, just look at Matt Laurer, who interviewed Obama on Super Bowl Sunday in the same way that the Beatles were “interviewed” by screaming teenage girls in the front row at the Ed Sullivan Show. Here’s a recap from Andy McCarthy:

It would have been mildly annoying, but par for the course, if we had only had to endure Dear Leader’s views on football (Matt Lauer’s he’s-so-cool gape as POTUS wows us with his intimate knowledge of flaws in the BCS system, his breakdown of the Steelers/Cardinals, and Look, mom, he even uses his own Blackberry!). But lapdog Matt, of course, couldn’t leave it at that. So minutes before gametime, we were treated to the correspondent’s observation that “many people were disappointed” when not a single one of those awful Republicans voted for the “stimulus” bill in the House — remarkably, of the two guys in the room, Obama was the only one who approached fair-and-balanced, telling a seemingly incredulous Lauer that Republicans had “a lot of good ideas” which he hoped to incorporate.

Or consider the reporter who recently put his (ahem) journalistic integrity at risk by jumping a ropeline to pursue the President for an autograph. And that guy was from a conservative website.

What’s got into these people, these supposedly professional adults? It’s the lure of the Cool Black Friend, the guy who is the arbiter of cool, and who validates the cool of others by acknowledging them.

This is probably Obama’s greatest accomplishment: he has harnessed this yearning of white people for validation–either through a long-term, calculated cultivation of his image, or because he is, in fact, a cool black guy–and used it as the engine to propel his political career. To the political wonk, the activist nerd, and the indifferent slacker, he offers the cachet of cool merely by showing up and pulling the lever for him.

I think the explanation for Obama’s success is as simple as that. People have always had empty suits into whom they could pour all of their hopes and dreams. But most of the time, those people were politicians, who are by nature boring and loutish and a little creepy. The Obama era has given them a political vessel that they can use to decorate their lives like a Rolex watch or Gucci sunglasses. He doesn’t need any accomplishments of his own; he makes people feel good just by being around. He is America’s Cool Black Friend.