Wellesley University professor Peggy McIntosh wrote an essay in the Winter 1990 edition of a school journal discussing an “invisible knapsack” of unearned skin privilege that Whites benefit from but many do not recognize and may not acknowledge. Recent criticisms of Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC), President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain over their handling of race issues reflects a different type of baggage that Black political leaders must carry.
In McIntosh’s essay, she called the invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools , and blank checks which assist certain people of the lighter hue – unfettered by the same stresses that people of color endure. Many are blissfully aloof to and unaware of these perks in life they enjoy by simply being born in the skin they are in. These “taken for granted” advantages provide license to “ … disparage, fear, neglect, or be oblivious to anything outside of the dominant cultural forms.”
But for persons of color who climb to positions of extreme influence and esteem, they must carry around an invisible, weighted backpack full of bills, past due notices, obligations, IOUs, and contingency letters.
IOU to ancestors
There are encumbrances in the form of pressure from members of their race. Black politicians must be mindful of who paved “the way” for them. Because of that ancestral sacrifice, Black leaders must be more than just a senator or a Supreme Court justice for the constituency they are supposed to represent or support.
So when Tim Scott decided against joining the Congressional Black Caucus, many said he did not want to acknowledge CBC efforts on behalf of Black people. The prevailing thought is that as a Black man, he owed “his people” at least some deference and consideration while sitting in Congress. His voting record and speeches would be watched with extra attentiveness from those who share his heritage, an attempt to ensure he “ … does right by them.” While a South Carolina legislator, Scott may have opposed the confederate flag flying atop his state’s assembly house or supported a measure against police profiling of Black drivers, he was quickly called out by fellow Black legislatures for not backing those measures all the way. After all, he owed it to his race to look out for their issues.
Black politicians don’t have the luxury to just exist, but must take extra consideration to give back, mentor, and take into account the needs of “their people.” This obligation is the heaviest item in that backpack. Harvard professor Randall Kennedy has written about that obligation in his book The Persistence of the Color Line: Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency. According to Kennedy, it’s the reason why President Obama faced much flak when he decided not to address Black people directly in early speeches.
As we’ve seen in recent months several members of the Congressional Black Caucus have not been shy about questioning the president’s hesitance to address double digit unemployment in the black community.
Thus, the Black politicians’ backpack is full of loan payment remittances that will never get paid. So long as you are on top with few of your people there, you will always have to pay towards those who made the down payment and cleared a path for your success.
That asterisk by your accomplishments and the legacy of Affirmative Action
Black politicians must also live with the permanent asterisks by their accomplishments. At some point, folks may assume that their matriculation to an Ivy League school or rapid rise in a company was on account of “Affirmative Action” policies. Your “wins” are not always unclouded by that doubt.
The story is that you must have gotten some assistance or help along that way or that you were able to attend college because a more qualified White or Asian student was denied a seat – or that you weren’t necessarily the best person occupying your role. Of course, that’s not really the case. Yet, the doubt is always there.
Many Republicans leaders and candidates, and most outrageously Donald Trump, questioned how the president got into Harvard, pointing to Affirmative Action to undermine the accomplishment.
Donald Trump infamously demanded that the president show his academic records, telling Politico, “I have friends who have smart sons with great marks, great boards, great everything and they can’t get into Harvard.”
Perhaps sentiments like these are why Scott and Justice Clarence Thomas have avoided openly embracing the notion that their respective careers were advanced by an Affirmative Action policy. They are not alone as several blacks and other minorities in high position lament on having their positions and decisions in the workplace questioned and undermined by colleagues and co-workers who don’t necessarily believe they are the most qualified.
It makes the backpack that much heavier.
Burden of Stereotypes
By the time a black politician has risen to the pinnacle, he or she will have to overcome certain presumptions about his or her correct grammar, parentage, upbringing and capabilities. Without a doubt, there is a stereotype, partially substantiated by statistics of humble beginnings and Ebonic vernacular.
These presumptions are the symbolic probation notices and warnings in that backpack which could be considered the opposite of skin privilege. Rather than being presumed credit worthy and to have gone through life on one’s own merit, you are considered an anomaly for being articulate.
Those who opt to surmount race, shedding the backpack, are quickly labeled “Uncle Toms” or “sellouts.” They must always carry the weight as their brother, mother, father and race’s keeper.