This McCain ad aims to make sure you remember the Democratic candidate is a "skinny Black guy with a funny name."
The other day a friend of mine admitted something she found very upsetting, something she was sure she'd be condemned for. She finds the idea of Barack Obama in the White House frightening.
She's a hard working, accomplished, late middle-aged, working class white woman. Deeply ensconced in the liberal ambiance of Northern California, she will vote for Obama in November; about that there is no question. But she finds the idea of him as president scary.
Friends, a little shocked but supportive, pressed her -- "Why? What is it that gives you that feeling?"
She suggested, "It's my racism..." But we knew that, though true as it is for all of us who are white, was too vague to be meaningful. She thought some more and explained, "It's the names. I felt it when I watched Michelle's speech and his daughters came on stage. They were called something I can't pronounce."
Obama's daughters are named Malia Ann and Sasha (short for Natasha, actually).
Neither of these is an uncommon name in the present United States. According to the name frequency tool described here, Malia ranked 403rd in popularity for girls in 2007. The name did not appear with any frequency before the mid-1970s. Sasha, as a girl's name (I think of it as something men are called in Russian fiction) ranked 350th in 2007. It was 256th in the mid-1980s and largely unused before the 1960s.
My friend's name, which I am not going to share out of respect for the quality of confidence she gave us in discussing something that troubled her, hit 259th in the mid-1930s and just about disappeared from common usage shortly after she was born.
And "no names starting with Barack were in the top 1000 names in any decade" according to the same tool. That may change.
So what is with white perceptions that African Americans have "strange" names, besides a stratagem to deflect awareness of our own racism?
I did a little light-weight research on the history of African American naming customs here and here. Both authors suggest that laying great stress on the empowerment of naming may have roots in the African customs brought by the slaves. But since losing the power to choose one's own name was of the essence of slavery, selecting one's name became identified with freedom.
In my own lifetime, I've seen another flowering of African American naming choices. When I was younger, I thought, from experience, of Black people as having names like "Eddie Washington" and "Eva Jefferson." But since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, African Americans have exercised joyous creativity in naming their children, adopting names that people thought of, rightly or wrongly, as authentically African, or Muslim, or simply beautiful.
This freedom in naming has a cost in discrimination from white society. The National Bureau of Economic Research reports a complex 2001 study in which resumes from fictitious persons whose race might be signaled by their names were sent out in response to Chicago "help wanted" ads.
During the Democratic National Convention, I remember reading somewhere a complaint that every speaker kept saying over and over "Barack Obama..." this and "Barack Obama..." that. Maybe that was far more intentional than I realized. Maybe the speechwriters and speech vetters over-repeated the candidate's name in order to help inoculate white America against our instinctive racist recoil from an unfamiliar moniker.
On some level this works. Note that my friend described her discomfort with "the names" as stemming from the family, not the guy himself. We're getting used to "Barack Obama." We're getting used to thinking of "the skinny Black guy with the funny name" as our next President. We have a ways to go, but together we can get there.