2/18/2008

Barack Obama: A Second Look at Race

When Barack Obama declared his presidential candidacy, the media and chattering classes could not stop talking about how he was the first viable presidential candidate of color, how he was the child of an interracial and intercontinental marriage, and how his ability to appeal to both Blacks and Whites could make him the nation's healer.

By now, most people know Obama was born in Hawaii to a White woman from Kansas and an African man from Kenya, raised in Indonesia, sidetracked by drug abuse, and admitted to Harvard Law School where he became president of the Harvard Law Review. America has never had a presidential candidate with such a biography before, so it's easy to see how Obama is a dream candidate for the media to cover. The possible angles through which one could assess his candidacy are as varied as Obama's background itself.

Unfortunately, the media have chosen to fight the same old battles and conduct the same old discussions, and a lot of average people are also either buying into these same tired discussions or behaving just like the media are in regards to not thinking outside the box. Obama's candidacy has been highly educational, but not in the way it seems most people think.

To start, why do people, including Whites, consider Obama "the first Black candidate" with a real shot at winning the presidency? Conventional thinking would immediately recall previous failed (and perhaps quixotic) presidential bids by candidates such as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley Braun, and Shirley Chisolm. Yes, Obama has far greater crossover appeal than any of these candidates, but that is missing the point.

Rather than "Black," Obama is really biracial. To call him "Black" is to essentially marginalize half of his identity or family history. Why are biracial, or mulatto, children called Black? Why is it more common for mulatto children to be identified as "biracial" or "Black," but less common to call them "White?" The point of this is to provoke thought, not guilt. What do Whites think when they see a mixed child? If they think of mixed children as Black, then why? Is the element of racial purity required to be White, but not necessary to be considered part of another race? And what about being proud of both sides of such a person's heritage?

And why does any of this even matter? It shouldn't, but to many people it does.

Republicans and Democrats essentially traded places in the 60s and 70s. Since then, fairly or unfairly, Republicans and conservatives have often been branded as racists. Any people of color who were Republicans were derided as tokens, Uncle Toms, oreos, bananas, or apples. (An oreo is someone who is black on the outside and white on the inside. Bananas [Asians] are yellow on the outside and white on the inside, while apples [Native Americans and Latinos] are red on the outside and white on the inside.)

Anyway, racial minority groups viewed the Democratic Party as being more hospitable to their concerns, and the fact that there were more Democratic politicians who looked like them (often because of gerrymandered congressional districts) allowed Democrats to win overwhelming majorities of support from non-White voters. The Republican Party was seen as the party of well-off, heterosexual, White Christian males. While a cursory examination of voting patterns would support this notion, it is unfair to conclude that Republicans as a whole are more racist or less racially sensitive than Democrats are, and Obama's candidacy is proving this point.

One of the dominant storylines of Obama's candidacy last year was the "is Obama Black enough?" motif. This was an incredibly insulting question to ask, but the media (and even a lot of Blacks) could not stop talking about it. The political challenge for Obama was to show that he could deliver for Black Democrats without appearing "too Black" for his White Democratic audiences. And of course, when Oprah Winfrey endorsed Obama, that ripped the scab off of this stupid discussion so we could fight about racial loyalty and racially appropriate behavior yet again.

Republicans generally eschew identity politics and seem more inclined to support a candidate based on his ideas rather than his skin color. However, because there are so few Republicans of color, they are unfairly branded as racially hostile. This may or may not be a valid assessment, but Republicans certainly weren't the ones asking if Obama was Black enough. So it appears that the racially neutral Republicans came across as more racially progressive than the racially obsessed Democrats in this regard.

Obama's cross-racial appeal cannot be denied, as he is commonly winning the majority of the White male vote and about 85% of the Black vote in the primaries and caucuses this year. The media and pundits have labeled Obama as the candidate that Whites could feel proud voting for and even going so far as to cast this in the light of them atoning for any past prejudices they may have had.

This is certainly an encouraging narrative, but unfortunately it has given rise to accusations of racism anytime a White criticizes Obama. It's as if Obama is not fair game, lest one be branded as racially insensitive. However, Whites do not have a duty to support Obama, just like females don't have a duty to support Hillary Clinton and Christians don't have a duty to support Mike Huckabee. It's incumbent on voters, journalists, and pundits of all types to ask the tough questions before committing to any single candidate.

John McCain is being raked over the coals for not being conservative enough. Hillary Clinton is being pilloried for her ties to lobbyists and the Democratic establishment. Mitt Romney is no longer in the race, but he was ridiculed for flip-flopping. Mike Huckabee was criticized for using Christianity as a political weapon against Romney. And John Edwards was lampooned for his expensive haircuts and his North Carolina estate.

When these candidates were attacked, they and their supporters fought back, usually by attacking the merits of their opponents' arguments. But it seems that skepticism about Obama is often met with cries of bigotry. If Obama is supposed to be the post-racial unity candidate, why are so many of his supporters so quick to accuse his opponents of racism? Could it be that these supposedly open-minded voters are rather closed-minded when it comes to handling philosophical disagreements with others?

One of the most interesting observations I made on Super Tuesday earlier this month concerned the results of the Connecticut and Massachussetts primaries. Both states are in the same part of the country with similar demographics and similarly strong Democratic leans. However, Obama beat Clinton in Connecticut 51-47% while Clinton trounced Obama in Massachussetts 56-41%. People may cite Clinton's establishment base in Massachussetts (which also came out for her in New Hampshire) as her key to victory, but I think there's another reason.

In 2006, Massachusetts elected Deval Patrick as the nation's second Black governor. (Virginia's Douglas Wilder was the first.) However, Patrick's race is not as important as the platform he ran on. Like Obama, Patrick was a compelling and talented public speaker who was running on a message of optimism and change. (Patrick endorsed Obama, by the way.) Massachusetts voters were proud to send a Black to the governor's mansion and had high hopes for his leadership. However, shortly after his inauguration, he became embroiled in embarrassing scandals and made some silly mistakes. His approval ratings dropped, but it wasn't because of latent racism. It was because he wasn't doing a good job as governor. So when Barack Obama came to Massachussetts this year, it is quite possible that a lot of voters there remembered Deval Patrick's shortcomings and were a bit more skeptical of the "change" Obama was selling.

John McCain will try to attack Obama for being long on talk and short on specifics. Will he and his supporters be branded as racists? And if McCain were to win the general election, would Obama's supporters attribute this victory to prejudices percolating beneath the surface among Republicans? Do Whites feel afraid not to support Obama because they don't want to be seen as "racially progressive?" Do Blacks feel afraid not to support Obama because "he's one of their own?" Again, these are Democrats who are using race as a wedge issue. Which party is it that can't move beyond race again?

At what point does politics matter more than identity? It seems like even though Obama is supposed to be the candidate who can help improve our race relations, the media and his supporters are doing more to further poison them. Obviously, Obama will have to explain his policies in greater detail in the future. Momentum, hype, and inspiration have carried him this far, but the serious questions about his candidacy must be confronted eventually.

Ironically, Obama's greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. Millions of voters absolutely love Obama and are genuinely inspired by him. But it will be impossible for Obama to sustain this level of enthusiasm among his supporters. What will happen when the initial excitement wears off, the tougher questions begin, and voters don't like what they hear? Will they be seen as racists? Will they be seen as discerning? And how would an Obama defeat be viewed by the nation?

It goes without saying that there are many openly racist people in America who would never vote for Barack Obama, and there are many more voters who purportedly support Obama only to "change their minds" in the voting booth. However, there are far more voters out there who harbor no ill will towards Obama, but simply can't support him because of his lack of experience, his liberal platform, or his lack of specifics. Should Obama lose and his loss be attributed to racism on behalf of these pragmatic voters who simply disagree with him on the issues, that would be a much sorrier commentary on our state of racial progress than if he were to lose to flaming racists. Given the absurdity of our current dialogue as is evidenced by the media, pundits, and regular people, it would seem that this fear may very well become a reality.

10 comment(s):

Thomas said...

Anthony, great post as always. I am a biracial kid myself. My dad is white and Jewish and my mom was from the Philippines and Catholic. I was raised amongst relatives from my dad's side and my mom's side and am all the better for it. I wouldn't consider myself white but I wouldn't consider myself Filipino either. I like to them I am a blend of races. Who I am can't be simply be explained by one race or the other. I am both.

Which makes me kind of offended when Barack Obama is described as black. I would never tell people I was white. I would never tell people I am Filipino. I always say both. The mixed-race kids I knew growing up pretty much thought the same way. I am sure that Barack Obama feels the same way. From what I have read, it is very clear that he values his white mother and his maternal grandparents who helped raise him.

Nikki said...

What can I say??!! Completely exceeds all expectations as always great post. I have a link on my page...:)N

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

thats why if he wins the delegate count, and she win the super Ds, it will be like for the Dems

icanseeclearlynow said...

hi anthony, i found this post through a link on nikki's page.

this article of yours is eloquent, well researched, and well written. i LOVE the way you think!

:)

maria

ba and the boys said...

this is something that should be published outside the bog-o-sphear. i found this thru nikis page and i thank you.

Anthony Palmer said...

Thomas,

I never could understand why biracial children are essentially forced to choose one identity. It's not fair to the child and it's not fair to the parent of the "unchosen" race. But then again, it could be a societal thing because of the perception that unless you are completely White, you are not White. It's very unfortunate. FWIW, I am also in an interracial marriage. We have no children yet, but when we do, we'd like to instill in them the fact that they aren't "half and half," but rather "double." And we wouldn't have our children "choose" one of these identities.

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Nikki,

Thanks for the link. And thanks for your continued support of the site. Anytime you have another request for me to write about, by all means let me know!

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Torrance,

If Obama wins the pledged delegate count while Clinton wins the nomination because of superdelegates, the Democratic Party will be destroyed and forced to dissolve because too many voters will be too angry. This actually gives me an idea for a future post.

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I Can See,

Thanks for dropping by and for your kind comment. You are a reader of Nikki's blog? I'll take a peek at your site and see if you're a friendly firebrand like she is. *g*

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BaBoys,

Well, I think most people in the blogosphere would like for their writings to receive greater exposure. But when someone else says this about another person, it's very flattering. I might send this piece to a few newspapers and see what happens, but knowing that my readers here enjoy the piece is satisfying enough for me.

Thank you all for your great comments.

Freadom said...

A great column that definitely should be published outside the blogosphere.

I believe this coming election will be decided based on the issues, and not color or sex. However, the media will be the media.

I found your blog through Nikki. When I get time I'll check out some of your other posts.

Thomas said...

Anthony, do you ever watch bloggingheads.tv?

Anthony Palmer said...

Freadom,

Thanks for dropping by. Like you said, the media will be the media. But it doesn't have to be, nor should it be. The latest McCain flap makes me want to become the next Ted Turner and create my own media organization based on actual journalism and professionalism.

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Thomas,

What is that site? I've never heard of it. What's that about? And how are you coping now that Romney is gone?

Thomas said...

Anthony, I have to say I miss Mitt Romney. The ridiculousness of his campaign just tickled me to no ends.

I have to admit that my interest in politics has been driven by people I want to see get kicked out of politics. Thus, I have followed closely the careers of Karl Rove, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, George Allen and Mitt Romney. Being a native Texan, I had to deal with Tom DeLay's moralizing being a constant fixture on the front page of the Houston Chronicle and I just got tired of it.

Bloggingheads.tv (that is their link) is where people debate current events. The people are usually from think tanks or college professors or writers from magazines like The Atlantic. I have to admit to being a little addicted.

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.