Obama, Race and Electability
by dmc2, Tue Dec 18, 2007 at 09:57:24 AM EST
Notwithstanding Jerome Armstrong's protestations to the contrary in a recent article here at MyDD, a big question surrounding Barack Obama's campaign for many people remains the most obvious one: Is America ready to elect a black President? I think it might be helpful step back for a moment and consider some of the less talked about aspects of Obama and the race question: Obama's biracial heritage and the fact that his father was an African immigrant.
Barack Obama is not the first black person to run for President, but he is the first openly biracial national politician in American history and he is also the first black politician on the national scene whose ancestors lived under neither slavery nor Jim Crow.
This is not to say that Barack Obama is not "black enough" -- his record of achievement on black issues as a community organizer, civil rights lawyer and politician would be the envy of any black politician -- but that there are also other significant dynamics at play in his candidacy that go to the question of electability.
Embedded in the talk about whether or not America is ready to elect its first black President is a concept of race that has its roots in America's sordid racial past: the "one-drop rule." In most societies, people who are of mixed racial, ethnic or national origin are considered just that: mixed. If there are enough people of a given mixture, over time they become a separate and distinct group. In other places, the distinctions get finer and finer over the years.
In Africa, for example, people of mixed ancestry have formed distinct ethnic groups such as Coloreds in South Africa and the Swahili in East Africa. In Latin America, there are scores of racial classifications that are more descriptive than categorical.
In the United States, however, we have long subscribed to the "One-Drop Rule" pursuant to which an individual with any known black ancestry is considered simply black.
So, Barack Obama is unquestionably "black" within the social construct of race here in America, and that is the prism through which most of the discussion of his candidacy has been seen.
The thing is, we're not living in 1850 or even 1950 anymore. It's 2007, and most Americans have probably never even heard of the one-drop rule nor considered in any critical way its validity. It is also undeniable that Obama's biracial heritage is a significant part of who he is both personally and politically.
An element, then, of Barack's appeal to white America is his biracial background, and in particular the way in which he explicitly draws attention to it. Whether consciously or not, when Barack Obama talks with reverence about the crucial roles played by his white mother and grandparents in his life, I can't help but believe that such talk psychologically links him to white Americans in fundamental ways that we have yet to really understand.
Barack's Immigrant Heritage
The other aspect of Obama's racial heritage that needs further analysis is the fact that his father was an East African immigrant, as opposed to African-American, i.e. descendant of slaves. Although African-Americans and African immigrants share much in common, there are important differences as well. For starters, African immigrants in America and their progeny have done relatively well, as compared to African-Americans, with higher average levels of educational attainment and income than even whites in many cases.
But more profound than that, for our purposes here, is the contrast between the immigrant narrative and the experience of blacks in America. Every major national politician extols the virtue of our immigrant origins, and the basic storyline of the most capable and ambitious people from all over the world coming to America to realize their dreams is a powerful one.
For African-Americans, however, and other groups whose ancestors' first contact with America was not by choice, the immigrant narrative has a bittersweet element to it. America has meant opportunity, yes, but also an ongoing legacy of injustice as well. The waves of immigrants who realized their dreams here in America, from the Puritans to the "ethnics" to the Asians of today, have done so by stepping on and/or over other groups who seem stuck at the bottom of the totem pole, for generation after generation.
That bittersweet relationship to America contributes to a certain edge of anger in the hearts and souls of black Americans, an edge that can only be completely overcome by saintly spiritual strength, i.e. Martin Luther King, or by the kind of complete abdication of any connection to our struggles exhibited by "Uncle Tom" figures such as Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly. In that context, despite a reduction in race consciousness amongst many white Americans over the past several decades, black politicians have been generally unable to effectively build the multiracial support needed to win statewide and national office.
Into this conundrum comes Barack Obama, seemingly paradoxical in his solid record of advocacy on black issues as juxtaposed with his unprecedented appeal to white America. But Obama in his very soul is not burdened with the full weight of centuries of slavery, Jim Crow and discrimination. As a professional and political question, yes, that legacy is central to his career aims, and, for sure, in his personal life he's experienced his share of racism and discrimination by virtue of his skin color. But he also has a freedom to approach white America in a spirit of hope and optimism, without anger about the past, and appeal for their support in his quest for change.