Saturday, January 26, 2008

Barak Obama: African-American?

I like Sen. Barack Obama. For the record, I'm more of a John Edwards supporter, although I will vote for whichever Democrat wins the nomination. Each of the Dems has a flaw of one kind or another that leaves me generally apathetic about endorsing them at this point. Sen. Hillary Clinton is a "known evil," so to speak, with a long laundry list of flaws that leaves me lukewarm. She is tied to lobbyists and big money. She's a political animal with strong ties to the Washington process. Hardly a populist. Barack Obama is a lesser known evil, with a slimmer record and a far more vague profile by which to judge his suitability for the highest office. John Edwards suffers the fate of his populist platform. He has done nothing in the abstract sense to build his image as an icon of the largess required to lead us all. He seems too down to earth. He seems local.

In the end, I have no doubt that these three candidates are equally suited to building a new direction of some kind. Having Bush in office for 8 years will almost guarantee a new direction of some kind. His approval ratings will require the successor to do something radically different. I would even argue that Sen. John McCain, should he resist the current regime's established power core, can be a positive force for change. This post is not about the merits or pitfalls of choosing any of these candidates, however. The title of the post betrays the focus on its own.

Among these candidates we have certain symbolic associations that define the roles each fills in the national consciousness. Hillary is the woman. Edwards is the trial lawyer. Huckabee is the preacher. McCain is the P.O.W.. Giuliani is the 9/11 America's Mayor. Romney is the flip-flopping Mormon. And....Barack Obama is the African-American. We hear all the time that Obama is the first legitimate African-American presidential candidate to seek his party's nomination. The mass media rejoices in this characterization and Obama has played it up to his advantage from Day One.

In and of itself each of these characterizations are fairly harmless, generally dulling the senses of the consumer to the depth of the platform and character of each candidate. See my last post for more on this. The two candidates that are painted most broadly by this brush of abstraction are Gov. Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. Huckabee made a speech in Florida, as his finances wane and his days with them, accusing the media of painting him as the Preacher-in-Chief candidate for his religious background. In fairness to Huckabee, taking into account the power of his religious associations, he stands for much more than Christ. He's been an effective governor for more than 10 years and has plenty of policy expertise that work to his advantage. He's no Pat Robertson. He isn't leaning on organizations like Focus on the Family or the Evangelical block to get himself elected. His campaign has had a religious overtone, but has been as secular in its approach to issues as his competitors. For him, however, it's over. It's over because he never got his message out to the public over the din of his portrayal as a theologian.

On the other side of the political spectrum we have Barack Obama. As the African-American candidate his image has been crafted for the voting public in such a way that it precedes his platform nearly 100% of the time. "Is America ready for an African-American president?" That's the question that continually pops up in the coverage of his campaign. You see this less with Hillary Clinton as the female candidate, perhaps indicating that subconsciously we are more ready for a woman to be Commander-in-Chief than we are a so-called ethnic minority. Nevertheless, it's worth examining the underlying meaning behind Obama's characterization in the media and the effect it has on his electability.

What does it mean to be African-American? Whatever the socio-scientific answer may be, it's clear that it means something particular at the highest levels of abstraction. Symbolically, the notion of African-Americanhood resides in the genetic material that one possesses that is brown, rather than white. Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter and many other well known figures are all Black (or African-American) by definition. There is never a single question about their identity. They are Black. Black, Black, Black. Nevermind that each of these individuals are of mixed-racial background. Nevermind that each of these individuals was socialized in some respect in a White setting during substantial parts of their formative life. Nope. They are Black. Barack Obama is Black.

This ignores an important aspect of identity only found at less abstract examinations of race. Laurence Fishburne is racially distinct from Suzanne Malveaux is racially distinct from Donna Brazile is racially distinct from Wesley Snipes, and so on. Yes, there is an American historical precedent for the classification of individuals along these racial lines. This precedent is as much a tool of the oppressed as it was a tool of the oppressor, but in the end it ignores the depth of experience. It is the very target of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech when he hoped that one day we would judge a man by the content of his character regardless of the color of his skin. Race is a social construction by and large, and in this case robs the American public of deep consideration of the man.

Now, Barack Obama may be counting on the perception of race in his campaign. He may have a strategy for this abstract construct as a tool for building identity and a swell of popular support. It may or may not work. Whatever it does, in the end, it is a veil. It is a distraction. I see Obama using the language of Malcolm X in his speeches in South Carolina. Before a largely African-American audience, Obama used the terms "bamboozled", "hood-winked", and "okie-doke." These terms were made famous by Macolm X on the stump in his days with the Nation of Islam. Obama is attempting to conjure that connection with the South Carolina audience to clue them in to the Clintons' tactics. I guarantee he won't use that lingo in front of whiter audiences because it won't resonate the same way. In this particular example, I watched as a handful of individuals in the background, and two in particular, laughed and rolled their eyes as he invoked the words of Malcolm. They knew the deal.

The fact is, Barack Obama was largely raised by his White mother and her parents. He spent a good deal of time in Indonesia, and in pursuit of his father's African identity. He's a product of the Ivy League, which is virtually lily white. His entire campaign staff at the highest levels is White. None of this is to deny him his connection to the larger African-American community. Clearly his adult life has been spent in the African-American community. The church, the marriage, the work have all been enveloped by this demographic distinction. There is an African-American thread. He is brown in the same way that Derek Jeter is brown and Halle Berry is brown. He may have a hard time getting a cab and more than a few of our most ignorant brothers and sisters have probably used the "N" word to describe him. There is an undeniable mark on Barack Obama beyond his control.

The point of this post is the nonsensical distinction of racial identity in the Obama candidacy that ignores reality. Obama doesn't want to be limited as "the Black candidate" and rightly so. For practical purposes it makes sense to diffuse that distinction to broaden appeal. My intent here is not that. My intent is to point out how little one may determine about Obama when using that abstraction. I'm not concerned how politically inconvenient the label is for Obama. I'm concerned with how inconvenient it is for the rest of us left to make up our minds about a political candidate.

Of course, television deals in stereotypes and generalizations so we're never likely to overcome our artificial fixation about race and what it really means. As long as we absorb important information from television, we will leave our consciousness at the highest levels of abstraction, unable to make more accurate distinctions about our world. As I type this, I'm watching the analysis of the Obama victory in South Carolina on CNN. The main point of analysis regarding the outcome is the breakdown of Black men and women for each candidate, as well as the White men and women's breakdown. It's not their fault that this is the point of focus. There is some abstract level of reality to this breakdown. If we operate symbolically, the analysis will naturally follow this. The problem is not that the analysis is of the highly symbolic. The analysis is a product of the initial presentation of the campaign on symbolic grounds. Once the symbolic system has been formed and disseminated to the viewing public the rest falls in line.

I like Obama. I support his candidacy. I liken his impact on this campaign to Robert Kennedy's approach all those years ago, although he's probably no Robert Kennedy in the end. The abstraction of race doesn't enter the equation in my mind. He's no King and he's no X. He doesn't have to be, and he shouldn't try to be.

1 comment:

Jan said...

Hey Mike,

As a language writer, I'm interested that you think of bamboozled and hoodwinked and okey-doke as "terms ... made famous by Macolm X on the stump in his days with the Nation of Islam." The first two are old, old words (pre-American Revolution); and okey-doke, while AA slang, dates from the 60s (far as I can find), very late in Malcolm's life. Can you give me any citations to Malcolm's use? So far I can only find quotes citing Spike Lee's movie.

Thanks, Jan
freeman at globe dot com