Monday, April 26, 2010

The Obama Placebo

This is a guest post from Godheval

image I am a writer, a philosopher, a dreamer, and an idealist.  I have no credentials worth mentioning, and I don't presume to know anything about anything.  I am merely a man, and a person of color, and I am always contemplating what that means for me and my relationship to the rest of the world.  That relationship is negotiated by an overwhelming sense of justice, something I mitigate with a harsh rationality lest I come completely undone by my emotions.  I blog about social issues, culture, politics, philosophy, and entertainment at Godheval.net.

What should Obama’s Presidency mean to people of color?

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President Obama: Symbol of a Post-Racial Society?

image In the latter weeks of the Presidential election, I had already started to become disenchanted with Mr. Obama.  For the same reasons as most progressives – his steady accommodating shifts towards the right, as he positioned himself as a rank and file Democrat.  Don’t get me wrong.  I voted for him, and I can even say I like the guy, but so far he has not been a President who has lived up to all the “hope”.

In thinking about what his presidency means, with regards to him being the first African-American to take the office, there was much to consider.  So much talk about its historicity, and its symbolism, and the introduction of the term “post-racial” to the common parlance.

It’s mostly nonsense.

There is no doubt in my mind that had Barack Obama been anything other than African-American – even Hispanic or Asian or any other non-white minority – that he would not have won the primary, let alone the overall election.  I do not mean to take anything away from Mr. Obama – he is brilliant, eloquent, right-minded, and every bit qualified to occupy the office of President of the United States.  I mean to say that his ethnicity shone like a beacon to draw attention to his many other merits, whereas he may have been obscured by other Democrats more established around the time that he made his first mark on the public back in 2002.

Let’s not harbour any illusions here.  Mr. Obama’s ethnicity secured him much of the non-white vote – especially amongst African-Americans and Latino-Americans, which make up a sizeable portion of the electorate.  Again I am not saying that the groups voted for him simply because of his ethnicity, but because his ethnicity gained him their attention.  In terms of adequately representing the needs and interests of the non-white demographic, Obama was hardly the best candidate.  That honour goes to Representative Dennis Kucinich, who even had the political chutzpah – no, the balls – to say that he would have a discussion around the issue of reparations.  But Obama was the better politician – he knew how to navigate the waters between left and right so as not to out himself as too much of a liberal like Kucinich, accusations of being a socialist notwithstanding.

And so he won.

But what does his victory mean, really, to people of color?  To me?  Not as much as all the “historicity” and “symbolism” suggests.  In some ways, I feel that his victory may even have set us back, as a nation still struggling with its identity and attempting to reconcile the differences between its disparate ethnic groups.  The idea of a “post-racial” society is nothing short of regressive, because what it does is promote the idea that we are somehow beyond racism simply because we elected an African-American President.  Given the progress that we have made in this country’s 234 year history – full of small hard-fought victories – how could a two-year campaign and election possibly have served to completely eradicate racism?  It’s a ridiculous – and delusional – proposition.

Video Transcript:

Chris Matthews: You know, I was trying to think about who he was tonight.  And uh...it's interesting.  He is post-racial, by all appearances.  Uh, you know, I forgot he was black tonight for an hour.  You know, he's gone a long way to become a leader of this country past so much history in just a year or two.  I mean it's something we don't even think about.  I was watching and I said wait a minute, he's an African-American guy in front of a bunch of other white people and there he is President of the United States and we've completely forgotten that tonight.  Completely forgotten it.

Mr. Obama, throughout his candidacy, worked hard to isolate himself from his identity as an African-American, in that he attempted to remove race from the campaign altogether.  He was astute enough to deliver an excellent speech on race, but it was mostly to resonate with the post-racial idealism of white liberals and to placate white dissent that came in response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy and Obama’s own comments about the “typical white person” during a radio interview.  He made sure to emphasize his blended heritage, to make himself relatable to white Americans, many of whom in their “post-racial” thinking were quick to argue during discussions of race how Obama wasn’t just black, but half-white.

I am not amongst those who have ever criticized Mr. Obama for not being “black enough”.  As a person growing up in this country with his skin color, his features, his name, I have no doubts that he had the full “black experience”, and that he came through it for the better.  It would have, however, been more historic had the first African-American president been a descendant of the enslaved Africans who formed the very backbone of this country.  It would’ve served as a more direct metaphor for “how far we’ve come”.  Still, I will never begrudge Mr. Obama his heritage.

As for symbolism, what exactly does Mr. Obama represent?  He gave white Americans the opportunity to prove – to themselves, at least – that they were not racist, because they voted a “black” President.  But here’s the problem.  In the ways that Obama divorced himself from race during his campaign – such as his clever universalizing of the reparations question – and in how his policies do not reflect any particular concern for people of color, he is the United States’ first African-American President in image only, not in representation.  I do not in any way mean to say that Mr. Obama, or any other person of color, is obligated to act on or even to have such concerns, but if we are talking about how symbolic his presidency is, then he is not an adequate representative of people of color.

Even spectators in other countries have honed in on this:

But it is now time that he lives up to his reputation. Being the first black president does not mean he will automatically champion black issues, or other minority appeals.

His skin colour is slowly blurring into the background of the White House. He is being measured not on his place in history, but on how his reign will affect history.

[...]

Having Obama as a black head of state in the most powerful country in the world will not solve the crises affecting minority populations in the nation.  He is simply the face for a white establishment, who happened to support him to the top because they saw a possibility for a win.  He is, first and foremost, an American President.

— Amy McQuire, National Indigenous Times, Australia

In other words, Obama was “black enough” to be the first African-American president, to allow white people to convince themselves of a post-racial society, but not black enough to rock the boat.  To clarify, this is not a criticism of Mr. Obama himself, but of a society that could elect an African-American president so long as he didn’t call too much attention to his blackness.  Had Mr. Obama even dared to use the word “reparations” during his campaign, he would’ve crashed and burned that instant.  During that reparations question on the CNN panel, only John Edwards had the personal integrity to plainly admit that he would not even address the issue.  Only Dennis Kucinich had the courage to acknowledge that it was an issue worth discussing.  Obama – in what was undoubtedly the right move, politically – danced around it brilliantly.

I am honing in on reparations not because I think it is a pressing issue, but because it is one that highlights the ideological divide between white Americans and Americans of color – regardless of their political orientation.  The candidate willing to address such an issue directly, in a country where white Americans are the majority and still ill at ease discussing race issues, risks political suicide.  It was okay for Dennis Kucinich, who has already found his niche as a hardcore progressive.  But it is for that niche, also, that Kucinich may never be a viable Presidential candidate.

What does it say about a post-racial society that a candidate who wants to discuss the most sensitive issues around race and racism, and our country’s divided legacy, is automatically removed from any chance of being our President?  It suggests a real definition for post-racial:

post-racial

adjective.

beyond discussions of race & racism

Origin: 2008–10, Americanism

Word Origin & History

A term used to describe a society or time period in which discussions around race and racism have been deemed no longer relevant to current social dynamics. Popularized after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States of America in 2009.

There is no question that people of color hoped that Barack Obama might better represent their interests – interests that have been mostly ignored by long succession of white male Presidents.  They certainly did not need a President whose election suggested that their issues were no longer issues at all, that we as a nation had somehow grown beyond those issues – which, in effect, undermines any attempt at discussing them.

The election of a female president would not suddenly resolve gender inequalities or render all feminists movements obsolete.  The election of a gay president would not suddenly mean that the entire county has accepted homosexuality.  The election of a disabled president would not suggest that we do not still have a long way to go with regards to accommodating and fairly treating our disabled citizens.  So why in the world should the election of an African-American man to the Presidency symbolize this country having overcome its deeply rooted history of racism?

You wanna talk symbolism?  It would’ve been symbolic for a white American President to issue a public apology on behalf of the United States for slavery – much like Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Aboriginal Australians.  The mere idea of this apology nearly saw Bill Clinton crucified when he considered it.  In the end, he very cleverly “acknowledged the evils of slavery”, but without issuing any formal apology.  For white Americans, who love to address the issue of slavery and its legacy with the fact that they, personally, had nothing to do with it – they view such an apology as an admission of personal guilt.  They do not seem to understand it as a symbolic gesture.  And it seems to be a matter of national pride – of “patriotism” – to never acknowledge the grievous mistakes your country has made and continues to make.

The apology has been a long time coming, and it will be a longer time still before we ever – if we ever – see it.  Barack Obama cannot and should not be the President to make it, and for his political savvy I am certain he will not.  It would, after all, change what should be a symbolic gesture into an ironic one.

Personally I would have taken another white male President with the courage to have the necessary dialogues around race and racism.  A President who rather than bringing together a professor and a cop for a beer, dared to bring together an entire nation to discuss the issues that continue to divide them.  I would’ve been willing to put off the election of the first African-American for another 20 years in exchange for that kind of President.

While we wait for that President, Mr. Obama can continue to serve as a placebo solution to the problem of race and racism in the United States.  I can only hope that while the country is so busy convincing itself that we have suddenly become “post-racial”, that we do not lose the opportunity to bring about real change in our social dynamics, under the false pretext that such a change has already taken place.