Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Race, Post-Race.

What's Reverend Wright have to preach now about his former congregant's rise to ultimate power? Do the headlines invalidate that clergyman's claims of our racist Amerikkka? Or, does Obama erase a more complicated racial identity that six hundred million has been spent to simplify?

Shelby Steele, a black commentator who leans towards moderation, weighs in with his views about Obama as a "bargainer." He seduced white America "with a vision of racial innocence precisely to coerce them into acting with a racial motivation." As I commented in my predictions here yesterday, my wife argues back that we elected him based on his intelligence. I counter, and today find support from Steele, that Obama's ascension comes from his manipulation of our idealism and our guilt. Here's some excerpts from "Obama's Post-Racial Promise":
"His talent was to project an idealized vision of a post-racial America -- and then to have that vision define political decency. Thus, a failure to support Obama politically implied a failure of decency.
Obama's special charisma -- since his famous 2004 convention speech -- always came much more from the racial idealism he embodied than from his political ideas. In fact, this was his only true political originality. On the level of public policy, he was quite unremarkable. His economics were the redistributive axioms of old-fashioned Keynesianism; his social thought was recycled Great Society. But all this policy boilerplate was freshened up -- given an air of "change" -- by the dreamy post-racial and post-ideological kitsch he dressed it in."

Steele elaborates upon Obama's method. Starting in Iowa, he won whites over first, as blacks held back until they saw him rather than Hillary as a viable candidate with a chance of winning. His calculation, honed by his Chicago experience with the political machine, enabled this first-term senator to best his Beltway rivals.

"Obama is what I have called a "bargainer" -- a black who says to whites, "I will never presume that you are racist if you will not hold my race against me." Whites become enthralled with bargainers out of gratitude for the presumption of innocence they offer. Bargainers relieve their anxiety about being white and, for this gift of trust, bargainers are often rewarded with a kind of halo."

The majority, according to Steele, wants Obama to validate their own anxieties over race. They elected him less on his track record than on his stance at the starting line, if I may invent my own metaphor. Steele knows that the weight of allegory hangs over Obama, as "the cultural meaning of this unprecedented convergence of dark skin and ultimate power will likely become-- at least for a time-- a national obsession." Steele delves into the cultural dynamic underlying his political ascent.

When whites -- especially today's younger generation -- proudly support Obama for his post-racialism, they unwittingly embrace race as their primary motivation. They think and act racially, not post-racially. The point is that a post-racial society is a bargainer's ploy: It seduces whites with a vision of their racial innocence precisely to coerce them into acting out of a racial motivation. A real post-racialist could not be bargained with and would not care about displaying or documenting his racial innocence. Such a person would evaluate Obama politically rather than culturally.

Obama's talents, Steele explains, have been exhibited more by his relentless campaign and his careful articulation rather than much evidence from his past. We have elected a rather young man, with the most liberal voting record in the Senate he's only attained for two years, much of that spent away running for the Oval Office. He's skeptical about the practical impact of the symbolic role given Obama, given the 70% illegitimacy rate among blacks, their SAT decline these past decades, their 55% share in federal prisons vs. their 13%-- and declining-- portion of the population. Gaps persist in the black middle class regarding education, and disparities, Steele predicts, will continue no matter what glow Obama's presidency casts over us all.
But it was the peculiar cultural manipulation of racial bargaining that brought him to the political dance. It inflated him as a candidate, and it may well inflate him as a president.
There is nothing to suggest that Obama will lead America into true post-racialism. His campaign style revealed a tweaker of the status quo, not a revolutionary. Culturally and racially, he is likely to leave America pretty much where he found her.

Less loftily, as usual, columnist Sandy Banks tells of her growing up in racially divided Cleveland and her interview with a then-less known Obama:
"We have to earn racial reconciliation, he told me in that 2005 interview. 'In the same way I earned . . . a sense of resolution between the white half of me and the black half of me,' he said.
'I struggled and made mistakes and tried to be honest with myself. . . . We shouldn't be lazy or complacent or pat ourselves on the back. We have a distance to travel. . . . We're not there yet.'"

I find it intriguing that the Los Angeles Times writers tiptoe around the complicated nature of Obama's self-understanding. Banks' aside remains the only mention in today's voluminous coverage-- outside of the lead paragraph under the enormous front page "It's Obama!" that identifies him as the son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya. Still, we package him as he, when he left diverse Hawai'i for the more straitened mainland, began to place himself within the African-American community that gave him much of his crucial margin for his victory.

Even Steele's ideological rival, Michael Eric Dyson-- known for his championing of hip-hop and sociological studies that challenge more conservative black observers-- notes in his adjacent column amidst Tupac lyrics and "indescribable elation": "Regarding Obama as an exceptional black man-- when he is in fact an exceptional American-- hampers our whole nation's desire to clear the path to success for more like him." Still, I keep nagging this muffled definition. Nobody appears to agree with me, so I may be wrong. But, for me, Obama's half-white, biracial, multicultural upbringing outside of traditional African-American-- let alone mainland American-- society marked him indelibly. Yet, as this status does not easily match our two-toned expectations, nearly all of us have colluded with Obama's own acquiescence to a more familiar, easier to recognize, brand of packaging. We view him as not a man who happens to be part-black, but as a black man only.

Those of us, like Steele, myself, or my intelligent colleagues, may resent what the third columnist, Tim Rutten, observes when he places this adjective in his summary of the coalition who provided the 52%-47% triumph yesterday: "slaves' descendents, young people of all races, Latinos, and educated white voters." This may not be an intended slight, but it inadvertently by its own racially-shaded "coding" does demean millions of thoughtful citizens.

My wife told me that her cohort, nearly eight out of ten voters with college degrees, went for the Democrats; I learned yesterday too that in humanities and social science departments, seven out of eight perch on the left wing. No surprise to me. Layne and I wondered how much of these career preferences can be attributed to our hard-wiring, and even our gender. Like it or not, on the inside as well as the outside, we're a challenge even to the complexion we see in the mirror, let alone the neurons guiding us within.

Image: Reverend Wright's thundering about the First Couple he married. Movin' on up. Plenty more to offend True Believers in Change We Can Believe In at "The People's Cube: Correct Opinions for Progressive Liberals." I hope anyone making it this far down does not regard me as a crackpot.

As that Irish forebear (despite him digging with the left foot) Swift, might concur: I'm an equal opportunity misanthrope. I root for underdogs, misfits, and autodidacts. Rev. Wright'd support my tolerance. If McCain and his veep had won, I'd be even happier with satirical prospects. Unlike his rival, he thanks to his Naval career if not his confinement for same has a bracing, salty sense of breezy, biting sarcasm. Sarah in 2012? T-shirts peddled already.

P.S. Heed this manifesto as a communique from those driven underground. It's a broadcast from the freshly bested, stubbornly ironic resistance: "Slogans for Spontaneous Celebrations at Victory Rallies." I challenge loyal ObamaNation cadres to respond as wittily. What would NPR, let alone Pacifica Radio, sound like if it revealed a sense of humor beyond its Sunday word-teaser programs? Maybe Al Franken will volunteer on behalf of the intelligentsia's vast left-wing conspiracy for Pelosi's ministry?


Anonymous said...

"Obama's half-white, biracial, multicultural upbringing outside of traditional African-American-- let alone mainland American-- society marked him indelibly. Yet, as this status does not easily match our two-toned expectations, nearly all of us have colluded with Obama's own acquiescence to a more familiar, easier to recognize, brand of packaging. We view him as not a man who happens to be part-black, but as a black man only."

This sits uncomfortably with me, too.

While it is remarkable that this nation, even with its entrenched bigotry, did elect a president with skin browner than ever before, Obama is not a product of the black american culture. Rather, he chose as a young adult to identify with the culture.

The fact that he was elected president does not mean that someone raised within the African-American community can expect to have the same experience. He has not overcome the same societal forces that someone raised within the community would experience, especially during childhood, when self-identity is forged.

Bigotry is most damaging not in how it influences others to see us, but rather in how it influences us to see (and limit) ourselves.

For this reason I am uneasy with Obama as a symbol of Black America, because it brushes a whole lot of complicated issues under the carpet.

Layne said...

Sorry my dear but the Nazis didn’t spare folks who were only half Jewish. Being half white is meaningless in many milieus if your skin is black.. We took our beloved friend Andre, who is actually a Jewish, intellectual hockey fan to our favorite Chinese restaurant once and because he is black, we were treated like shit. Obama, has lived in this country for many years and he has lived as a black man and therefore has that life experience credential and despite your skepticism about his real blackness, has probably walked the streets and have white folks recoil in fear at the sight of a tall black man. No, his election is not a panacea for racism or sexism or illiteracy or teen pregnancy but probably even more from his experience of being raised in a white household and then sent out in the world with his black skin, Obama has shaken up the status quo in this country and his accomplishments have raised the bar for what we all can achieve. Even an overeducated cynical white dude like yourself.