Law in Contemporary Society

Barack: The Great Black Hope?

-- By DimiaFogam - 14 Feb 2008


Over the last several months, many magazine and newspaper editors have seen fit to dub Barack Obama “The Great Black Hope”, but that certainly hasn’t been the universal sentiment of the black community. Instead, there have been questions about the authenticity of his “blackness” and suspicion has been cast on the motivation of his white supporters. This paper looks at the motivation behind those feelings and argues that what Obama really represents in the American consciousness is “The Great White Hope.”

Not Black Enough?

‘Obama isn’t Black. “Black," in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves.”

Deborah Dickerson is neither the first nor the most vocal African-Americans to make such objections to Barack Obama’s categorization as Black or to question his racial authenticity. Many Blacks that are products of the civil rights movement object to the idea of a black candidate who hasn’t worked his way up the traditional ranks and hasn’t kissed the required rings. The criticism of his ‘authenticity’ runs the gamut from the expected comments about his biracial heritage to remarks on his East African appearance, but all center around the fact that his ancestry is not African-American. Obama never sat on his father’s lap to hear the stories of what it was like before we could all drink from the same fountain, and to some Blacks that precludes him from truly being black. Black America is scared that he doesn’t share their collective consciousness and therefore will not ‘represent’ them. Inherent in this fear, I think, is a misguided and sometimes subconscious hope that a Black President will be one whose agenda will revolve around relieving the social and economic burdens of black folk. That’s simply the type of rhetoric that they are used to hearing from former black presidential candidates like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, who, seeing that their time has passed, withhold their support of Obama in the hope of maintaining some relevance. At the root of all this is the fear that Obama is being embraced by the media and the general public specifically because he isn’t ‘black’.

Not Black (Enough)!

In an op-ed for the L.A. Times David Ehrenstein wrote that to white Americans, Obama was becoming a “Magic Negro”, the literary figure that has no past and simply appears to help the white protagonist recognize their faults and overcome them. Though there is certainly some validity to his point, it isn’t wholly accurate. Nor is it any better to claim, like many critics and pundits have, that the overwhelming white support for Obama’s candidacy is some sort of ‘white guilt’ or rejection of racism. Apparently wearing a “Barack the Vote” t-shirt is the new “I’m not racist! Some of my best friends are black”. Both of these ideas are overly simplistic and, I think, generally unfair. White people aren’t looking for absolution at the voting booth, they are recognizing an opportunity to vote for a candidate whose rhetoric of change and personal multiculturalism is a reflection of what American could and should be.

The appeal of Barack Obama as a black candidate is that he isn’t a product of the civil rights movement, and so he doesn’t have to invoke it as anything more than something we all benefited from. When we look at him at a podium we don’t see a man with memories of burned churches and water hoses, and though to black people that may mean he can’t relate to their struggle, to white people it means he isn’t angry. All of this could be untrue, but people see what they want to and what they want to see is a good man with a good message. An American who happens to be black. Barack Obama is like MLK in that he gives Whites the opportunity to believe in their own tolerance. He gives them the chance to recognize their own patriotism and humanity in embracing social change.

Barack Obama is running as a representation of all Americans. He never mentions the fact the he will become the first black president of the United States; he lets the pundits and our consciousness do it for him. What that means is that when we listen to him speak no one feels excluded or isolated by his words. His race is evident, and so he doesn’t bring it because it shouldn’t have anything to do with how he will run the country. We want to vote for him because he is the best candidate, not because he’s black. That is the beauty of his candidacy- he wont be the president because his is black; rather he will be the first black president because he was the best.

Does it Really Matter?

Two years ago, when Obama’s name started seriously circulating in the same sentence as ‘president,’ I had suspicions about the support he apparently had from white voters. I always imagined that it was a matter of supporting him in the open but eventually voting with a long tradition of white men. But as he continues to win primary after primary and carry the young, white vote, it becomes more and more evident that this isn’t all talk and this isn’t an issue of white guilt. This is an opportunity to elect a qualified man with a vision to change the direction of this country, who happens to be black.

And as for the African-American community, no matter how suspicious it was of him at the onset of the race, as he continues to gain momentum and pick up delegates, more and more black voters are coming out to the polls for him. Because what it really comes down to is that Barack Obama is on the precipice of becoming the Democratic Party’s nominee, and in the end he looks much more like the average black American than anyone that has ever stood on that podium before.

  • Subsequent events probably require rewriting here, because yours--like most cultural interpretation theory--was acutely subject to modification by the continued unrolling of events. As it has turned out so far, the inevitable attempt to associate him with black anger has forced a readjustment on all sides. The real methodological problem is your are discussing a complex social process as though it either "means" X or "means" Y, when it has elements that are resonant of both and many other "meanings" besides. Progress is easiest in response to changes in narrative stage if you also change conceptual structures, to allow multiplicities of meaning and forms of social recirculation of meanings in the presence of socially-widespread common experience.

Two months ago when I wrote my first paper, I did so with the idea that Barack Obama’s success in this election was in someway a phenomena of race neutrality. Obviously, a lot has happened in two months and though I do not resind my initial premise, I wish to address it in a new context.

Forcing Obama’s Hand

My initial assertion was that White voters were comfortable with Barack Obama because he did not share in the collective consciousness of African-Americans and therefore did not invoke retributive fear in white America. The events that followed the Jeremiah Wright scandal re-affirmed my belief that for white voters, when electing a black president, it is critical that his skin tone not reflect his experiences. Obama is phenologically black, which in America is interchangeable with African-American, but is culturally a mélange of formative experiences, most of which are not traceable to the vile history of race in America. Thus he presents white voters with an opportunity to affirm their tolerance and commitment to multiculturalism without the fear that they will be ‘punished’ for their collective historical sins. This became particularly evident after images of Rev. Wright were looped on every news station twenty times an hour. The huge and instant drop in his poll numbers could be attributed the Wright’s anti-American rhetoric, but I contend that it had much more to do with the dashiki he was wearing, and his ‘black church’ mannerisms, not to mentions his condemnation of race relations. When Obama and Wright were put in a split-screen image, all of the sudden his tales of Hawaiian upbringing and white grandmother paled against the angry black man beside him. Our neutral and inclusive candidate had spent twenty years sitting in a pew listening to this angry black pastor preach of America’s evils- what if he started to believe? It was much more than the words Wright spoke. It was the imagery.

Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech was incredibly aware of these fears and specifically responsive to them. In many ways it was the brave, mature, and progressive speech it was hailed to be, but at the same time it blatantly catered to the fears of the liberal whites Wrights sound bites had isolated. Obama started with the assertion that Wright erred in viewing racism in America as endemic. He then spoke of America’s racist history--- completely relegating it to the past. He reminded us of the segregated schools and lack of economic opportunities that plagued Wright’s generation. To him, “the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement” simply created the circumstances that contribute to black America’s problems today. Maybe I missed the memo, but as far as I know these are still the problems that haunt black neighborhoods all over the country . This idea, that the blatant racism and discrimination towards minorities are solely a thing of the past, may soothe tha general consciense, but does nothing to highlight the truth of the problem today. By dismissing Wright’s anger as an understandable symptom of the past, he completely discredited any validity to Wright’s anger as a reaction to ongoing problems. In fact, Obama himself seems to contend that present circumstances in the Black community are purely a reaction to past circumstances. This may be a valid argument for ‘understanding’ and continuing government services, but what does it do about gerrymandering, discriminatory zoning, and deplorable educational conditions, all of which are a result of today’s actions?

Obama was right- black anger is often misguided and counter productive. In that regard his speech was extremely brave in that acknoweldgement. Many also contend that he was brave to address the legitimacy of white anger towards affirmative action, but how brave was that really? There was no fear of isolating African-Americans- at this point they stood firmly behind him- so it was a perfect opportunity to assure white America that their resentment was o.k. Though he did not explicitly argue the merits of various affirmative action programs, he did legitimize the resentment that they foster in the white middle class that ‘loses out’. Personally, I too feel that their resentment is a legitimate feeling, in that their exclusion may often feel punitive. But as a politician standing in authority before the nation, perhaps Obama should have taken the opportunity to mention that the programs are not meant to be punitive but rather corrective. In as much as his speech addressed perviously unacknowledged problems, it was groundbreaking. In as much as it may have been politically dangerous for the black candidate to talk about race, it was brave. But before we bestow unequivocle accolades on him, it stands to mention that this speech was forced on him. Race is an everpresent force in American society, and has been an important aspect of this election from the beginning, but it wasn’t until his race became a liability (or more of one) that he decided to address it. Though this distancing may be seen as an attempt by him to rise above race and unify his constituents, room should be left for the possibility that Obama, like everyone else, was playing politics, and refusing to address it for fear that it would remind people he was black.

Of course, I do not condemn his speech. It could have done more, but as it stands it was miles ahead of anything else offered. Nor do I lack sympathy for his position. It would be lovely if he could rise above all fot he fray and never play politics, but unfortunately that is unrealistic. He has the done a lot within the constraints of our political system as it stands. Perhaps what I take issue with is any contention that he is breaking barriers or shifting the status quo. Obama, like every other politician, did what he needed to do for damage control. In the process, he gave a great speech. Lets leave it at that.


Webs Webs

r7 - 12 Jan 2009 - 22:58:15 - IanSullivan
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