Four additional considerations on Obama and Race

In the last post, I argued that, despite Obama’s technical blackness, his administration is unlikely to do anything to remedy black inequality and hardship.

To this we can add the following considerations:

(1) Obama is too nationalist to admit racism in his nation

Obama’s racial blindspot meshes nicely with his silly uber-nationalism. As he said during the Rev. Wright flap: “I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country or serves to divide us from our allies.” In this way Obama whitewashes the Iraq war, and every other nasty foreign policy of ours, as a well-intentioned overstep in our noble zeal to create a pleasant world. The idea that the American nation-state, or its dynamic capitalism, or a simple majority of its ordinary citizens, could be fundamentally, flat-out wrong about anything is unthinkable to him. Of course, this includes the idea that America still harbors serious barriers to black success.

We should trust this approach as much as we would trust a doctor who refuses to believe that any of his patients could ever have a disease.

(2) Obama’s “blackness” may be a net loss for progressives and black people [1]

Ironically, Obama’s “blackness” could prove to be a net liability from a progressive, anti-racist perspective. Indeed, it already has, in two ways.

First, as a constituency, African-Americans are substantially to the left of the general population and have driven a ton of progressive legislation in the past. Fairly or not, black politicians with a similarly high profile (Jackson, Sharpton) have reputations among whites for “rabble rousing.” In general, whites (unfairly) view blacks as disposed to be unconventional and disruptive.

For such reasons, Obama’s race has allowed him to appear more progressive than he actually is, in Paul Street’s words, to “put misleading rebel’s clothing around his ‘deeply conservative’ commitment to dominant domestic…power structures.” This false progressive appearance leads real progressives to overlook or rationalize Obama’s genuinely conservative aspects.

(This “free ride” only enhances another: Contemporary Democrats already “get a pass” for being not-Republicans. Not wanting to make “their guy” look bad (or admit that he is), progressives will tolerate policies they would never let a Republican get away with. In this way, Clinton made cuts to welfare that Republicans could only dream of, and dropped more bombs on Kosovo than in all of WWII without a tenth of the domestic anti-war sentiment Bush’s Iraq garnered.)

Second, having a black president allows white Americans, in Obama’s words, to “purchase racial redemption on the cheap”—to imagine we can “finally put all this pesky business about race behind us once and for all.” Whites can now tell themselves they couldn’t be racist since they are willing to vote for a black man.

And the very fact of Obama’s election appears to discredit any race-based grievance. It seems to say: If a black man can become president, how could racism still pose significant obstacles to black achievement? If Obama “made it,” then, with hard work and determination, so can the others.

This argument has been endorsed by conservatives like George Will as well as Obama supporters. Obama has done much to suggest it himself. However, as argued in the previous post, there are significant barriers to black success, which won’t go away if we ignore them. The idea that we’ve “arrived” on racial issues fosters a false sense of security in our progress and distracts from the need to do further work. We can’t dismantle racist structures if we can’t admit we have any.

(Also: It is false to say that electing a minority to the highest office in the land means that group can’t be oppressed. Sikhs are an oppressed ethnic minority in India; the government there has killed a quarter million of them across the past twenty years. Yet the same country has elected a Sikh man Prime Minister.)

(3) Obama’s “blackness” may be a net loss for the world

The “free ride” effect above has a foreign policy corollary. Given the demographic of our globe, the victims of U.S. aggression are almost always people of color. It is among people of color that the image of the U.S. is most severely bruised. For this reason, Obama’s race (as well as his Muslim name, and his being raised abroad) will almost certainly help him gain international support for his foreign policies.

Obama himself articulates this best. As he stated on the campaign trail:

I am the face of American foreign policy and…power…I think that if you can tell people, “We have a president in the White House who still has a grandmother living in a hut on the shores of Lake Victoria and has a sister who’s half-Indonesian, married to a Chinese-Canadian,” then they’re going to think that he may have a better sense of what’s going on in their lives and country. And they’d be right.

Dennis Ross, Obama’s Middle East advisor, added, “When have someone like President-elect Obama as president, it is a lot harder to demonize the United States…It increases our capacity to…leverage.”

Even the neoconservative pundit Nicolas Kristoff has welcomed the election as a chance to “rebrand” America in the eyes of the world. When the world sees we have a black man as commander in chief, they will see our military adventures could not be informed by petty racism or the like: “[W]e may find a path to restore some of America’s global influence—and thus to achieve some of our international objectives—in part because the world is concluding that America can, after all, see beyond a person’s epidermis.”

Note that the hyper-militaristic Kristoff does not anticipate Obama’s foreign policy being fundamentally different than it has been in the past, or different than he would like it to be. And he’s correct. As I will outline in a future post, Obama is firmly committed to American empire and “leadership,” and exercising force to maintain it.

Indeed, Obama’s own comments above are not about breaking with America’s hated foreign policy, but getting the world to swallow it. (This implies, of course, that the world is wrong to hate our policies in the first place. They are dupes who don’t know their own interests as well as their foreign bombers and occupiers do. This, if not itself a racist view, will do until a racist view comes along.)

(4) If Obama ever cared about racism, he will sell that out like he sold out the other stuff he (may have) cared about

Finally, Obama is—like a lot of politicians—careerist and opportunistic, though he works hard to give the appearance that he is not. For example, he lobbied vigorously to get the keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention, and before it was officially extended to him he was tipped off that it would be; later, he lied about this, reporting he was totally surprised by the offer and ignorant of how the selection process worked.

At every “step up” in his career, Obama has abandoned constituencies and stances that helped him in the previous period. When he was state senator for a liberal district, he was safe to deliver his “anti-war” speech in 2002. As soon as he decided to run for a national seat, he struck the speech from his website, quit returning activists’ phone calls, and switched to talking about how to efficiently win in Iraq.

For the same reasons, when Obama was organizing poor blacks on the South Side of Chicago, it made sense to join a large, black liberation theology church with a heavy profile in the community. As the political stakes grew, and Rev. Wright became a liability, he was dropped—for saying the stuff he’s said (and Obama has heard him say) his whole life.

As president, Obama’s constituency is more conservative (at least, has more conservatives) than either Illinois’ 13th District, or Illinois itself, and the career stakes have only grown. All of the factors that have pushed him rightward on race (and on everything else [2]) have only intensified. This should temper any expectations that his own blackness or past associations will push him in a racially progressive direction.


[1] I mean of course that Obama’s blackness will be used in such a way that it could be a net loss for progressives and black people. (See next section also.) In and of itself, as I’ve written before, the fact that a black man is president of the United States is a beautiful statement, given our history.

[2] In the span of just a few weeks last summer, Obama publicly tacked to the right on everything from NAFTA to the death penalty to gun control to campaign finance to Iraq to government spying on cell phone conversations.


2 responses to “Four additional considerations on Obama and Race

  1. I share the same reservations about Obama as he has proven himself over and over again to be an opportunist and a typical Washington politician, and while I enjoy the sarcasm of Obama’s “blackness”, I do have to point out that the trend in this country of biracial people identifying themselves as non-white is something that most likely stems from the fact that it was white people who defined them as such in the first place. I do realize that YOUR references to “blackness” hold social and ideological implications, but politics aside, I find it interesting how a lot of (perhaps racist and/or possibly uneducated) whites have tried to trivialize the idea of Obama’s success by undermining his “blackness” while it’s most likely the same breed of whites who would have deemed Obama “black” in the 1800s for the sake of racial purity.

  2. Cory A.:

    Look, I appreciate what you are saying here, but I want to say that I didn’t mean the quotes around “blackness” to be sarcastic or highlight Obama’s biraciality. I am perfectly fine with his identifying as black, especially because, to whomever his race seriously matters, it will matter the same to them whether he is biracial or black–for the same reasons you describe. And for purposes of the election, I think it is a difference that makes, or would have made, no difference.

    I guess I used “blackness” because (a) I needed the convenience of a noun, but (b) the word sounds silly–like a discrete quantifiable feature–and I’m not comfortable with it.

    I just saw a Christopher Hitchens interview, pre-election, where he downplays the historical significance of Obama’s candidacy from an anti-racist standpoint by saying that “he has as much claim to be white as to be black.” I was thinking, as if a fairly darkskinned, biracial person can just hold up a pedigree to racist whites showing this technical “claim” and their feelings will just melt away. Racism is about perception, not what is “really” the case. We might as well say, all African-Americans, at least for all we know, are “white” in that sense, so, shit, what were we thinking all these years?

    Hope this makes sense.

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