Can Barack Obama Trancend Race?

Can Barack Obama Transend Race And Transform America

Can Barack Obama Transend Race And Transform America


Some Reflections on the Obama Phenomena

 Cleary the rise of Barack Obama – a tall, tan, silver tongued dandy – from a scrappy community organizer enmeshed in the hurly burly of Chicago politics after law school, to the leading contender for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party as the race draws to an end, is the most dramatic development in the history of American politics. The uniqueness of this campaign lay mainly in the fact that Barack is African American.  In spite of attempts to play it down and concentrate on things like his eloquence and inexperience, a dominant theme in this story is the relationship of racial and sexual identity to one’s life chances in 21st century American society: does the glass ceiling still exist?  How high does it rise? 

 These questions are sharply posed in Obama’s candidacy because he and his wife Michelle are products of America’s most elite universities, the traditional training grounds for the ruling class. Columbia and Princeton as undergraduates, then on to Harvard Law School; you can’t do better than that preparing for leadership in the private or public sectors so long as the rules of meritocracy are in play.  Thus among the best and brightest stars of America’s colored minorities – Asian, Hispanic, Indians and Blacks – the Obama campaign is regarded as a test of the strength of white America’s commitment to the ideal of meritocracy, just as Hillary Clinton’s is for women, especially since this is the white male’s main argument against Affirmative Action programs designed to bring about equity in the market place by nullifying traditional race and gender privilege. 

            All of their college educated peers, regardless of color or ethnicity, see it this way. This accounts for Barack’s immense popularity with the latte and croissant crowd, many of whom probably view the Democratic primary as a contest between Harvard and Yale lawyers. After all, the competition between these elite institutions for intellectual supremacy has been going on for three centuries, ever since a group of dissident Congregationalists broke away from their co-religionists who had founded Harvard in 1636, and moved down to Connecticut and established Yale in 1701. Yet despite his sterling education, matinee idol looks, infectious charm, stunning oratory, sunshine smile and winning personality, given the history of race relations in America the thoughtful observer cannot help wondering how his identity as a biracial American has either helped or hurt Senator Obama’s political career.

            Some onlookers argue that his identity is an asset, while others believe that anything short of a pure white pedigree is still a liability in race conscious America. What is indisputable is that Obama’s ascendancy to the highest levels of national politics – you can’t rise any higher than a seat in the Senate and seriously contending for the Presidency of the United States – is an unprecedented event.  For whoever occupies the Oval Office will command a powerful arsenal, military and technological, and the idea that a man of color has a real shot at winning this high office as leader of the world is barely imaginable even at the dawning of the 21st century – notwithstanding the fact that they have commanded the Joint Chiefs of the military or served as CEO of Merrill Lynch. This is especially hard to conceive for someone of my generation, which probably explains why Colin Powell didn’t run; even though he was obviously far better qualified for the job than George W. Bush and all the signs suggested he could have won.


            Yet the power equation between Europe and the Bandung world – Africa, Asia and Latin America – that came together in Indonesia in 1956, has changed so radically in the last few decades that Obama’s brown skin is now viewed by many powerful and thoughtful white Americans in government, industry and academia as a diplomatic asset for an American President, despite the increasingly hysterical ranting of the racist naysayers on the far right, egged on by the talking airheads on WABC: the White Apartheid Broadcast Company, America’s premiere talk radio where no black oppositional voices are allowed. 

            In a world where the yellow Chinese – who represent nearly a third of the planet’s population – will soon be the most powerful nation on earth; brown India with an educated English speaking middle class of 250 million strong is increasingly mastering and monopolizing software technology due to deliberate policies of their government; the mostly black and brown Latin Americans are swinging leftward with their vital resources marketed in a global economy, lead by Chavez of Venezuela,  peace in the Islamic Middle East is critical to the continued prosperity of America’s petroleum based economy, and the fight for strategic minerals critical to industrial and military dominance in the 21st century will increasing center in Africa; a brilliant, charming, brown skinned president could be just what the doctor ordered to heal the festering wounds caused by racist American policies of the past, and put an end to the constant American wars in the Bandung World – providing, of course, that President Obama can garner the support to institute a new and progressive foreign policy. Although an American President is not a King or dictator who can wave his hand and his will be done – his power is wisely checked and balanced by a co-equal and contentious Congress and an independent judiciary that interpret the laws Congress make – the Oval Office is still a hell of a bully pulpit from which to argue one’s vision of the world.

            Senator Obama has the added advantage with white Americans of having no connection to the shameful legacy of slavery and apartheid that is the history of Afro-Americans and makes Euro-Americans so uptight.  His mother is a white woman from Middle America, and his father is an East African, which means that his father had no connection to the legacy of slavery in America because the slave trade was concentrated in West Africa, which is almost as far away from his native country of Kenya as Moscow is from Washington D.C.  Raised largely by his white grand parents in Hawaii, Barack Obama was socialized in a multi-racial middle class milieu and had no deep historical or cultural ties to Afro-Americans.  However the Afro-American writer Debra Dickerson’s argument that Barack’s background makes him “African-American” but not “black” is sophistry; given the racial realities in the US this is a distinction without a difference.

            In his book, Bound Man, Social Critic and English professor Shelby Steele argues that Obama is black by choice – in that he made a decision to identify with the black community rather than his mother’s world in which he was nurtured – and he makes white folks feel comfortable because he is a “bargainer” rather than a “challenger.”   Although I seldom agree with Shelby Steele on anything beyond our mutual love of Jazz and black literature, he seems on to something real here.  Professor Steele feels that he has special insights into the psyche of the Illinois Senator because he is also from Chicago, is the son of a black man and white woman, and he is a bargainer too.  

However a crucial difference between the two men is that Steele came up in a time when psychologists routinely diagnosed interracial marriages as evidence of mental illness – as Dr. Renee C. Romano convincingly documents in her scholarly social history Race Mixing –  and America refused to recognize biracial children under the law.  There was no place for them in the census and, based on racist superstitions masquerading as science such as “the one drop rule,” they were automatically considered black; which leads Professor Steele to believe the younger Obama had a choice in the matter of racial identity that was denied to him. 

             I’m not so sure about how much choice Obama has enjoyed regarding his racial identity, given the pathological way most American whites are programmed to respond to people of color.  Although white Americans deny this in an almost Pavlovian response – just witness the reaction of white Americans to Obama’s revelation that his grandmother harbored racist fears and attitudes toward black men, even though he is a “black” man in American terms – to black Americans it is conventional wisdom.  After all, most black Americans – the present writer included – have experienced a strange combination of fear or animus in most of the whites with whom we come into contact as strangers in the public Sphere.

            Young black males especially are almost regarded as public enemies by many whites.  Most thoughtful black people I know are convinced that’s why the white cops who gun them down like dogs are so often let go by white juries.  There is one thing that African Americans know that everybody understands – whether they will fess up to it or not – if black cops were killing unarmed white men under the circumstances that black men are routinely shot by white cops the public would be up in arms and the black cops would be in lock down!  

 This is the point made by Frederick Douglass, the great Afro-American writer, newspaper editor and anti-slavery activist, in a speech before white Americans when he noted: “There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven who does not know slavery is wrong for him!”  Hence as the novelist and essayist James Baldwin noted, no matter how loudly our white countrymen deny their racist attitudes and policies “none of them would change places with us at this time in American history.”  And things are a lot better now than in my youth.  When I was a teenager in Florida during the 1950’s, life for all black people was like perpetually walking through a minefield – regardless of education and social status.  You never knew when you might accidentally insult a white fellow American – no matter how picayune the offense – and suddenly your life and limb would be in danger.  This was the America that produced the Reverend Doctor Jeremiah Wright and Minister Louis Farrakhan.   

            All those small minded, misguided, or malicious nay sayers who are trying to sabotage Obama’s campaign by stirring up racial passions on spurious charges, yet claim they wish to see a brighter day in race relations in America, are talking out of both sides of their mouths while actively working to prevent that day from coming.  For there is no more convincing evidence that things have changed, and there are brighter days ahead – for educated and talented Afro-Americans at least, the group Dr. Dubois called the “Talented Tenth” in his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk” – than the amazing success of the Obama campaign. 

 Whether he wins the Oval Office or not we will have identified a large constituency of Americans who desire substantive changes in the priorities of our government.  And they cover a broad demographic that brings Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds together in a new and progressive political coalition.  This alone was well worth the run and the price of the ticket. 

            Yet even if Shelby Steele is right, it comes as no surprise to us that Barack Obama chose to identify with Afro-Americans, a rainbow people with a predisposition to elegance. His decision to marrying a beautiful and brilliant black woman, join a progressive black church committed to a social gospel that commands Christians to live the teachings of Jesus Christ and  be about the business doing God’s work among the least of us here on earth, and immersing himself in Afro-American culture: a culture which prizes high style and grace of movement, is an incubator of great music; was forged in a heroic history of struggle, and is buoyed by a unique sense of joi de vivre and grace under pressure.  And during his time spent as a community organizer in Chicago Barack was totally “blackified” in the cauldron of struggle.

            On the other hand Steele’s distinction between “bargainers” and “challengers” seems right on the money.  As Professor Steele defines them, the bargainers strike a deal with white folk that says “I won’t hold your history of racism and genocide against you if you don’t hold my race against me right now;” but the “Challenger’s” not only remind whites of their history of inhumanity against our ancestors, they also doubt the good intentions of Euro-Americans today.  Furthermore, they believe if whites really want to show that they stand for justice they must make restitution for the centuries of crimes committed against Afro-Americans as a people that continue to place them at a competitive disadvantage with whites today.  Succinctly put: “Challengers” demand that whites prove they are not racist and the “Bargainers” give them the benefit of the doubt.  For the “Bargainers” whites are innocent until proven guilty; for the “Challengers” they are guilty until proven innocent!  

            In this scheme of things Barack Obama – like Oprah Winfrey, Michel Jordan, Will Smith, Colin Powell, Tiger Woods, former Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons and Secretary Of State Condoleezza Rice – is a bargainer, and millions of white folks are glad they have him to turn to for absolution.  Perhaps this explains the air of religiosity that electrifies the atmosphere at his mass rallies before mostly white audiences.  It has become such a spectacle that it has become fodder for white commentators in the news rooms as well as late name comics.   Upon close inspection it seems to me, based upon the comments from the crowds of whites who flock to hear him – even in small town Mississippi, a place where Afro-Americans risked death just trying to vote not so long ago – that many white Americans unconsciously hope electing Barack Obama President will finally absolve this nation of its original sins of slavery, genocide and apartheid. 

            It is a history that magnifies the contradiction between America’s much professed ideals of freedom, justice and equality for everybody and the realities of racial oppression; a history that lends the lie to America’s most cherished values; ideals that white Americans continue to reference as proof of the moral superiority of their society to the rest of the world.  It is the certainty that most Euro-Americans have in the assumption that their society is morally superior to the rest of the world  that supplies the moral basis for the doctrine of American Exceptionalism.  Thus by remaining mum on the race question and avoiding the inconvenient truths of its ugly legacy – that the United States of America was founded on slavery and genocide long before there was a Constitution or Declaration of Independence – Barack has been able to promote a forward looking vision of an America where white folks of conscience can hope to be absolved of the sins of their fathers through the eradication of historical memory.


            But Prof. Steele envisions trouble ahead.  He predicts that when all those white cheer leaders for Barack Obama discover that he views the world from the same racial perspective as other blacks in America, and a vote for him won’t automatically settle accounts on racial matters after all, they are going to cut him loose and head for the hills to circle the wagons. I strongly disagree, but we shall see.  For one could not design a better test for the Professor’s argument than the present imbroglio around Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  But that’s another discussion which I shall take up in a future commentary.  It is fair to assume, based upon the observable evidence, that in the mind of white America Barack Obama is the antitheses of black religious leaders such as Rev. Wright, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Louis Farrakhan, leaders who make them feel guilty by reminding them of the crimes against black and red humanity that is a dominant theme of American history, demanding racial equity and justice for all, and threatening that there will be no peace without justice.  

            The almost reflexive hatred many white Americans feel for these men – whose demands are not even radical considering the real grievances they bring to the table – is a measure of the depths of Euro-Americans denial of their history of white supremacy in this nation, a system of racial oppression that inspired the German Nazis to base their racist laws against Jews upon American laws aimed at blacks. The Nazi’s also viewed their “final solution” for the Jews as having much in common with white America’s extermination of Native Americans.  And they based their program of sterilizing those considered unfit to bear children on the ideas and practices of the American Eugenics  movement, in which distinguished medical men such as Dr. Harry Haiselden, Chief of Staff at the German American Hospital in Chicago, and the much praised Margaret Sanger of Planned Parenthood were  major figures.   Haiselden would become world famous as the subject of a Hollywood movie.   Titled The Black Stork and billed as  “A Eugenics Love Story,”  Dr. Haiselden played himself in the 1917 movie in which he advises a young couple to let their handicapped child die because it was defective.  When we consider the fact that Dr. Haiselden came to public notice when he went on trial for actually making a decision to let a handicapped child die at birth and won the case, we can clearly see how popular the ideas of the eugenics movement were in twentieth century America.  Haiselden became so popular that newspapers competed for his columns and he was a hot item on the lucrative lecture circuit for years.

            Anyone who has read Adolph Hitler’s magnum opus Mein Kempt, and compared it to widely influential The Passing of the Great Race, the 1917 tome by a leading American Eugenicist and President of the New York Zoological Society Madison Grant, will easily recognize Hitler’s intellectual debt to Grant.  Indeed, Hitler would say as much in a letter to Grant in a letter from the early 1930’s that recently turned up in Grant’s personal papers: “Your book is my bible” wrote a fawning Hitler.  All of this is well documented in the revelatory book, War against the Weak: Eugenics and the American Campaign to Create a Master Race, by the distinguished British historian Edwin Black, who also uncovered the role of IBM – one of America’s most respected transnational corporations – in providing the machinery the Nazi’s used to classify and track Jews in the German death camps in a previous book, IBM and the Holocaust, which made the New York Times best seller list.  “The fact is, IBM technology was used to organize nearly everything in Germany and then Nazi Europe, from the identification of the Jews in censuses, registrations, and ancestral tracing programs to the running of railroads and organizing of concentration camp slave labor” Black tells us.  And among those who made grand theft dough in this dirty deal was George W. Bush’s grandfather!   

            These scholarly books provide a chilling portrait of American society in the last century, and dramatically highlight the superficial level on which the frenzied debate among the unread Punditocracy on the question of race and power is being conducted.  Yet, despite the intellectual shallowness that befogs the debate,  when we reflect upon the fact that this is the same country in which an African American is now making a serious run for the Presidency, just forty years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the full meaning and dimension of the Obama phenomenon becomes clearer.  


            While the system of racial caste oppression is an essential aspect of the historical experience of blacks in America, neither Barack Obama nor his white American family share that experience.  Thus it is reasonable for whites to assume that he does not bear the bitter historical grievances against white society that is fundamental to the political consciousness of virtually all multi-generational Afro-Americans who are the descendents of slaves.  Hence Obama’s conciliatory style that makes him so attractive to whites is suspect among many Afro-Americans, especially militant activists and intellectuals. White radicals like Ralph Nader are also uncomfortable with Obama’s style, which is easy like Sunday morning, and Nader referred to it in explaining why he decided to make another run at the presidency during his February 25th appearance on Meet the Press.  While conceding that the Illinois Senator is” a person of substance,” Nader observed that his record as a politician was “not a challenging one.”

            Yet this is a question of style not substance, for what ever else can be said of Senator Obama he is the consummate politician, the state of the art in the game of politics. When you watch him work the crowds, hold forth from the podium commanding the mike, or brush aside Hillary Clinton’s attacks in debate with an unshakable cool, it is hard to escape the conclusion that he’s simply the best, better than all the rest. He has thoroughly grasped the essentials of politics in a participatory democracy: politics is the art of the possible and compromise is essential to success.  Obama clearly understands that this means, first and foremost, that a politician cannot move too far ahead of the electorate. This demands that a candidate for President harbor no illusions about who the electorate is. Thus Obama has pursued a wise strategy in ignoring the advice of black militants that he become “blacker” in his concerns, or the admonitions of the professional Left to become more “radical” in his pronouncements. 

            To veer off on either course would be a fool’s errand because blacks are a small minority in this country and cannot elect a President, and the left appears content to remain a national debating society with no hope of seizing power.  To be sure, Obama’s policy of moderation has led to accusations that he is not “black enough” and “too corporate friendly.”  But he must remain unmoved by these complaints and stay on course, steady as he goes, and keep his eyes on the prize.  For after all is said and done, buoyed by the blood of the two great historic races in the making of American civilization,  Barack Obama represents the best hope for the transformation of America into something different, and something more, in our lifetime.


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Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

March 25, 2008 




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