Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The What is Obama Debate Again

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Here’s the what is President-elect Barack Obama, black, bi-racial or multi-racial quiz. If he did not have one of the world’s most recognizable names and faces he would fume at being subjected to poor (or no) service in restaurants, bypassed by taxis, racial-profiled by police on street corner stops, landlords who refuse to show him an apartment, followed in stores by security guards, denied a loan for his business or home purchase due to redlining, find himself living in a resegregated neighborhood, or routinely passed over for a corporate management position.
He would not be subjected to any of these routine petty harassments and annoyances, the subtle and at time outright forms of discrimination because he checked the bi-racial designation on his census form. That’s a meaningless, feel good, paper designation that has no validity in the hard world of American race politics.
The deepest part of America's racial fault has always been and still remains the black and white divide. This has spawned legions of vile but durable racial stereotypes, fears, and antagonisms. Black males have been the special target of the negative typecasting. They've routinely been depicted as crime prone, derelict, sexual menaces, and chronic underachievers. University researchers recently found that Obama’s win didn’t appreciably change these stereotypes.

The roughly six million or 2 percent of Americans who checked the bi-racial census box may take comfort in trying to be racially precise, but most also tell of their own bitter experience in feeling the sting of racial bigotry in the streets and workplace. Obama can too and he has related his racial awakening in his best selling bare the soul autobiograhy Dreams from My Father.

Despite his occasional references to his white mother and grandmother, Obama has never seen himself as anything other than African-American. That worked for and against him during the campaign. In coutless polls and surveys, the overwhelming majority of whites said that they would vote for an African-American for president, and that compentence and qualification, not color was the only thing that mattered. Many meant it and showed it by enthusiatically cheering him on. More than a few didn’t. Despite the real and feigned color blindness, nearly sixty percent of whites still did not vote for Obama. Most based their opposition to him on Republican political loyalties, ties, regional and personal preferences. But a significant minority of white voters did not for him because he's black, and they did not hide their feelings to interviewers about that and in exit polls in the Democratic primaries and the general election. Tagging him as multi-racial or bi-racial did not soften their color resistance to him, let alone change their perception that he was black.

Yet, the sideshow debate still rages over whether Obama is the black president or the bi-racial president. The debate is even more nonsensical since science has long since debunked the notion of a pure racial type. In America, race has never been a scientific or genealogical designation, but a political and social designation. Anyone with the faintest trace of African ancestry was and still is considered black and treated accordingly.
Blacks were ecstatic over Obama's candidacy and his presidential win. They were unabashed in saying that they backed him with passion and fervor because he is black. Many would not have cheered him with the same passion if he touted himself as a mixed race candidate. The thrill and pride for them was that a black man could beat the racial odds and climb to the political top; substituting bi-racial for black would not have had the same meaning or significance to blacks. The talk about Obama being anything other than black infuriates many blacks. Their anger is legitimate. If Obama doesn’t run from his black identity then the bi-racial card appears as a naked effort to snatch Obama’s history making victory from them. It’s also an implicit denial that an African-American can have the right stuff, that is the smarts, talent and ability to excel in any arena.
The second that Obama announced that he would run for president in February 2007, much of the press and the public fixated on one question, "Is America ready for a black president?" The question was never, "Is America ready for a mixed-race president?" The answer was that Obama if elected would be America's first black president. It was almost never that he would be America’s first mixed-race president.
That didn’t change on Election Night. Obama’s victory was still hailed as a giant step forward for black and white relations in America, not mixed race relations. That may or may not be the case. The nagging racial sleights and indignities that many African-Americans suffer are tormenting reminders that race still does matter, and matter a lot to many Americans.
Calling Obama the first black president is the accurate, and honest, way to fix his place in American political history. It’s one that he wouldn’t or really can’t dispute.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press, January 2009).


DJ Black Adam said...

I told some bi-racial poster that came to my blog questioning if Barakc were "African American" to just call him what they would if he were robing and old white lady and they asked for a description of the perp: "Black Male"...

Bruce Dixon said...

Brother Hutchinson,

With all due respect, isn't your discussion of whether Obama is "black enough" or not is a kind of straw man that distracts us from the real subject-to-debate aspects of the Obama phenomenon??? --- namely whether his policy stands synch up with those of America's black and liberal electorate, and whether or not his career is a plus or a minus for black America, and for America as a whole??

Unlike the identity question, these are very real debates with real life consequences. His foreign policy appointments, for example contain not a single consistent antiwar voice, his secretary of education favors more high-stakes testing and the militarization of high school education, his energy secretary is beholden to the nuclear industry, his secretary of agriculture is beholden to agribusiness, and on and on. The people who worked the phones and walked the streets and gave money believed they were getting something else, and that is a real debate, Brother Hutchinson, not a fake "identity" squabble.

The discussion was real enough to draw 1200 people to Salem Church in Harlem last Saturday, real enough for Davey D to broadcast on Breakdown FM, and real enough to fill a good-sized room at $10 a head in Baltimore this coming weekend.

In fact, it's only tired people like Dr. Leonard Jeffries who, in order to keep from discussing the actual issues at hand, like to pretend it's an argument about identity. It really isn't.

The real "what is Obama" debate is not whether he is black or biracial or whatever. It's about whether he is pro-war, pro agribusiness and pro buisness-as-usual or whether he is, as he led many to believe, about changing things for the better. Respectfully, you could help matters more by paying attention to and taking part in this vital discussion rather than throwing up the straw man of his racial identity.

Anonymous said...

He is simply a man..A man with many cultures in his family that make him what he is..Like most of us..I understand the racial aspect in concern with history but at at the end of the day,,he is simply a man that should be judged by his character and what he stands for like all of us want to be and should be..Nothing more,nothing less..

Anonymous said...

He is simply a man..A man with many cultures in his family that make him what he is..Like most of us..I understand the racial aspect in concern with history but at at the end of the day,,he is simply a man that should be judged by his character and what he stands for like all of us want to be and should be..Nothing more,nothing less..

4:07 AM

Anonymous said...

It would not only be an insult to Barack Obama's white relatives who grew him up but a lie to black folk to solely identify Obama as black. Calling Obama black is a black fantacy. Blacks need to reset and look at what it took to raise Obama to be who he is today, his brothers in Kenya show no resemblance other than that they share the same name, not in character and certainly not in looks. Now, this just defined black! Presidents are not born they are cultivated, nutured and educated not left at an early age to fend for themselves or reared in a family with more than one mother and an unknown father. This is not racist this is reality look around you, most of the so called black achiever's are mixed whether you like it or not. Calling him simply a man does not make the description any better it sweeps the facts under the carpet. I recently saw a family photo of Obama with his Kenyan relatives and he stuck out like a saw thumb, almost like spot the black mixed with white!! Black should cut this one loose and find potential in a true black with no white blood and grown up under black influence and have him run for President and if he succeeds then blacks can stand tall and truely be proud.

Anonymous said...

Describing Obama as black if he were robbing an old white lady? if this is not racist than then I read it wrong! I am a fair skinned curly to straight haired bi-racial and I would be called black in that case. Is that what blacks do? Is that the best way to see if a white person would place a racial description on someone? No wonder blacks have that reputation its because blacks see themselves that way. If a white kid was wearing a woody in a dark ally robbing a white lady how would he be described? Exactly!! Now can you see the stereotyping? Blacks in Africa don't run around robbing old white ladies. Maybe the odd few but that does not make a generalization. In fact most blacks would protect old white ladies. Oh, I missed the point? No I didn't Obama would be called black as an insult rather than the description because of the strerotyping. The whole world sees Obama as a man of mixed blood its only the blacks who refuse to recognize the white side and that is a shame. I watch African TV stations and its like they have never heard of Obama's white relatives. All his relatives are black and his mother is called his half sister. I called one of the TV stations to straighten this out and they just laughed at me but I had the last luagh.

Anonymous said...