Why Obama (and the Rest of Us) Can’t ‘Transcend Race’

Among the many tributes paid to U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama is his alleged ability to “transcend race.”  I’m afraid this truly is a fairy tale.

It might be accurate, in a narrow sense, to say that Obama can, and must, “transcend race” so he can appeal to diverse political constituencies on grounds other than race.  In that restricted sense, Obama has clearly already succeeded. 

 In any broader sense, Barack Obama cannot transcend race and neither can America.  Race is too fundamental to America’s history, society, culture and sense of individual and collective identity.

But don’t just take my word for it.  During research for my masters thesis at the University of Georgia, I read a  lucid book titled “Racial Formation in the United States,” by Michael Omi and Howard Winant.  Here is a passage from my thesis that summarizes racial formation:

Omi & Winant define race as: “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies,” and we should think of race “as an element of social structure rather than an irregularity within it; we should see race as a dimension of human representation rather than an illusion.” Omi and Winant (1994) see the concept of race evolving through racial formation, “the sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, inhabited, transformed and destroyed,” through an evolving series of racial projects.

So, according to Omi and Winant, the meaning of race can and does change through history.  No doubt various competing racial projects are changing its meaning even as I write.  If one of those projects has the potential to “transcend race,” I’m open to hearing about it, but I’m not holding my breath.  Witness how, over and over, discussions of Barack Obama shift, sometimes from one sentence to the next, from “transcending race” to identifying him as a black candidate.  During the campaign for the South Carolina primary, Bill Clinton took pains to point out Obama’s blackness.  The widely criticized trick backfired; South Carolina black voters apparently noticed Obama’s blackness, and overwhelming supported him.  No “transcendence” there.

It is historic, we say over and over, that America could very well elect its first black president.  Indeed, that would be a historic moment.  We’re already getting historic between Obama and Hillary Clinton.  But how is it possible to say we might elect a black president, and then insist that he or anyone else has “transcended race”?  If it still matters that much, then the color of his skin still counts at least as much as the content of his character.

Here are some corollary questions to think about:

Is it meaningful to say Hillary Clinton, John McCain, or any other presidential candidate “transcends race”?

If it isn’t meaningful to say of any of the white candidates that he or she “transcends race,” then what does that say about how we define race?  Which racial project is operating here?

We say without thinking that Barack Obama, whom we know perfectly well has a white mother and black father, is black, but I’ve never heard anyone say he’s white.  With multiracial celebrities abounding and multiracial children featured in advertisements, why does the “one drop rule,” which states that any portion of black ancestry makes you black, still rule?  Again, which racial project is at work?

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2 Comments

Filed under National Politics, Presidential Campaign

2 responses to “Why Obama (and the Rest of Us) Can’t ‘Transcend Race’

  1. Doug D

    ‘Transcend race’? I agree. We can’t transcend race because race makes us up; it is who we are and should be recognized and celebrated, not made a point for oppression. It would be like someone saying, I will transcend the fact that all humans have hands.

  2. Pingback: On Baha’is on Obama: Beyond politics | Baha'i Views

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