Monthly Archives: March 2008

Obama’s ‘Trip’ Over and Around the Color Line

Who, or what, is Barack Obama?

Although people ask this question about all presidential candidates, I see it raised much more frequently concerning U.S. Senator Barack Obama.  Shelby Steele (author of “The Content of our Character”) argues in his new book, “A Bound Man”that Obama can’t win the presidency because he doesn’t know who he is.  Obama’s quest for his identity is the theme of his autobiography “Dreams From my Father,” which was written before he found the national limelight.  In that book, he gives one answer: “A black man with a mixed heritage”.

Accurate enough, but that’s an answer virtually every black person in America could give — and probably more white people could give an equivalent answer if they knew enough about their own past.

Barack Obama, as most of us know by now, had a black African father and a white American mother, and he has a half-Indonesian half-sister.  Multiracial people such as Obama wrestle with two fundamental questions:

“Who am I?”

“Who (or what) are you?”

The first is a personal, internal question, and the answer must satisfy the individual.  The second is an external question, for public consumption, but some answers will not easily please the public.

Roosevelt University professor Heather Dalmage, herself interracially married, summarizes the struggle with the first question in this way:

Because they do not quite fit into the istorically created, officially named, and socially recognized categories, members of multiracial families are constantly fighting to identify themselves for themselves. A difficulty they face is the lack of language available to address their experiences.

This quote is from Dalmage’s book, Tripping on the Color Line: Black-White Multiracial Families in a Racially Divided World.”

In a world in which half-black, half-white Barack Obama is “the first serious black contender for the presidency,” the language with which to call yourself something else is hard to come by.

 Dvora Yanow of Vrije Universiteit, in Holland, brings out the struggle multiracial people face in answering the “who are you” question thus:

Individuals who cannot find their identity in available categories become invisible, in a sense: without a label, without a vocabulary, their stories are untellable and they themselves are unnarratable.

This is from Yanow’s 2003 book,  Constructing ‘Race’ and ‘Ethnicity’ in America: Category-making in Public Policy and Administration.”

In my masters thesis, I added:

 

Because of the state’s historical and continuing role in racial politics, Americans often address government in narratives that begin, “I am a (fill in the blank) American,” but the federal government only makes available some categories of hyphenated-American for people to use in telling their stories (Yanow, 2003). “Being unable to do so calls into question one’s membership in American society,” (Yanow, 2003, p. 194). The unsuccessful attempt to place a “multiracial” category in the 2000 U.S. Census was, Yanow (2003) asserts, just such a contested claim for membership.

Thus it is that someone like Barack Obama could, early in the campaign, be seen as “not black enough” because he didn’t bear enough markers of race, while to others he “transcends race” due to the same lack of racial markers.  But all this revolves around what other people think or say about Obama.

Is it possible for a multiple answer to both questions?  I.e., “I am black here, white there, ‘mulatto’ in a third context and God knows what elsewhere.”  As the parent/uncle of multiracial children, I believe such an answer is not only possible, but a fundamental right.  More on that in a post coming soon.

 

 

 

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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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The Beating Up Goes on at Peach BOE

Never a dull, and rarely a civil moment at the Peach County Board of Education.  As hinted in a previous post, BOE attorney Jerry Lumley has in fact resigned.

My colleague Jake Jacobs reported in the Macon Telegraph Sunday that Lumley ” ‘just got kind of tired of having to deal with (school board member) Jody (Usry),’ ” in addition to having too many other commitments.  Lumley also said Usry “likes controversy and ‘puts a negative spin on anything the board tries to do. I’m just tired of it.’ ” It might be true that Usry likes controversy, but there’s plenty of controversy going around, no matter who’s on the board.

Usry responded ” ‘I hope our next attorney has a better sense of his roles and responsibilities, and works for the school district rather than as a protector of individual persons, as this board looks to the future and strives to let go of the recent ugly past.’ ”

Lumley didn’t have a good word for brand new Superintendent of Schools Susan Clark, either.  ” ‘She has a high opinion of herself,’ ” Lumley told The Telegraph.

Lumley also called Citizens for Better Education ” ‘spoiled kids’ ” who throw temper tantrums if they dont’ get their way.  He lamented ” ‘a continuous lack of civility’ “on the group’s part.

CBE spokesman and County Comissioner Roy Lewis countered: “There’s plenty of frustration to go around, and it’s caused me and others many sleepless nights the past year.”

Lumley was on the ball about one thing: lack of civility, and it continues.  All the sources gave us in the Telegraph article was more tit for tat.  All parties convinced they’re right.  And to top it off, a knock on Dr. Clark just as she begins what any fair observer can see will be a difficult job.

It ain’t over til it’s over, and it ain’t over.

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More Clayton-Peach Comparisons

Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution includes an article about a citizen protest against the Clayton County School Board.  Clayton is only two weeks away from a vote that could revoke their accreditation with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

My Feb. 27, 2008 column in The Leader-Tribune noted the similarities and differences betwee the Peach County BOE and their Clayton counterparts.  In short, both boards are in hot water for “infighting among board members, meddling in day-to-day operations of schools and violations of board procedures.” However, there now seems little the Clayton BOE can do to fight off losing their accreditation, while the Peach BOE has about a year to get things right, and who knows how much longer after that year, depending on the outcome.

Some Clayton protesters wanted the whole nine-member board to resign; others focused on four members who’ve caught the most flak.  Likewise, in Peach County, some call for a whole new board, others would settle for the heads of Norma Givens, Kay Whitley and Jamie Johnson.  Board member Jody Usry did offer to resign at one point, which led to an exchange of letters in the The Leader-Tribune, some declaring it’s about time, others saying Usry is the last one who should resign.  Some have called for recalls in both counties. Clayton protesters plan to make their resignation demand in the BOE’s faces Monday, and, failing to get that demand met, plan to present recall petitions to the state board of elections Tuesday.

Peach County has an opportunity, with brand new Superintendent Dr. Susan Clark, to plug the holes and right the listing ship.  Before we ask for heads on a platter, let’s see what Dr. Clark can do.  The last thing she needs to start an already difficult job is even more turmoil.  Let’s give her our enthusiastic support and save the rotten tomatoes long enough to see some results.  What say you all?

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