Category Archives: Presidential Campaign

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 Media and Barack Obama

Atlanta Journal Constitution columnist Jim Wooten today asked the pertinent question, “Does the media prefer Barack Obama?”   Hillary Clinton clearly thinks so,” he writes, and continues:

Well, could I just point out that, in the last several debates, I seem to get the first question all the time? And I don’t mind. You know, I’ll be happy to field them, but I do find it curious. And if anybody saw ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you know, maybe we should ask Barack if he’s comfortable and needs another pillow.” She was referring to a skit last weekend that had television journalists fawning over Obama.

“I just find it kind of curious,” Hillary continued, “that I keep getting the first question on all of these issues, but I’m happy to answer it. You know, I have been a critic of NAFTA from the very beginning. I didn’t have a public position on it because I was part of the administration. But when I started running for the Senate, I have been a critic.”

The suggestion that the media caters to Obama was advanced earlier in the day by campaign supporters. Howard Wolfson, a top Clinton adviser, said that “the press has largely applauded” Obama “every time” his campaign launches pesonal attacks on Hillary. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell says the media has “relished” Hillary’s slide.

Wooten goes on to write that he keeps a TV going and gives it a look when something interesting pops up.  “Here lately, with the field down to two candidates, it appears far more balanced — that is, when I look up and the story is political, I’m as likely to see Hillary as Obama. ”  But that wasn’t the case earlier, when cable channels clearly preferred Obama, Wooten opines.

 He concludes by asking: “You report, you decide: Does the media prefer Obama?”

Well?  Media bias is hard to examine, since the examiner is inherently biased in the examining.  If you’re a Hillary supporter, a supporter of someone else, or simply skeptical of Obamamania, you might well assert that the media favors Obama.

But the perception of bias is common, maybe universal.  The most partisan supporters of the Palestinians are convinced the media are biased against their cause and let Israel get away with everything, while the equivalent on the Israel side are just as convinced  the bias runs the other way.  And they’re both criticizing the same coverage.

Given the above caveat, I do sense the media favor Obama.  From a journalistic standpoint, his personal story really is more interesting than those of the other candidates.  It’s a story to unjade us: The interracial marriage, the immigrant father, the son of the African immigrant who goes to Harvard, the relatives in Kenya following his every move.  The response to Obama, that “audacity of hope” euphoria, is genuine and reporters write about it, and thus inevitably fan it.

Still, my sense is that the media does favor Obama.  The media — by which, readers should understand, I mean mostly the political press — hasn’t liked Hillary from Day One, long before Obama appeared.

 It’s not just the-liberal-media-loves-the liberal, though.  The political press corps loves John McCain, at least since the Straight Talk Express days in 2000.  The media never liked Rudy Giuliani, g0ing back to his New York mayoral days, and he returned the favor.  Politically, Rudy is largely a bit further left than McCain.

Does the media’s playing favorites help the favored and hurt the disfavored?  It would be hard to support a “no” answer, but where’s the chicken and where’s the egg?  Do some public figures naturally rub reporters the right way and the wrong way (in a figurative sense)?

 In my case (I’m not a national political reporter, btw), I find it hard to warm up to Hillary and easy to warm up to Barack.  Full disclosure: I have a multiracial son, nieces and nephews.  I very much like John McCain on a personal level.  His personal story is also compelling.

But if the media’s bias is discernible, despite our constant pieties about “objectivity,” then aren’t we in trouble?  How much damage do we do to our credibility?  It’s too flip to say there’s not much damage left to be done; it’s immensely important to democracy that the press maintain its credibility and do its best to strive for objectivity.

During my brief stint as a college journalism professor, I tried to tell my students the reader shouldn’t be able to tell your political opinion or opinion of a person from your reporting.  I guess I didn’t teach that lesson — or any other lesson, I’m afraid — very well, but apparently neither did my colleagues.  Or is it the students who are the problem?

Back to Lesson One, anyone?

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