Tag Archives: University of Georgia

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?



Filed under National Politics, Presidential Campaign

College Football Big $$$

Last Saturday, I caught a bit of the UGA vs. Auburn game and marvelled at the poetry in motion that is Knowshon Moreno, the Dawgs star running back. The next day, in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece, Michael Lewis asked why college football players are the only parties not making money off the game:

“College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?”

UGA’s football program generated $59 million in revenue recently, Lewis wrote, but the players, whose labor provided that value, got nothing, and they get in trouble if they’re caught accepting almost any remuneration for their labor. “At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The world’s most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen,” Lewis wrote.

The injustice of this situation grows when we consider that so few college football players graduate. The pretense that college athletes are students first and athletes second is silly, Lewis wrote. How many star high school players choose their college based on academics? It isn’t that college athletes can’t learn, Lewis wrote, but that ” … they’re too busy. Unlike the other students on campus, they have full-time jobs: playing football for nothing. Neglect the task at hand, and they may never get a chance to play football for money.”

Lewis suggested paying college players based on the ratio of revenue to payroll in the NFL. Texas Longhorns star quarterback Vince Young would have made about $5 million in 2005, for instance. “In quarterbacking the Longhorns free of charge, Young, in effect, was making a donation to the university of $5 million a year — and also, by putting his health on the line, taking a huge career risk,” Lewis wrote. Moreno would surely be worth a million or two.

So why not set up the paid college sports marketplace, and let those who really want amateur status make the choice, Lewis asked. “The N.C.A.A. might one day be able to run an honest advertisement for the football-playing student-athlete: a young man who valued so highly what the University of Florida had to teach him about hospitality management that he ignored the money being thrown at him by Florida State,” Lewis wrote.

This is a thought-provoking proposal, but I don’t think I want to turn college sports into a totally commercial enterprise. For sports that don’t make money, and for lower divisions, athletics really is a way for students to attend college who might otherwise not be able to go. Football at Fort Valley State, for instance, hardly makes enough money to pay anybody, and for every Rayfield Wright there are hundreds who never went any further as players.

What say you all?


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Filed under Auburn, FVSU, New York Times, sports, UGA