Thursday, December 21, 2006

Obama Isn't the Right Kind of Black

Captain Ed beautifully illustrates the frustrating limitation of identity politics--eventually no one qualifies. I will quote nearly his whole post. It is excellent:

US political darling Barack Obama has received enthusiastic support for a possible 2008 presidential bid -- except from fellow African-Americans, a group many believed would be among his staunchest backers.

In contrast to the effusive reception Obama has received from white Americans, many US blacks so far have been cool, saying that while they may share skin color with Obama, they do not have a common culture or history.

"Obama did not -- does not -- share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves," wrote African-American newspaper columnist Stanley Crouch last month in an article entitled "Barack Obama -- Not Black Like Me." ...

"While he has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own -- nor has he lived the life of a black American," Crouch wrote in his New York Daily News column.

"If we then end up with him as our first black president, he will have come into the White House through a side door -- which might, at this point, be the only one that's open."

It's pretty early in the electoral cycle for this kind of analysis, but it does point up the problem with identity politics -- getting the identities correct. Despite his experiences as a baby-boomer ethnic mix, he has not found acceptance with African-Americans, or perhaps because of it. It's a strange argument, because although Obama's ancestry does not flow through American slavery, it would have mattered little to his formative experiences. After all, bigots rarely ask politely about parentage before attacking people, and to the extent that anyone experiences racism and bigotry, it occurs because of their appearance. Getting to know people almost always reduces or eliminates hatreds.

One has to wonder whether any African-American with a successful life story could garner support with the dynamic reported by AFP in play, if it really exists. Radio host George Wilson describes the anti-Obama sentiment as a reflexive reaction to the support he has garnered from whites, saying that such enthusiasm makes African-Americans automatically suspicious. If true, it would be terribly self-defeating.

Obama hasn't used a side door for anything so far in his political career, although the Republicans made it very easy for him in the 2004 Senate race by nominating Alan Keyes. Nor will he do so in a presidential run. For some reason, however, people do not want to allow him to run as his own person on his own platform, choosing instead to assign him one identity or another, with the result of denying him his individuality -- the inevitable end product of identity politics.

Obama would make a lousy President, but not because of his supposed identity issues. His policy choices are lockstep liberal, and his rhetoric is superficial, even if expertly delivered. He will remain a top-drawer political figure because of his genuine nature and his likability. Obama will remain enough of an outsider to produce pithy analyses of the Capitol Hill environment, and he will represent the liberal constituencies of Illinois well. Even if he doesn't win the White House, he may help to end the ridiculous practice of identity politics over the next couple of decades -- and if he does, that will be legacy enough for any man or woman of this era.

Let's quit focusing on skin color and middle names, and start focusing on policy.

Amen. One has to wonder if Martin Luther King's dream was a pipe dream.


Geoff said...

Thanks Dr. M, interesting post. I think it comes down to unfamiliarity. When folks in other states learn that he married an African American woman from the south side of Chicago, and has lived there for 2+ decades while working in the community, they'll appreciate how strong his ties to the black community in this country really are.

Dr. Melissa said...

But that's just it. Barack Obama is part of the community--the community of American citizens. I don't doubt his "blackness" cred. Why should it matter if he is married to a South side black woman? Would he have no credibility if he was married to a Latino or Caucasian or Asian woman?

A man should be judged on his ideas and accomplishments, not the color of his skin. It shouldn't matter the color of his wife's skin either. Is she a good person? Is he a devoted husband and father? Does he treat others with respect? Does he bring new ideas to the table? Is his legislation sound? Does he represent the best interests of all people--not just the few? Can he govern in this challenging time? What experience does he have to demonstrate that?

In these tumultuous times I am not interested in skin color or gonads. There are too many important issues and not enough serious politicians willing to solve them.