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Obama and race: our country is so confused

I was out of town for a few days, and was, by necessity, mainstream media and blog-free during that time. While at the airport, I saw that Barack Obama finally launched his official bid for the White House, and it’s clear that the ways his race is being addressed exposes the inability of people — white or black — to discuss race rationally or logically.

Some of that lies in the conundrum of what defines race. It has been fascinating over the last couple of weeks to see the complete sanity breakdown in commentary on Obama’s heritage, with the Illinois senator being chastised by blacks for not being “authentically black”  — witness Stanley Crouch in his column  What Obama isn’t: black like me:

After all, Obama’s mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan. Other than color, Obama did not – does not – share a heritage with the majority of black Americans, who are descendants of plantation slaves.

It’s an interesting fact that Obama is not the descendant of West African slaves, but isn’t Crouch really saying something else here? I think there is a discomfort with Obama by these naysayers of color that is questioning something else — Obama’s fealty to those in the black community who have made a career out of a particular framing of cultural and political “blackness.”

Apparently, to some black folks, you aren’t “kin” if you don’t:
* have at least one biological parent who is black (and now the new caveat, a parent who is a descendant of slaves)
* act culturally black enough (the definition of which is ludicrously subjective)
* you don’t have direct ties to the civil rights movement hierarchy that is entrenched in the Democratic Party.

Since Barack Obama isn’t speaking about race as defined by the self-proclaimed powers that be, to those in the black Democratic establishment — in elective office, MSM talking heads, and the party hangers-on — there’s a palpable sense of insecurity playing itself out that is embarrassing. See the debacle after the jump.How bad is it? Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr. lanced the boil and finally took it public:

“How long are you going to owe politicians for past favors?” Jones asked in a speech Friday to more than 100 members of the Democratic National Committee’s black caucus  and other political operatives gathered at the Washington Hilton for the winter meeting of the DNC, according to people who were there.

…”The one thing that was extraordinarily clear this weekend is that many African-American political operatives are very conflicted internally about whether to support Obama or Clinton,” he said.

…Jones’ call was received frostily by Clinton allies, including Minyon Moore, the former White House aide who now heads Hillary Clinton’s black outreach,  and former Clinton and Gore campaign aide Donna Brazile, according to some attendees.

Moore walked out of the room when Jones stopped speaking, according to two people who were there.  Moore said Sunday she’d left because she had somewhere else to be, and that she would “agree to disagree” with Jones.

Whew. That was so necessary. The fact that Hillary Clinton is trying to cash in the political chips won by her Bill Clinton in the community is no surprise — the fact that she feels that she deserves the chips (and that her own black allies are faced with questions about their support for her) exposes the “authenticity” dust up again. Obama has to earn black votes, as does Senator Clinton. End of story. Well, I think Classicrose said it quite well.

Why are the black folks at the top troubled? So now it’s a requirement that to be really black you must be descended from West African slaves. Do the Census folks know about this? Just create a new category for black folks who’s families voluntarily immigrated to the U.S from Africa and the Caribbean. Even if their ancestors were slaves in the Caribbean, according to the black gatekeepers they’re not black. Let’s see how quickly the heads would spin on the black gatekeepers if the number of blacks decreased dramatically from 35,000,000 plus.

This kind of hair splitting is mind bending.

Is this a generational split that involves fragile political egos of black “leadership,” or a deeper, more bizarre internal conflict about political racial purity and class? Perhaps. What I do know is that no matter how you slice it, Barack Obama, in this country, at this time in its history, is black. The man himself knows the deal, and said so on CBS’s 60 Minutes (which aired tonight):

When asked by Kroft if growing up in a white household had caused him to make a decision to be black, Obama replies, “I’m not sure I decided it. I think ? if you look African-American in this society, you’re treated as an African-American. It’s interesting though, that now I feel very comfortable and confident in terms of who I am and where I stake my ground. But I notice that ? I’ve become a focal point for a racial debate.”

There’s no such thing as a “post-racial” candidate when you look black. In this country, Obama can still be followed in a store suspected of being a shoplifter, be passed by a cab driver afraid to pick him up, or stopped by a police officer for “driving while black.” In none of these cases would it matter if Barack Obama pulled out a family picture to show he’s half white.

I think this is what frustrates me with well-meaning white people who say they “don’t see color.” Of course you do. Our culture is steeped in race, and the history isn’t pretty; its legacy plays itself out today. That’s not said to engender guilt, but simply to say that race is irrelevant or has no impact on today’s society because you or recent generations of your family didn’t own slaves isn’t helpful. Denial short circuits difficult discussions that need to occur. The defensiveness of these vocal blacks in regards to race is playing itself out so pathologically in the case of Obama — I welcome it, I only hope that it might lead to more productive conversations about why people think about him the way they do.

I discussed this whole Obama race thing over dinner with wifey Kate a couple of weeks ago, because both of us have interesting and relevant heritage that has made us think about race in many ways. She’s half Lebanese, with a family that has been in the country for generations. She doesn’t particularly look Middle Eastern, since her mother is white and fair. Other relatives in her family are very ethnic looking. It’s a roll of the genetic dice as our population mixes and merges.

I have a lighter complexion, but I’m the product of two light-skinned parents, who themselves were born of lighter-skinned blacks and black/Native American or West Indian heritage. I clearly cannot pass for white, but obviously I have white relatives somewhere in there, but they are generations back in the family tree. When I compare my heritage to that of Obama’s, I often wonder how being biracial is perceived in this country in comparison to someone who is a fair-skinned black who is not biracial.

In the quest to assign some level of “blackness” to Barack Obama by both whites and blacks, I think some exercises are useful.

Think about these questions, answer and discuss:

1. Two people who are standing before you, one biracial, one fair-skinned black, and both appear to be black because of their physical features. How would you categorize them?

2. Two people who are standing before you, one biracial person who appears to be black, one fair-skinned black who appears to be white because of their physical features. How would you categorize them? What if the situations are reversed — any difference?

3. In subsequent conversations with them, it can make a race assignment solely on appearance more difficult; how will you weigh:
* the whole “articulate” thing (the Acting White phenomenon playing itself out)
* their perceived level of education
* how they personally identify re: race
* their political affiliation (and/or identification with the perceived leaders of the civil rights movement)
* the amount you identify with them (the cultural commonalities versus the physical differences)

There are no right or wrong answers here — it’s simply a chance to think out loud about how it takes a great deal of deliberate thought to analyze how we view race, class, and culture in our daily lives. What we choose to do about it as a result of that self-reflection is our choice.

It just appears that people simply aren’t thinking very hard (or perhaps too hard) about these deeper perceptions about race when it comes to Obama. I’m not surprised, since it’s clear a sizeable number of people either cannot or refuse to look inward and reflect on our need to place people in neat racial and ethnic boxes to make it easier to keep the system we have in place — as uncomfortable as it is — because it is familiar. Obama’s rise changes the rules of the game, and those already in the game (on both sides) don’t want those rules to change.

Related:
* Barack Obama on 60 Minutes
* Waveflux @ Shakes Sis

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding

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