2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
Speaking Truth to Power!

Deeply troubled by Obama racial politics

 

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Christien Tompkins
Columbia Daily Spectator (Columbia U.)


NEW YORK -- Though I remain ever suspicious and critical of mainstream electoral politics in the United States, there is a significant part of me that really wants to believe in Barack Obama. His eloquence and message of change and hope are terribly seductive compared to the stale and petty politics of Hillary Clinton (Plagiarism!? Are you kidding me?), even though I know better than to be sucked into such fantasies. And really, it means a hell of lot to me that we could really have a black president. I never really expected that it might happen so soon, like a whole lot of other black folks who turned to Obama in droves when it appeared that white people might actually give him a shot. However, at the same time that Obama's candidacy can make me proud and hopeful for America (and make no mistake, he would be a significant upgrade over Clinton, John McCain, or George W. Bush), his historic run for the presidency is heart-wrenchingly painful.

The most obvious reason is that I know he will be a major disappointment from day one, and that for all the symbolic meaning of having a black president and all the rhetoric of change, there is so much to be done for black folks and the rest of the world that he could not possibly do enough. Oh, and he is also still entrenched in the power structure of the Democratic Party and American politics, even as he preaches change. But beyond the inevitable disappointment with what will become of Obama the politician, I am deeply troubled by what an Obama presidency could mean for racial politics in the United States, specifically the notion that his candidacy is symbolic of the confirmation of a "post-racial" era in this nation.

A recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle remarks that "Obama's novelty is not that he is the first black candidate for president, but the first black candidate who is not running as a black candidate." While there are obvious reasons that Obama has to take extra steps to broaden his appeal, even if this is unfair, the way people think about race in his campaign goes beyond mere electoral strategy. The same article goes on to say that "White voters, especially at higher income and education levels, see in Obama a chance to salve the nation's deep racial wounds." There seems to be a deep psychic need for racial redemption and reconciliation that Obama's campaign is providing. But will President Obama really help heal the wounds of a legacy of chattel slavery, segregation, labor exploitation, etc.? Will he arrive, Christ-like, and redeem us for our racial sins? Let's just say I'm not buying a ticket for The Passion of the Obama.

We should all take a step back from sipping on the post-racial Kool-Aid. While Obama plays off of it, this talk of a post-racial era is more something that has surrounded and latched on to his campaign. At the same time that having a black president shows some measure of progress, Obama also provides an opportunity to let this country off the hook for racism if we're not careful. The hard everyday reality of racial inequality and the psychological pain of racism will not disappear when/if Obama takes the oath of office. He could probably only give an inch, where we need quite a bit more than a mile. Obviously, Obama's run for the presidency represents a significant shift in American politics and racial discourse, but we should not make it out to be more than what it actually is. Race does and will continue to matter in the United States, and the campaign itself provides plenty of evidence for this assertion (not to mention certain controversies on our own campus over the past few years) despite the predictions and hopes of some that we are entering a post-racial America.

What then can we learn from this post-racial talk? Well, people really want to get over this whole hundreds of years of racist exploitation thing, even if it's only to soothe their own consciences. In South Africa, many whites expressed a great sense of relief after the fall of apartheid, as they didn't have to be the despised villains of the world, even if they still controlled the economic destiny of the country and exploited this to their advantage. If Obama has to take advantage of this version of the white man's burden to get elected, I understand-even if I'm greatly troubled by it. In the end, the idea of a post-racial America may not even be that dangerous. I have a hankering that Obama doesn't really believe in it, or most black folks for that matter. The man explicitly identifies as black, despite attempts to label him as multi-racial or post-racial, a position I can certainly relate to. A look through black history will show a talent for wearing masks and deception as a matter of survival (or getting elected). As much as some people want to get past race, voting for Obama is not going to do it, and there will be more than enough people around to remind us of its enduring and tragic importance in our lives

 

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