On Race and Obama

Presidential candidate Barack Obama explicitly discusses the issue of race for the first time in his campaign speech last Tuesday (3/18/08). He does so in part responding to a speech made by Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama puts forth his definition of race as a color-based ideology that leads to inequalities and social divisions. Recognizing the history of black oppression – slavery, Jim Crow, Brown vs Board of Education, Obama makes clears that he is aware of the fact that minorities in the United States still experience the social, political, cultural and even psychological consequences from this racist history. Obama taps into the current discourse regarding social emotionality as he diagnoses the causes of “black anger” and “white resentment.” He then attributes the conflictual sentiments to the issue of race “that we cannot afford to ignore right now.”

Obama is quick to point out the racialized response to the presidential election campaign, i.e. the bipolarization between African American and white votes split between Obama and Clinton, the prediction of white majority’s favoring McCain. This conspicuously leverages his campaign strategy of promising a “union” across the racial and economic divide. This union is a union of “the people,” particularly for and from the children, with the central issue being education. Pitted against the “people” are implicitly the immoral corporations and political lobbyists with self-interested motivation and power to advance for profit. I like that he targets the corporations and the politicians. But I ask, who are these “people”? The American people? The citizens? I dare asking, what about the non-citizens? What about the immigrants?

The compelling effects of Obama’s speech have much to do with the colorblind discourse presently dominating the American public. He’s right to say that there is much cynicism in the current cultural and political atmosphere, and not enough serious discussions about racial equality and justice. He is even progressive-hip to censure the neo-conservative contradiction in “reverse racism” and American public’s compulsory to be politically correct. But unfortunately, this is where he stops.

A good student of American history perhaps, Obama draws the cause-and-effect relations between the historically known facts about African American oppression and the current racial inequalities in the U.S. Obama understands the “white resentment”, particularly toward pro-minority policies such as the Affirmative Action, as a reaction to white American citizens’ claim to their “immigrant story” and the American Dream. Obama criticizes the majority’s blind faith in “equal opportunity.”

The immigrant story is not just a story, it’s a reality. In the resolution portion of his campaign speech, Obama advocates for a sense of hope for change. To the African American voters, he promotes hope and stands behind their grievances for justice. He conflates the conditions of an economically disadvantaged “immigrant father” to the minority side of the divide.

It seems, the immigrant figure can flip-flop from the white majority to the African American minority side of the picture rather conveniently. Obama apparently side-steps the issue of immigration most pertinent to Latinos and Asians living in the U.S..

Race is not just only an issue related to the domestic black-white relations. Race is also central in the polemic about immigration and foreign policies. When Obama denigrates corporations for outsourcing, he ignores an important part of the story: both working Americans’ animosity toward “foreigners” working within the border of United States as migrant workers, or working for an U.S.-based company. The discourse around the War with Iraq and anti-terrorism is undeniably tainted with racializing ideologies about the people of the Middle East and the Islamic faith, both abroad and domestically. Immigrant rights as well as race-based profiling and hate crimes against American citizens and immigrants of Central Asian ethnic and religious affiliations have been downplayed in presidential debates.

Race and Racism come in various shapes and colors. Some are black; some white. And some are brown, some yellow. Whiteness (or blackness) is sometimes defined by while being pitted against brown-ness, yellow-ness, or Muslim-ness. Obama’s “new politics” fails to address an age-old problem about the interethnic and interracial tensions within the United States and abroad. Until the issue of race is addressed multi-dimensionally with nuances regarding citizenship and border, race remains a stultifying divisive force. There is conceivably no true union, if the union is based on hate and exclusion across various borders within and along the U.S., and not on the domocratizing ideals of this country.

If you haven't watched it yet, please do:


wh said...

i just read this interesting response to the Obama speech on race. Similar complaint, with a slightly different perspective.

Poplick's response to Obama

alli said...

Thanks for writing this post! I'm glad to have read your ideas - helped me think about some stuff I hadn't really considered before re: Obama's speech. You make a lot of great points.

I would add that Obama's speech was as much about the media as it was about race. I felt like he was trying to tell the media to back off, quit making predictions based on race, quit promoting the latest scandal as a way to distract voters from more important issues.

I also think think Obama crafted his speech with a broad audience in mind, an audience who maybe doesn't think critically about race all that much. I was impressed that he didn't 'talk down,' that he discussed relatively complex ideas rather than simply condemning Rev. Wright. (Which I would guess many politicians would have done.)

Could he have addressed the problems of race in a more diverse and broadminded manner? Absolutely. (I especially liked your points about immigration and demonizing the 'foreign' workers who steal American jobs.) Did he give an impressive speech, given the circumstances? I think so. He inspired me, for better or for worse.

wh said...

Thanks, Alli, for your thoughtful reading of my post. I agree, Obama's speech exudes precautionary about media.

He's an impressive orator. And I think his hope policy fills in the emotional void of this country. Apathy may be one of the main problems of our generation, of our country right now.

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