Friday, January 11, 2008

Chauncey Devega Says: New Hampshire Primary Reaction Part 2--Obama's Still Got that Old Black Magic

In the interest of transparency, I will likely vote for Edwards come November if he remains in the presidential race. Simply put, Edwards's platform speaks to me in a way that Obama's platform does not. But, I cannot deny that Obama is an exciting candidate with much to offer.

However, I do have to admit that while I correctly predicted an Obama defeat, a big part of me, the proud, respectable negro part of me, really wanted to see him win. While political scientists, pundits, and other analysts are conducting a New Hampshire postmortem, we will not know for some time if Obama was defeated because of the "Bradley effect," i.e. white respondents reporting to pollsters that they will vote for the black candidate, when in the privacy of the voting booth these respondents then vote for the white candidate (and in an interesting twist, a white, female candidate). Alternatively, predictions of an Obama victory may have been a function of a sampling error, where as Andrew Kohut in The New York Times points out, the preferences of white respondents in New Hampshire making less than 50k a year were not "captured" by surveys. These voters disproportionately did not vote for Obama, what I affectionately call the PWT effect, and the pundits and analysts were blindsided by the subsequent failure to predict a Hillary victory (click here for a thorough list of possible explanations for Obama's defeat). Ultimately, Obama, his supporters, and the pundits, were caught in a "Damn!" moment by Hillary's victory--whatever the causal variables which may explain it:

Honestly, there is something compelling about Obama and he offers much to like. Obama is wonderfully self-deprecating ("I’m a black guy running for president named Barack Obama. I must be hopeful"). As a child in Indonesia, Obama was known to chase young girls at his school (something I certainly can relate to). Apparently, being such a young Lothario, Obama was tied to a fence and whipped with a cane by his schoolmates as punishment for his flirtatious ways (I was beat with either a paddle or a belt, but never with a cane). Obama once owned a pet monkey (cool--3 month long readers know my feelings about those damn, dirty, apes). But, Obama has also eaten dog (not cool at all). "Obamamania" may have even helped maintain the peace in a little corner of conflict afflicted Kenya. In total, while I haven't caught Obama fever yet, I am beginning to see why some voters find him so infectious:

But, as compelling as I find aspects of both Obama's life story, and some of his policy initiatives to be, I have two interrelated concerns which give me pause.

First, Obama is in a crusade for hope. While not a problematic theme (who can disagree with "hope"?) it has transformed Obama into a vessel for the dreams and desires of others. This is an important, yet simultaneously almost banal observation that demands reiteration. Obama is a vessel for the hopes and dreams of others, but who are these others? What do they imagine? In their eyes, what is he a vessel for?

Here, Obama's candidacy has been positioned, and has quite skillfully positioned itself, as a force for "racial healing." For the Right, the Left, and for the tragic mulatto crowd, a vote for Obama ushers in a "post-racial future." For the Right, Obama is the embodiment of a "color-blind" America. But, as part of their racial project the mere mention of race, or racial difference, or for that matter racism, is itself "racist." For the "color-blind" Right/neo-liberal Left, to speak truth to power, is itself a racist act. For them (and quite disingenuously in my opinion given Bush 1 and 2, Reagan, et al's assault on black people's sanity), Obama's race is irrelevant. Further, Obama's candidacy hints at a reality where race does not "matter," and to bring forth questions of race as they relate to Obama borders on being impolitic at worse, and impolite, at best.

For the tragic mulatto and self-consciously bi-racial crowd, Obama is a mascot. He signals a future where self-identified bi-racial folk will be accepted in a wonderful, post-racial world where one can be all things to all people, and where the fact of race will have no burdens, no consequences, and no obligations:

This fantastic post-racial world will allow all forms of "race play." In this racial Utopia one could be "black" on Monday and "white" on Wednesday depending on a whim (or utilitarian need, i.e. getting a scholarship). Ultimately, the arrival of Obama is a coronation of sorts. But, in an inconvenient truth for many, Obama identifies as a black American, a black man who happens to have a white mother, but nonetheless, he is proud, and unapologetically black. In the greatest of ironies, the post-racial future which Obama's candidacy signifies will allow tragic mulattos to exercise agency over Obama's identity by their claiming him, while in reality, Obama claims an identity as a black, and not creatively hyphenated, "Canablasian," "mocha," or "multiracial," American.

For the Left, an Obama candidacy signals the arrival of a type of political humanism where all citizens manage to forget the past (and exercise selective memory regarding the present) and to live in a world which appreciates "difference." But, this is a post-racial future where race, and its inconvenient baggage, neither has purchase nor power. As articulated by Gary Kamiya on, if we could all just move forward, if we as a society could find a racial "healer" as opposed to a "divider" (those troublemakers who talk about discrimination, racism, and white supremacy), we as a society could transcend racial difference. More pointedly, the Left in its vision for a post-racial future wants a safe, conciliatory, black leader who privileges the good will which ostensibly underlies the intentions of white liberals.

Again, no plain speakers need apply to the cult of "multiculturalism" and "diversity" because race is an unfortunate "social construction," a social construction which is only skin deep. For the post-racial Left, we are all human, and no troublesome folk (be they black, brown, yellow, red or white) need apply. Collectively, these post-racial knuckleheads (or PRK's as I label them) embrace Obama as a "magical negro." Although their agendas are different, these factions see in Obama their hope for a post-racial future, and he becomes the site for a type of magical, racial catharsis. Ultimately PRK's look to a future in which race is magically transcended. However, I suspect their understanding of the magical negro is closer to this one:

Primarily, I have reservations regarding Obama as a healer of racial wounds because I believe that we as a society need to embrace the realities of racism in the present. As a society, we continue to struggle through a project of race and remembrance. Subsequently, the American project of racial reconciliation remains an ongoing one. In short, the PRK's and their support of Obama causes me great concern because the present is a product of racism in the past, racism in the contemporary, and racism in the near present (e.g. disparities in hiring; job discrimination; the prison industrial complex; illegal and racially disparate mortgage rates; health disparities; and the material consequences of slavery and Jim Crow, i.e. widely unequal rates of black and white wealth accrual). The cures for these problems are not a set of fanciful dreams which look forward to a heretofore undiscovered country.

Hillary's victory, and the conversations surrounding how gender may (or may not) have impacted "The New Hampshire surprise," point to my second set of concerns. As Gloria Steinem pointed out in the New York Times, Hillary's campaign is a essential site for feminist struggle. For Steinem, gender as an identity category is necessarily at the forefront. A white woman is almost by definition an underdog to a black man. I suggest that we cannot forget that the black body more generally, and the black male body in particular, is itself a site of what have been powerful and pernicious applications of both gender and race as socially marginalizing categories. In short, I suggest that the historical record would offer much that would complicate Steinam's assertion.

The relationship between race and gender is the 800lb elephant sitting in the corner of the room that few, be they black, white, or other, want to acknowledge. Obama is a black, male, candidate. Moreover, Obama is an attractive, black, male, candidate. Sex appeal, charisma, and personality are as relevant in this campaign as they have been in any other. Obama isn't a mandingo figure. But, Obama as a magical negro is able to leverage this identity to his advantage. I worry that it can also be to his disadvantage as well. Consider for a moment: we have witnessed many conversations (with much consternation) regarding why black people, and black women in particular, have not offered as fervent a level of support for Obama (Oprah excluded..but she ain't black, she is a celebrity) as have white women. In their continual search for black ideological solidarity, some commentators seem perplexed that black people have not rallied behind Obama. Yet, white women (and whites more generally) are among his staunchest supporters:

I am worried that Obama as the magical negro--their black Jesus (yes, I know Jesus was "black")--represents a false hope, a candidacy which will collapse once he either 1) dares to become too "black" or 2) when the media ends their love affair with Obama and casts him as a "black" candidate.

In a reformulation of the Bradley effect, it is also my worry that Obama is in many ways a "safe" choice. By analogy, Obama is the "well spoken," "professional," light skinned black guy that many white women would date and sleep with but damn well wouldn't marry.

Don't misunderstand my position. I believe that one of the ironies of Obama's candidacy is that these necessary conversations regarding black American's support for his campaign (or lack thereof) highlight our political sophistication. While we are proud of Obama, our cynicism, suspicion, and deep seeded reservations point to a profound understanding of power, race, privilege, and politics. While the Right has long lamented that black support for the Democrats is evidence of a plantation mentality--disregarding the fact that there are many rational, self-interested reasons for our being "behind the mule"--we have been ahead of the curve on many issues (for example, black folk saw through Bush 2 long before white people).

I am proud of both our insight and our caution. For example, as The Washington Post recently highlighted, there are many reasons for black Americans to approach the Obama campaign with caution. Quite logically, many black Americans are concerned about the reasons underlying white support for Obama. What are his allegiances? Who is he beholden to? Why would white voters support a black candidate? How sincere is their interest? In addition, many black Americans, myself included, are deeply concerned about how Obama has positioned himself as a post-racial black man, a new "New Negro" of sorts, who is emphasizing his immigrant roots in a way that distances himself from his domestic, black brethren. Strategically, Obama's appropriation of the Horatio Alger, American-immigrant narrative sends a signal to whites that: "He is sort of like us"; "He and his people came here and made it with nothing..just like our ancestors!"; "Obama isn't angry like those other black folk who always throw slavery up in our faces!" It is Obama's skillful triangulation between whites and "regular" black folk, that give us regular respectable negroes much to think about.

The next few months will be exciting. Brother Obama, do not doubt for a second that we respectable negroes have your back--a fact that will be demonstrated in South Carolina. You will probably benefit from the calls of politicians, black activists, scholars, and public intellectuals to support your campaign. Moreover, how can we not be happy that a member of our proverbial tribe is competitive for the highest position in the land and is representing himself with such confidence, skill, and political deftness? The next few months will also be challenging. "They" will remind you of your blackness. "They" will test you. It may get so bad that you may have to do an Eddie Murphy to conduct some reconnaissance:

If Karl Rove's recently published racist screed is any indication (a piece where he described you as "lazy," "rude," and "a trash talker" who learned to be disrespectful while playing pickup games of basketball), the campaign will get uglier. And let us not forget William Bennett's comments on CNN that:

"Well, I think it's -- and again, a wonder of America here, a remarkable breakthrough, this year, as the other group said -- 97 percent, in fact, Iowa, rural, white farming state. Barack Hussein Obama, a black man, wins this for the Democrats...I have been watching him. I watched him on Meet the Press. I watched him on your show, watched him on all the CNN shows -- he never brings race into it. He never plays the race card. Talk about the black community -- he has taught the black community you don't have to act like Jesse Jackson; you don't have to act like Al Sharpton. You can talk about the issues. Great dignity. And this is a breakthrough, and good for the people of Iowa."

I hope you pass muster and respond as I know you will--with pride, dignity, courage, and intelligence. Who knows? You may still win my vote from Edwards.


deva said...

a thoughtful and well put together piece. the post-racial fantasy that obama seems to inspire is important to think about as it could backfire horribly -- but i am still waiting to see more evidence of what kind of magic obama's white constituency will allow him to work. it is possible that obama could be in a unique position to get through policy proposals that traditional negro politicians could not even get a hearing for. but that's wildly speculative. i want to see how race plays the next few weeks -- see how obama handles it and observe the range of public reactions...

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised that a corporatist like Rove came to support Hillary. Hillary is deeply allied and funded by multi-nationals and venture capitalist that realize that none of the Repug candidates have a chance to win, so they go with the most unliberal of the Democrats,Hillarity. Like her husband Bill before her, I suspect that hillarity will do a lot of sucking up to the corporatist and military-industrial complex that dominates U.S. politics