Monday, October 20, 2008

Caught Between Joe Louis and Jack Johnson--Obama's Black Man Dillemma

Allow me this blasphemous thought: Did Barack Obama really win the final debate with John McCain? I know that most pundits, critics, and other informed observers declared Obama the winner. But, and I have struggled with this in the days following the event, in my heart of hearts, I don't really know.

Now, allow me a qualifier. Returning to the boxing metaphors so common to politics and punditry (and which I used in my analysis of Biden-Palin), I certainly believe that Obama won on points. But was Obama really victorious? In his artful moves, skillful jabs and counter punches against McCain, did Obama let him land too many head shots and visibly damaging punches? The very types of blows that judges--in this case those Joe Six Packs and teetering Reagan Democrats--respond to in their scoring?

Barack Obama's dilemma in how to best approach McCain and Palin's attacks is a literal embodiment of the "two-ness," the schism which exists at the heart of being Black and American.

Obama's racially marked life is a careful balancing act on the precipice of authenticity politics. On one hand, Obama is not black enough. On the other hand, he is too black. Barack Obama, as vanguard flag bearer for a 21st century understanding of Blackness, is still shadowed by a set of 20th, 19th, and 18th century stereotypes about black personhood and humanity. These stereotypes, of black violence, underachievement, arrogance, of being "uppity" and untrustworthy are the fuel for McCain and Palin's assault on his candidacy. Obama's eloquence is dismissed as snake oil--a contemporary spin on the oft-used phrases, "you are so articulate," "or where did you learn to speak so well?" that many of us are all too familiar with. He is told to "respect" Sarah Palin, a polite nod to the rule that "boy you better know your place" and "you best not reckless eyeball at a white woman."

In Barack Obama's metaphorical boxing match with McCain-Palin (and yes, they are flip sides of the same coin--2 heads on a Right wing leviathan) he has been urged by his supporters to fight back, to take the battle to the Republicans in a visible and direct way. Obama has skillfully countered with commercials, through his surrogates, and in eloquent campaign speeches. But here is my worry, in those moments of direct interaction, in that squared circle of the boxing ring that was the debate, he has avoided direct counters for fear of scoring too damaging a shot.

For example, during the debate Obama passed up obvious attacks and counters, including a lazy left hand cross that was the moderator's question on Sarah Palin's candidacy, in favor of dodges and quick flurries. When McCain dared to play the victim and label Congressman Lewis's comments about Republican race bating as a type of hate speech and smear against Republicans at large, Obama took the blow and shrugged it aside. Likewise, the provocative shots on Acorn and William Ayers were parried but never counter-punched despite the relative ease of Barack landing a killing blow in that instance if he so desired (the Keating Five; Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters; Reverend Hagee, the Bridge to Nowhere, Palin's association with the Alaska Independence Party; McCain's support for death squads in Latin America, etc. etc.).

Barack is forced to be the gentleman's champ. In our boxing metaphor he is Joe Louis. In his efforts to remain above the fray and to speak to the issues, Barack has avoided being too aggressive lest he lose the tenuous support of a significant segment of the white public. Like Joe Louis--America's heavyweight champion during World War 2 who happened to be African American--Obama has to deftly perform a non-threatening black masculinity. He is cool. He is calm. He is collected. And he can never let himself be perceived as too impassioned or angry.

Again, the two-ness, the duality of Barack's identity comes to the forefront. Obama is already perceived by many in the Heart Land, and those others immersed in the Republican echo chamber, as an uppity negro who doesn't know his place. Most important, this stereotype looms in the hearts and minds of some voters who are actually considering voting for a black Man despite the power of their racist fears and anxieties.

In the racial subconscious of these voters, Barack Obama is Jack Johnson. He is unrepentant blackness. Yet, and this is the absurdity of racism, they are fundamentally different figures who are somehow related in this twisted psyche of white supremacy. Unlike Papa Jack, Obama does not defy white supremacy and the threat of white racial terrorism by publicly cavorting with white women, a life threatening move when the noose was still enforced. Nor does Obama stuff socks down his pants in order to intimidate his opponents through a performed and exaggerated black masculinity. Nevertheless, in the minds of many voters, Obama is a moment, a split second, an opportunity to be taken away from becoming that figure.

In a slightly more benign form, Barack Obama represents the dual figures of Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang. The Rocky films, thinly veiled narratives of white ethnic uplift in the face of black entitlement, are caricatures by design, but their story speaks to this political truth. Like Apollo Creed, Obama is in the eyes of Right wing conservatives, arrogant, a show off, and a celebrity figure. Rocky, is the All-American Horatio Alger in boxing trunks, a scrappy hard worker who lacks physical gifts but who succeeds despite the odds against him.

To this same public, Barack Obama is a Clubber Lang figure. And if Obama responds with more force to McCain and Palin's assaults, he moves a step closer to validating their worst fears about black criminality, violence, and of how an Obama presidency may disrupt the "rightful" and "natural" order of things:

This is the ugliness at the root of white Conservative fears and anxieties about Obama, and how they have so easily cast him as some variety of strange, foreign, Other. When local Republican Party Organizations depict Obama with fried chicken, Kool-aid, and watermelons on their posters and flyers they are signaling to this deep and profound racism and prejudice. When the Right links Obama to Osama bin Laden they are speaking to this bigotry. When they circulate emails with a picture of his African relatives in traditional clothing, the Right is speaking to a sentiment that Obama, on an existential level, does not belong in their "White" house.

But, if politics is the exercise of compromise, of a practical exercise of power, Obama needs the support of some of these voters. People, who like those featured in Sunday's New York Times Magazine harbor deep levels of anti-black animus, but are actively considering voting for Barack Obama because economic self-interest trumps their bigotry.

My ultimate worry is that Barack's tactically sound engagement with McCain and Palin may surprisingly hurt him: if there is a "man-code" of sorts, a set of rules regarding personal honor, dignity and reputation, will Barack's necessary and artful dodging, jabbing, and amazing footwork be his demise? Should Obama move to a more devastating and direct strategy where he goes for the inevitable knockout punch?

Perhaps, these gun-toting, "God fearing" "Heartland" voters want to see if Barack will stand up to these attacks on his manhood and honor. Maybe, and I truly worry, their assessment of his manhood, of his ability to be an effective president is linked to Obama's necessary unwillingness to land a devastating knockout punch to John McCain's metaphorical glass jaw. This approach is a direct contrast to Obama's current strategy of beating McCain-Palin through a death of a thousand cuts. Will this be enough? Will McCain's newest cut man, Joe the Plumber, be enough to recapture momentum during these last few weeks? Or will Obama's newest trainer Colin Powell push him over the finish line?

Sarah Palin and John McCain are textbook, school yard bullies. And maybe, just maybe, Barack Obama just needs to punch John McCain in the nose to prove a point. And maybe, just maybe, Obama through that one deed will have earned the respect (and votes) of those Joe Six Packs and Lunch pail voters come election day. Or am I being too hopeful?


Werner Herzog's Bear said...

I'm a sucker for boxing history, but let's not forget that Louis obliterated Schmeling in '38.

I think Obama is actually doing a little rope-a-dope a la Ali in Zaire. McCain is punching himself out right now. You're right, though, for that strategy to work he needs to hit McCain's vulnerabilities and land some uppercuts.

Then again, the best boxer currently fighting, Floyd Mayweather, managed to beat Oscar De La Hoya without going for the kill.

Boxing metaphors aside, I think Obama could get more respect from the fence sitters by showing some fire.

cinque said...

Thank Goodness!! Someone is finally saying what I have thinking from the start. I grind my teeth everytime Obama takes a hit from these race baiters and decides to "take the high rode". It is pressed so deep in the black psyche to make white folks feel safe with us. That we are just like them and to prove it look how much abuse we can take without getting angry. You can call my Wife unpatriotic and I will smile and refute it. You can say I am a terrorist, muslim, ni--er with a whore for a Mother and I will smile and refute it but i wont get mad and react like any other human being. There are enough ghosts, skeletons and monsters in the closets of the McCain/Palin ticket that even a crack of that closet would be enough. But sticking with the boxing analogy Obama refuses to "let his hands go" and trys to win on points. He lands the body blows but no head shots. This " We wont hit back when they hit us, so we can be noble in light of their ignorance" is not where Black people are in 2008. The old saying needs to be updated..Does Obama want to win(with his dignty and manhoodin place) or just look good (and noble) losing.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you are right. It's just that the sport analogies are beyond my comprehension and area of interest. Not to say that it's not applicable. War strategies, football strategies, boxing strategies seem to come from a similar source. But I hope I don't have to learn to love boxing and football to deepen my understanding of politics.

Hoping -probably in vain - that in the future we move on to different paradigms for politics.

okjimm said...

I think the rope-a-dope is a fitting analogy. McCain has already beat himself. Obama does not NEED to knock him out.... what I perceive the Obama camp doing.... is some extremely smart, very well planned, astutely executed campaigning....... and that is something I believe he will continue to do as prez. I am tired of the Bush-McCain knee jerk reactions.

I voted already. Obama.
I mentioned that to someone in the office and they said, "Oh, so you voted for the Black Guy."

" No," I said, "I voted for the Best Candidate".
I think that the way Obama has run his campaign proves it.

chaunceydevega said...

@Werner, he did lose the first fight though, and it is interesting to see how that if glossed over. there was a great hbo special on Louis and Schmelling's relationship and how they became friends after the war. Scary, Hitler assigned Max to an airborne unit on the Eastern front as punishment for his defeat.

@Cinque, I am glad to speak truth to power, but again Obama needs to be careful during these last few weeks but McCain and Palin are going to throw the kitchen sink at him so he may have to man up so to speak!

@Liza, I appreciate the comments. But what would be a better metaphor? Any thoughts?

@Okjimm, I was thinking the rope a dope as well. Obama taking all those punches and then turning the moment to his advantage. But is McCain punched out already or does he have more gas left in the tank?


Unknown said...

This is a lavish and thorough post on the topics I discussed with a friend of mine. Because of Obama's undeterred equanimity, he's gained my respect, regardless of what the debate outcome is. I've written -- with the distinct inspiration of WARN -- an article about Chasing the White Joe Vote. It's implicitly about how we'll always be stuck in this position, especially if we find ourselves molding our actions to please the majority culture.

Anonymous said...

I think through all of that your last paragraph is what resonated the most with me. Unfortunately the lack of a killshot is what plagues the entire Democratic Party's approach to politics, the only think thats helping is that McCain is that weak of a candiate, however he's propped up and buttressed by the scaffolding structure of supremacy.

That is not to say that the need for a killshot needs to be taken. Honestly I think alot of the success of the Republican party is that they're willing to "go in" when need be. Politics is more blacktop basketball than youth suburban soccer leagues, and the Repubs approach it as the former where the Dems approach it as the latter and are constantly waiting to be rewarded for sportsmanship or that complaining to the refs will get them to call a fair game. No blood, no foul, I say. If you draw a little blood, then look that man dead in the eye and let him know through thought or deed that you'll be here all goddamn day!

I truly feel that just the act of expressing conviction would greatly help sway the undecideds towards the Dems. Sure some won't vote for him because he's black, but there's probably a fair amount that won't vote for them because they just too damn soft!

Alas... This is a luxury that may not be afforded to Barry-O himself but he can damn sure higher some white shooters in his staff to make it happen. Don't think that the great boxers used as a great comparison didn't have some of those themselves.

Don't let your foot off the neck Barack. The world is watching. Last time I was in a position like this, My college Negroe head coach went into coast mode while we were up by 19 in the 4th quarter and we lost by 2. Eff that.

Respect due,

Cyril Crozier said...

This and no mention of Bernard Hopkins virtuoso perfomance against Pavlik! Shame!

Re: Louis-Schmelling

The first fight was an amazing upset, and to give the Devil his due, Schmelling brilliantly located a weakness in Louis D, as the latter repeatedly dropped his left after jabbing (an awful habbit when facing a hard hitting right hander) and was subsequently nailed. Other than Rahman-Lennox Lewis, I can't recall a fighter over coming his physical limitations for such a devastating KO victory.

Mr. Six said...

I think your post is spot on. The night of the third debate, as my girlfriend and I were going to sleep, I remarked on what an amazing job Barack did then and has throughout the campaign of remaining who he obviously is without becoming what everyone expects him to be. She replied that it's an incredibly fine line that he's walking necessity and an amazing political performace.

I do think you're right that much of the audience--particularly the white audience that doesn't get the necessity of maintaining that fine line--doesn't understand why Barack didn't deliver all of the counterpunches that you list. They wonder whether he's got the grit to be president.

But I think they are being delivered, just not in the ring. Barack is running a subtle campaign in which his public performances are measured, projecting the necessary image of judgment, calm, cool. But look at his counterpunches:

- Ads that craft a narrative of McCain as erratic, hasty, out of touch, and lacking honor. They obviously drive McCain crazy.

- Massive fundraising. $150 million in a month is a gut-punch. It's particularly effective because McCain built his rep on campaign finance reform.

- Taking the fight into red states.

- Half hour TV buys a couple days before the election.

It's not nearly as immediately satisfying as seeing Barack attack the many openings that McCain provided. But really, this is the president I want: the one who shrugs off the little bullshit, sees the whole game, develops a plan, and sees it through to its (victorious) end.

All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

man i aint even see none of the debates, namely becaus of what u wrote

and palin and mccain coulndt buly a punk

they the real socialist if u asked me

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@40 thanks for posting, your words are always powerful. and you know what, the analogy to blacktop b-ball is really on i feel another post with this theme if o-man loses?

@drew, good one. got to add you to the blog roll for sure.

@pug what do you think of vladimir and his brother? should they go at it eventually?

@mr six. I hope you are right, that the death of a thousand cuts gets the win.

@all mi t. you got's to watch our foes so we know their game plan. but i do feel you.