I wanted to let you all in on a conversation that is taking place in the comments over at Open Left about Obama and anti-Black racism. My contribution to this conversation is rather long (and a bit overwrought), but writing it helped crystallize my thoughts on Obama and anti-Black racism....
I hope you find the discussion thought-provoking and informative. (I've copied three entries from the thread in the body of the diary, mine is the final one.)
No guilt about supporting Edwards (4.00 / 4)
Listen, I'm Latino and I cannot stand this obsession whites have with voting for Obama b/c he'll somehow magically change the way we and others see ourselves. Basically, such people are voting for him b/c he's black. It's true--and it's especially ridiculous considering the times we're living in.
Our nation is in crisis! The Constitution is in tatters and we're willing to pick someone b/c he'll make us feel better about ourselves?! Come on! An image change will not restore America. The next president will have an epic disaster on their hands and it'll take incredible political skill just to cope with the disastrous mess Bush has left our country in, let alone begin to fix it. We need a bold leader who's unafraid to get their hands dirty. That is not Obama. Krugman is right about him; he's the anti-change candidate. Edwards is our best bet. Am I going to feel bad b/c he happens to be a white man and, thus, not look like me? The hell I am!
And to be honest, it's quite absurd to think that an image change will have any substantive effect on racism. Trust me, none of us who fail to fit the stereotype are able to disprove the stereotype (Proving a false negative is impossible). A president Obama would never penetrate the bubble of racism; he'd just be considered the exception to the rule.
It's a kind of tokenism (4.00 / 2)
"Look how far we've come because we let one in." I don't want to let one of us in so that people can then ignore the deeper issues of race in this country. It's not about one. It's about a system.
On Obama and anti-Black racism (0.00 / 0)
I think you are right that a decent percentage of Obama's supporters are participating in a politics of tokenism -- a politics that is founded on an incredibly naive and superficial view of how anti-Black racism works in America.
Racism is a many-headed hydra. It is sustained by a whole range of historically sedimented conscious and unconscious perceptions and actions on the part of individuals, as well as a complex of quasi-objective social systems (i.e. capitalism, imperialism). Unraveling the knot of racism requires concerted action on a number of different fronts simultaneously, and can't possibly happen in one fell swoop. So, while it is certainly true that electing Obama president won't dismantle racism in one fell swoop, we have to ask whether it would set in place conditions of possibility for the unraveling of racism in a way that electing, say, Clinton or Edwards would not.
There are three arguments that are somewhat convincing to me as to why, as an anti-racist, supporting Obama makes sense.
- Insofar as we live in a society characterized by alienation (I'm thinking along the lines of Marx and Adorno here), we are forced to realize ourselves, in a manner of speaking, through symbolic identification with leaders (and celebrities more generally). This identification is mediated through the mass (corporate) media. The president is a major figure for such identification (s/he is, afterall, the only person who can interrupt prime time television to give an 'address to the nation'). I think that this function of the presidency helps explain why so many on the Left have a visceral hatred and repulsion of GWB (we recoil at the thought of identifying with him). I think it also explains why presidential approval ratings tend to erode over time -- when people withdraw their identification with a president, it is nearly possible for this identification to be forged anew (regardless of how one feels about this or that policy). It also helps explain the importance of 'trust' or 'likability' to voters. So, the value in having a person of color as president is not about 'dispelling stereotypes' (it is absolutely true, as another poster noted, that stereotypes are basically impossible to 'disprove' -- they don't operate on a rational level). The value has more to do with the issue of identification. If a majority of white people in America symbolically identify with a person of color (that is to say, see themselves in and through a Black leader), that would have effects on the American racial imaginary that are hard to quantify, but nevertheless real. Incidentally, this is, I think, the best argument for why electing Clinton would further the cause of gender equality.
- Obama has the potential to disable/scramble GOP racial politics, thus cutting away one of the central unifiers of the Right in America. My hope is that, as the election progresses (assuming Obama is our nominee), and as racist campaign messages actually backfire (as they seem to have done so far in the primary), white people in America will actually work through some of their unconscious racism (they will actually experience the feeling of not being moved by racist appeals, which will then make it more likely that, in the future, such appeals won't be as automatically effective). The hope is that this might actually fragment the Right, and help usher in a progressive political realignment. Something that I think is interesting about this primary (especially about the argument that has been taking place between Edwards and Obama's supporters) is the way that it has raised the question of how to respond to the Right. What I think is often forgotten/overlooked by Edwards' supporters, despite their being right in many of their criticisms of Obama and his supporters, is that rightist motivations and actions among the broad mass of people in this country (including even powerful people) are not static (that is to say, they actually could be disrupted, or even reversed). People on the right are motivated by irrational anxieties and hopes (be they religious, racist, or whatever), and therefore have no good (lasting) reason to cling to their anxieties and hopes.
- Revolutionary/progressive Black intellectuals have Obama's ear. I am thinking particularly of Cornel West here, but in truth there are a number of Black intellectuals who have a degree of access to Obama that they haven't had to previous candidates or presidents (one of whom, Dwight Hopkins, is a former professor of mine). Cornel West, for instance, is at least as progressive as anyone either Clinton or Edwards are listening to (this is putting it generously -- in truth, I think he is far more progressive than anyone they are listening to). For this reason, and because I believe Obama has a core progressive commitment, I think Obama has the potential to make progressive change in ways that are surprising (I'm thinking of who he appoints to various departments, what executive orders he signs, what he does diplomatically, etc.) -- in other words, I think he might push the envelope on a range of issues important to people of color in ways that are hard to predict before he assumes office. The reason that people like Cornel West have Obama's ear has to do with the history of Black intellectual/public culture in America. It is the same reason why West has Tavis Smiley's ear (a man who certainly does not share West's politics). It has to do with the politics of identity/solidarity in the Black community -- a politics forged in the crucible of struggles against white supremacy and for social equality (struggles that Obama explicitly aligns himself with).
Cornel West introducing Obama at the Apollo Theater