The ‘Obama Moment’ and Conversations on Race
Guest post by SANGAY MISHRA and JINEE LOKANEETA
[The ‘Obama moment’ is much more than the man. Elementary, one would have thought. But maybe not. For, it has been intriguing to watch and listen to people – radical and nonradical liberal alike – mock this moment in a cynical, ‘we-know-it-all’ and ‘what-do-you-expect?’ mode. Intriguing, because, somewhere the insinuation is that those who celebrate are just being carried away by an ephemeral event. Maybe. It seems however, and the authors argue below, that this persona we now know as ‘Obama’ was not there even a year or two ago; he emerged in this present form, through a series of ‘encounters’ – with race, with his own history and with ‘blackness’. In his present form, Obama is produced by a certain African American investment in the earlier Obama (of, say, the pre-campaign Obama). – AN]
Much as the Obama victory on the 4th of November was expected and already predicted by a number of polls, the reaction to his victory both inside and outside the United States was breathtaking.
There were hundreds of thousands of people in and around Grant Park in Chicago on election night to celebrate the historic moment and there were scenes of spontaneous jubilation all across the United States. It was termed as a transformational moment by the media across the globe and it really felt like one. Obviously, it is too early to analyze the significance and potential impact of an Obama presidency but the image of an African American delivering the victory speech after a historic election has the potential of bringing, among other things, the question of race relations to the center of public discourse in the United States and the world.
Those who watched Obama’s speech on election night must have seen images of a number of African American men and women unable to hold back their tears when they heard of his victory.
The picture of Jesse Jackson, a respected black civil rights leader, standing quietly among thousands of people with uncontrollable tears rolling down his cheeks symbolized the enormity of the moment for African Americans. A number of African Americans – men and women on the streets as well as journalists and political hacks- passionately expressed their emotions immediately after the election was called for Obama. Many of them, while speaking about their own joy, also alluded to how it made them even happier that their parents were alive to witness this transformative moment. While the joy was shared by people of all colors, it clearly had a different meaning for generations of African Americans. Many of them evoked memories of their ancestors who had endured slavery, their parents who had faced racial segregation in their lives, and the current generation that continues to face racism in American society. For African Americans, Obama’s victory was a moment of breaking the ultimate racial barrier.
Obama has not only been seen as an African American candidate but also a generational candidate especially considering his widespread support among the 18-29 age group. About 66% percent of youth voted for Obama and actually turned up to vote despite “pundits” constantly doubting their ability to do so. But he also represents a generational change in African American politics. In a recent New York Times magazine article, many of these new African American politicians from Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark; Patrick Duval, Governor of Massachusetts; and Michael Nutter, Mayor of Philadelphia are seen as articulating a politics different from the black electoral politics following the 1960s civil rights era. The article suggests that earlier African Americans were primarily restricted to black majority districts relying on black constituencies to get elected and concerned themselves with primarily representing their communities’ interests. The new generation has deliberately moved away from an exclusive focus on civil rights and race and have attempted to move into wider political arenas so as not to be “pigeonholed” as “black” politicians. Barack Obama’s candidacy is the epitome of this trend. Some analysts have termed this attempt by this new generation of black politicians as post racial politics where political mobilization has moved beyond race. The big question that emerges from Obama and this new generation is whether they can actually escape race.
Obama’s initial relationship with the black community exhibited a mutual ambivalence. He started his campaign during the Democratic Party’s primary with little support either from the black community or the black elected officials and politicians immersed in discussions ranging from whether he was “black enough” to whether a black candidate even had a chance to garner support among whites. On their part, Obama’s advisors admitted that initially they wanted to stay away from the issue of race and their strategy was to avoid talking openly about race or presenting Obama as a black candidate. However, Obama was forced to deal with the question of race, when confronted by attacks on his long time pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright from Trinity Church, Chicago.
Obama was attacked for his association with Reverend Wright who in his sermons, in what was considered incendiary by mainstream American discourse, expressed a radical critique of the history and legacy of slavery and the institutionalized racism against blacks in current times. Following this controversy, in one of the more memorable moments of the campaign, in his famous Philadelphia speech on race, Obama said, “I can no more disown him (Wright) than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.”
To his credit, the biracial Obama boldly addressed the largely unspoken issue of race both by contextualizing the anger expressed in Wright’s sermons and the conscious and unconscious racism pervasive among whites. He recalled the history of slavery and racial segregation, and the continuing racial disparities in U.S. society even while linking the challenges faced by blacks to those faced by the poor whites and other minorities. The speech reflects Obama’s ability to engage with the difficult question of race in a nuanced manner although only when forced to do so. His being pushed to actually disown Reverend Wright subsequently is an indication (perhaps) of the limits of his ability to engage with more radical voices within the black community.
Obama’s journey in the last couple of years clearly shows that American society is far from being post racial. His campaign, even while being initially evasive about the issue of race, acknowledged it by addressing race openly and reaching out to the black community in a very systematic way with the help of community organizers, black radio hosts, and black churches. Obama also made tremendous outreach efforts to the Latino and Asian American communities while focusing on economic challenges facing both whites and minorities in an attempt to build a progressive multiracial coalition. His ode to Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106 year old African American woman in his victory speech acknowledged the trials and tribulations of the past and the change that has occurred in her lifetime due to the civil rights and women’s movements. However, he is confronted with the attempt by conservatives and some liberals to proclaim his victory as a final triumph over racial disparities in the U.S. As a conservative commentator reacted to Obama’s win, “it means we should no longer accept that circumstances are an excuse for low performance.” Obama has to continue to be cautious that his victory doesn’t become a moment of invisibilizing racial and economic disparities and tensions. Obama’s overwhelming support among blacks (95%), Latinos (67%), Asian Americans (62%) and whites (43%- a slightly higher margin than Kerry in 2004) gives him a unique opportunity to take the debate forward not beyond race but on race in American society and politics. Even as concerted efforts have already begun to convince Obama that his mandate does not represent a move to the left, Obama’s victory represents a moment larger than him since it has brought in hitherto marginalized voices into the center of the political process who one hopes will play a determining role in the years to come.