Speaking on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on October 17, 2007, Senator Barack Obama said, “When your name is Barack Obama, you’re always the underdog. That’s a given.” At this point Leno starts to lose his train of thought, and the crowd, seeing Obama smiling broadly, begin to laugh with him and eventually break into a rapturous applause.
After having read Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man: Why we are excited about Obama and why he can’t win it’s almost impossible for a statement like that not to leap out at you as the book goes to great lengths to assess the way that Whites react to people of colour and the way they present themselves to the public for (perhaps) their own gain.
Here, it could be argued that Obama is assuming the role of what Steele calls ‘Bargainers’ – someone who “grants whites the innocence and moral authority they need in return for their goodwill and generosity” – and that Obama’s self-effacing humour is actually both reminding whites that they’ll never know what it’s like to be like him, but also letting them know that he’s not directly blaming them for it.
[He actually did this in the recent Alfred E. Smith dinner when he said, “I wish I could use my middle name.” – His middle name is Hussein.]
We must consider that Shelby Steele is socially conservative and the ideas expressed in his book do not hold much sympathy for the current plight of black America. A more left-wing radical view is Hacker’s Two Nations: Black & White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal which highlights the many racial injustices that are present in America today. It is also here that we meet the theory of the “Crossover Politician.” Hacker surmises that coloured people of prevalence must not shout or appear aggressive as to not frighten whites, they must appear mild-mannered when speaking in public.
It could also be argued that Obama made a simple remark that, although loaded with racial inferences, could just be something he genuinely feels, and is not some cleverly crafted and marketed PR spiel designed to curry favour with as broad a voting base as possible.
This issue of the Crossover Politician and the ideas put forward by Shelby Steele will be discussed later when we both look at Obama, his life, his political career, and how his public image have been circumscribed by his supposed blackness.
I will also discuss whether Barack Obama is being serious when he intimates that because of his name, he has always found himself at a disadvantage. We need look no further than his autobiographical works, Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope to find a suitable answer. In the early chapters of the book, Obama is recounting his early years as a black youth growing up in the cosmopolitan State of Hawaii. We are told about his teacher calling out the register in class: “When she read my full name,” Obama remembers, “I heard titters break across the room.” After a few questions as to his origin and more specifically the tribe his father is from in which Barack answered ‘Luo’, a “sandy-haired boy behind me repeated the word in a loud hoot, like the sound of a monkey. The children could no longer contain themselves…”
The question of how ‘black’ is Barack Obama will also be looked at, or moreover, what does being a black man in America mean? By way of answering these questions a discussion as to what extent Obama has healed the aforementioned rift (Steele/Hacker) amongst African-Americans will be conducted. Does Obama’s status and popularity only serve to cement the differences between black America or is he seen as a unifier? Does his ever-broadening popularity with white voters alienate black voters who perhaps are longing for a man to represent them, their needs and their problems? Or as Ron Walters puts it in Barack Obama and the Politics Blackness:
Yet the link between his cultural identity and the representation of Black interests is complicated by the emergence of his campaign in the center of the American electorate and the structural requirements of fund-raising and the interests projected by White voters.
Ronald Williams II’s Barack Obama and the Complicated Boundaries of Blackness also discusses this issue. Williams ascertains that there “there are, moreover, two groups of Americans with claim to African American as a racial designation: the indigenous African American and the non-indigenous African American” and goes on to discuss intra-racial tensions between African Americans and Caribbean immigrants in the early days of Harlem. So being black in America isn’t as ‘black and white’ as it first appears. This coupled with the fact that Obama was raised predominantly by a white woman and her white parents, only serves to further underline the complicated issue of Obama’s black identity in America.
Speaking to The Washington Post on May 27 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s younger brother and former Attorney General, Robert Kennedy, said “In the next 40 years, a Negro can achieve the same position that my brother has.
”We have tried to make progress and we are making progress,” he continued. “We are not going to accept the Status Quo.”
In 1968, speaking on March 17 – the day after he announced his candidacy for Presidency – on national television on the program, Meet the Press, Robert Kennedy said, “I intend to talk about what I feel needs to done to heal the deep divisions that exist between races.” (ibid) Obama became President elect 40 years later, thus fulfilling Kennedy’s prophecy.
In the seven years between those two statements by Robert Kennedy we had the Watts riots in August 1965. Since that time we’ve had Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and the riots that ensued and of course, the second L.A. Riot in 1992.
It is important to ask the question of whether the riots were simply as clash of races between black and whites in a particular community, or if it reflected a nation-wide frustration and the region(s) in question just happened to be the touch paper. This will also be investigated.
In order to examine the incidents more closely I will be referring to Janet L. Abu-Lughod’s, Race, Space, and Riots in Chicago which examines historical contexts and showing how urban space, political regimes, and economic conditions – not simply an abstract race conflict- have structured the nature and extent of urban rebellions. This will be complemented by Sitkoff’s, The Struggle for Black Equality, which looks at the peaks and troughs of race relations in America, from the aforementioned strife of the ‘60s, to the cries of Jesse Jackson’s “Our time has come!” and the promise it portrayed in the ‘80s, back to the struggle and problems surrounding the Rodney King affair in ’92.
I will conclude by looking at racial relations post-1992 and the issue of whether they have improved. The reports are conflicting: one the one hand you have the aforementioned Steele and Hacker’s position that white America is simply too scared or feels guilt over the mistakes of their forefathers that both affirmative action and the continual intimidation by blacks now exist side-by-side. On the other, you have the quantitative study of Stephan and Abigail Thernstom’s America in Black and White that shows statistically just how far America has come since the ‘60s, both in terms of the swelling of black the middle-class, jobs: both income comparisons with whites and whether affirmative action was prevalent etc.
This is somewhat backed up by William Julius Wilson’s, The Declining Significance of Race, which looks at the American economic sector and how the author perceives that race plays an ever decreasing role within it. Wilson looks at how “the black class structure is only a truncated version of the white class structure because the average income of black middle-class workers is uniformly lower than the average income of the white middle classes.” However, he argues that is because blacks historically weren’t permitted to take higher level white and blue collar jobs. He explains that the difference nowadays – the book was written in 1978 – is that young, educated black males have just entered the job market and the only difference in pay for them is seniority.
Although, as mentioned above, the book was published in 1978 and revised in 1980, Wilson’s book is something that caused quite a stir within the black community at that time. It became so infamous that it even attracted the attention of Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s minister of the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side who asked, “Now what country is he living in?”
Suffice to say the Thernstroms’ and Hacker’s findings differ greatly. Hacker’s book underlining the point that blacks are still disadvantaged whereas the Thernstroms provide proof of the opposite: an interesting battleground.
Finally, I will discuss the aforementioned Crossover Politician idea put forward by Hacker, Obama’s perceived role as both Bargainer and Challenger, and ask whether there is a straightforward and logical relationship between what can only be described as the Obama phenomenon and African American history.