After having looked at all of the major influences in Barack Obama’s life – his wife Michelle, his African American peers such as Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson, his family, his schooling in Hawaii – we must now attempt to gather the strands of events outlined in the previous four parts of this work and see if a singular knot can be tied, or if there are stragglers.
Conclusion to Chapter One
All roads seem to lead to contradiction. Obama says he’s a black American but doesn’t possess his wife’s autheticity. He says he hasn’t lived the life of a typical black youth in America and hasn’t really experienced prejudice first hand, but he knows how it feels to be mistaken for a valet and is certain that his name is something that works against him. He says that America, and black people in particular, must move forward and look to a more homogenous America and not let the injustices of the past define who you are, but then goes on Leno and says when you have a name such as his you’re always disadvantaged. This statement says – whether Obama was aware of it or not and albeit indirectly – that America is still a place where you’re judged by the colour of your skin and not by the content of character – or name in this case.
He is a man who has tried, whether consciously or unconsciously, to attain a notion of blackness that he perhaps chiefly perceives through Michelle: the baptism at the Trinity Church in Chicago and marrying a woman whose family is directly linked to slavery. A man who apologises to the black community for not having the same background as they do, for not being able to share the same experiences of bigotry and hardships whilst then, in the same autobiography, says just the opposite: that he has been mistaken for the car-pool boy and knows what it’s like to feel the sting.
We have a man who on the one hand preaches progression and criticises the Civil Rights Movement for being rooted in the past, but also, as Shelby Steele says, it seems as though he is still hell bent on establishing his “black credentials” and rejects others who fall into the same category as himself.
There are so many contradictory elements, so many aspects to his life and behaviour that do not appear to make sense. However, instead of trying to psychoanalyse further however, surely the salient question is, does any of this actually matter in terms of his popularity amongst the black community? Has he alienated the black community by his behaviour or united them? The Washington Post described it best when it said back in February 2008, “Remember all the commentator chatter last summer: Is Barack Obama black enough? Well, he’s black enough now.” It seems these apparent contradictions have gone unnoticed. Obama has danced through the raindrops.
As Ronald Williams II says, “Obama’s wave of state-level victories in the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary not only evinces his popularity among American whites, but also among African Americans. Despite differences in social psychology, social status, the affinity that many indigenous African Americans have for Hillary Clinton and her husband, and the ways in which American whites may see Obama as a particular triumph over race, Obama has enjoyed overwhelming support among African American voters.”
Does this mean he has become a unifier for the African American community? Well, reports suggest that Afro-Caribbean migrants have a higher median income than African Americans, lower unemployment rates and have a general higher level of education. Another factor is the way the two groups are perceived by whites. Williams II observes “that states, that foreign-born Africanpopulations tend to be more highly regarded by American whites and are seen as more appreciative, less bitter, and generally more comfortable with them.” (ibid) Afro-Caribbeans also see America as the land of opportunity; offering them far better prospect for a happy life than their own countries. This is in stark contrast to how many African Americans feel as the next Chapter of this investigation will begin to explore.
So in summation, although there is no precise statistic to show if Obama has healed rift between the rooted, satisfied Afro-Caribbean community and the disillusioned, restless African-American areas, what our study does show is that Obama, whilst perhaps fitting the description of the Afro-Caribbean (better education, has no roots in slavery, holds America in high regard and believes anything is possible etc.) his is extremely popular with African-Americans. Whether this could indicate that he symbolises the unification of the black community remains to be seen.In 2008, Obama managed 84 percent of the black vote in Alabama, 87 percent in Georgia and 84 percent in Maryland. However, his popularity was not only with African-American and Afro-Caribbean voters, but with white voters as well. In fact, we only need to go back to as late as October 2008 to find that Obama’s popularity with white voters was at a historic high. The numbers show that “44 percent of non-Hispanic white voters presently support Obama — the highest number for a Democrat since 47 percent of whites backed Jimmy Carter in 1976.” The current financial crisis has had something to do with his recent surge in popularity but even before that hit, Obama was teetering around the 40 percent mark, which is still very high indeed. In fact, this is the first time a Democrat has won such a majority of white voters since Lyndon Johnson back 1964.
So when Stanley Crouch wrote in his article for The New York Daily News in 2006 entitled, “What Obama isn’t: Black like me” that “when black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about,” it shows that coupled with his recent electoral victory, plus his popularity with both white and black, Obama has to some extent unified the nation in terms of race. It must be mentioned however, that at the time of winning the election back in November 2008, Obama only enjoyed 52 percent of the popular vote , so the ground is there to be made up on a political level. Still, there is no getting away from Obama’s popularity amongst the black community as displayed by his Primary and subsequent election victories.
So what are we left with? A man who despite doubts about his own identity, that despite the confusing messages about race he seems to send out whether it be a speech or in his books, we find ourselves looking at a man that has to a certain degree given the black community someone to rally behind. Even if he is, or isn’t “like them”, even if he doesn’t share the same history, hasn’t experienced that same level of oppression and offence, it seems large sections of the black community look to him not only as a leader, but as a black leader.
An adequate explanation of how Obama has achieved this is one I’ll leave to Ronald Williams II, who says that:
“[Obama’s differences] are particularly useful in understanding the popularity that Obama has enjoyed among American whites and reasons why many of them see Obama as ‘different’ from normative representations of African American. Because he is not a descendent of American slavery and its legacy, Obama is able to genuinely present himself not only as an example of what African Americans ‘are’ and more of an example of what they ‘should be’ or ‘could be.’ Representing himself as an African American without a sentiment of anger or bitterness toward the United States because of its wrongdoings or toward American whites because of the transgressions of their primogenitors; an African American who has bought into the idea that America and its proverbial dream can materialize for all of its citizens–including those who were once slaves–enables Americans whites to connect with a possibility that American racism is a thing of the past.”
By which we must admit that this, for all intents and purposes, is what Obama himself has been saying all along.