While nearly every election cycle in recent memory has been presented as the “most important of our lifetimes,” pundits and politicians alike tell us the 2008 presidential race is one of unparalleled historical significance, largely because the Democratic candidate is black. Senator Barack Obama will officially accept his party’s nomination at the conclusion of the Democratic Convention tomorrow night, August 28, on the 45th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s immortal speech at the March on Washington.
In the minds of many, Obama’s accomplishment represents the fulfillment of the dream King articulated on that August afternoon in 1963. Yet while Obama’s skin color may indeed make his nomination unprecedented, whether his candidacy actually embodies the principles that make Dr. King’s dream inspiring to so many is another matter.
Taken literally, King’s words are a declaration of forgiveness, a call for reconciliation and an affirmation of our most basic human bonds. The vision he presented that day was consistent with a conception of civil rights resting on the equality of individuals under the law. But in the 45 years since King gave his address, progressive civil rights advocates have gradually replaced these high ideals with a politics fixated on racial identity and disparities in outcomes.
Senator Obama has clearly drunk from this well. His 20-year association with the now infamous Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Trinity United Church of Christ is the most well known example of his acceptance of racial politics. But while much of the media scrutiny focused on Wright’s bombastic accusations about the U.S. government’s role in creating HIV and God’s damnation of America, many overlooked his divisive and duplicitous use of race. The church’s website, for instance, asserts a curious claim to “unashamed blackness” and the “black values system.” The implications buried in these sentiments smack of racial exclusivity and suppose that blacks must be treated as a separate political group rather than as free individuals. In other words, separate and not equal. This is hardly consistent with King’s dream of justice and equality.
Then there are the well-documented incidents of Obama campaign staffers carefully arranging supporters by ethnicity as backdrops for speaking events, in an effort to present a shallow, shade-oriented representation of diversity. And the Senator’s references during and immediately following his much-touted speech on race to “typical white person(s)” and “ordinary black people.” While some see these comments as benign or simply (recurring) slips of the tongue, their context and frequency subtly link race to ideology, and represent a concession to an antiquated racial orthodoxy.
Senator Obama’s view of his own race is also illuminating. Early in his campaign, when he came under fire from black pundits for not being “black enough,” instead of pointing out the absurdity of their challenge, Obama eagerly capitulated. “I self-identify as African American,” Obama stated in response to a supporter’s question about his racial identity. “That’s how I’m treated and that’s how I’m viewed. I’m proud of it.”
Whether Senator Obama is proud of being black or content to have an ideological conception of racial identity imposed on him isn’t totally clear. But the inanity of professing pride in something as pedestrian as the color of one’s skin becomes clear to some only when they substitute the word “white” in place of “African American” or “black.” What if John McCain were to express pride in his skin color? He would quickly generate comparisons to segregationist George Wallace and be soundly defeated in November — if his political career even lasted that long.
Golf phenomenon Tiger Woods presents an apt foil for Obama by refusing to submit to the standard racial orthodoxy. When pressed by the media several years ago, Woods released a brief statement, which read that “The critical and fundamental point is that ethnic background … should NOT make a difference … The bottom line is that I am an American … and proud of it! Now, with your cooperation, I hope I can just be a golfer and a human being.”
The contemporary political landscape is understandably murky when it comes to race. My own father was 28 years old in August of 1963. He attended segregated schools and graduated shortly before the Supreme Court’s Brown decision. He often faced intense discrimination, which on one occasion nearly cost him his life. We ignore these ugly historical realities and their legacy at our own peril. But it is a tragic mistake to simply replace the small-minded racial preferences and legislated bigotry of the Jim Crow era with more racially motivated policy and contradictory double standards.
Both in the examples cited here and in his support for the continuation of policies like affirmative action, Obama implicitly endorses the status quo in racial identity politics. Far from embodying the “post-racial” qualities often attributed to him, the senator falls into the same tendencies of many left-leaning politicians toward broad racial generalizations and supporting discriminatory policies intended to manufacture equality. As with many other issues, politicizing race has produced entrenched resentments and needless strife.
The ongoing practices of discriminating on the basis of race or ethnicity are at odds with Dr. King’s dream that one day, his four little children would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Barack Obama may not be as brash as Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, or many other self-styled black leaders who have sought to claim King’s mantle in recent decades, but in spite of his undeniable symbolic significance, it’ll be hard for him to heal our racial divisions when he consistently yields to politics and not principle.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire