From the beginning of Senator Barack Obama’s quest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008, there were a significant number of African-American critics who accused him of not being “black enough.” Ironically, many of those questioning his ethnic credentials and racial “authenticity” were neoconservatives, or apologists for the Republican Right Wing.
For example, conservative writer Debra Dickerson, author of The End of Blackness, declared in January, 2007, that “Obama would be the great black hope in the next presidential race, if he were actually black.” Journalist Stanley Crouch took a similarly negative approach, arguing that while Obama “has experienced some light versions of typical racial stereotypes, he cannot claim those problems as his own – nor has he lived the life of a black American.” Juan Williams, of FOX News, warned that “there are widespread questions whether this son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father really understands the black American experience.” Even Al Sharpton challenged Obama’s legitimacy, stating, “Just because you are our color doesn’t make you our kind … It’s not about his genealogy, it’s about his policies … What is it that you’re going to represent?”
As late as December, 2007, roughly one-half of all African Americans polled still favored Hilary Clinton over Obama as their Democratic presidential candidate. Some of Obama’s sharpest “racial doubters” were even from Chicago, his home base. Eddie Read, chair of Chicago’s Black Independent Political Organization, for example, predicted that “nothing’s going to happen” from the Democratic Senator’s candidacy, because “he doesn’t belong to us. He would not be the black president. He would be the multicultural president.”
Such criticisms were based, in part, on the Obama campaign’s initial presentation of its candidate as both “nonracial” and “multicultural.” Obama’s diverse family and kin network are a multicultural collage of divergent ethnicities traditions and languages. For months, the Obama campaign deliberately downplayed discussions about “race.” Even their young campaign workers and volunteers have chanted, “Race doesn’t matter!” as their rejoinder to critics. Obama and black Democratic politicians like Corey Booker, Newark, New Jersey’s mayor; Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick, and former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford, represented themselves as a “post-black, colorblind” political elite who are now attempting to come to power, supplanting both the traditional civil rights/social activism style leadership of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, as well as the black elected officials who owed their easy re-elections to the existence of majority minority legislative districts.
As the Democratic primaries progressed, however, Obama established the ability to win a significant share of whites’ votes. He consistently won majorities among all voters under 30, voters earning over $50,000 annually, and college-educated voters. After the South Carolina Democratic primary, where Bill Clinton’s race-baiting alienated thousands of voters, the African-American electorate swung decisively behind Obama.
As the percentage of blacks’ votes for Obama increased, the tactics used to discredit or derail his campaign changed. Instead of “questioning” Obama’s racial legitimacy, the anti-Obama forces switched to a strategy of “blackening” him.
One decisive step in “blackening up Obama” was Clinton’s controversial “3 a.m. ringing telephone” advertisement. In theory, the ad was designed as a “National Security” advertisement, designed to highlight Hillary Clinton’s superiority as a global problem-solver. But as Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson observed, if one simply turned off the advertisement’s soundtrack, the visual images of the political commercial were almost identical with a sinister “home security ad”: Innocent children and white babies sleeping, shadows revealing a possibly intruder, the urgency of an unanswered telephone in the middle of the night.
Patterson argued that to many Southern whites, all that was missing was black man in a ski mask, slipping through an open window. It would not be terribly difficult within the white American imagination to perceive Obama as a sophisticated, articulate “Willie Horton,” the black murderer whom George Herbert Walker Bush manipulated in advertisements to his electoral advantage in 1988, winning the White House. Barack, in baggy Levis and a sweatshirt, might easily be mistaken for Amadou Diallo, coming home in the Bronx, confronted with guns by the New York Police Department’s Street Crimes Unit.
The next stage in “blackening Obama” came in Mississippi’s Democratic primary, where Obama easily trounced Clinton. Media pundits were quick to attribute Barack’s victory to the overwhelming mandate of Mississippi’s African-American electorate. Not surprisingly, 92 percent of Mississippi black voters had supported Obama. Obama’s white vote in Mississippi was 26 percent, a figure which frankly surprised me because it was so large. More instructive was the fact that Clinton’s greatest vote totals came from conservative Republican counties. Despite, Obama’s strenuous efforts to present a color-blind campaign, the American electorate is so indoctrinated by “race” that the Illinois Democrat was unable to escape his black identity. Any faint hopes that Obama may have held about completely transcending race were obliterated with the controversy surrounding the explosive videotaped speeches of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ.
Trinity Church’s motto, “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian” places Obama’s church firmly within the tradition of black liberation theology. Yet even before the controversial videos of the Reverend Wright surfaced, white conservatives had attempted to equate Trinity Church’s theological teachings with the black separatism of the Nation of Islam. Media conservative Tucker Carlson, for example, declared in 2007 that the church “contradicts the basic tenets of Christianity,” and was racially “separatist.” Conservative journalist Erik Rush even equated the church with the white supremacist “Aryan Brethren Church,” and asked if congregants “consider themselves Americans?” Rev. Wright’s message of black pride, personal responsibility and progressive politics was twisted and distorted by seizing upon the most provocative seconds taken from many hours of videotaped sermons.
Obama’s response to the Rev. Wright controversy was a masterful address, “A More Perfect Union,” delivered in Philadelphia’s Constitution Center. Obama began by reminding his audience that American democracy was “unfinished” at its founding in 1787, due to “this nation’s original sin of slavery.” Obama declared that despite his rather unusual personal history and mixed ethnic background, “seared into my genetic makeup [is] the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.”
Obama’s great strength is his ability to discuss controversial and complex issues in a manner that conveys the seeking of consensus, or common ground. His Philadelphia address reminded whites that “so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery” and Jim Crow segregation. But he also acknowledged the anger and alienation of poor and working class whites, people who do not live especially privileged lives, who feel unfairly victimized by policies like affirmative action. Obama criticized Rev. Wright’s statements as “not only wrong but divisive, at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems … that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”
The other astute dimension of Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” speech was his repeated referencing of U.S. racial history, while simultaneously refusing to be defined or restricted by that history. For blacks, Obama asserted, the path forward “means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past … it means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans.” In the context of electoral politics and public policy, Obama’s argument makes perfect sense. In America’s major cities, for example, there’s no explicitly “Latino strategy” for improving public transportation, or a purely “African-American strategy” to improve health care. That’s not to suggest that racial disparities in health care, education, employment and other areas don’t exist. It does mean, however, that any real solutions must depend on building multiracial, multiclass coalitions that can fight to achieve change.
What remains clear is that the “blackening of Obama” is just beginning. If he emerges, as is likely, as the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, a host of racist and reactionary advertisements supporting Republican candidate John McCain will flood the media before Labor Day. Some will project Obama as a greater danger to white folks than O.J. Simpson and Louis Farrakhan combined. Other political commercials, with greater sophistication, will regurgitate many of Hilary Clinton’s smears – that Obama’s “too inexperienced,” that he’s not “prepared” to be commander in chief. This will be accompanied by an unofficial, race-based whisper campaign, accusing Obama of being anti-Semitic, anti-Hispanic, and unsympathetic to the problems of white workers.
Obama’s effort to avoid “racialization” in certain respects restricts him from answering questions about American racism honestly. For example, at the well-publicized San Francisco fundraiser, when Obama was asked why low income whites failed to vote for him, the candidate resorted to a complicated, sociological explanation, citing that many rural voters feel “bitter” and alienated. Because Obama tries to avoid “race-based” answers, he failed to state what was true: that millions of low income, poorly-educated whites simply won’t support him simply because he’s black.
Obama’s greatest challenge in avoiding “racialization” is to maintain confidence and enthusiasm among the most crucial sector of his core supporters – the African-American electorate. The first rule of politics is to secure your core base first, then reach out to other groups. The Obama campaign since early 2007 reversed this process, avoiding any discussion about race for months, and failing to consolidate the vast majority of the black vote behind him for more than a year. Obama’s popularity among young whites and middle-to-upper class whites is based, in part, because he has an image that “transcends race.” But will these same groups stay loyally committed to him when the Republican race-baiting machine starts its racial attacks against Barack Obama this fall?
- Manning Marable, Editor, Souls