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Barack’s Racial Balancing Act

Posted on Jan 22, 2007
Barack Obama
AP / Seth Wenig

Sen. Barack Obama speaking at a New York charity event in December.

By The Rev. Madison Shockley

Sen. Obama’s multiracial heritage could help mend the great fissure in American society.

Now that Barack Obama has taken his first formal step toward the White House, America is downright giddy with the possibility of electing its first black president. You can feel it in the air whenever the subject of Obama comes up.

Of course, we have been here before. The first black to raise the prospect of actual election was Colin Powell in 1995. But he never actually ran. The first black candidate for president (OK, for the Democratic Party nomination) was Shirley Chisholm, who in 1972 became the first woman to seek the presidency. Jesse Jackson ran in 1984 and 1988. More recently, in 2004, Al Sharpton ran for the Democratic nomination.

And now Obama is getting the same kind of electric response as Powell did, albeit primarily from white Democrats this time.

So what are the differences between the candidacies of Chisholm and Jackson on the one hand and Powell and Obama on the other? Chisholm and Jackson were not just black candidates; they were angry black candidates—angry about injustice; angry about wealth disparity, angry about discrimination. Powell and Obama have political histories that track on trajectories different from those of Chisholm and Jackson.


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After Powell retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, fresh from a swift and nearly bloodless (in American lives) victory in the Gulf War, the whole nation seemed in awe of him. Here was a man who commanded not just the armed forces in the Persian Gulf region but also the respect of an entire nation—and who just happened to be black. And it didn’t hurt that he didn’t look all that black either.

Similarly, Obama’s blackness seems secondary, not primary. Obama is what I like to call “immediately biracial.” His mother was white and his father was a black African from Kenya. Obama’s speech before the Democratic National Convention in 2004—made while Obama was still a candidate for the U.S. Senate—was not only memorable for its flawless delivery but also for its prescient content. He spoke of a “purple” America at a time when we were deeply divided by red and blue. I believe it was his life history of blending colors that led him so easily to this multi-hued metaphor.

But since his election to the Senate he has only grown in the esteem of his party and his nation. The audio version of his bestselling autobiography has nearly 16 hours of his sonorous voice whispering and dancing in our ears, spinning a fascinating tale of one who “discovers” his race through a series of events both chosen and unchosen. His book invites America, primarily white America, to join him on a journey of discovery and healing.

Ahhhhhhh, healing—that’s the real magic of Barack Obama. Just standing before us, Obama symbolizes much of the healing that America so desperately needs.  His family tree of black and white branches serves to heal the fundamental fissure in the foundation of American culture—that of race. His first-generation immigrant status speaks volumes about what immigration can contribute to our society. His Arabic names raises the question of whether we can overcome our hatred and prejudice against Muslims and all things Islamic long enough to pull the lever for a man whose middle name is Hussein and whose last name rhymes with Osama. He heals all of these rifts just standing there, allowing us to say “yes” to him. And when we do, it feels so good. And America has not been able to feel good about itself for a very long time.

Then, he opens his mouth and displays the genius-level IQ of a Harvard Law graduate. He opens his soul to reveal an evangelical faith balanced with a commitment to social justice. And he opens his life and shows us a genuine dedication to his vision of an America where hard work is rewarded with achievement and complexion is conquered by competence (because he has personally demonstrated both outcomes). Now our collective voice rises even higher, and the yes of our initial infatuation becomes the Yesssssssss!!!!!! of pure love.

This good feeling will be more critical in the upcoming elections than the briefness of his political tenure. After all, history is likely to attribute the failed presidency of George W. Bush more to intellectual incuriosity and stubborn dogmatism than lack of experience.

Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States because those who will be voting for him don’t just like him, they love him. Barack Obama will be the next president of the United States, not the first black president of the United States. That detail will ultimately be ranked alongside others like the wingspan of his ears or the name of his father’s village in Kenya.


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By Terry Sloth, January 27, 2007 at 6:09 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Hey Sylvia,

Do you really believe a well-cast theatrical production which profiles a BS candidate will be your political savior???

Since you admitted to being an older adult, haven’t you seen enough politics in your lifetime to know that anyone who achieves the Presidency or the nomination of the Republican or Democratic Party have compromised themselves in so many ways, that they will be beholden to corporations until they leave office or until they are convicted.

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By Stephen Smoliar, January 27, 2007 at 4:11 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

perdo cuesta (#49364) added valuably to the discussion by citing Hischhorn’s “Messiah” article.  My own take, however, is that I am less concerned over whether or not Barack can fill the shoes of a messiah-figure, so to speak, than I am with the fact that we have reduced the presidential electoral process to a quest for a messiah.  We have now seen this in the reaction to Jim Webb, even on Truthdig:

Personally, I am very nervous about all this “secular messianism,” as I have chosen to call it:

If we become too obsessed with looking for a DEUS EX MACHINA (language I personally prefer to “Messiah”) to “make everything right,” we lose touch with the fundamental truth that ONLY THROUGH OUR OWN DEVICES (flawed though they may be) will we EVER be able to “make everything right” (or at least enough to feel that we left the world in better state than we found it)!

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By Sylvia Barksdale Morovitz, January 27, 2007 at 11:22 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It’s time that America has diversity in the highest, most powerful office in the land.  Senator Obama is the person to provide it.  He is a fresh face, like springtime, to many of us out here who are so sick of the same old bullshit we’ve been feed for so long.

I am an elder white lady who, because of my upbringing close to AfroAmericans, has never had a bigoted bone in my body.  The color of Obama’s face doesn’t come into play with my opinions of the man.  I have heard him speak and he projects a no nonsense, getting down to brass tacks personna.  I beleive that he can be as tough as is needed in putting our nation back on the right track.  God only knows, after the abysmal Bush disaster, it will not be an easy job.  He seems easy-going yet with a steel interior that speaks clearly to those who listen closely.

I beleive that Senator Obama will place America on top of his agenda.  He is aware of the suffering that takes place among so many of us; in particular, the health care debacle that is a shame for any nation.  I wait only to hear of his plans for cleaning up our environment before my vote for him is sealed.

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By robert puglia, January 27, 2007 at 10:23 am Link to this comment
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“Obama’s blackness seems secondary, not primary” which point is obscured in an essay entirely about race, and worse;
“Obama is what I like to call “immediately biracial.” His mother was white and his father was a black African from Kenya”. we all know of barak obama’s provenance but how much can he tote? this essay is so blithely offensive i am given to heave. it seems the reverend shockley does not listen to his own tripe- and who could blame him? it is a tortuous read.

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By yours truly, January 26, 2007 at 11:17 pm Link to this comment
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As far as our personal lives and survival goes, unless we get Congress to cut off all funding for the Iraq war, it won’t make a bit of difference who the Democratic Party’s candidate is in next yearr’s election.  That’s because, after subtracting out whatever it’ll cost us to wage war simultaneously in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Iran, with Cuba & Venezuela our next targets and China & Russia receiving serious consideration, what’s gonna be left for us?  Crumbs, maybe, that’s what! .

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By morgan -lynn lamberth griggsy, January 26, 2007 at 1:10 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Miscegenation! Go for it!

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By OSHEN..., January 25, 2007 at 12:53 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

my heart says Obama is “Kennedyesque”... and i look forward to him leading our lost but Beloved Country… yet “Uncle Max” says “big money loves him”... and “sns” says “unsavory qualities”...
I want to and will believe in this man for i yearn for The Light of America that fell with John in ‘63… and i feel it in him…
but i remain open to tangible information of the puppet masters pulling this mans strings…
come on you synics… ONward… Oshen…

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By a voice from the wilderness, January 24, 2007 at 11:46 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

To Antelope Joe,

I’m a white female, and no one, husband or otherwise tells me how to vote.  I read extensively from many sources—mainstream and otherwise—track the money, fact check, and vote for the candidates and issues that are most like my own values.  To say that all white females vote the way they’re told is sexist, chauvanistic and patently offensive.

I can only wonder if you’re one of those who make the Antelope Valley such a wilderness…

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By Dr. knowitall, PhD, PhD, January 24, 2007 at 10:00 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

CK #49305 The way to end racism is for the people who control wealth and land in this country to stop the greed.  Greed is NOT good.  If you think Blacks should spend time in Africa for some perspective, I suggest you spend some time in one of the many black—or white—ghettos in America and see how you like it.  Think about why they exist in the wealthiest country on the planet—try, if you can, to be objective—and think about how you, had you been born into that, could ever extricate yourself from it.  I think you have a Neanderthal conception of racism.

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By pedro cuesta, January 24, 2007 at 6:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obama: The Democratic Messiah?

Monday, 22 January 2007
By Joel S. Hischhorn

Is Obama just another example of how our corrupt political system ingeniously creates candidates to keep hope alive?  Is the self-professed progressive Obama the real thing?  Is he something other than a conventional politician?

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By Poly Ester, January 23, 2007 at 9:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Chisholm and Jackson were not just black candidates; they were angry black candidates—angry about injustice”

We could use some angry candidates of any color—-we need politicians who will speak up about Iraq and the folly of pursuing this war.  We need angry politicians to talk about the economy which is “grand” for a few, but sad for so many.  We need angry politicians to talk about the thieves in the insurance healthcare scam industry which rips-off the government, providers,  and patients.  We need angry politicians who talk about the need for alternative energy sources, and who have serious strategies for its implementation.  Yes, we don’t need reticent demure polite politicians; we need bold brave leaders who will speak the truth.

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By Ck, January 23, 2007 at 9:32 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Racism in America can’t be fixed or ended by whites. The root causes of it’s continuation must be addressed by the African American community. Disproportionately high black crime, the hypocrisy of racist affirmative action, and the perpetual rhetoric of victimhood and entitlement coming from the so-called ‘leaders’ of Black America will continue to fuel resentment of blacks in the US, not only among American whites but among other minority groups in America, and even from African immigrants who look upon the attitudes and behaviors of their American-born counterparts with disdain and disappointment.

If blacks want full respect as a minority culture in America, they must realize that the fissure cannot be ‘healed’ by some superstar politician, nor can such respect be legislated, preached, or whined into existence. For respect to be gained, American Blacks first must EARN it by accepting responsibility for the failings of their own communities and culture. They must take the initiative to fix their own problems from the ground up, starting with responsible parenting and teaching by example.  They need to STOP blaming America and STOP blaming whites for their problems. START to take full responsibility for the success or failures as individuals and as a minority culture.

Those blacks that still think that America is such a hard place to be would benefit from some time spent in Africa to gain a little perspective.

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By Aimie, January 23, 2007 at 7:43 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

antelope joe: “White females vote the way their husbands do.”

Because, you know, all white females are married and straight, and completely under the control of their husbands.


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By Stephen Smoliar, January 23, 2007 at 5:31 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Evergreen (#49235), you would do well to get hold of a copy of Isaiah Berlin’s THE SENSE OF REALITY and wade through the long sentences of his “Political Judgement” essay.  Berlin’s basic argument is that, in the arena of politics, intelligence is not the deciding factor, nor should it be, since it often overlooks key issues of humanity that cannot be ignored in any relationship between a leader and those being led.  (Lest you draw the wrong conclusion about him, I doubt that anyone who ever read anything by Berlin would question his own capacity for intelligence!)  To draw upon your own reasoning, one of the ways in which Berlin develops his argument is by demonstrating that intelligence cannot compensate for experience.  Besides, too much emphasis on intelligence conjures up Plato’s image of the philosopher-king.  Not only has this already been distorted to destructive proportions by the neoconservatives, but it leads us to forget that “Republic” was a relatively early work.  Plato, himself, tried to put his theories into practice;  and many of his later writings show him to be sadder and wiser (not to mention lucky to be alive)!

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By Los Angeles Democrat, January 23, 2007 at 4:38 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ahhhh.. and then he opens his mouth and we realize - just as homophobia is rampant in the community of African Americans - that Obama, too, lacks integity.  What I mean to say is how Obama uses that tired old excuse that his religion makes him uncomfortable with and personally opposed to according gay and lesbian people full and equal rights.  It wasn’t so long ago that people’s “religion” made them uncomfortable with and personally opposed to mixed race marriages - such as the one that Obama’s mother and father enjoyed.  The truth is that Obama is a media inflated candidate who has little to no relevant experience.  In the context of Obama’s short two years on the national stage (and rather flimsy set of accomplishments), Shockley’s premise doesn’t have a whole lot of foundation beneath it (other than the preacher’s hot air).  Indeed, Obama’s ambition seems more of the self-serving variety, as much as anything else.  Until we have a bit more critical examination of just what Obama stands for, and discover more whether Obama actually has what it takes to compete - under fire - in the national arena, we don’t need any more of Shockley’s nonsensical boosterism.

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By Uncle Max, January 23, 2007 at 4:25 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Who cares what color he is? It’s the same old stuff with new packaging. He’s just a spokesman for the powerful. A puppet for the oligarchs. What they love about him is his ability to command the swooning admiration of an entire NPR special report where they never once mention his policies.

Mr. Obama offers 8 years of corporate new cycles in which the concerns of the oppressed (the most rapidly growing sector of US Americans) will never come to light. Character, charisma, and spin on one hand and socioeconomic disparity on the other. The US has cracked and shattered. Mr. Obama is plaster, albeit tastefully pigmented.

Rev. Shockley is right. He’s the next president. Big money loves him.

(Good comment from Stephen Smoliar, btw)

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By antelope joe, January 23, 2007 at 3:34 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You mean he will heal the nation like Colin Powell did?
Or Condi Rice? 

I think white males will never vote for a black for president unless he is a superhero of ball or has on his shoulder 4 stars.  White females vote the way their husbands do.

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By sns, January 23, 2007 at 3:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

the fissure between his ambitions and his experience, not to mention other unsavory qualities, is rather expansive, no?

and please let’s stop with this religious nonsense rev. it really cheapens and dumbs the issues down

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By Evergreen, January 23, 2007 at 1:51 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Shockley had to mention race…because it will be an issue for some people.  Maybe not for ye and me…but it will be for some. 

In my opinion Senator Obama is the only choice for President:
He is intelligent.
He is inspirational and a unifier and truthful…so people do love him.
He sees problems clearly (intelligence again) and has identified the basic priorities.
He understands and approves of the principles our government was founded upon.
His intelligence will compensate for any lack of experience.
And perhaps most important:
To the best of my knowledge Obama has not sold his ideals to anybody and is not owned by the corporate world.

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By Jim O'Sullivan, January 23, 2007 at 1:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Margaret Chase Smith sought the Presidency in 1964, a got closer tham Chisolm did.

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By FrostedFlakes, January 23, 2007 at 11:17 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Obama is a great guy. Granted. However, the greater masses of America are not ready for any leadership different than themselves. As long as you have the “O’Reillies, Hannities, Limbaughs, etc..” to be the informers of a large portion of America there will only remain the illusion of inclusion in this society. Also, when the mass media outlets are monopolized by such a minimal amount of people, public opinion ,as well as, public acception will always be manipulated (ask Karl Rove). But race will only be a tool used to undermine true credibility, which in itself will open the eyes of people looking for real answers to real issues. And in the meantime, hopefully, the American people will become aware,as a whole, of the vast criminal undertakings of this current administration and their corporate sponsors that now dictate to society a hooded and false sense of what it is to be an American.

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By Stephen Smoliar, January 23, 2007 at 9:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It is all very well and good to talk about racial healing in the “freak show” of presidential politics;  but the real issue is what is happening in day-to-day life.  In that respect we should be looking at a recent sociological study about racism that is now available, as summarized by the author, at the Nieman Watchdog Web site.  I have written and summary and analysis on my own blog at:

This study is not about the elevated world of getting elected to high office but about the more mundane problem of getting a job;  and the basic conclusion is that racism looms larger than we would like to think.

Reverend Shockley seems to imply that we have progressed from the days of the “ANGRY black candidates.”  I fear we have regressed.  Racial distinctions may have passed, but now the discourse of presidential politics lacks angry candidates of any color.  American does, indeed, desperately need healing;  but it is a healing that can only come from reflection.  I do not yet see Obama leading us to that reflection in a constructive way.

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By Dr. Knowitall, PhD, PhD, January 23, 2007 at 6:48 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Reverand Shockley: Your article is as much about race as it is anything else.  Let me ask you, what percentage of “black” does a person have to be to be called “Black?”  Is it 50/50?  Why don’t you call Obama “white” if he’s 50/50? I look at myself, a caucasian, and I don’t see “white democrat” anywhere, except, maybe, in my eyes (like Obama.)  I’m pinkish, beigeish, tannish, whatever.  As a man of the cloth, I’m surprised you even mentioned race in this article. Though the church may not be, isn’t your God color blind?  You demonstrate to me that the church, which is supposed to be a model of morality, still just doesn’t “get it.”

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By Dublin Joe, January 23, 2007 at 3:58 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Rev. Shockley hits the nail on the head in his final paragraph:

We finally have a presidential candidate who’s not just “the lesser of two evils.” He’s not just “a compromise” like Gore, or Hillary, or Kerry.

Sen. Obama will win because people love him - and in turn, he embodies the old quote “We cannot lead the people unless we love the people.”

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