Barack's Racial Balancing Act
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.
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.