Racial Paradox and Eclipse: Obama as a Balm for What Ails Us

Racial Paradox and Eclipse: Obama as a Balm for What Ails Us

Denver University Law Review
Volume 86, Special Issue (Obama Phenomena: A Special Issue on the Election of President Barack Obama (2009)
pages 743-783

Camille A. Nelson, Dean and Professor of Law
Suffolk University, Boston, Massachusetts

I. Introduction

The 2008 political season provided us with sublime political spectacle. The contest for presidential nominee of the Democratic National party was an exciting and historic race. The subsequent presidential race whipped Americans, and indeed many throughout the world, into a frenzy. Never before did two white women and a black man exemplify the dreams and aspirations of so many. People the world over hoped and sought to change the course of history through the selection of the President and Vice President of the United States of America. There appearedto be a captivating yet ironic handwringing around identitarian politics at the same time that this elephant in the room was downplayed. The contest elevated, yet simultaneously sublimated, Americans’ struggle with race, gender, religion and national origin. As everyone was well aware of the monumental contests for symbolic firsts1 the 2008 Presidential race took on added momentum. With the designation of “First black President of the United States of America” looming within sight, supporters and detractors of Barack Obama were plagued by the weighty history of America. This racist history was cast as both past and prologue. With so many “firsts” at stake—either the potential for the first woman President and Vice President or the first black President—both crude and subtle identity politics were revealed which challenged claims that the citizenry of the United States had moved beyond identity politics, or race more specifically.

However, transcendent colorblind theories have been echoed in recent U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence—they buttress a disconnect from our racialized past and present. In 2003, Justice O’Connor in Grutter v. Bollinger remarked that in twenty-five years we should no longer require affirmative action initiatives, presumably because we will have reached a post-racial epoch of cultural colorblindness. A few years later Chief Justice Roberts in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School Dist. No. 15—a case addressing affirmative action initiatives undertaken by school districts—similarly asserted that the best way to stop racial discrimination is to stop discriminating. Cases such as these encode a normative boundary between public and private. They establish a terrain of identity schizophrenia on which we are often deluded by our perceptions of reality—no longer can we tell what is real from what is fiction.

This is the terrain on which I would like to examine the Obama phenomenon to reveal Barack Obama as somewhat of a paradox, black but white, manly but feminist, alien yet familiar, foreign but quintessentially American, and of course dubiously Christian. Accordingly, this essay will explore what might be described as the disordered identity politics revealed at the site of Obama’s ascendance. I will focus largely upon racial dynamics while recognizing the work of other identity constructs in constituting and reinforcing each other. Admittedly, race and racial politicking are the focus of this essay, but gender (specifically masculinity), religion, class and national origin also occupied the political landscape in meaningful ways. Essential to this exploration, therefore, is the intersecting identity of Barack Obama as not only a man, but a heterosexual black man of mixed racial, cultural and religious heritage. This multifaceted identity nexus carries incredible baggage in America—it complicates the desire for simplified identitarian politics but does not eliminate its force.

While to some people Barack Obama, as a mixed-race man who is Black identified, holds within him the specter of a post-racial America, it is my sense that we have not yet achieved this lofty goal, despite his election. Instead, America remains deeply invested in identitarian politics and race more specifically. No doubt some citizens cast a vote for Obama because of his race and others refused to do so for the same reason.  Rather than being irrelevant, the visibility and salience of race in America is starkly demonstrated by Obama mania—Obamania—the frenzy, excitement and furor surrounding his candidacy for President of the United States. Obama supporters and detractors alike have seized specifically upon race, consciously or unconsciously, to reveal deepseated identity-based paranoia. Thus, contrary to what the Supreme Court of the United States proclaims, race is not irrelevant in America, especially when politics and power are concerned.

This essay will explore some of the disordered permutations of race, specifically racial construction and deconstruction, as publicly demonstrated through Obamania. In Part I, particular emphasis will be placed upon the mixed-race rhetoric surrounding Obama—this framework casts Obama as racially transcendent and celebrates public American postracialism.  Curiously, though, despite this philosophy that dismisses the centrality of race in America, Obama himself acknowledges that he has had to make private race-based identity choices. Obama asserts that he is a black man in America—it is unlikely that he could assert that he is a white man and be legitimated and embraced as such. U.S. Representative G. K. Butterfield states, “Obama has chosen the heritage he feels comfortable with. His physical appearance is black. I don’t know how he could have chosen to be any other race. Let’s just say [if] he decided to be white people would have laughed at him.” Indeed, it is folly to believe that those who see him in dark, distrustful hues would embrace his white-half identity thereby seeing themselves in him to overcome their perception of his troublesome blackness. American public progressivity is out of step with our private racial ordering. Ironically, many in America can publicly celebrate the incredible reality of our first black President, yet self-righteously return to markedly and intentionally segregated private lives.

Part II will explore the racial tightrope that Obama skillfully crossed. Of all the major political candidates, only Obama was asked to be all things to all people. At times, he was not seen as black enough. At other times, Obama was too black. Yet on other occasions, Obama’s Christianity was questioned with the post-9/11 weightiness of an ascribed Muslim identity. There were other occasions on which his masculinity was questioned, even as he undoubtedly felt the historical burden of hyper-masculinized black manhood. Identity politics were cast upon Obama with a furor seldom demonstrated in national politics. Skillful as ever, however, Obama emerged victorious and relatively unscathed. To my mind, navigating the swath of identitarian complaints and politics thrown only his way was one of his greatest accomplishments.

Ultimately, Part III will conclude with an exploration of the ways in which the political contest for the Democratic Party nominee exposed the primacy of identitarian politics, specifically of race, in America. In conclusion, this essay will assert that, in keeping with America’s schizophrenic socio-legal history, race remains a challenging concept and its persistent relevance indicates that we have not yet achieved the racial healing or transcendence which Obama’s public ascendancy proclaims. Obama, therefore, is not the balm for our racial ailments. Instead, Obama’s ascendancy reveals our racial disorder. At the same time that Obama’s eclipsing blackness comforts many of us in the knowledge that we have finally elected a black President, others are equally disappointed by this fact. Moreover, Obama’s public trajectory to the forefront of the political super strata eclipses the pervasive reality that private prejudices remain steadfast throughout the social landscape and we remain more racially segregated than ever…

…To many people Obama’s mixed-race heritage indicates the triumph of colorblindness over racism. That colorblindness, as opposed to colorconsciousness without negative ascription, is seen as the sine qua non of racial progress is itself revealing of our racial disorder. For many in America the only way to overcome racism is to deny the consequences of race and colorism. Instead I suggest that we think about eliminating the negative connotations and consequences tethered to racialization rather than seeking to avoid any recognition of the socio-cultural concept of race itself. In the political landscape Obama was paradoxically wedged between these two competing viewpoints. [Shelby] Steele summarized these perspectives as follows:

There is the unspoken hope that his mixed-race freshness carries a broader political originality. And, in fact, he does embody something that no other presidential candidate possibly can: the idealism that race is but a negligible human difference. Here is the radicalism, innate to his pedigree, which automatically casts him as the perfect antidote to America’s exhausted racial politics. This is the radicalism by which Martin Luther King Jr. put Americans in touch—if only briefly—with their human universality. Barack Obama is the progeny of this idealism. As such, he is a living rebuke to both racism and racialism, to both segregation and identity politics—any form of collective chauvinism.

I read the identitarian discourses surrounding Obama differently. The posing of these questions around identity betrays our subconscious recognition that we are not there yet—we remain burdened by a default racial calculus. Even the semantics of being post-racial reveals the persistence of race and racial constructions. We do not even have terminology, let alone the ideological substance, to take us beyond racial fixity. These questions further indicate our quest for a racial healing that we know has not yet been achieved. Hence the racial schizophrenia. We aredeeply conflicted. It is unclear what is reality versus what is merely our distorted perception. It is my ultimate conclusion that our distorted racial perception is our reality…

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