The words ‘black’ and ‘white’ are no longer restricted to race. They have become, for better or worse, reflective of political ideology. And this new phenomenon is best understood by the differing reactions to Barak Obama’s presidential bid. The question raised everywhere is: how will Obama define himself? He has black roots, but has grown up in elite circles. So whom does he represent then? But the larger question is: how has it been possible that Obama’s star has risen so quickly, and that it is within the reach of a Black man to become the next president of the United States?
The answer may lie in the fact that the US’s large White majority, and indeed the mainstream press, have supported Obama because although he is Black, his politics are construed as White. As Debra J. Dickerson puts it in Salon, “Black, in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics.” Thus, Obama, who has a White mother and a Kenyan father, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia as a child, might be Black in appearance, but not in experience. His life would be more comparable to Whites, Asian immigrants and African Americans. Dickenson continues, “(America is) not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves. You’re replacing the black man with an immigrant of recent African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty or frightened.”
This precise slant in perception that Obama is a safe Black candidate because he can be trusted, and trusted because the White majority knows his experiences, makes his appeal even more complex. Criticisms closely follow adulations, as Democrat Bobby L. Rush puts it, Obama is a Harvard elitist who is out of touch with the concerns of workaday African-Americans. Obama challenged Rush in 2000 for his first Congressional seat. Obama lost.
The question in the media then is, what about the Black vote? It is not just the community’s opinion of Obama, many of whom are proud of him and support him, but the vote is divided because Hillary Clinton is a favourite among Blacks. Toni Morrison once dubbed Hillary’s husband, Bill, as the country’s “first Black president” and she demonstrates a similar goodwill towards Hillary as well. Democratic pollster Mark Mellman found in a focus group of 10 Black women that eight named Hillary Clinton their political hero. And a popular theory doing the rounds of Black radio, is that Obama is a favoured candidate because choosing a ‘Black’ president by the predominantly White majority could redeem America in the eyes of the world, will not help him much either. Another fear is this: just like Tiger Woods has, Obama too, could become a public figure that rises above the question of race. And if this is the case, the question within the Black community is, will he protect Black interests when in effect he is not really a Black politician?
So, in essence, the question comes back: is Obama a Black man with White politics? And has America embraced a Black man because he is essentially White (politically)? Between a woman and a Black man, polls have shown that Americans are warming up to electing either to the highest office in the land.
However, it has been easier for women — as Reverend Jesse Jackson put it, “All evidence is that a white female has an advantage over a black male — for reasons of our cultural heritage. It’s easier — emphatically so.” Jackson himself ran for president in 1984 and 1988, and lost both times.
But Obama’s speeches on the campaign trail indicate that he knows when to switch gear between Black and White politics. At Claflin University in Orangeburg, SC, he told a nearly all-Black audience of about 2000, “At every turn in our history, there’s been somebody who said we can’t. I’m here to tell you, Yes we can.” He received thunderous applause and left like a rock star.