February 11, 2009

IF YOU TAKE AWAY THE IDENTITY POLITICS YOU DON'T HAVE O...:

Black like him?: Obama is, apparently, our first African-American president. But is that the identity he touted as a candidate? (ADAM REILLY, February 11, 2009, Boston Phoenix)

Whatever your race — and whatever you think of his résumé, or his politics, or his yen for tax-cheating cabinet nominees — Barack Obama's arrival in the Oval Office is something to celebrate. A barrier is shattered! Racism's foul legacy recedes! Martin Luther King's vision of a colorblind America is closer than ever!

So I kind of hate to ask the question — but I'm going to ask it anyway: isn't all this self-congratulation over the installment of our first black president just a little bit misleading? And by abetting it, isn't Obama — who before the election embraced a far more complicated racial heritage — playing a bit of an identity-politics shell game? [...]

[O]ver the past three months, the ambiguity and complexity that once marked discussions of Obama's race yielded to a simplistic new orthodoxy: the president is either black or African-American. End of story.

Examples of this racial 180 abound, as Obama recast himself, with the media as complicit allies, from half-white kid from the heartland to black icon. New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who is African-American, wrote about how even his relentlessly optimistic grandparents couldn't have imagined the election of a black man. Newsweek.com posted letters to Obama from Harlem schoolchildren and descendents of such black heroes as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Dred Scott — plus an open letter from Clara Lee Fisher, descendent of slave Sally Hemings, to President Thomas Jefferson, Hemings's owner and lover. Dozens of news outlets covered the Tuskegee Airmen's trip to the inaugural; cameramen filming the ceremony lingered on the often-emotional faces of black men and women.

And in his inaugural speech, Obama himself encouraged the audience to treat his election as a racial breakthrough, marveling that "a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." (In the same speech, Obama's white Kansan mother went unmentioned.) Today, T-shirts that epitomize this shift are still available online, emblazoned with the slogan OBAMA IS THE NEW BLACK (obamaisthenewblack.com).


...you have nothing.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 11, 2009 5:51 PM
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