Monday, April 11, 2011

Obama encounters a strange double standard

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune-Star, 2/26/2007

Barack Obama is running for president of the United States. His is a remarkable story. He is hard working, idealistic and intelligent. Many pundits say he represents a different kind of Democrat. Obama is also “lucky” in that Jack Ryan’s Republican candidacy for senator from Illinois fell apart because of his wife’s accusations about their marriage. If only Obama’s father didn’t have black skin. Because of that, we get questions about whether Obama “is black enough.”

The ongoing discussion of Obama’s “blackness” is insulting. The premise of this discussion is that a black (enough) candidate is going to automatically receive all the black votes. In other words, he could stand for anything, and black voters will dutifully line up and vote for him. To suggest that Obama would not have to earn the black vote just as a white candidate would is to suggest that African-Americans can’t discern how their interests are furthered by the positions and values of different candidates. They can only see the color of skin.

Let’s turn this question around. Is George “Dubya” Bush white enough? My experience as a “white” person I doubt is much like Dubya’s. Dubya was born rich, had a legacy admit to one of the finest universities in the country, is known to disparage science, battled personal demons and I doubt ever worried about paying the bills. I worked very hard in high school to be admitted to a state university, love science, have no background battling personal demons and still worry about paying the bills. Dubya is privileged and I am not, except if Obama and I were walking down the street from my middle school during times of racial tension. As a white kid, I got away with everything (except sassing the white cops) because the white cops in my all-white town were protecting me and hassling and arresting the “Obamas.”

So, Dubya and I are the same because we aren’t members of a minority race. Woo-hoo. Dubya and every other white politician has to morph themselves into a regular guy to get most of the white vote. So, again I ask, are Bush, Giuliani, Richardson, Vilsack, Clinton, or any of the other announced presidential wannabes white enough?

To be fair, these questions about Obama’s “blackness” are not originating from white opposition to Obama. A few black writers and leaders are raising the question: Is Barack black enough? Put him in a three-year-old Toyota and send him driving in an all white upper-middle-class neighborhood and see how long it takes before he is pulled over by the police. Or let’s put him out front of the Indy airport among similarly dressed white guys and see if it takes him longer to get a cab. Let’s change his name to George Jefferson, and have him apply for a mortgage on a $100,000 home in a predominantly black neighborhood and see if he has any problems getting the loan. In those situations, I’ll bet he is black enough.

The question of Obama’s blackness has nothing to do with skin color. It has to with whether his black family can be traced to American slavery. The historical experience of slavery on American society is profound and remains so today. Many whites would like to just forget about it. But culture is real, as we are learning in Iraq. It isn’t created over night and its effects are not vanquished because of civil rights laws or elections.

Obama’s biography is different. He is of the immigrant experience (well, aren’t we all?) whereas other African-American politicians are more likely to have a biography including resistance to the system that once enslaved them and continues to discriminate against them. The elite and privileged members of society never like an organized resistance.

When you look at Hillary, Vilsack, Giuliani, McCain, Dubya and other white politicians, do you see a leader of white people trying to be president? With Obama, however, some people have to test whether he leads African-American people first. We can see the double standard already being set up. If he is an African-American leader, then he has to convince white folks he can be more. And if he isn’t a leader of African-Americans, then he isn’t “authentic” enough.

Last I checked, Illinois is a multi-racial state. And why doesn’t anyone ask if Bill Richardson is Latino enough?

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