Thursday, April 17, 2008

Obama, 'Black Man' With Authority

What do you think when you hear about the latest critique of Obama? From remarks about his "lack of experience," to his pastor's preachings, and now to his "bitter" remarks about xenophobic Americans, Obama's racialized identity is implicated in every remark made of him.

When we look at criticism of Obama, there is a lot going on there, but you just can't separate it from the fact that he is a man of color, and mixed at that.

David K. Shipler has written a very insightful piece in the Los Angeles Times, giving us context by which we can understand the deeper meaning of what's going on here. He writes,
Obama has made some real missteps, including his remark last week that "bitter" small-town Americans facing economic hardship and government indifference "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Perhaps he was being more sociological than political, and more sympathetic than condescending. But when his opponents branded him an elitist and an outsider, his race made it easier to drive a wedge between him and the white, rural voters he has courted. As an African American, he was supposedly looking down from a place he didn't belong and looking in from a distance he could not cross.

This could not happen as dramatically were it not for embedded racial attitudes. "Elitist" is another word for "arrogant," which is another word for "uppity," that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.

At the bottom of the American psyche, race is still about power, and blacks who move up risk triggering discomfort among some whites. I've met black men who, when stopped by white cops at night, think the best protection is to act dumb and deferential.

Furthermore, casting Obama as "out of touch" plays harmoniously with the traditional notion of blacks as "others" at the edge of the mainstream, separate from the whole. Despite his ability to articulate the frustration and yearning of broad segments of Americans, his "otherness" has been highlighted effectively by right-wingers who harp on his Kenyan father and spread false rumors that he's a clandestine Muslim.

In a country so changed that a biracial man who is considered black has a shot at the presidency, the subterranean biases are much less discernible now than when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. They are subtle, unacknowledged and unacceptable in polite company. But they lurk below, lending resonance to the criticisms of Obama. Black professionals know the double standard. They are often labeled negatively for traits deemed positive in whites: A white is assertive, a black is aggressive; a white is resolute, a black is pushy; a white is candid, a black is abrasive; a white is independent, a black is not a team player. Prejudice is a shape shifter, adapting to acceptable forms.

So although Obama's brilliance defies the stubborn stereotype of African Americans as unintelligent, there is a companion to that image -- doubts about blacks' true capabilities -- that may heighten concerns about his inexperience. Through the racial lens, a defect can be enlarged into a disability. He is "not ready," a phrase employed often when blacks are up for promotion.

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