Obama and the Politics of Race

Laundry is the only thing that should be separated by color.

— Anonymous

It is perhaps a bit late in the day, nearly two weeks after November 4, to be writing about Barack Obama’s electoral victory. This want of alacrity, however, is intentional.

I thought it would be cruel to write any sooner, when whites and blacks alike were so effusively celebrating Obama’s victory. It would be unseemly to strike a discordant note when a clear majority of Americans was savoring this putative post-racial moment in their history.

Did this victory signal a shift in America’s racial tectonic plates?

Memories are so short. In the weeks following his choice of Sarah Palin on August 29, John McCain began closing the gap behind Obama. The election got closer after Palin electrified the Republican Convention with her line about how “We grow good people in our small towns…” The message to blacks, Hispanics and Asians in America’s cities was clear: they are not “good people.”

In the absence of the financial meltdown that began in early September, the election could have easily gone the other way. Sarah Palin too may have helped Obama a bit when she began displaying the breathless scope of her ignorance.

Who should we thank for Obama’s victory?

The answer is sobering. We can thank the financial meltdown and, in some measure, the threat of an Armageddon – likely to follow Palin’s succession to a geriatric McCain – for Obama’s victory. There was no shifting of tectonic plates on this continent.

If anything, America’s unquestioning identification of Obama as a black’ candidate is deeply problematic. It demonstrates that the United States remains firmly rooted in ideas of race that go back to the era of slavery and Jim Crow Laws.

Obama’s mother was white and, apparently, so were all her forebears; while his father was a black African and, apparently, so were all his forebears. Obama is biracial — half-black and half-white. Why did that, automatically, make him black? If being half-black makes Obama black, by the same logic we could identify him as white.

Why didn’t we?

The answer is rooted in the history of racism in the United States, in the categorical rejection by whites of the mixing of white and black races. A person was ‘black’ if it was known that there was black ancestry, any-where, in her lineage. This was the arithmetic of white racism. White + Black = Black.

The ban on mixed marriages in the US began quite early. It was first introduced in 1691 in slave-holding Virginia, followed a year later by another slave-holding state, Maryland. It soon spread to all the states.

At the height of the Jim Crow Era, starting in 1910, one by one the South-ern states passed the one-drop rule to define race. A person with any known trace of black ancestry was condemned as black.

This arithmetic was the manifestation of white power. Its power to de-fine race and make it stick. This arithmetic ensured that blacks could not escape their low status by marrying into whites. It would discourage whites from marrying blacks because their offspring — and their off-spring — would be born into the low status of blacks.

Another aspect of Obama’s ‘race’ is conveniently forgotten. Obama is black but he is not quite African-American — the way that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were African-American. As a ‘black,’ Obama is not descended from generations of Americans who were victimized as slaves and blacks till 1865, as blacks under Jim Crow Laws till 1964, and as America’s underclass till the present day. Arguably, some whites were more comfortable voting for a black candidate who is not ‘burdened’ with the history of blacks in this country.

Lest we forget this shame, Obama’s candidacy highlighted a new form of racism that has been on the rise since the fall of the Soviet Union, but has become quite respectable since 9-11. Concerted efforts were made by some Republicans to sink his candidacy by accusing him of being a Muslim, of having attended a madrasah.

Obama protested that he is Christian. He did not seek to distance to him-self, however, from the racist premise of this accusation. On the contrary, he took care to stay away from Muslim groups who wished to meet him or host him during his campaign. On one occasion, his staff removed two Muslim women from the background that would be panned by the cam-era during Obama’s speech. They were a risk because they were wearing headscarves. Their presence would taint Obama’s campaign.

Is there no retreat from race in Obama’s victory? Perhaps, there is, but it is mostly symbolic. It is a brilliant victory for one black man, but will his presidency make a difference for the black underclass in this country. Will Obama make amends to the continent of his paternal forefathers by launching a new Marshall Plan for Africa? Can he dare do this?

Gladly, I voted for a Democrat this time, skipping a vote for Ralph Nader. And, when Obama won, I was relieved. We would not be staring over the next four years — with baited breath — at a gun-toting, moose-killing, hate-spewing, race-baiting, war-mongering, Rapture-seeking Sarah Palin just a heart-beat away from the Presidency of this country.

I cannot say that I felt a surge of hope at Obama’s victory. A president is only the visible face of lobbies and corporations who own this country and its ‘elected’ institutions. Unless the people are out in the streets de-manding change, there will be none. Populist election-year slogans are forgotten once they have done their job at the polling stations.

Alas, my relief may be short-lived. The religious right in this country — the strongest constituency in the Republican Party — has been frustrated for now by the financial meltdown. But they are already plotting a comeback — in partnership with their Neocon cousins — riding a wave of fear-mongering and fight-them-there, alien-bashing, racist rhetoric.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University, Boston. You may read this essay with footnotes and references in Real World Economics Review where it was first published. He is the author of Poverty from the Wealth of Nations (Palgrave-Macmillan: 2000) and Intimations of Ghalib (Orison Books: 2018). Read other articles by M. Shahid.

5 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar bob balkas said on November 19th, 2008 at 12:07pm #

    unfortunately, Alam is casting an extremely narrow look. the wider look wld clearly reveal knowing how US functions; ie, what US does being by far more illuminating than what any individual might do or ‘promises’ to do.
    blaming/praising one person to almost any degree is not educational.
    this is an ancient ruse.
    racism as well as discrimination have been w. us for millenna. and is largely taught to us by the ruling class.
    if u want to divide bulgars, italians, iranians, or amers u do so by rating/grading people.
    it guarantees ‘success’. the bestgraded or -rated look dwn on lowrated people.
    these in turn, hate/envy/resent the ‘smarter’ kids/people.
    and a handful of people can rule over them. thnx

  2. tony smith said on November 19th, 2008 at 12:41pm #

    Obama has not altered race relations at all. Instead, he gives upper-class white people the ability to vomit away their white guilt and feel better as they travel to Europe for the holidays. Of course, the Europeans have their own issues with injustice against their own domestic minorities – but the coverage of the European reaction to Obama would suggest that the continent is a Utopia of egalitarianism.



  3. tuned in said on November 19th, 2008 at 4:04pm #

    what a bi-polar article. i was with you until you said you voted obama.

  4. C D Ward said on November 19th, 2008 at 7:39pm #

    “i was with you until you said you voted obama.”

    Me, too. I voted for a (100%) Lebanese guy and his (75%) Hispanic running mate.

    Shame on me for being biased, I guess. :-/

  5. Eric Wilbert said on November 20th, 2008 at 12:26pm #

    Facts mean nothing and perception is everything in America. That’s why it ( Obama’s victory) should be applauded as a victory for people of color.