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and ED WHITE
Long before the end of the Democratic National Convention, commentators and African-American civil rights activists were situating Obama’s nomination in the long trajectory of Black political struggles. Surely Obama’s addresss would address claim this history–after all, he was to give his speech on the very anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Obama had barely spoken when some commentators like Cornel West on Tavist Smiley’s talk show expressed astonishment at the veiling of blackness. Indeed, the convention was virtually shorn of any possible contamination by blackness.
Watching the official video about Obama, one might think black was simply a variety of white, an odd variant, perhaps, resulting from the mixing of Hawaiians and Kansans. No doubt deadbeat dads don’t deserve accolades or prominence, but the sheer absence of any reference to Kenya, the land of his father’s birth or even a photograph of his father was strategic. And every fleeting scene showed the Illinois Senator shaking hands with white constituencies that, according to conventional wisdom, might not be trusted to vote for a black man: the blue-collar workers, old white men, old white women, white farmers. Were it not for the occasional black person, one would think Obama was running for President of Idaho.
Obama’s book about his father, as many have noted, sets out to discover a father only to arrive at a mother. Put another way, go searching for blackness, and what you actually find is whiteness.
After all, the absurd question of a year ago “is he black enough” has proven the wrong question. Obama made this point himself when he noted that the election was ” not about me, it’s about you.”
That’s right. Obama’s race is not about Obama. In his video, he was either putting white people at ease, or alone, gazing pensively, sitting studiously, almost unable or unwilling to look at the political world around him. The real focus, instead, was on you, the non-black viewers and voters, who were granted the freedom to revel in their own transcendence of race without painful and annoying reminders of unresolved racial problems. MLK became “the preacher” of long ago, his color and cause unmentioned. Obama”s race became an “unlikely characteristic,” a statistical improbability. Chicago’s South Side became a marker of public service, not a disastrous failure of US racism.
It’s not surprising then that the cameras repeatedly gave us earnest white faces gazing at Obama. ” This isn’t about me, it’s about you” It’s not about where Obama came from, but about the satisfaction that whites might take in voting for a black man. If the final speech, a tour de force of rhetorical blending, to be sure, has been praised to the rafters, it is because it was liberal race-porn. It was the spectacle of tens of thousands watching themselves overcome their own discomforts about race. White voters’ love for Obama is really a love for themselves. A love for their own liberalism which has transcended race and evident in their voting for an African-American. A reassurance to them that America isn’t racist any more, while voting for Obama means that they don’t have to think about racial injustice. They don’t have to think abou the one million African-Americans incarcerated because of laws that favor the privileged or the crime of driving while black. To a generation of young white voters who can rebel against their overtly racist parents, it is an embodiment of living in a post-racist society.
Geraldine Ferraro and others tried to make this argument, but the resentment with which they fumbled toward this insight left them rightly condemned as creepy speakers of America’s racial code.
The McCain campaign understands this dynamic, too, and has been
struggling for a way to answer. The day after Obama’s speech, they rolled out their own strategy in the form of Sarah Palin’s elevation.
Liberal commentators have been quick to condemn McCain’s pick as a cynical ploy to draw disaffected Clinton supporters to the Republican camp. Such criticism naively misunderstands the new racial code of this election. McCain is not assuming, in devious Rovian fashion, that he can trick unthinking voters into voting for a woman. Rather, he is offering an escape for cynical non-blacks resentful of their historical situation. They were about to face an election in which they had to finally admit they would not vote for a black man. But now McCain has offered them a palatable way out: now voters do not have to say they prefer McCain to Obama, they can say that they are actively supporting a woman.
So Palin is the logical answer to Obama’s performance. Once again, it’s not about the candidate, it’s about the drama of the voter’s conscience. If you watched the DNC, and envied all those delegates displaying their big progressive hearts, if you wished that you too could feel so good, but if you still can’t imagine voting for a black man, the RNC provided the alternative you’ve been waiting for. Never mind that the gun-loving, community organizer-hating, hockey mom with lipstick has never advocated women’s causes. This one’s for you!
Let’s hope that voters take seriously Obama’s insight that the election is as much about them as the candidates.
MALINI JOHAR SCHUELLER is a professor at the department of English at the University of Florida where she teaches courses on American literature culture. She is the author of U.S. Orientalisms and most recently, “Exceptional State: Contemporary US Culture and the New Imperialism,” published by Duke University Press in June 2007.
and of the forthcoming book, Locating Race: Global Sites of Post-Colonial Citizenship.
Ed White is Associate Professor of English at the University of FLorida and author most recently of The Backcountry and the City