How Obama Might Change the Politics of Race in Unexpected Ways

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James C. Cobb

I share Congressman John Lewis’s belief that Barack Obama’s selection as the Democratic standard bearer is a powerful reason to believe we are “in the process of laying down the burden of race.”

As a veteran of the Civil Rights movement whose risks and sacrifices made Obama’s achievement possible, Rep. Lewis has every cause to feel vindicated and proud. Lewis is ultimately too much the battle-scarred realist to get carried away, but I wonder if some other African American leaders and Democratic Party officials in general might do well to resist the “Obama’s the One!” feel-good buzz at least long enough to consider the challenges they might actually face if he makes even bigger history in November.

As a matter of course, whenever history is made in a really meaningful way, it not only forces us to revise our narrative of the past, but it encourages us to revise our perception of the present as well. The very fact that a black American has captured the presidential nomination of one of the major political parties is in itself sufficient to brighten many Americans’ overall assessment of black-white relations in this country, and should Senator Obama manage to succeed Bill Clinton as our second “first black president,” the appraisal of where things stand between blacks and whites is certain to get sunnier still.

Obviously, mountains of data about enduring and, in some cases, even widening racial disparities will introduce some clouds into the picture, but with a black person in the Oval Office it might be more difficult than ever to blame these clouds on whites. If no less a fixture on the left than Columbia University historian and committed activist Manning Marable can tell the Washington Post that Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy “can redeem American history from the specter of race that has plagued us for nearly four hundred years,” it’s not difficult to foresee some folks on the right (who doubtless did their damndest to defeat Obama) asking, “If white racism can’t stop a black candidate from becoming president, why should it stop a black family from escaping the ghetto?”

Although Senator Obama would never embrace such a ludicrous analogy himself, the early debates among African Americans about whether he was “black enough” really stemmed not just from his mixed racial heritage or his rather atypical life experiences, but from his strikingly post-racial political persona and agenda, which seemed more than a bit disquieting to those who had grown up under Jim Crow and risked their lives to overthrow it. Early endorsements of Hillary Clinton by old civil rights warriors like John Lewis might be laid off to widespread skepticism about Obama’s apparent prospects at the time, but Saturday Night Live’s animated spoof wherein Obama delegates the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to represent him in obscure or non-existent countries offered the perfect caricature of the uneasy relationship between the Obama camp and an older set of black leaders steeped in the politics of protest and grievance.

This is in part at least a generational divide, for younger black Americans who have reaped the benefits of the civil rights era sacrifices of their elders are simply less inclined to share the sense of unfinished business in the fight against racism that continues to drive some of those elders. On the other hand, although Obama is likely to be more vocal about issues of racial discrimination as president than he has been as a candidate, his speeches about the importance of strong families and the responsibilities of parenthood carry a decided echo of the gospel according to a certain Mr. Cosby. In this sense, instead of sparking a revolution in black political strategies and agendas, an Obama presidency might simply lend further weight to increasingly frequent suggestions that the old knee-jerk response of treating most difficulties facing black Americans as a product of white racism has long since grown stale and counterproductive.

The prospect that an Obama presidency might usher in a more racially neutral brand of black politics seems all the more ironic in light of the angry and decidedly gendered reaction of so many women to the rejection of Hillary Clinton’s bid to become the first female to win a major party’s presidential nod. Senator Clinton drew some early flak from a number of high-profile feminists for her alleged macho-posturing on Iraq and her seeming political indifference to women’s concerns. It seems now, however, that literally millions of women who might still reject the feminist label are nonetheless committed at the very least to making a candidate’s gender or stance on gender-related issues an important consideration when they go to the polls in the future.

james_cobb_head.jpgHaving entered the 2008 primary season with two major constituencies looking to make history, if they are to finish what they have started, the Democrats must now convince one of these constituencies that putting their disappointments aside and remaining within the fold is still the best means of assuring that their own long-deferred dream will be realized sooner rather than later. If the Democrats manage to win in November, however, the full potential of their victory will be realized only if they can walk the fine line between celebrating a truly momentous achievement as an emotional springboard toward other such accomplishments and allowing that celebration to degenerate into an orgy of self-congratulation that has precisely the opposite effect.

by James C. Cobb

Mr. Cobb is Spalding Distinguished Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens. He is the author of the book, Away Down South: A History of Southern Identity (Oxford University Press, Sept. 2005).

Published by the LA Progressive on July 8, 2008
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