Wednesday, February 7, 2007

For Blacks, Blasting Barack a Myopic Mistake

Black Americans are cool, at best, in their support of Senator Barack Obama. Central to that lack of enthusiasm is the criticism that he is not really black in the specific African American sense of the term. It is repeatedly noted that his father is Kenyan, his mother is white, he did not grow up in the United States and he was not outraged by Senator Biden’s simple remarks; therefore, he cannot intimately relate to the legacy and identity of the black American.

This line of critique is myopic and counterproductive. What is more disturbing is that it reveals a quiet scorn among black Americans for foreign born black people. On a popular talk show in Atlanta, a black caller suggested that, “If Obama doesn’t come correct, he can go back to Africa and tend to his goats.” Black Americans ought to be careful not to be contaminated by the brand of xenophobia that is sweeping the nation at the moment. It does not serve our collective aims, as members of the African Diaspora, to be engaged in internal discord at a time when the entire black world is threatened with irrelevance.

The reality is that the changing demographic face of the country has altered the face of black America too. The history of Jim Crowism and the intimate iconic reverence for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is no longer the only history representative of the black experience in America. People with African or Caribbean roots contribute other histories, other icons and other summations of the past. Indeed, the budding relationship with black Americans is a new iteration of the collective identity of black people in America. Rather than be reduced to myopic insularity, we ought to embrace the very diversity that we are so often clamoring for. What we have is a golden opportunity to resurrect the true spirit of Pan-Africanism and the recognition of human equivalence.

The quiet rebuke of Obama is disturbing on another front. Several issues that are critically important to African Americans can be undermined by the promotion of such specious squabbling. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, noted that the percentage of black students with foreign roots at the most selective American universities is high and climbing. That has caused some critics of affirmative-action to suggest that it is not benefiting those American black students it was intended to serve. The position some black Americans are taking with Senator Obama, when applied in other areas, could lead to ugly ends. They could conclude – with the enthusiastic support of right wing conservatives – that, yes, it is not supporting black American students. In the current political climate the obvious outcome would be renewed efforts, with the purported blessing of black Americans, to end affirmative action programs altogether.

Conquered by division at its textbook best.

This is not the time for black people in the most powerful nation in the world to develop such a narrow view of cultural identity. Broadening our identity may make addressing the conditions of Sudanese in Darfur, for example, more urgent. It may make us take the conditions of Haitians more seriously. Adopting a more inclusive identity of being black in America can strengthen our influence on important national issues as well. For instance, it would place us in a better position to resist the vitriolic attack against immigrant Hispanics because we are sympathetic to the global conditions which are forcing them to come to a place where they are so unwelcome. Black people across the world can understand and relate to suffering. None of us is too distant from it. Unfortunately, that painful mark is one of our most universally identifiable features. Just because Barack Obama is not from Detroit does not preclude him from that human understanding.

Black Americans ought to be critical of Senator Obama in the same manner that they ought to be critical of any other candidate. To criticize him based on his nearness to the black American persona is pure folly. Black people in America, regardless of their origin, have the opportunity to demonstrate what a changing cultural identity looks like to a nation that sorely needs some lessons.



Hill Rat said...

Nice work K, I agree 100%

Bert said...

Great blog Kamau. I am a solid believer that discussing all points of view will help us as individuals, groups, and nations understand one another by finding common ground. Your thoughts and points are well thought out and written.

I thought the reception Obama got from everyone (whites, the media, Dems, Repubs, etc.) was very cold, dismissive, and negative. When rumors started to fly about his past that I took it upon myself to find the truth of the matter on my own & correct those around me who continued to spout the fictional rumors as though they were fact.

I think that may be one of the biggest problem we face today. Not everyone bothers to check into what they hear, read, or see to find out if there is any truth to it. Most everyone has a "trusted" source of information, a news program, a friend, a website, a relative, someone whose opinion is trusted and usually taken without question. My thought is that we as individuals & as a society need to start questioning the onslaught of information we get daily and find the truth for ourselves. And I think you have accomplished that thus far with your latest entry.

I look forward to your next post. :)

Andrea said...

Kudos Kamau!!! America's policy in Africa & the Caribbean and Black Americans' welfare are tied together. It would be wonderful if popular media allowed for a rich discussion of Black commentators' critique of Obama's candidacy and appeal. Unfortunately, comments about Obama's Blackness and appeal to Black voters only remind me of the "Crabs in a Barrel" adage.

luvlife0702 said...

by the way, you're the only guy i know who says black americans are 'cool' on obama. not sure on your data source. what quiet rebuke? am i missing something? i need sources to read up on this. all i have is talk radio, NYT etc and all i'm reading is that black people will vote for him, white people will vote for the safe "post-racial" (whatever the hell that means) black man and women who dont like hilary will vote for him too. he's freaking prince elect from what i read and hear so your perspective a a southerner is interesting. i'm living in seattle so maybe the air is different up here. and on these things it certainly is.

not sure how you relate the foreign born black people piece to barack but i'll give you a pass on that. he aint foreign born. and like the pundits be saying, all black people give a shit about is that he's black, his wife is black and his kids are black so he's black. done and over with. here's your votes mr president.

as one black female pundit said on NPR the other day, he could smoke crack every day and black folks would vote for him. he'd have to kill his mama for them to maybe think twice. loved that quote. (i paraphrased).

she went to harvard 10 years after he left and she said folks was still talking about barack obama there.

luvlife0702 said...
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myulo said...

Great analysis on all levels Kamau. Though, obviously, I cannot speak for the black community, I have been reading about the purported distance between Obama and African Americans who do not feel that he adequately represents their "plight" so to speak.

As a student of postcolonialism, there is a perceived gap between the rest of the world (especially the Third World) and the United States which places the U.S. in a position of superiority; however, our own history is fraught with many of the same developmental inequities that continue to this day. It could certainly be argued that the United States is a postcolonial nation.

And so, your ability to draw the necessary historic connections between all people of color to African Americans is completely relevant, but even more so in the midst of the global crisis we face as a society. America, especially under the current administration, has drifted into an abyss of isolation and, subsequently, is at a crossroads from an international standpoint; further insulation and in-fighting does not seem to be the answer.

As a woman, I look to candidates who represent an inclusive agenda--Obama seems to provide this type of candidate in part because of his hybridity (versus the typical privileged, white male formula). Of course, he will, like all others, have to make clear his stance on the issues of the day.

Also, I completely agree with the previous blogger, Bert, who notes that very few people make a concerted effort to learn the facts before making judgment. Information must be learned from a variety of sources and not just a single news program or website.

Ultimately, the decision to vote or not to vote for Obama (if he gets the nomination) should not be based on what he isn't, but what he is.

rodney said...

Kamau, good stuff.

From an "islander's" perspective, not too versed in American politics, here's my brief take.

I thought that earlier reports had Obama as a "favourite", but there were suspicions that he was being set up to take a fall.

The fragmentation in the social fabric of Black people goes far and deep, apparently, as even here in our tiny island we have similar social issues.

Looking forward to future postings.

jackie.herndon said...

Hi Kamau, nice to hear from you. As someone who presumes they are representative of the common black person, my take on the reception and lack of visible support for Barack Obama is a fear that showing too much enthusiasm for the candidate could have a negative effect. We have seen the candidacies of Chisolm, Jackson and to an overwhelming extent, Al Sharpton's campaigns for President limited to an expression or contribution of the civil rights movement or denoted as an effort to bring black issues to the forefront - not legitimate candidates for President. I believe that there is a "wait and see" attitude among blacks regarding his campaign, especially with Hillary Clinton in the race as well.

Thus I disagree that hesitation to show support is based on the origins of Mr. Obama's heritage. This country still has a lot of issues in regards to race. It is the proverbial elephant in the room and it will be interesting to see if the "liberal and moderate whites" can sustain their enthusiasm for Mr. Obama's trek to the White House.

... said...

I think you're right on brotha. I think Obama is in a really hard position, same one Powell was in a couple of years ago (Don't be surprised to seem him trumpeted out in '08).

To appeal to white folks, sometimes you're gonna come off in ways that exposes your Black authenticity to be attacked. Racism/white supremacy is that pitiful. We certainly don't have to be.

I really think we need to start a movement to build better relationships with our Diasporan brothers. Why can't we be the ones to welcome them off the boat or plane. It would be nice to see Black Americans more involved in West Indian cultural organizations and vice versa with the NAACP, frats, Umoja groups, etc. Show and understand that Blackness is a continuum of culture.

Unfortunately, I think Black people on both sides of the issue take too many shortcuts to understand each other that just reaffirm white supremacy.

Keep up the writing.

reggie, oakland

barke said...

Very interesting (of course!). Thanks, Kamau.

My first and strongest reaction was to the idea that we should have any reason to expect that a president would share our experiences and outlooks. I'm as white as Bush, and I doubt seriously that he and I share any more in common that Obama and I do. In fact, other than skin color and a couple of other physical attributes, I doubt that Bush and I have anything at all in common. At least I hope not.

I've given up on my old refrain: I want to be able to vote for a candidate who knows what it's like to go to Sears on a Saturday morning and buy a couple of gallons of flat latex to do the bedroom walls. That would be a guarantee of nothiing. After all, John Edwards grew up in a mill town, Bill Clinton came from a broken family, ... Neither of these applies to me, but even if they did, in what way would this guarantee that we would share the same perspectives and draw the same conclusions from those experiences?

As a Caucasian I'll never understand the black identity or its implications -- I'm not even sure what the white identity is, if there is one -- but what Kamau says rings true. And as far as comments from the press or commentators about Obama's blackness are concerned, I doubt that this goes any farther than they went with drawing broad conclusions based on the backgrounds of Kerry, Clinton, etc. I think the demographic shortcuts simply come with the territory.

Finally, let me suggest that there is a real difference (at least one that Obama isn't trying to disprove) between Obama and his African American predecessors, which Biden might have been trying to mention before he tripped over some stupid words. It's undeniable that Chisholm, Sharpton, Jackson, etc. ran first as African-Americans. They came from the Movement, and it would have been disingenuous for them to have tried to distance themselves from it. Their public identities were as civil rights champions, and it's to their credit that they never tried to portray themselves as anything else. But even for those voters for whom the continuing struggles over civil rights continues to be relevant, many if not most are looking for something more in a president. Jackson made more sense than most candidates on most issues, including issues other than civil rights, but who could doubt that his central passion was the problems of the "rainbow" and the poor in America? Realistically: for the majority of American voters, these were not their major concerns. So it was easy to categorize Jackson as the black candidate whose pulpit style of discourse was intended to appeal primarily to black voters.

Jackie alludes to the same point, a bit differently. I think it’s great that black voters are taking a “wait and see” attitude about Obama; I wish more white voters would do the same about white candidates rather than responding to superficial cues. And we ought to consider that many American voters are of a different era than their parents who learned about racial politics by watching Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses or from Stokely and H. Rap. We’re hardly a color-blind society, but there’s strong evidence that race in America isn’t the same as it was 30 years ago – after all: a black woman as Secretary of State?

Listening to Obama or reading The Audacity of Hope, it seems clear that he is genuinely of a different era than his predecessors. He discusses a wide variety of issues with a tone of competence and self-confidence that suggests that he is far more likely to connect with far more voters than any of his African American (or white!) predecessors. (My mother called when she was 30 pages into Audacity and said she wants to vote for him…) He doesn’t plead or preach; he comes across as a discusser who respects the diverse intelligences of his audience. I hope that he won't be condemned or suspected for his style, but judged for the quality of his ideas. After all, wasn't this the kind of choice -- and the kind of judgment -- that Dr. King was dreaming about on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial?

tamara said...

hey there kamau,

thanks for creating this space for us to share our thoughts. i am in love with the idea of having barack obama as our president, BUT i am in the "wait and see" camp. the last 2 elections were hard on this sister. very hard. all the early hype makes me a bit nervous, and fearful of the inevitable fall.
as the product of a u.s. born father and a guyanese mom, i have felt the cultural rift on a first hand basis, particularly growing up on air force bases, where uniformity (and ignorance about other cultures) can reign supreme. african-american culture is not exclusive to those born here, it is shaped by black cultures from around the world, and has been that way since slavery. clearly, many black politicians are salty with the obama love-fest, and are willing to participate in an attempt to take him down. i have never believed that one or two black leaders can represent the perspective of all blacks. an ancient and illogical ideology. why are black leaders expected to represent all of us? check out crouch’s contradictory article on the topic. seems like the community in the bay area is excited and supportive of obama, but as ruth mentioned, things are different out west than in the “dirty south”. it is more likely that obama will have issues getting the femocrats away from hilary. i am just hopeful that more of my brethen and sistren will receognize the spin and critically analyze all info coming out…
btw-- there has been alot of recent speculation that deval laurdine patrick, the new governor of massachusetts (blue state) id haitian. he is the 1st black governor of ma and the 2nd black governor in the nation. now if i had to guess on the name alone....

luvlife0702 said...

Well dude, you got us talking. kewl. and i got educated by edward (thanks bro) on the foundations for your reflection. and for those interested, here are a few other thoughts on the matter:

pan africanism is an odd political concept to me. regionalism or nationalism makes much more sense. really, does CARICOM and the African Union have as much to talk about as black folks or as ex-colonial south/3rd worlders? The developing global union movement offers much more promise for the working poor of the world than a Pan African movement does. why bond based on color? or is it culture? what is the goal of any such union?

i'm of the class trumps race group. rich people of the world have united to F the rest of us (with Gates, Soros and their ilk trying to fill in the blanks) and while the poor coordinate food bank visits, our pedigreed educations allow us entree into a dentist's office, halls of power, a mainstream bank and blogspot:-) (my blog is all about my life so kudos to bro kamau for making us think).

barack's skin color means as much to me as hilary's sex and i'm an avowed capital F feminist. i.e. it's about their politics. actually their politics (hot air!) doesn't matter as much as their actions. e.g the sad ass democrats have been punked by the health care policies of two Republican governors in Mass and Cali. and my state with 2 female democratic senators and a female democratic governor are still working on providing healthcare to all children.

Willie Brown is black and democrat. i rest my case. so a wait and see approach seems to be a good idea. for all candidates, but particularly unproved ones such as mr obama.

all i know for sure about Barack is that his ass is fine and he seems to be able to handle the pressure.

at least no one has talked about him being too smart for the job. seems those in the middle of the country now understand why we need someone with more intelligence than the crowd on My Name is Earle.

Danielle said...
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Danielle said...

Thanks for this thoughtful blog Kamau. I have to echo the comments in an eariler post. I'm African American and I'm not hearing this skepticism from other African Americans I speak with. I'm a supportor of Barack, and all of the African Americans I speak to are either supportive of his candidacy or they want to support his candidacy but are concerned he's too green...not too white (LOL). I constantly hear the mainstream media stating that Black people feel he's not Black enough, but I don't actually hear black people saying it (nobody I know ever gets called for these "what do black people think" polls -who ARE these respondents??). In fact, on his 60 Minutes interview, he also said that when he's hanging out with Black folks (in the hood, in the barbership, playing basketball - I'm paraphrasing) he never hears questions about his being black enough. He was being diplomatic but I read from his body language and comments (and maybe I read wrong) that he was only getting those comments from the mainstream media. I think we need to be cautious about this topic. I actually feel like this is an artificial division that others are trying to mpose on our community, or at least blow way out of proportion. Even when Al Sharpton and other Af Am "leaders" have expressed the necessity of a "wait-see" approach, I don't think it's because of his biracial ancestry (or non-slave-descendant ancestry)...they make those comments about "fully" African American public figures (eg Condoleeza) as well. And it's true, regardless of the candidate's skin color, the question is "do they have our community's best interest at heart?" Personally, when I look at his positions, I'm inclined to say yes. He may not be a "race leader" but he has a professional track record in civil rights and besides that, the causes he champions are causes that will affect Af Ams (positively) as well: health, education, etc.

I personally think this is a case of "smoke and mirrors."

Hill Rat said...

I was talking with my old man earlier today and we were discussing the fact that Obama represents the vanguard of post-Civil Rights era Black pols.

This kind of "cool" reception is going to be par for the course when you have Black pols who aren't coming to the table with MLK-era connections and aren't building their campaigns around capturing the black vote first.

Anthony Williams, the mayor of DC who just stepped down after two terms is a perfect example of the kind candidate I'm talking about. Williams came to DC as the CFO of the Congressionally mandated control board put in place to finally chase Marion Barry from the mayor's office. Based on his success in nursing DC back to financial health, Williams became mayor; but not before dealing with this same kind of "cool" reception from many of DC's Black residents. He didn't need to bend the knee at many of DC's traditional Civil Rights stomping grounds and Black folks don't like that shit.