by Jeremy Young | 1/13/2008 05:05:00 PM
Am I the only one who finds it offensive to call Barack Obama "The Great White Hope", or to say that, "as more information about both [the Jena Six] and the unprovoked nature of the attack for which one of the defendants pled guilty has come to light," Obama's choice to ignore them "appears to have been a very wise decision on his part"? These guys are far more distinguished scholars than I, and they run bigger blogs than I, and I'm certainly not above saying stupid racist things myself. But jeez, guys, can we please recognize that President Obama isn't going to pass a black budget or start a black war or propose a black tax break? In so, so many ways, his race is simply irrelevant to the campaign, to his potential presidency, and to his own personhood. I was on this back in April. You'd think some folks would have gotten the message by now.

[Update] If you're interested in my more detailed objections to Greenberg's and KC's posts, they're here in the thread. Also, Kevin Murphy hits the nail on the head with regard to Greenberg:

Obama's language of civic-minded progressivism cannot be dismissed so readily. It's a huge part of his appeal, bigger -- to my mind -- than the simple fact of his race. And by sloughing off Obama's ideological appeal so quickly, Greenberg is then forced to overstate significantly the racial nature of Obama's candidacy, and make extremely dubious claims about we Obama supporters looking for "easy redemption."

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7 Comments:


Blogger PhDinHistory on 1/13/2008 7:23 PM:

Did you watch Bill Moyers' show last week? He interviewed Shelby Steele about his new book, _A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win_. It was quite interesting. I agree with Steele that race matters in this race, even if white people want to get over the race issue.

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/13/2008 9:49 PM:

I don't have TV reception at the moment, but I'm not exactly arguing that race doesn't matter, though my hastily-crafted post may have indicated that. Rather, I'm suggesting that the way that both Greenberg and Johnson constructed their articles -- appearing to laud the racial stereotypes that force Obama to "play nice" with whites, rather than attacking them full-bore -- is racially insensitive.

Put another way, of course Obama's race matters, but it shoudn't, and the fact that it does is an indication of how far our society still has to go to achieve racial equality. Greenberg's and Johnson's articles identify that problem, but they don't identify it as a problem in the way I feel they should. I feel they're reinforcing the stereotypes Obama has to work against, rather than participating in tearing them down.

 

Blogger PhDinHistory on 1/13/2008 11:02 PM:

Can you give me an example of stereotypes these authors put forth that you thought they should have instead torn down?

What percentage of black voters would say that Obama's race is irrelevant to this race?

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/14/2008 1:37 AM:

Since you asked, here's goes:

From Greenberg:

Obama's ideology, insofar as he has articulated it, seems to be a familiar, mainstream liberalism, heavy on communitarianism. High-minded and process-oriented, in the Mugwump tradition that runs from Adlai Stevenson to Bill Bradley, it is pitched less to the Democratic Party's working-class base than to upscale professionals.

Here, Greenberg makes an assumption that Obama's actual message, "high-minded and process-oriented," is not resonating with lower-class folks but only with "upscale professionals." What is he saying here? That poor people aren't smart enough to look past their own interests to "high-minded and process-oriented" ideas? On the contrary, insurgents like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette, Henry Wallace, and even Ross Perot and John Anderson have proved this argument wrong. Plenty of poor people voted for these guys, some of them in higher percentages than for other candidates. There's an ugly classist assumption in this passage.

But beyond his classism, Greenberg uses this dubious argument in his next paragraph to make a far more sinister argument: that Obama's brilliant mind and fabulous rhetorical skill have little or nothing to do with his success. For Greenberg, Obama's success was preordained when he walked into the room and people saw the color of his skin:

The Obama phenomenon, then, stems not from what he has done but who he is. As the social critic John McWhorter has written, "What gives people a jolt in their gut about the idea of President Obama is the idea that it would be a ringing symbol that racism no longer rules our land." He is the great white hope.

Not from what he has done? Give me a break. Plenty of black people have been in a similar situation to Obama's and have been given the same opportunities. Harold Ford was the keynote speaker at a Democratic convention, too, but you don't see him running for President. Carol Moseley-Braun was elected to the Senate, too, but you don't see her racking up huge margins in Presidential primaries. Obama's skill and brilliance are everything to his campaign; to suggest otherwise, to reverse the Bradley effect as Greenberg does and claim that Obama succeeds only because white people want to see him as a panacea for past racism, is to deny him all agency, and in fact to convert his personal agency to a consequence of his race. I find it highly offensive.

Here's another one from Greenberg:

This background may be what some people (mainly blacks) have meant when they asked the regrettable question of whether Obama is "black enough" to earn their votes. But Obama has always been black enough for his elite white enthusiasts...

So he correctly denigrates the question of Obama's "blackness" as a racist and "regrettable" inquiry, and then proceeds to make use of it in the very next sentence as an acceptable form of inquiry? Again, he is reducing Obama's groundbreaking campaign to a simple matter of race. It's as if Jesse Jackson walked into the room, dropped his afro and his strident rhetoric, and the crowd went wild. You see what I'm getting at? Obama isn't Jesse Jackson or Generic Black Man or anyone else. He's a distinct individual with unique characteristics that make him uniquely fitted in some people's minds to be President right now.

Now to KC's post, which I actually had less of a problem with than I did with Greenberg's (and which I found much more informative as well). My major issues with KC are 1) that he failed to denounce the latent racism evident in Greenberg's post, and 2) his highly questionable comment on the Jena 6. I mentioned this in the original post, but I'll elaborate here by quoting my comment from the Cliopatria thread:

What exactly are you saying about the Jena 6? That extenuating circumstances change the underlying fact that the victims of a racial hate crime are being prosecuted for fighting back, while the perpetrators of that crime have gotten off scot-free? What is being done in Jena is a travesty against justice, and Obama absolutely should have spoken out against it. Incredibly enough, the only candidate in the race who did so was the white guy, John Edwards. He shamed both Obama and Clinton for their silence.

I'll stand by that. Also in that comment, I criticized KC for his description of the Clintons as hyperpartisan, but that's a side issue.

Finally, re: your question on whether black people think Obama's race is important: of course they do, and of course it's important. But it's not the reason he's winning, though it could be the reason he's losing. Obama's winning because of his own unique strengths, and minority racial identity in this country remains a net negative, no matter what fantastical notions Greenberg may hold about it. Again, it's not Generic Black Man who won Iowa, it's Barack Hussein Obama, and everything he is and everything he does. I wish we could talk a little more about that, and a little less about Generic Black Man, who is not running in this or any election.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/14/2008 3:32 AM:

I thought "Great White Hope" was a very odd way of phrasing it, because it brings up resonances which I'm sure aren't intentional. He's trying to be ironic, but sometimes you just don't go there.

On the Jena Six thing, I have seen some significantly complicating narratives being discussed from local sources, which open up the possibility that it's not a total miscarriage of justice and un-nuanced statements on either side can come back to bite you in the ass. I haven't paid enough attention to feel sure, and it seems to me that the local sources have an ax to grind, so I'd like to see more independent investigation. From a deeply cynical tactical standpoint, I'm not sure KC's wrong about this. From a humane standpoint, I'm pretty sure he is, but you and I both know that "humane" and "electoral politics" rarely belong in the same sentence....

 

Blogger Jeremy Young on 1/14/2008 3:47 AM:

Fair enough, but seeing someone who is supposed to represent change and hope and inspiration looking at people's lives from a "deeply cynical tactical standpoint," well, it sort of destroys that whole image of Obama, doesn't it?

It's weird that I find myself defending Obama here, and it's the second time I've done it; the other time was against Rick Shenkman's inexperience charges. I don't support Obama and don't particularly like him -- and I can be downright bitter when discussing him in person -- but I also think there's a lot of ridiculous, unmerited criticism flying around out there that he shouldn't have to put up with.

 

Blogger Ahistoricality on 1/14/2008 1:05 PM:

You're a liberal, friend; it's what we do.

I don't think Obama is the "deeply cynical tactical" one here -- I was really referring to KC's tendency to fairly conventional strategic analysis. I suspect Obama's relative reticence on Jena may have more to do with trying to avoid the most obvious racial topics... though I can't explain the current Clinton-Obama thing that way; my value as a pundit is deeply discounted by my tendency to assume consistency.