Racing Obama

What are we to make of the ongoing attacks against democratic presidential hopeful and Illinois Senator Barack Obama? Sure, public censure is all a part of the political game. But what’s up with the race queries? Why is this issue of Obama’s “blackness” (or lack thereof) an issue at all?

Obviously, Obama is visibly black. Clearly, those questioning his “blackness” such as author Shelby Steele and civil rights political activists Jesse Jackson and Andrew Young are not raising questions of pigmentation. Anyone with vision can see that Obama is visibly marked with color. And, anyone even slightly familiar with America’s idiosyncratic identity politics knows that he is thus “raced” accordingly. Thus, one need not refer to the old bag of race tricks to “out,” or in this case, “closet” Obama. He is clearly black/African American.

So, what’s with the race digs? Why are folks such as Steele, Jackson, Young, et al. raising questions of Obama’s “blackness?” He is sure to pass any asinine “one drop rule” or cockamamie “pencil test” So, again, what is the real question? Better yet, what’s really being said about “blackness?” And, if Obama’s brand of “blackness” is questionable, then what representation is most definitive? And, more importantly, who gets to decide which rendition is the most authentic?

If left up to the injurious stereotypes of media culture, Obama’s “blackness” will be authenticated by his ability to gangster lean, play sports, produce children with multiple mothers, and freestyle (i.e. rap). Or equally stereotypically, and thus problematically, his inability to find a job and stay away from drugs, grills (platinum teeth), women, and bling. However, if left up to those who somehow see themselves as the gatekeepers of all things “black” (i.e. Jackson and Young), then Obama’s “blackness” will likely be measured not by his individual and political commitment to racial, ethnic, gender, etc. equity, but by his willingness to march against (and of course be first in line) all things deemed deplorably racist by the gatekeepers, which history shows is not all that equitable.

Okay, so Obama didn’t show up for any of the “n-word” (literally pronounced “inwerd,” not the other word it is supposed to represent) burials, he was slow to respond to Jena 6, he probably can’t freestyle, and he is less likely then Bill Clinton to initiate a “Soul Train line” in the middle of a staff meeting. But does this mean he is any less “black,” and are those who participate in racial stereotypes any more “black?” To be sure, race, or in this case, “blackness” is a politically, culturally, and historically constructed category that, contrary to popular belief, has no essence or nature and thus is experienced, expressed, and represented in differing ways. Meaning, “blackness” is highly subjective and therefore incredibly diverse. To put it more bluntly, there can be no gatekeeper(s). Obama’s brand of “blackness” is like all other racial brands, a representation historically, politically, and culturally constructed. As cultural theorist Stuart Hall would say, it has “no guarantees in nature.”

That being said, perhaps we will stop wasting time trying to measure what is immeasurable (i.e. one’s supposed level of “blackness” or lack thereof), and start raising more insightful questions (i.e. what do candidates think about race, sex, gender, etc., and how will those thoughts impact their political goals).

And, speaking of “raising,” why not raise hell (through useful and meaningful political action of course) about some of the obvious forms of racism (and sexism) evidenced in this presidential campaign? For those inclined to marching on behalf of racial justice, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but numerous opportunities have already been missed!

For instance, when MSNBC’s host, Chris Matthews, referred to Obama as “Third World-like” (read: unpolished, unsophisticated, uncivilized, in need of white assistance), or when democratic candidate Bill Richardson condescendingly referred to him as a celebrity “rock star” (read: black entertainment), or the time when he was made out to be a druggie while others with admitted drug experiences were not, when he was ignorantly referred to as a (gasp) Muslim (read: a terrorist), or when he was (ahem-cough-cough) mistakenly referred to as Osama Bin Laden (read: Osama, Obama—what’s the difference? Both threaten American security). And of course we cannot forget the “magic negro” depiction by L.A.-based journalist David Ehrenstein and later by radio personality Rush Limbaugh.

I think it is safe to say that none of the depictions above are innocuous—all are embedded with racist undertones. I can’t imagine these “mistakes” befalling the likes of Romney, Huckabee, Clinton, et al. On this note, something tells me we have bigger fish to fry than Obama’s unquantifiable “blackness.” It seems to me that the real issue lies in America’s unrealized embedded racism. Perhaps if we take the first step of admittance, its remnants will stop popping up everywhere we turn. We might even recognize that one of the reasons Obama’s “blackness” is questioned in the first place is because many like Jackson, Young, and Steele have internalized certain ideas about race, which are central to certain kinds of masculinity—which Obama does not represent.

tamura.a.lomax@vanderbilt.edu'

Tamura Lomax is a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.