Friday, February 09, 2007

If Obama ain't black, then I ain't white

There's a rather odd article in Salon expressing Debra J. Dickerson's opinion that
Barack Obama isn't black. This isn't totally crazy when you read the article, which basically says that since he isn't a descendant of black slaves he doesn't share in the American black experience and thus isn't black as black people in the U.S. think of it, or something like that.

What that really means and whether it matters is dealt with wonderfully by Gary Kamiya in an article published in Salon the next day on the difference between black and "black," so I won't discuss too much of this. But I do have to comment on part of Dickerson's piece, in which she comments, "Whites, on the other hand, are engaged in a paroxysm of self-congratulation; he's the equivalent of Stephen Colbert's "black friend." Swooning over nice, safe Obama means you aren't a racist."

Actually, voting for Obama does pretty much mean you're not racist. It means that you accept that a man with black skin is as qualified to run the country as a man with white skin. Racism is not bigotry against people of a particular cultural background, it is racism against people perceived to be of a particular race (I say perceived because race is pretty much an artificial construct in which people from certain areas with certain features are lumped together in an ultimately meaningless fashion). American blacks are not a separate race in the way the term is generally used any more than one would say white Italians and white Germans are a separate race.

I think what Dickerson is really talking about is not racism but classism. She means that white people will vote for Obama but wouldn't vote for Chuck D because white people find Obama friendly and charming and white people figure Chuck D. hates them. On the other hand, white people would probabably vote for Denzel Washington or Will Smith. Are Washington and Smith "black," as Dickerson defines it? I have no idea. And I don't really care.

Dickerson is right in saying Obama is a relatively comfortable choice for whites. Jackson had that old style preacher thing which is very much a part of American black culture but not so much a part of white culture. Sharpton was a grandstander whose history would not make white people feel he'd really care about any of his non-black constituents (fairly or not). Carol Mosely Braun was actually a terrific candidate, but she was in the same camp as Kucinich - a great candidate, smart, right on the issues, but quixotic because she had no national political infrastructure.

Yes, liking Obama better than Jesse Jackson is classist, but it isn't racist. Because while Dickerson may make divisions between one sort of black and another, most white people don't. They are not looking at the candidates and saying, oh, this one isn't really black because his dad wasn't a descendent of slaves. I don't think this would occur to many white people, although I suppose Rush Limbaugh's description of Obama as "halfrican" is sort of getting at the same thing. But Limbaugh makes his living using words to twist reality, so we can ignore him.

I can't speak to whether Obama is really "black" as Dickerson defines it; that's something for the people who define themselves as "black" to debate about. But while Dickerson certainly understands the black experience in a way I can't, what does she know about looking at the world from a white American's perspective? If I were to say, "black people like this politician because of this dubious rationale," I think Dickerson would object. And she'd have a right to.

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