Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Yesterday was a day that we will never forget. Millions of words have been written about it, and I won't add many. I have great hopes for the Obama Administration, and look forward to a pragmatic domestic policy and a good liberal internationalist streak in foreign policy. Still, the navel gazing about race is stupid.

What I want to talk about is the silliness that the Obama Administration seems to have created. The first example has got to be the fact that Obama took the presidential oath again today because Chief Justice Roberts fed the oath to him incorrectly yesterday. The "thinking" was that Obama was arguably not the President until he got the oath right. This was notwithstanding the Twentieth Amendment. Silly.

Another example is this month's Atlantic. The Atlantic ran a number of articles about race and Obama. These include The End of White America? by Hua Hsu, American Girl by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Race Over? by Marc Ambinder. The articles are pretty silly, and have a strange take both on America's history with race, and where we seem to be headed. Let's start with the Hsu article.
The Election of Barack Obama is just the most startling manifestation of a larger trend: the gradual erosion of “whiteness” as the touchstone of what it means to be American. If the end of white America is a cultural and demographic inevitability, what will the new mainstream look like—and how will white Americans fit into it? What will it mean to be white when whiteness is no longer the norm? And will a post-white America be less racially divided—or more so?

Some beginning, I'd say! Anyway, the article tip toes around the changing definition of "white," which seems intellectually dishonest to me. Eastern Europeans (and the Irish, and the Italians, etc. etc.) were formerly "non-whites" who were turned into whites when necessary for people for whom "whiteness" is important. Next in line? Northeast Asians? Some South Asians? Arabs? We'll see, but Hsu is naive if she thinks THAT definition will not be "updated."

In addition, Hsu somehow uses Sean "Puffy" "Puff Daddy" Combs as an example of post-racial America. Combs is described as "both a product and a hero of the new cultural mainstream" because he throws extremely elaborate parties in the Hamptons. It is hard to know what is more silly, the idea that Puffy is a major cultural player at this point, or that the fact that people went to his parties indicated that he represented a new cultural paradigm. Sheesh.

Third, Hsu argues that because hip-hop never got "whited" by an Elvis equivalent, and is now tremendously popular, hip hop changed the culture irrevocably toward multi-racial, non-whiteism. Of course, lots and lots of music from the 1930s to the immediate pre-hip hop era was composed and played by blacks. And there are white hip hop artists. At the moment that is true, but it just seems silly to decide that nobody will ever want to be white again because of hip hop.

The final point I am going to address is the idea that it is
becom[ing] harder for the blond-haired, blue-eyed commercial actor,” remarks Rochelle Newman-Carrasco, of the Hispanic marketing firm Enlace. “You read casting notices, and they like to cast people with brown hair because they could be Hispanic. The language of casting notices is pretty shocking because it’s so specific: ‘Brown hair, brown eyes, could look Hispanic.’ Or, as one notice put it: ‘Ethnically ambiguous.’”
That's how I know that Hispanics will be made "white" in the future. Americans want to sell to recent immigrants? The humanity! I wonder if the mainstream press ever catered to formerly non-white Germans, Italians, or Catholics in the past.

Hsu's article would have been more interesting if instead of assuming that today is as the world always was and will be, she had done a little work to clarify how America has changed in the past and integrated new minorities.

The Coates article is better because it is really about Michelle Obama and the black South Side. He hits on a point that seems to have fallen out of favor in the last six months or so. Coates says
Indeed, if you’re looking for a bridge, if you’re looking for someone to connect the heart of black America with the heart of all of America, to allow us all to look at the American dream in the same way, if you’re looking for common ground, then it’s true, we should be talking about Obama. But we should make sure we’re talking about the right one.
Michelle (and the kids) have had a much more "typically black" experience than has Barack. Arguably she is the first American black (as opposed to African American, literally) to move into the White House and not work there. She will, of course, have work to do, but she will not be a steward, etc. The real question for Coates is so what? Did you see Obama's vote totals? The significance of the election is not that America has a black President, but that America has a President who is black. To be the latter it is not necessary to have Michelle's background. It is (apparently) necessary to be Barack.

The Ambinder article talks about how the Obama campaign decided to address Obama's race in the election.
In the end, Obama replicated the image-control paradigm of successful black Americans who have transcended racial boundaries: Oprah, Tiger Woods, Colin Powell, Michael Jordan. The writer Michael Grunwald calls these men and women “no-demands” blacks; their acceptance by whites was not predicated on whites’ having to give up anything fundamental or betray their convictions or untangle a major stereotype.
I am not even sure what that means. Tiger Woods has transcended racial boundries? Really? How is he "black" then. He's as Asian as he is black. It seems to me that he got jammed into a racial boundry then allowed out of it. Oprah and Michael Jordan may be reasonable examples of the point, but Colin Powell is military, extremely articulate, light skinned, and grew up in New York speaking Yiddish because of a job he had. Obama is, in some ways, a combination Tiger and Powell. It seems more likely that he was pushed into America's one drop rule, then let out on other grounds.

The thing that this entire discussion misses is that Obama is a half-white man educated at Harvard who worked at a big Chicago law firm. In a bunch of ways he looks very similar to the rest of the men who have been President. In fact, he probably looks very similar to the men who will be the future Presidents.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is one of your better posts and analyses. I usually sort of agree with you but I think your comments nailed it. I read Hsu's article because of your post. It seemed more like one of those thought exercise essays from one of my college philosphy/social science classes. It sounds great in academia but just does not stand to any type of scrutiny or basis in reality. I never got the impression that Colin Powell was engaging in an image control paradigm I thought he just chose to ignore comments a race, thereby forcing people to judge him by his actions and accomplishments.

3:23 PM  

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