Barack Obama has launched a committee to explore the possibility of standing for the Presidency of the United States. Since he spoke at the Democrat convention in 2004, Obama has got the reputation of being one of the most charismatic speakers in American politics. As Senator for Illinois he campaigned widely in 2006 for various candidates running for the Democrats across the country. He has acquired a reputation for bipartisanship- sponsoring leglislation with Republican senators Coburn and Lugar, 2005 he visited Russia with Lugar to assess Russian nuclear disarmament. Obama is to put it mildly a serious candidate and perhaps the only question marks about him are about his lack of experience.
As the first black man to have a realistic chance at the Presidency, Obama though hasn't been greeted universally by the civil rights lobby with support. Many blacks hearken to his leading opponent for the nomination- Hillary Clinton- and her and her husband's long connection with the civil rights movement. Toni Morrison, in a quote I will return to, said that Clinton was the first black President. But even so the lack of support by civil rights groups is down to something else and both Morrison's quote and that lack of support reveal something about what it means to be politically black today.
Debra Dickerson in today's Salon has written an interesting article. For her Obama is not black. He has the skin colour but as a recent immigrant to the United States he doesn't have the cultural history of being black in the US. She puts the distinction much better than I could in this passage,
"Black," in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can't be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won't bother to make the distinction. They're both "black" as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.
When I read that passage like most of the readers of this blog I blanched- Obama is black but there is a historical context to being black in the United States- a kind of inherited memory at least amongst those who are politically involved. In a recent piece on some historical work done on the New Deal, I illustrated some of these features but it includes a sense of resentment and entitlement for repayment for historical crimes commited by the early immigrants to America- slavery, the racial discrimination in welfare programs, Jim Crow etc.
Dickerson beleives that White people in the United States find Obama easy to vote for because he is comforting to their sense of what a black should feel, not resentful, not scary. Or as Scott Malcomson put it in the New York Times,
Rather than positioning him within a black tradition, Mr. Obama's speech evoked, through his and his family's varied races, trades and professions, a diversity that aims at unity.
But there is something more going on here than just that sense of shared resentment- go back and look at Toni Morrison's article about Bill Clinton. What she argues there is not that Bill Clinton is black but that he culturally was black- brought up in the poor south in a one parent family, brought up with jazz music and the influence of a particular type of Christianity. Obama doesn't have any of that. Morrison wrote about Clinton that he was
Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President's body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and bodysearched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke?
Look at Morrison's quote, look at Dickerson's quote above and what they show I beleive is a fascinating thing about identity- they show that identity is not really about race. Obama is black- there is no gainsaying that. But he does not appear to have the hallmarks of what either Morrison or Dickerson think of as black- he doesn't have the background in the cotton fields of the south. Their identity despite what they call it is not racial, it is an identity based on the history of a group of people in the US who were segregated and treated badly because of their race- but that group in reality isn't defined racially, its defined by culture and politics. Perhaps its more defined by culture than by politics- notice neither Dickerson or Morrison's definitions would exclude a Black Republican like Alan Keyes who is descended from slaves, they only exclude a Black who isn't, even though like Obama he or she might have a lot in common with the speakers.
The way that identity works is fascinating to me. Firstly we can see how maleable it is- Obama as the New York Times argues is a strong candidate because lots of people can beleive he is one of them. Secondly though we can see from this example that even when identity is based on a long history of racism, it ends up not being racial. People's imagined communities are not based on race but based on shared culture and experience- a black in this case who has emmigrated to the US recently has less in common with blacks in the US from the 1850s than a poor white southerner who endured much of what they endured in terms of rural poverty and the lifestyle it engendered.
Obama almost certainly will gather in the support of the civil rights leaders should he become President. However its seldom in politics that you find a neater illustration of Benedict Anderson's principle that nationalisms and identities are imagined communities. Behind this mini-controversy lurks the imagined community of blackness in the United States- and that community consists of cultural markers and historical incidents. Many readers will find both Dickerson's and Morrison's attempts to widen and narrow blackness odd because the term is racial, but its less odd once one realise that that racial term merely signifies that one is a victim of racism in the United States (whether that be slavery or Jim Crow) in the past- it isn't actually a term which describes race.
The word- black- isn't in this context helpful in understanding the situation- we are dealing with an imagined community based around culture and history. Clinton wasn't black yet in some sense according to Morrison was, Obama is black yet according to Dickerson in some sense isn't. Whether through Clinton and Obama the racial element of this identity is slowly being broken down is another matter- but what it does demonstrate is that an identity as a member of an ethnic minority that seems exclusively based on race- actually is based on culture and history.
We have to also recognise that human beings are inconsistant and that their identities evolve. The mere fact of Obama's skin colour should he become President may change what it means to be black in the United States again- what that change will be, I don't want to predict but the whole business of identity is interesting and as the case of Obama's blackness signifies, its less to do with the facts than with the way that human beings imagine facts.