lunes, 13 de febrero de 2012

Obama's autobiographical writing, critical race theory, and the racializing gaze

Published in Critical Essays on Barack Obama: Re-affirming the Hope, Re-vitalizing the Dream. Ed. Melvin Rahming. Newcastle, England: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012. 57-82


Ignacio López-Calvo
University of California, Merced

Action against racial hierarchies can proceed more
effectively when it has been purged of any lingering respect for the idea of “race”
Paul Gilroy

Race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot
afford to ignore right now
Barack Obama

In his Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line (2000), Paul Gilroy calls for the “renunciation of race as the basis for belonging” (12), assuring the reader that transcending “raciology,” that is, race-thinking and the language of “race,” will free our minds: “this essay seeks to engage the pressures and demands of multicultural social and political life, in which, I argue, the old, modern idea of ‘race’ can have no ethically defensible place” (6). In the following pages, I argue that, as suggested by the title of Cornel West’s book Race Matters, although “race” is indeed a social construct, racialization and racism still exist and they successfully reify racial difference. This alone makes the category of “race” (with scare quotes, under erasure, or however we want to use it) an inescapable tool for cultural analysis in today’s world. As West explains, “The astonishing disappearance of the event from public dialogue is testimony to just how painful and distressing a serious engagement with race is. Our truncated public discussions on race suppress the best of who and what we are as a people because they fail to confront the complexity of the issue in a candid and critical manner” (2). Regardless of how attractive Gilroy’s utopian model for a planetary nonracial and ungendered humanism may sound in terms of political struggle, the fact that he constantly uses the term and concept of “race” in his own book validates, I believe, my point. Referring to whiteness, George Lipsitz seems to concur with my view when he argues: “This whiteness is, of course, a delusion, a scientific and cultural fiction that like all racial identities has no valid foundation in biology or anthropology. Whiteness is, however, a social fact, an identity created and continued with all-too-real consequences for the distribution of wealth, prestige, and opportunity” (vii). On the other hand, Kenneth Mostern, in Autobiography and Black Identity Politics, has argued that “books by African Americans about race theory are often written in the form of autobiography” and there is often a “particular relationship between autobiographical truth and political-theoretical truth” (59). With these premises in mind, I shall consider a reading of Obama’s autobiographical narratives in terms of critical race theory. I shall also consider what national and international reactions to Obama’s campaign and victory in the presidential elections of 2008 say about today’s racializing gaze, and what they mean for the possibility of a domino effect in Europe and other regions of the world. 

Critical Essays on Barack Obama: Re-affirming the Hope, Re-vitalizing the DreamObama has established his “racial” and political identity in two personal accounts that can be perceived not only as political awareness but also political action: Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance (1995) and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (2006). These two retrospective narratives can also be placed within the field of “race” theory. In fact, as Nick Birns perceptively argues,

In his autobiography, Obama has gone out of his way to associate himself
with theory. In his 1995 autobiography Dreams from My Father, he speaks of deliberately hanging out with ‘the structural feminists’ in college. […] It
is therefore important to reiterate that the values of the Obama campaign
were in many ways the values of theoretically inflected antiracist critics
from the 1970s onward. (n.p.)

Curiously, although Obama acknowledges autobiographical traits in his first book, he theorizes that it is not a true autobiography:

I’ve usually avoided such a description. An autobiography promises feats
worthy or record, conversations with famous people, a central role in
important events. There is none of that here. At the very least, an
autobiography implies a summing up, a certain closure, that hardly suits
someone of my years [he was 33], still busy charting his way through the
world. I can’t even hold up my experience as being somehow representative of
the black American experience. (x)

Although his assessment of the prerequisites of autobiographical texts is certainly questionable, it is obvious that in his two books there is a frequent slippage from the speaking subject (the “I” of the author) to the larger category of the collective African American community or “race.” The subtitle of his memoir Dreams from My Father, which he wrote before launching his political career, is indicative of his early awareness of the importance of “race” and “race” relations in his own life as well as in the history, present, and future of his country (he even acknowledges his own “racial obsessions” in this book). As he explains in passages that remind us of the bildungsroman subgenre, he first became aware of racism when he enrolled at the Punahou School, whose student body was mostly Asian American. Later, he found out about the abuse his mother suffered as a girl for playing with a black girlfriend. These experiences, added to his biracial heritage and his father’s absence, were the main source of an identity crisis that occasionally led him to use illegal drugs:

Even as I imagined myself following Malcolm X’s call, one line in his book
stayed me. He spoke of a wish he’d once had, the wish that the white blood
that ran through him, there by an act of violence, might somehow be
expunged. I knew that, for Malcolm, that wish would never be incidental. I
knew as well that traveling down the road to self-respect my own white blood
would never recede into mere abstraction. I was left to wonder what else I
would be severing if and when I left my mother and my grandparents at some
uncharted border. (80)

This early concern with “race” and “racial relations” continues in The Audacity of Hope, his second book, where, again coinciding with Cornel West’s arguments, he rejects the notion that we have arrived at a “postracial politics” or that our society is color-blind: “To say that we are one people is not to suggest that race no longer matters—that the fight for equality has been won, or that the problems that minorities face in this country today are largely self-inflicted” (232). In this book, he discusses, among many other topics, affirmative action, welfare reform, inner-city poverty, undocumented immigration, gang warfare, black-Latino relations, Afrocentrism, and the proposition that minorities are measured by their degree of assimilation to dominant white culture. He also exposes stereotypes about minorities and the effect these stereotypes have on hiring, promotion, arrests, and prosecutions, among many other situations of our daily life. One of the ways to close the gap and the inequalities, he argues, is to enforce nondiscrimination laws in areas such as employment, housing, and education: “if we stand idly by as America continues to become increasingly unequal, an inequality that tracks racial lines and therefore feeds racial strife and which, as the country becomes more black and more brown, neither our democracy nor our economy can long withstand” (268). And in some surprisingly honest paragraphs he even confesses to having had nativist sentiments in the past: “When I see Mexican flags waived at proimmigration demonstrations, I sometimes feel a flash of patriotic resentment. When I’m forced to use a translator to communicate with the guy fixing my car, I feel a certain frustration” (266). Ultimately, however, these two memoirs in which Obama theorizes about “race” proclaim an unwavering belief in the good faith of the American people and in a future reconciliation between the “races” via communal responsibility and forgiveness. Later, in his eloquent and realistic speech for the acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2009, Obama expanded his optimistic predictions to a planetary level: “But we do not have to think that human nature is perfect for us to still believe that the human condition can be perfected. We do not have to live in an idealized world to still reach for those ideals that will make it a better place” (n.p.).

Obama’s historic victory in the presidential elections meant a minoritizing of the (not any more so) White House, a sort of peripheralization of the center that has the potential to change the discourse on “race” and citizenship in the United States. It was undoubtedly a major landmark in the exclusionary field of American politics. Yet caution should be exercised. As Lipsitz argues, “It is a mistake to posit a gradual and inevitable trajectory of evolutionary progress in race relations; on the contrary, our history shows that battles won at one moment can later be lost” (5). Obama himself cautions against negligent optimism when he posits in Chapter 7 of The Audacity of Hope, significantly titled “Race”: “Of course, such trust between the races is often tentative. It can wither without a sustaining effort. It may last only so long as minorities remain quiescent, silent to injustice; it can be blown asunder by a few well-timed negative ads featuring white workers displaced by affirmative action, or the news of a police shooting of an unarmed black or Latino youth” (238).

Along with his two memoirs, one of the key texts elucidating Obama’s take on “racial” relations is his famous speech “A More Perfect Union,” delivered in Philadelphia on March 18, 2008 as a reaction to the inflammatory remarks by his former pastor at the Trinity United Church of Christ, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, which were threatening to derail his campaign. In it, after positioning himself in terms of class, racial, and ethnic background, he made a statement that should not be taken lightly: “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible” (n.p.). But is it? Could Obama’s story be mirrored in a European country, for example? Was this just another example of exalted patriotic essentialism along the lines of the “We’re number 1” slogans so common in U.S. political campaigns or was there some truth to it? A few sentences later, he posited his political victories in states with a predominantly Caucasian population as another reason to dismiss political analyses that had interpreted his candidacy “through a purely racial lens.” Yet the then-Senator for Illinois felt that, rather than tackling the issue of “race” only as spectacle (as had been done during the O.J. Simpson trial or in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), it had to be addressed candidly in front of a national audience:

This is not to say that race has not been an issue in the campaign. At
various stages in the campaign, some commentators have deemed me
either “too black” or “not black enough.” […] On one end of the spectrum,
we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in
affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed
liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end,
we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright. (n.p.)

He later chose to compare Reverend Wright’s comments to his own Caucasian grandmother’s penchant for racial stereotyping. Sharing the guilt, therefore, seemed to be his strategy before aiming at “perfecting the union,” as the title of his speech suggested. Obama, now deciphering black anger as a true cultural translator, also exposed the sociohistorical background behind Reverend Wright’s apparent resentment, which George Lipsitz has cleverly summarized in the first sentence of his book, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (2006): “public policy and private prejudice work together to create a ‘possessive investment in whiteness’ that is responsible for the racialized hierarchies of our society” (Lipsitz vii). Among other sources of today’s marginalization, Obama reminded his national audience about the economic and psychological repercussions of the legalized discrimination that prevented blacks from owning property, receiving loans, having access to Federal Housing Administration mortgages, and from joining unions, the police force and fire departments. These repercussions meant, he continued, that “black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white” (n.p). Finally, he warned American communities against the dangers of cynical and victimist attitudes and recommended, instead, the forging of productive alliances across racial lines. As Carl Pedersen points out, in this speech “what Obama characterised as Wright’s ‘profound mistake’ was not that he spoke out against racism, but that ‘he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made.’ It was precisely this ahistorical way of looking at race that had led to a ‘racial stalemate’” (49).

As stated above, Obama took without hesitation the ethnically charged role of the cultural interpreter or mediator to explain the historical sources of black rage and resentment toward Euro-Americans; in other words, he reminded Euro-Americans that African Americans had good reasons to be angry. In fact, this type of “translation” had been an intrinsic aspect of Obama’s youth: “I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere” (76). Therefore, whereas he otherwise discourages absolute identity along racial lines, in this and other occasions he has spoken not only as a black man but also for African Americans; that is, as a representative of the black community in the United States. In fact, according to Mostern, this type of “testimony on behalf of” is “clearly one element in all African-American Autobiography Study (though how significant an element is something about which critics differ)” (33). Paradoxically, Obama suggests, in the introduction to Dreams of My Father, that he does not possess the moral authority to address or represent the totality of the experience of black people: “I can embrace my black brother and sisters, whether in this country or in Africa, and affirm a common destiny without pretending to speak to, or for, all our various struggles” (x). This peculiarity distances his writing from the subgenre of the testimonio, since testimonialists usually present themselves as the synecdoche of their aggrieved social groups. In any case, at the same time that he reminds blacks that they have the right and duty to be different from their own pasts, the Janus-faced Obama admonished the rest of the country of the immorality of historical amnesia. He later sends the same message in The Audacity of Hope: “to acknowledge the sins of our past and the challenges of the present without becoming trapped in cynicism or despair” (233). It is in this sense that Obama’s two books as well as some of his speeches can be interpreted as an act of deciphering one half of himself—Black American—for the other half and for the rest of the “white folks,” as they are referred to sometimes in his books.

Becky Thompson and Sangeeta Tyagi have argued that “autobiography illustrates why racial identity formation occurs at the intersection of a person’s subjective memory of trauma and collective remembrance of domination” (qtd. Mostern 10). From this perspective, Obama juxtaposes a referential memory of traumatic personal experience with his subjective perception of black collective consciousness. In Dreams from My Father, for example, he provides several examples from his own experience, be it his determination to “be a black man in America” (70), the racist graffiti he read in the stalls of Columbia University, or the racial slurs used by one of his coaches. Likewise, in The Audacity of Hope he provides examples of the discrimination he has suffered throughout his life and then claims to “know the bitter swill of swallowed-back anger” (233). His personality and his psychological racial formation were informed and determined by the relational experience of being othered by mainstream society. In fact, in his two books Obama affirms that the traumatic events of his youth did not allow him to choose between one “racial” heritage or the other: he was racialized by being conceived as African American in different social spaces. It is implied, therefore, that a habitus imposed by U.S. society guided him toward that kind of self-identification. Yet it is worth noting that the biracial Obama consciously chose to search his African roots (even though he grew up in a Caucasian family), visiting his absent father’s country and affiliating himself with the black church, when obviously no one forced him to do so. He could have distanced himself from this African heritage by simply staying in the East Coast and joining a high-profile Law firm. Instead, he worked with the black youth of Chicago’s inner city, joined a black congregation, and married an African American woman. Later in life, these choices indirectly helped him secure a political base among blacks and increased his popularity in Africa.

His political approach also digs into racial trauma and collective crisis; that is, what he perceives as the factors behind the rage and resentment among African Americans:

That hate hadn’t gone away; it formed a counternarrative buried deep within
each person and at the center of which stood white people—some cruel, some
ignorant, sometimes a single face, sometimes just a faceless image of a
system claiming power over our lives. I had to ask myself whether the bonds
of community could be restored without collectively exorcising that ghostly
figure that haunted black dreams. (Dreams 179)

Together, and perhaps unwittingly, the author’s memories and his collective “race”’s recollections of trauma become formative sources of critical race theory, identity politics (race as the basis for belonging), and regeneration, both individual and collective. In fact, some passages in Dreams from My Father openly theorize about “race” and “racial” relations: “The emotions between the races could never be pure; even love was tarnished by the desire to find in the other some element that was missing in ourselves. Whether we sought out our demons or salvation, the other race would always remain just that: menacing, alien, and apart” (115). As Mostern argues, “To the extent that racial trauma is, precisely, what autobiography recalls, racial identity politics is determined, and a variety of other politics may, as [bell] hooks knows, be repressed” (11).

On the other hand, during his campaign Obama also negotiated the issue of “race” from a humorous perspective. On Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, he joked when the host, Jon Stewart, asked him, with tongue in cheek, if he was concerned that the Bradley Effect (white voters claiming in the polls that they will vote for an African American candidate only to vote later for a white one) may affect his own vote:

Stewart: “I don’t know how to bring this up. Your mother is from Kansas,
father African… Are you concerned that you may go into the voting booth and…”
Obama: “I won’t know what to do.”
Stewart: “…your white half will all of a sudden decide ‘I can’t do this’?’”
Obama: “Yeah, it’s a problem. I’ve been going though therapy to make sure
that I vote properly on the 4th.”

In a way, Obama’s lighthearted reaction to the joke shows how comfortable he has become with (and in) his own skin and how easily he can speak about delicate and volatile issues dealing with “race” and race-mixing—a far cry, from the identity crises and insecurities of his youth.

On a more serious note, these same race-mixing and hybridity in Obama’s case complicate the traditional black-white dualism. His usually gentle and non-injurious demeanor (he is “a bargainer and not a challenger” (122) like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, according to Shelby Steele) together with his putative “race” (or “mixed race”) evoke, in anxious and unaccustomed voters, feelings of a postcolonial mimicry that is at once resemblance and menace, or the menace of resemblance. In fact, Obama reflects about this experience in the introduction to his first book:

When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background (and it is usually a discovery, for I ceased to advertise my mother’s race
at the age of twelve or thirteen, when I began to suspect that by doing so I
was ingratiating myself to whites), I see the split-second adjustments they
have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no
longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose—
the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto
trapped between two worlds. (ix)

The notion is revisited several times in the book. Thus in the fourth chapter, he reminisces about the time when his African American friend, Ray, insinuated that he was a poser: “And I would know that Ray had flashed his trump card, one that, to his credit, he rarely played. I was different, after all, potentially suspect; I had no idea who my own self was. Unwilling to risk exposure, I would quickly retreat to safer ground” (76). Or later, in the following chapter: “The constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment” (102). In this sense, Gilroy elaborates about the threat of the half-different:

Different people are certainly hated and feared, but the timely antipathy
against them is nothing compared with the hatreds turned toward the greater
menace of the half-different and the partially familiar. To have mixed is to
have been party to a great betrayal. Any unsettling traces of hybridity must
be excised from the tidy, bleached-out zones of impossibly pure culture. The
safety of sameness can then be recovered by either of the two options that
have regularly appeared at the meltdown point of this dismal logic:
separation and slaughter. (106)

Obama’s phenotype and “racial” background (he is the son of an African father and a Caucasian mother who began their relationship when “miscegenation” was still considered a crime in the United States) certainly fit this description. Therefore, they could probably trigger the same type of fears Gilroy describes among the most intolerant and also among those persons used to monochromatic American politics (although it could also be argued that it was Obama’s blackness rather than his biracial background that scared some voters). In any case, it is clear that the biopolitics by which people are identified exclusively in terms of their body had an important role during the presidential elections.

Another claim that has shadowed Obama’s candidacy and presidency has been the unfounded assumption that he enjoys some sort of political “immunity” because he is black. As a matter of fact, according to a recent Time magazine article by political commentator Joe Klein, “the media are giving Obama grief for just about everything. But it’s far too soon to judge his policies” (29). While I agree with Klein’s assessment, I would add that Obama has also been the victim of what Gilroy has termed “dermo-politics.” Thus Bill Clinton tried to use the race card against Obama by evoking identity politics and racial solidarity to dismiss Obama’s plausible victory over his spouse in the South Carolina primary: “Jesse Jackson won South Carolina in ‘84 and ‘88. Jackson ran a good campaign. And Obama ran a good campaign here.” In other words, Clinton was trying to delegitimize Obama by comparing him to a former candidate, Jesse Jackson, who was considered “unelectably black” in the past. Some time later, in a shocking development, Chip Saltsman, a Tennessee candidate for Republican Party chairperson, distributed the song “Barack the Magic Negro,” a parody with racist overtones that questions Obama’s true blackness and that was broadcast by Rush Limbaugh in his radio show. To the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon,” a voice that tried to imitate Reverend Al Sharpton’s sang: “Barack the Magic Negro, made guilty whites feel good / They’ll vote for him and not for me / Cause he’s not from the ‘hood.’” Some Republicans, therefore, had finally taken off the mask and were now using an explicit racially essentialist approach to blackness.

Paul Shanklin, the parodist who wrote the song, based the lyrics on an article, also titled “Obama the ‘Magic Negro,’” which was published by the African American reporter David Ehrenstein in the Los Angeles Times on March 19, 2007. In this article, Ehrenstein claims that the then Illinois senator lent “himself to white America’s idealized, less-than-real black man,” a postmodern folk culture figure that sociologists have termed “The Magic Negro” (n.p.). This mostly cinematic African American character appears out of nowhere and for no apparent reason to help the white protagonist, while concomitantly assuaging the white guilt resulting from the country’s history of slavery and racial segregation. In Ehrenstein’s view, Obama can take the role of this sort of superhero who replaces “stereotypes of a dangerous, highly sexualized black man with a benign figure for whom interracial sexual congress holds no interest” and fulfills white Americans’ “desire for a noble, healing Negro” (n.p.). His unthreatening voice and demeanor, his genial tone is what truly makes him attractive to white Americans, according to Ehrenstein, “For as with all Magic Negroes, the less real he seems, the more desirable he becomes. If he were real, white America couldn’t project all its fantasies of curative black benevolence on him” (n.p.). This concept is similar to Steele’s notion of the “iconic negro,” the bargainer who heals racial divisions and “who dispels the sense of ‘otherness’ between the races and replaces it with a feeling of warmth, human familiarity, and racial good-will” (89). In fact, according to the black conservative author Shelby Steele, this was the main reason Obama could not win the presidential elections; he could not please both white and black voters: “If, to please whites, Obama bargains more, trades more innocence to whites, he loses votes among blacks—a vital constituency in the Democratic party—who define blackness as challenging, as withholding innocence from whites” (123). As we can see, therefore, his perceived “race” was an inescapable factor in the eyes of the U.S. media during his campaign.

One more incident related to Obama’s perceived “race,” which also decries the idea that he has had some sort of immunity, took place in September 2009 when a Republican Congressman for South Carolina, Joe Wilson, interrupted the President’s speech to a joint session of Congress by shouting “You lie!” Subsequently, former President Jimmy Carter argued, in an interview on NBC, that there were racist motivations behind these attacks, which showed that many Americans, especially in the South, believe that African Americans are not qualified to lead this country. With his trademark calmness and conciliatory tone, President Obama refused once again to demonize his opponents and disagreed with Carter’s assumptions, claiming instead that the protests had to do with his policies rather than with his “race.” A further example of the persistence of the “race”-thinking that surrounds Obama’s words and actions is the scrutiny of his use of the word “stupid” to describe the unjustified arrest of African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home by a Caucasian police sergeant. After the incident, Obama acknowledged that he could have chosen his words better and tried to relieve the hurt feelings with his famous “beer summit” between the professor and the police officer in the White House. Yet he still underscored the fact that both blacks and Latinos continue to suffer unjustified arrests, and, in contrast with the non-confrontational tone of his campaign, he even joked that he would undoubtedly be shot if he tried to force the main door of the White House.

From this perspective, how does this racialization process translate into the reactions around the globe? In an interesting opinion article titled “Obama, ¿presidente negro o progresista?”, the Mexican intellectual and former Secretary of State of Mexico Jorge Castañeda argues that Obama will soon have to opt between being a black president or a progressive president, and augurs that he will ultimately choose to be the former. According to Castañeda, although the United States is the least racist of post-industrial societies, a good part of the base of the American right is still racist. In his view, the President may manage to neutralize or moderate this sector, making it politically weak; that is, they may vote for him even if they continue to dislike ethnic minorities. But he will not be able to “be black” and, on top of that, contradict the fundamental canons of the right by pursuing ambitious (or “radical,” in their view) reforms in areas such as health, migration, environment, and labor. In other words, he cannot contradict both the right-wing and the racist sentiments in the country, as not even former President Bill Clinton (a centrist and southern Caucasian—albeit “black” for Toni Morrison) was able to reform social security. Democratic presidents, argues Castañeda, have traditionally been Southern centrists such as Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. The problem for Obama is, therefore, that, first, he is black; second, he does not come from the south; and third, he is much more progressive than his predecessors; and “this puts his own reelection in 2012 at risk as well as that of any other African American for years” (Castañeda n.p.) However, continues Castañeda, if he uses foreign policy to present himself as a centrist, he may be able to avoid racist arguments and insults at home.

Moving on to public opinion in the African continent, I had the opportunity to witness the reaction of Cameroonians to Obama’s victory in the presidential elections, and I believe that it would be naïve to think that it only had had to do with the fact that his father was a Kenyan from the Luo tribe and that his paternal grandmother still lives in Kenya: there is no question that the perception of “race,” that is, seeing a black man occupying the most powerful office in the world, was behind all those smiles in Cameroon that night. Although, most likely, the victory of a person who had the same “racial” background as Obama but who was a unilaterialist and neoconservative politician would have not received the same type of celebration in sub-Saharan Africa, the issue of “race” in these elections still mattered. Seeing that type of celebration in a country where in fact there is not much to celebrate (Paul Biya, the corrupt autocrat who runs the country, has been in power since 1982) was indicative of the historic significance of the event. From the very moment of my arrival to Douala, the economic capital of the Western African country of Cameroon, I noticed that Obama’s name and photograph were in every computer screen in internet cafes, on T-shirts, in the stores… and I must confess that I did not expect Cameroonians to identify so strongly with a candidate in the presidential elections of a country on the other side of the world. “It’s our President!” “It’s our President!” screamed some Cameroonians on their national television channels. The streets were covered with American flags and an interviewee on one of these channels actually declared Obama “The savior of humankind.” Among many others, the journal La Nouvelle Expression had a big photograph of Obama on the front page with the legend “OUR VICTORY. Barack Obama has been elected President of the United States yesterday with the satisfaction of all of Africa.” On page five, the title of the article was “Obama celebrated as a messiah,” and the subtitle explained that “Barack Obama’s election has been lived by Douala’s youth as the coming of a Messiah who is going to liberate Africa.” Within the main body of the article, there was no intention to hide the issue of “race”: “His father is black. He comes from Kenya. He’s black like you,” said a thirty-year old man; “A black on the ‘roof of the world’!”, said another young man with his arms in the air.

I could not help but wonder whether the declarations of victory were metaphoric or real. “If they think this election will solve their national problems, they are in for a big disappointment,” I said to myself. A college student who was interviewed in the newspaper, however, while still celebrating the blackness of the forty-fourth president of the United States, was more cautious as to the repercussions of these elections on the African continent: “I am today more proud of being black than ever. I feel stronger. But we should not build our hopes up: he is above all the President of the United States. Therefore, he will defend, first the interests of his country, even if they are to the detriment of Africans. It’s not because Obama has African blood that the wars, dictatorships or poverty will disappear in Africa.” This same disposition was shared by George D. Nyamndi, a Cameroonian professor of the University of Buea and former presidential candidate, who told me that, for them, the goal had already been achieved: the important thing was to enjoy the symbolic capital of having a descendent of Africans as president of the most powerful country on earth. As one can imagine, the celebration in Kenya was even greater; in fact, people in that country have been naming their children Barak Obama and Michel Obama. The undeniable fact is that Obama has contributed greatly to the erasure of many of the stereotypes promoted by international white supremacist movements as well as by some Afro-pessimists. “You don’t know what it means,” two African American colleagues told me the next morning, “to see the victory of a black candidate who has been more eloquent and brilliant than any of his opponents during the presidential campaign, when as children they kept teaching us that we were ontologically inferior to whites, and that we could never enjoy their level of intelligence; this is a dream come true.”

Beyond the American borders, it seemed that the celebration was universal, including that of numerous right-wing politicians and intellectuals, including Peruvian-Spanish author Mario Vargas Llosa. Obama’s international appeal had, of course, become evident during his campaign, when he drew a crowd of 200,000 devoted admirers in Germany. As Joann F. Price explains, “The global interest in the 2008 presidential race and particularly in Barack triggered intense media coverage overseas. Barack played well in Tokyo, London, Frankfurt, and Nairobi. In late February 2007, one of Japan’s top networks broadcast a special on Barack that sent its rating soaring” (80). The young presidential candidate, a Harvard Law School alumnus, was known to have rejected lucrative offers to work in the business world or in the stock exchange, choosing instead to help the black youth of underprivileged neighborhoods on the South Side of Chicago. He was also a true “citizen of the world,” having been born on a multicultural island in the middle of the Pacific and having grown up in a Muslim country on the other side of the world. More importantly, and beyond the allure of his somewhat “exoticism,” he was widely seen as the anti-Bush: the U.S. unilateralism of the George W. Bush administration could be finally over. Roughly half a century after the latest era of discrimination and oppression suffered by African Americans (the 1960s), the son of an African immigrant, a young man whose middle name (to the dismay of some) sounds unequivocally Muslim had changed history. Unrestricted optimism was in the air. Even before the election, Manfred Berg, a professor at the Universität Heidelberg, augured in the German online journal Die Zeit that Obama would have the ability to bridge gaps between ethnic groups and to form political alliances, thus emancipating not only the black minority but all of American society from a dark history of racial discrimination.

And yet, reading the editorials of European newspapers between the lines, one could still sense that journalists and intellectuals alike were “feeling well about feeling well;” that is, even though then-Senator Obama brushed off claims that part of the support he was receiving reflected the “desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap,” I did feel that what was being celebrated by much of the so-called First World was not only the election of the first African American President of the United States, but also their own comfortability with the idea. Still, one must wonder whether this feel-good bonus would be strong enough to change the face of presidential elections in other parts of the world. Where was the European Obama? Would these European journalists and intellectuals feel equally comfortable with the victory of a candidate of African descent in their own countries’ presidential elections? It remains to be seen; but the fact that, to my knowledge, there has not even been much debate (much less encouragement) about this possibility in the European media seems quiet suspicious. Even when some politicians claim to be following in Obama’s footsteps (such as Walter Veltroni, mayor of Rome, secretary of the center-left Democratic Party [Partito Democratico] and self-proclaimed Italian Obama; and Debora Serracchiani, who is also from Italy’s Democratic Party and is known as “L’Obama d’Italia”), they all happen to be Caucasian.

Indeed, we, Europeans, have been accused in the past of applauding political experiments and novelties overseas (the election of indigenous—Toledo in Peru, Morales in Bolivia—and Asian—Fujimori in Peru—men as presidents or the birth of armed guerillas and revolutions in Latin America, for example) while not even considering the same options for our backyards. With Obama’s victory, the racial barrier has received a huge blow but, again, one must ask whether this blow will this translate into an increase in the number of presidential candidates of African descent or other ethnic minorities in European national or transnational elections. If a black man has been elected president in the United States and indigenous people also become presidents in Latin America, why can’t the French vote for a person of Maghrebian descent or the German for one with a Turkish surname? Will the British vote for a person whose parents are Pakistani or Indian? To address these questions one can, for example, notice that, right after the presidential election in the United States, there was a suspicious lack of ethnic diversity in the 75th congress of the Socialist Party of France, a country that also has a long multiracial tradition. Ségolène Royal and her three rivals were all Caucasian, as is Martine Aubry, the First Secretary of the French Socialist Party. Why don’t French political parties reflect the phenotypes of people who walk the streets of Paris or who bring glory to the national soccer team, for example?

Indeed, the international coverage of the last presidential elections in the United States exposed the persistence of a racializing gaze and also proved that many countries lag behind in issues of “racial” sensitivity. In their coverage of the campaign and the elections, the Spanish press concentrated mostly on racial relations and issues. In the newspaper El Mundo, for example, Ricard González focused on the potential of the new president’s mestizo background in an opinion article titled “The Color of History Changes”:

The son of a white woman from Kansas and a Kenyan immigrant, his mestizo identity and nomad youth generated identity problems during his teenage
years, but at the same time they became an asset years later, when he began
his political career. His biracial identity allowed him to appeal to a
future of reconciliation among the descendents of African slaves and those
who profited from this commerce. (n.p.)

Tellingly, only a few months after Obama’s victory, El País, another newspaper from Spain that had unambiguously applauded it, felt comfortable enough to publish a somewhat racist comic strip by Peridis. In it, an omnipotent black god representing Obama ordered a kneeling Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, to send more troops to Afghanistan. Zapatero’s answer evoked the overturn of the traditional racial hierarchies of Tarzan films: “Yes, bwana! I mean: yes, Obama!” The fact that Obama continues to be judged by a racialized gaze in the United States and the rest the world makes the case for the usefulness of the concept of “race,” in spite of its constructed nature.

To continue with the international press coverage, in Italy the situation was not very different. In a notorious public gaffe during a state visit to Russia, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi hailed the President-elect as “handsome and suntanned”: “I don’t see problems for Medvedev to establish good relations with Obama, who is also handsome, young, and suntanned.” Both the Italian media and the political opposition were quick to criticize the Prime Minister’s comments and demanded an apology to Obama, but Berlusconi, whose poor taste and inappropriate quips are well known, called the media “imbeciles without a sense of humor.” Some time later, however, he reacted to the international outcry by insisting that he was still envious of Obama’s and Naomi Campbell’s skin color (apparently what he had previously described as “humor” had suddenly become a compliment).

Moving on to a third European country, in an article published in the Polish biweekly magazine Polityka, Wawrzyniec Smoczynski analyzed the first one hundred days of Obama’s presidency, talked about Obama’s political “immunity” (as any critique of him would face, in his view, aggressive reactions), and speculated about the fear U.S. Latinos have about a black and white alliance that would work to their detriment. Interestingly, questions concerning Obama’s “level of blackness” have not been confined to the United States. In his November 14, 2008 opinion article, also published in Polityka, Krzysztof Szymborski described the history of racial relations in the United States from slavery to Martin Luther King, closing his piece with a reference to Obama’s white upbringing in which he implies that, because Obama is not “truly” black (perhaps implying that he is “passing” for black), the benefits of his presidency for African Americans will only be symbolic:

What can the election of a black president bring to black America? Barack
Obama is not a typical African American–he is not a child of a ghetto, his
ancestors were not collecting cotton on a plantation. He was brought up by a
white mother and grandparents in Hawaii, far away from black ghettos; he
grew up not even knowing his African father. His blackness is actually
symbolic. From the point of view of his electoral opportunities it was,
however, his strength–every American regardless of his/her skin color could
have identified with him. Is his election going to improve the fate of
African Americans? Most likely symbolically. (n.p.)

More interestingly, in another article published in this same magazine, Marek Ostrowski criticizes racism in the United States through the use of apparently unwitting racist remarks, which probably reflect the fact that Poland is a more “racially” homogenous country and hence less accustomed to “racial” sensitivity. He lists several tasks that Obama will need to solve as president, and addresses the issue of “victimism” (also mentioned by Obama himself in his speech on racism), arguing, from a traditionally anthropological and “orientalist” perspective, that now African Americans—here portrayed as the ultimate losers—will have no more excuses: “For home affairs, it can have amazing consequences. For millions of African Americans who are unsuccessful, lazy and aggressive, Obama’s election takes away the excuse thrown at their single mothers: that they will not study or even try anything, because living among racists they have no chances anyway” (n.p.; my emphasis). Curiously, some of these same arguments have been used by some in the United States to suggest that we now live in a post-racial and non-racist country. Birns has noticed that “Many acted as if Obama’s election solved conclusively all issues of racial discrimination, and that far from jump-stating discourses of cultural plurality, the reality of an African American President came close to obviating them” (n.p.). This type of “camp mentality,” to use Gilroy’s term, has not been restricted in terms of “race;” religion and ethnicity have also become relevant issues both during Obama’s campaign and after his victory, from the so-called “birthers” (and other Islamophobes who claim that he is not an American citizen but a Muslim Kenyan) to the celebration in the Islamic world of the fact that Obama’s grandfather was a Muslim, that his middle name, Hussein (meaning “Little Hassan”), is also of Muslim origin, and that he grew up in Jakarta, Indonesia (the Islamic country of origin of his mother’s second husband), until he was ten. Of course, Obama has never tried to hide any of this biographical information: in Dreams from My Father, for example, he explains that he spent two years at a Muslim school and two more in a Catholic school in Indonesia (142).

From the examples presented above, we can conclude that regardless of how anachronistic a racialized consciousness may be and even if we must “recognize the anachronistic condition of the idea of ‘race’ as a basis upon which human beings are distinguished and ranked” (Gilroy 37), it is certainly premature to argue that we can or should get rid of the concept of “race” as a tool for cultural and sociopolitical analysis. A cursory review of newspaper articles and intellectuals from countries I selected randomly (from the United States, Mexico, Peru, Cameroon, Poland, Germany, Italy, and Spain) proves that in the eyes of most of the world, Obama is more than just the 44th president of the United States who happens to be black: he is a prominent black man at the top of the world who raises all kinds of questions. Much more interesting than his own persona, in my view, are the reactions Obama (the symbol, the icon) has elicited throughout the world: to his chagrin, his campaign as well as his reign have been and will most likely continue to be interpreted through the lens of “race,” and with the color of his skin in many people’s minds. Even if we run the risk of fetishizing our identities and differences, as Gilroy denounces, the last presidential elections prove the naïveté of trying to ignore the big elephant in the room: the issue of “race.” There is no doubt that Obama has been obsessively identified along “racial” lines. From all sides of the political spectrum and from all corners of the globe, the desire to fix or figure out his identity according to his phenotype has been virtually omnipresent. Consequently, Obama’s avowed quest for a true belonging during his youth (the main topic in his first book) has been undone by the racializing gaze of the international media in a world that is obviously far from becoming postracial. No matter how irrelevant “race” is in light of the human genome project’s DNA mapping, the term will not be outmoded until humans manage to forget (if they ever do) the sad history of racialization and “racial” oppression. On the other hand, as we have seen by briefly unpacking some of the reactions in the international media, the seemingly universal celebration of the arrival of a black president to the White House seems to be no indication that it will translate into the self-reflective consideration of following the same path in other countries. In any case, the Obama phenomenon has single-handedly changed the United States, while at the same time adding a new layer to the often overlooked heterogeneity of the African American community. It has also contributed to a renewed prestige of the black body. In a way, his presidency represents—despite the continuing and tragic inequalities—a final step in African Americans’ path to full citizenship.

For the most part, during his campaign and, so far, during his presidency, Obama has consciously avoided the accusations of racism and the use of racial identity politics or essentialist theories of racial difference. In The Audacity of Hope, he even exposed his “racial” credentials before any attack based on accusations of “racial” alliance or identity politics could occur: “family get-togethers over Christmas take on the appearance of a UN General Assembly meeting, I’ve never had the option of restricting my loyalties on the basis of race, or measuring my worth on the basis of tribe” (231). A similar approach to “racial” reconciliation had been taken in his first book when he recollects the thoughts of his youth: “My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there” (103). His identity, therefore, was not linked exclusively to his “race.” Yet his views and actions, and even his determination to transcend racism have constantly been judged through the prism of “race,” a fact that allows us to reiterate that perhaps it would be premature to pretend that the so-called “color-blindness” is possible or even desirable in today’s world; at least, not yet. Trying to understand the history and the present (including Obama’s victory in the presidential elections) of the United States without the analytical tools of “race” and racialization would be tantamount to erasing centuries-old histories of suffering.

By the same token, Obama’ self-exploration in his two books is really a stepping stone for his own brand of “racial” identity politics, based, for the most part, on a theoretical approach to “race” and “race” relations that rejects the radical black nationalism or Afrocentrism of his friend Rafiq or his former pastor, and embraces more inclusive, open-ended, and across-racial-lines alternatives. And yet his effort to bridge the racial divide has been criticized by critics like Steele as mere changing masks from bargainer to challenger, according to the “race” of the audience: “With blacks he is a protester carrying forward the race’s cause; with whites he is the ‘one people’ unifier, minimizing the importance of racial difference” (125). Steele has also accused Obama of being a conventional racial pragmatist, if not an opportunist (and neoconservative New York Times political pundit William Kristol concurs): “Barack Obama works entirely within the current configuration of race relations—the masks of bargaining and challenging, the need in whites for racial innocence. And he exploits that world to move himself ahead, not to advance a new configuration of race relations—or to end such configurations altogether” (Steele 126). Likewise, on the other side of the political spectrum, white journalist and historian Paul Street has questioned Obama’s commitment to true racial justice and equality, arguing that he privileges class (economics) over race and downplays racism’s continued relevance. He has also suggested that Obama’ “deeply conservative” views may even help advance the illusion of a post-racism America:

his relatively conservative and accommodating approach to the race question
is perfectly pitched to the perverse racial politics of the post-Civil
Rights and neoliberal era. It has been masterfully designed to exploit both
the willingness of many white voters to proclaim their rejection of old-
fashioned race prejudice and the simultaneous unwillingness of most whites
to acknowledge the continuing powerful and pervasive role of racism in
American life. (80)

In Street’s opinion, Obama’s Philadelphia speech on “race” ignored the fact that structural racism is still deeply rooted in the United States and failed to make the distinction between the largely defeated overt racism and the still endemic covert racism. It also understated the racial disparities in economic terms and ignored the fact that the change in U.S. “race” relations has also “occurred for the works, not just the better” (116). Finally, according to Street, Obama’s campaigned failed to transcend “race” (to do so is, in my opinion, not an easy task for a black politician in today’s United States) during the primary campaign by calling voters to “make history,” which implicitly made reference to the candidate’s “race.”

Be it as it may be, and despite his questionable ambivalence (as seen in his recent attitude in Copenhagen and in the outcomes of the health care debate), Obama has demonstrated that he is an astute politician and a lucid student of racial relations and racialization. And even if he has declared that he does not have “a lot of patience with identity politics, whether it’s coming from the right or the left” (Wilson 55), one may argue that his writings and speeches articulate a particular brand of tolerant, inclusive, and hybrid identity politics, which display their own “race” agenda. As Wilson points out, rather than a debate on purity, “For Obama, race is not an exclusionary choice, but a way to embrace a tradition without forsaking other traditions and experiences” (56). However, that Obama was a member of the Trinity United Church of Christ for nearly two decades (until he resigned his membership in May 2008) and that he considered Reverend Jeremiah Wright his mentor seem to indicate that he did not feel completely uncomfortable with the message of the liberationist wing of the black church and with Wright’s somewhat radical Afrocentrism. It is plausible, then, that Obama’s views became progressively more hybrid, ambivalent, or moderate once he entered the political arena. From this perspective, his autobiographical accounts can be understood as conscious political and ideological pronouncements that propose a new chapter in complex, fluid and intersecting racial identity politics. The memories of nostalgia and the recalling of traumatic past experiences join one another in the formation (creation, recovery) of a self that ultimately becomes one with the history of his social/“racial” group.

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