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Black Man/White House

Barack Obama's presidential campaign has caught the imagination of large sections of the United States citizenry. Yet, the irony is that if Obama does become president, the ascendancy of a black man to the White House will have a more symbolic than real value.


turned up for him in numbers that

Black Man/White House

have defied expectations and precedent. Energising the Obama wave is the enthusiasm of a generation that has Sankaran Krishna known no president other than a Bush

Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has caught the imagination of large sections of the United States citizenry. Yet, the irony is that if Obama does become president, the ascendancy of a black man to the White House will have a more symbolic than real value.

Sankaran Krishna ( is at the University of Hawaii, Honolulu, United States.

young African-American senator from the state of Illinois seems poised to take the US into uncharted terrain. Barack Obama is riding a wave that won him 11 consecutive states in his quest for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Though he narrowly finished second to Hillary Clinton in Texas and Ohio on March 4, in the weeks prior he had trailed her in straw polls in those states by doubledigit margins. He still leads Clinton in the overall delegate count, and it looks extremely likely that he will carry such a lead into the Democratic national convention in summer. If that were to happen, it is very difficult to see how the so-called super delegates cannot anoint him the Democratic presidential candidate.

It is astonishing to think that even as late as November last year Hillary Clinton was running so far ahead of the rest in opinion polls, and had amassed so much by way of campaign funds, that the only question that remained was who would be her running mate. If politics is about seizing the moment and capturing the imagination, Obama has America by the jugular.

Something that seemed inconceivable in the 218 years since George Washington became the first president now seems a distinct possibility: the US headed by a black man in the White House. The idea seems to have gone over reasonably well with white middle-class voters in Iowa and working-class strongholds in Wisconsin. Running against a woman, Obama has made inroads amongst the archetypal soccer-moms in their SUVs in suburban areas of the states around the capital, and across a widening swathe of the continent. He was expected to lose the Hispanic vote heavily in Texas and yet managed to garner a respectable 35 per cent of their votes. Even white voters in the conservative South have or a Clinton since entering first grade – youngsters in the age group 18 to 25.

Obama’s ‘Change’

The non-specific charter animating Obama’s run is “Change”. As Clinton tries to discredit his candidacy by pointing to an alleged lack of detail in his programme, she winds up sounding both shrill and negative – precisely the sort of politics Obama promises to leave behind. In his autobiography The Audacity of Hope, he had written “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.” Right now, it would seem that far from disappointing anyone the lack of specifics in his programme allows everyone to displace their hopes and anxieties onto that space, and see in it the possibility of both individual and, more importantly, a collective historical redemption.

At the height of Bill Clinton’s woes with the Monica Lewinsky scandal in 1998, as the House Sub-Committee was preparing its articles for his impeachment, the black Nobel laureate Toni Morrison wrote of him that “… white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. 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” (italics mine). With a second sight that has always distinguished her prose, Morrison presciently sensed any black the US might elect as president was likely to be not so much representative of blacks as they are and live in this society, but rather more likely to conform to a white society’s vision of an ideal black president. In other words, someone who

march 15, 2008

Economic & Political Weekly


was white in every sense except that s/he was black.

Is Obama Black?

Morrison was clearly arguing that “race” transcends physicality. It is more aptly seen as a resultant of vectors such as class, cultural capital, education, taste, region, and related attributes. By that same yardstick, one might ask: how black is Obama? His parents – his mother was a white Kansan and his father was from Kenya – met as graduate students at the University of Hawaii. He attended a posh high school in Honolulu (albeit on a scholarship as his by-then single mother struggled to raise him and his halfsister). From there he went on to Ivy League institutions such as Columbia and Harvard. He became a successful lawyer, is married with two children, has attended church regularly for nearly two decades, plays basketball for fun, and is supposedly a cool hand at poker. With his tall and lean physique, rugged good looks, and a voice roughened to a rich baritone by a cigarette habit (so retro!) that he, appealingly, confesses he is unable to kick, Obama is just the sort of black any white would love to have as a neighbour, friend, colleague, or, why not, president.

Obama’s oration can be mesmerising. Yet, as he transports us with his chiselled prose and diction, it is of a different order from that of a Jesse Jackson, the last black candidate who made a credible run for the Democratic nomination. There was a subtle hint of anger, of emotion restrained with effort, in Jackson. And with it, a tantalising possibility the rhetoric may take him to places dangerously close to truths best left unspoken. As Jackson spoke for the unity and uniting of America (the Rainbow Coalition as he termed it), it was with the air of one who knew this depended on at least momentarily pretending to forget, but never forgiving, slavery and its ongoing wages of violence and discrimination. It was a passionate style evocative of the pulpit, with a call-and-response cadence – and also unmistakably black. Obama’s style, in contrast, is smooth and always in control even as it soars and carries us with its vision of coming together. He explicitly set out to run a colour-blind campaign, one that does not draw

Economic & Political Weekly

march 15, 2008

attention to his race so much as transcends the issue altogether. He radiates an articulate competence alloyed with a passion for a different future. The crucial difference with Jackson is that Obama does not skirt anywhere close to the one emotion seen as the death-knell for any black candidate for any office in America: anger.

Limits on Change

After eight years of the witless current occupant, a genocidal war that is a quagmire, a looming recession, and the nonstop pettiness and rancour that is now a constant in American politics, there is every reason to support Obama for president. He opposed the war in Iraq from the very outset: that alone should suffice to vote for him. His inexperience is countered by his obvious intelligence, sense of history, and empathy. Yet, the idea that his victory might fundamentally alter anything substantive in the US has to be viewed with scepticism. Americans like to describe their president as the most powerful person on earth. In reality his degrees of freedom are quite minimal. Whether on questions of political economy, or foreign policy, or deflecting the war-machine, US presidents have to hew to a very narrow line.

Politicians who envisage a radical restructuring of American society – cutting the military-industrial-complex to size, changing the energy – and resourceexhaustive lifestyle, socialised medical care, a peace-oriented foreign policy – do not show up on the electoral radar at all. There is no real difference between the two major political parties on most substantive issues facing society, and with depressing regularity every presidential race devolves to choosing the lesser of two evils. The idea that an individual – a president – can suddenly come in and change an enduring pattern of moneyed interests determining public policy is wishful thinking and yet quintessentially American.

America’s violent history as a settler colony has always been precariously contained by stories of terra nullius, brave immigrants, an expanding franchise, and equality of opportunity. What has authenticated this narrative is the hope contained in a phrase in the Constitution: America is an ongoing experiment that strives “towards a more perfect union”. The violence of slavery and genocide, and the ongoing structural inequalities of society, has ever been expiated at the altar of an overcoming in the future. The election of a dynamic young black American to the presidency would, at one stroke, powerfully legitimate the self-construction of this nation, and prompt even the most jaded of us to marvel at the possibilities contained in a charter written over two centuries ago. It will, of course, reenergise all those who had never lost faith to begin with. There is a distinct possibility that the urge to make history, and to redeem the founding charter of this nation, could yet propel a majority in November to elect Obama to the presidency.

Writing his “On the Jewish Question”, in the 1840s, Karl Marx noted the removal of the property qualification for the right to vote was a stunning means to depoliticise economic and other inequalities in a democracy. As long as that qualification was in place, there could be no illusions about the convergence of political power and economic clout. Once the property qualification was removed, the “ideal” equality of all citizens – one person/one vote – would stand above and drown out any discussion of the “real” inequality of various classes, whether economic or religious or racial. Inequality would be rendered private and indeed, naturalised

Elections, in other words, could be a powerful means by which the spread of substantive democracy could be arrested, and the ersatz coin stand in for the real thing. If the election of Barack Obama to the presidency makes anyone for a moment forget the fact that a young black man is today more likely to be imprisoned than go to college, it will represent the triumph of the symbolic over the real. Ironically, that may yet prove to be one of the most important reasons for many to vote for Obama.

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