Obama’s Blackness

Well, with Obama having declared officially for the presidency, its about time I say a little more on the topic.  One of the most interesting things to me about Obama is that he is obviously a Black man (as anybody in our society with his skin color is defined), yet he was raised by his white mother and maternal grandparents in a very white environment.  One of the reasons he seems to have such great appeal is that he seems able to transcend race due to the unique combination of his “Black” skin and “White” upbringing.  I've read a number of interesting comments on this.  Some of the more interesting…

Debra Dicerkson's somewhat cynical take at Salon.com:

“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.

We know a great deal about black people. We know next to nothing
about immigrants of African descent (woe be unto blacks when the latter
groups find their voice and start saying all kinds of things we don't
want said). That rank-and-file black voters might not bother to make
this distinction as long as Obama acts black and does us proud makes
them no less complicit in this shell game we're playing because
everybody wins. (For all the hoopla over Obama, though, most blacks
still support Sen. Clinton, with her long relationships in the
community and the spillover from President Clinton's wide popularity.)

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. I honestly
can't look without feeling pity, and indeed mercy, at whites' need for
absolution. For all our sakes, it seemed (again) best not to point out
the obvious: You're not embracing a black man, a descendant of slaves.
You're replacing the black man with an immigrant of recent
African descent of whom you can approve without feeling either guilty
or frightened. If he were Ronald Washington from Detroit, even with the
same résumé, he wouldn't be getting this kind of love. Washington would
have to earn it, not just show promise of it, and even then whites
would remain wary.

The New Republica's Peter Beinart is on a roll with interesting commentary about Democratic candidates.  Here, he talks about Obama's appeal to white Americans.  Beinart makes some interesting comparisons to Colin Powell:

First, he [Powell] had succeeded in a respected
white institution: the military. Second, he was the child of
immigrants, a man whose family history highlighted America's
opportunities, not its racism. Third, he wasn't ideologically radical.
And, fourth, he didn't look or sound stereotypically black. No one was
blunter about this than Powell himself. Asked in 1995 to explain his
appeal to whites, he volunteered that “I speak reasonably well, like a
white person,” and, visually, “I ain't that black.” 

Barack Obama would never put it that way. But he surely understands
the uncomfortable subtext behind the adoration being showered upon him
by white America. Obama, too, succeeded at a prestigious white
institution: Harvard Law School. He, too, is a child of immigration,
able to declare in his 2004 Democratic convention speech–in words that
could have come from Michael Dukakis or Joe Lieberman (but not from a
descendant of slaves, without heavy irony)–that “in no other country
on Earth is my story even possible.” And he, too, doesn't sound or look
too black. Fifteen years ago, a State University of New York political
scientist named Nayda Terkildsen doctored photos of a fictitious
gubernatorial candidate to make him lighter- or darker-skinned and then
showed them to Kentucky focus groups. “The dark-skinned black
candidate,” she noted, “was evaluated much more harshly than his
lighter skinned peer.” Powell knew what he was talking about.

I'd like to think that if Obama was Dickerson's idea of a “true” African-American I'd still like him for his intelligence, charisma, and ideology, but these articles certainly raise very provocative ideas about the nature of his appeal. 

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Hillary and national security

Peter Beinart has an article in the latest New Republic that makes the unexpected argument that gender stereotypes may actually work in Hillary Clinton's favor, rather than against her, in the 2008 election.  I have to admit to being especially fond of this article as it relies extensively on actual political science research.  The following paragraph concisely sums up the material I'll be covering in the next lecture in my Gender and Politicsl class:

The research on female electability is
surprisingly rosy. As the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Kathleen
Dolan put it in a 2006 paper for the Midwest Political Science
Association, “A significant body of work demonstrates that women
candidates are just as successful as similarly situated men.” Of
course, women are still woefully underrepresented in gubernatorial
mansions and in Congress, but that's not because they don't win; it's
mostly because they don't run. The reasons are complex: Women have
greater family responsibilities (many don't run until their children
are grown, which gives them less time to climb the electoral ladder),
party leaders are less likely to recruit women, and women are more
likely to doubt their own qualifications for office. For the health of
American democracy, these are important concerns. But not for Clinton
in 2008: She's already in.

Though male candidates are generally advantaged in perceptions of their ability to deal with national secruity issues, Beinart argues:

Americans want a foreign policy that is
more cooperative, more sensitive, and less aggressive–exactly the
qualities they associate with women. Not coincidentally, the percentage
of Americans who say they will vote for a female presidential candidate
has returned to roughly 90 percent. And the approval ratings for John
McCain–the contender most associated with an aggressive, ultra-tough
foreign policy–have crashed. A February 2006 poll found that, when
asked whether a man or a woman would do a better job as
commander-in-chief, respondents were evenly split. And, when asked who
would do a better job on foreign policy, the hypothetical female
candidate led by eight points. It stands to reason. If voters who
oppose the Iraq war remain more likely to support female candidates, as
they were several years ago, that's good news for Clinton, because
there are a lot more of them now.

Obviously, one of the very exciting things about the 2008 race will be to see just how gender (and race) stereotypes play out in the modern electoral environment. 

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