Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Why Blacks Don’t Trust Barack Obama

The Barack Obama phenomenon has caught most people black and white by surprise. Many thought that he was a flash in the pan and that his appeal would not transcend into a viable national campaign. Iowa has done much to dispel those ideas and now those who previously regarded him as unelectable are starting to jump on the bandwagon. What has caught the pundits and many cynics by surprise is the degree to which many Americans want change. Barack Obama could not have existed prior to George W. Bush. If George Bush had not done such an awful job the past eight years, the country would not even have considered electing a black man no matter how much hope he inspired or how eloquently he spoke. Despite his enormous popularity there is still concern among many blacks, bloggers included about Mr. Obama’s agenda and if it will address the concerns of black Americans.

There are two main reasons for this concern in my opinion. The first is that during his campaign so far Mr. Obama has done little to highlight the issues that affect blacks specifically. His message has been from the start equality and justice for all Americans, with no special emphasis towards blacks. Now many have chalked this up to the American political landscape and how a black man has to run for national office in this country. He cannot appear too black; he can be black in appearance only. I read an interesting quote from General Colin Powell when I was researching this essay that I would like to share. When asked during his deliberation of running for the presidency in 1995 about his appeal to white voters, Mr. Powell had this to say.

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."[1]

The second reason and the one that I think has caused the greatest concern for blacks is the fact that Barack Obama is not a product of black America. To many this statement will be confusing so I will try to elaborate on its significance to blacks. First consider the black men who have run for President prior to Mr. Obama, there was Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. Both of these men were creations of black America, their status as leader’s right or wrong were created by their perceived service to blacks. When running for President they spoke directly to the issues that blacks faced. They were in fact black candidates who were running grass-root campaigns that originated in the black communities. Neither man had ever held to my knowledge any prior elected office, let alone a statewide office like a Senator.

In my analysis, let me state that in my opinion Mr. Obama is black; I have no misgivings about his “blackness” or his ability to address the concerns of blacks. He will just do it in a way that is different from the way things have been done in the past. Mr. Obama will do it in the context of larger social issues that face all Americans in a certain class status. But to continue with the point at hand, while Mr. Obama came to fame as a community organizer in Chicago, he had little notoriety outside of Chicago. Mr. Obama went to Columbia and Harvard and was a civil rights lawyer, so unlike the others he was educated at prestigious white schools. There is also the fact that Mr. Obama does not share the direct history of American slavery with other black Americans.

Much has been made of his being the son of a black Kenyan and a white American, but to me this is a red herring. We have had many politicians and black leaders who were of mixed race and they did not receive the same scrutiny that Mr. Obama has received. To understand where a lot of this uneasiness is coming from I think we have to look at his history in politics. From the outset Mr. Obama has had the financial backing of white supporters and has always enjoyed the support of white voters. He did not ascend to his position as a result of the turbulent civil rights movement of the sixties and so he owes no allegiances to the past in that regard. Because Mr. Obama projects a non-confrontational style of discourse with whites, he has been labeled as not being black enough by many blacks.

With his Kenyan father and white American mother, his upbringing in Honolulu and Jakarta, and Ivy League education, Obama's early life experiences differ markedly from those of African American politicians who launched their careers in the 1960s through participation in the civil rights movement.[2] During his Democratic primary campaign for U.S. Congress in 2000, two rival candidates charged that Obama was not sufficiently rooted in Chicago's black neighborhoods to represent constituents' concerns.[3] In January 2007, "The End of Blackness" author Debra Dickerson warned against drawing favorable cultural implications from Obama's political rise. "Lumping us all together," Dickerson wrote in Salon, "erases the significance of slavery and continuing racism while giving the appearance of progress."[4] Film critic David Ehrenstein, writing in a March 2007 Los Angeles Times article, compared the cultural sources of Obama's favorable polling among whites to those of "magical negro" roles played by black actors in Hollywood movies.[5] Expressing puzzlement over questions about whether he is "black enough," Obama told an August 2007 meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists that the debate is not about his physical appearance or his record on issues of concern to black voters. "What it really lays bare," Obama offered, is that "we're still locked in this notion that if you appeal to white folks then there must be something wrong.[6][7]

The majority of black politicians and so-called leaders are and have been homegrown or products of the struggles of the civil rights movement. Mr. Obama represents a different type of black politician and leader in that he was created outside the community and came into the community to earn his stripes, for many blacks they are apprehensive of anyone black or white who wants to help that is not from the neighborhood or community. They are mistrustful of the motives of outsiders wanting to “help” due to the fact that many so-called outsiders have used them for their own nefarious purposes, especially concerning politics. The problem is that many of those same insiders have done equally as much damage as the outsiders, you would think it would be more damaging coming from insiders. Yet, we have always been more forgiving of the inside thieves and cons for some reason. Unfortunately for Mr. Obama rather than being cheered for his efforts, they are being met with aspersions. Instead of praise for giving up an opportunity to live a wealthy life based on his education and opportunities, he is getting derision for not being “black” enough.

The questions being asked by blacks concerning Barack Obama say more about the state of blacks in America than they do about Mr. Obama’s state. Have we become so petty and “institutionalized” by the past that when presented with an opportunity for changing the whole dynamics of America we get lost in the “crab syndrome”? Barack Obama represents an opportunity for change not just in politics, but in America as a whole. As a nation we must move beyond the racial and class divides that have kept us fighting the civil war for over 140 years. If elected will Barack Obama solve all of America’s problems? No. Will he solve all of black America’s problems? No. What his election will do is be the first step towards changing the agenda and the tone in America. I want to say thank you to George W. Bush and all of his Neo-Con cronies, because of them we will possibly have our first black nominee for President from any major Party and for me as a black man that is something to cheer about. The question we as black Americans must ask ourselves is this, are we ready to divorce the strategies of the past that have lost their effectiveness or shall we continue to watch as our young people and our communities are devastated by those policies.

[1] http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/01/30/opinion/main2413315.shtml
[2] Wallace-Wells, Benjamin. "The Great Black Hope: What's Riding on Barack Obama?", Washington Monthly, November 2004.
[3] McClelland, Edward. "How Obama Learned to Be a Natural", Salon, February 12, 2007.
[4] Dickerson, Debra J. "Colorblind", Salon, January 22, 2007. Retrieved on 2007-09-30.
[5] Ehrenstein, David. "Obama the 'Magic Negro'", Los Angeles Times, March 19, 2007.
[6] Payne, Les. "Sen. Barack Obama: In America, a Dual Audience", Newsday, August 19, 2007
[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama


Naomi said...

"If George Bush had not done such an awful job the past eight years, the country would not even have considered electing a black man ..."

My first reaction is to balk at this statement, but upon further thought, you may be right. I'm going to have to think about this fora bit.
I found your article to be thought-provoking and illuminating. I also feel that the jist of your article could be comparable to what may have been one of Hillary Clinton's downfalls, her constant sidestepping and denial of the fact that she is a woman. Though I am a Democrat, I have been wary of Obama, and still cannot seem to trust him fully. It will not be long in this country, and for sure in New York, that within only 10-20 years, white people will become the minority. We are going to need strong political leadership to help support and bridge the gap between cultures and race.
I hope you don't mind, but I will be forwarding your essay to some former professors of mine at Hunter College School of Social Work. The points you bring up and the opportunity for discussion in your essay is a lot of what is discussed in social policy classes there. Thanks again.

Naomi M.
Flushing, NY

Anonymous said...

The strategy that Blacks must abandom is to blindly follow a party that has not delivered them from "slavery" but kept them as "welfare" slaves for too long. It was republicans that freed them on paper not only after the civil war but also in the early 60's...I repeat...Republicans not Democrats. Blacks continue to follow the Democrats though because they have the handouts...Until the Black community is willing to take responsibility for their own welfare they will always follow Pied Piper into the River.

prtywstrngrl said...

I think the only black Americans that don't like Obama are the people that were expecting special treatment and are getting the feeling he's not just a "brotha" in office, he's actually a POLITICIAN! I think the playing fields are finaly going to be more even than they have been for a LONG time. On Jan 20, 2009, black people everywhere are going to wake up and realize there's no one to blame anymore! You can't say the man is "holding you down". Better come up with some new material, because (as MLK would say)...YOU HAVE OVERCOME!!! Speaking of MLK...why aren't there any national holidays for any Anglo/European Americans. You mean to tell me there hasn't been ONE positive thing done for this country by an Anglo/American, that deserves commemorating?...This Country was FORMED by Europeans!! We have President's Day..but THEY were PRESIDENTS and you can't count Columbus because none of us would even BE here, if not for him! When all of the black Americans realize he's not going to show "special interest" to their needs above the needs of other Americans, all of a sudden he's going to be an "Uncle Tom"!... I can't wait to watch this unfold!!

Anonymous said...

First off prtywstngrl this country was 'formed' by NATIVE AMERICANS NOT EUROPEANS!! And we DO count Clumbus Day stupid so who the hell are you kidding?! And you're right WE wouldn't be here if not for you but you are so damn busy glorifying yourselves that you want all the worship and NONE of the blame. And i'll be sure and tell James Byrd,Ricky Byrdsong,Yusef Hawkins,Bernard Munroe,Kathryn Johnston,the boy murdered at Howard Beach,Brandon Mcelland,Tynisha Miller,Oscar Grant,Amadou Diallo,the 2 people murdered by a-hole Jackie burmesiter that we shouldn't compalin about racism anymore because according to you we HAVE overcome. OH THAT'S RIGHT I must have just missed them!!!

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