A racial storm quietly brewed in the contest between the leading Democratic presidential candidates for months before bursting into a full-force typhoon last month. Until the tapes of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons surfaced, Barack Obama weathered the incoming gales rather easily, frequently shutting the door on any mention of race and racism. It proved a surprisingly effective tactic that often exposed the Clinton camp’s cynical race-baiting.
Obama’s response to the Wright crisis is characteristically clever. Instead of trying to distance himself from the reverend, or simply trying to change the subject, he opted to eloquently explain racial misunderstandings of one side to the other.
Obama’s landmark race speech in Philadelphia on March 18 addressed both black grievance and white resentment in a bold bid to quell concerns over his racial politics. Obama reinforced his central theme of change and unity as he weaved U.S. history and his family background. He likened his relationship with Wright to his relationship with his white grandmother — someone he highly respects and loves but with whom he does not always agree. He chided Wright for using “incendiary language” and expressing a distorted view of America, and also praised Wright for decades of dedication to social movements and to Obama’s personal life.
Throughout the speech, racial unity and personal responsibility remained central. The “story that has seared into my genetic makeup (is) the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts — that out of many, we are truly one,” he said. The speech gave America further insight into Obama’s diplomacy and offered a glimpse of his untested toughness as he tackles this sensitive and potentially dangerous issue head-on.
Obama is the physical embodiment of his politics of inclusion. He positions himself as a racial bridge, removed from and above the ugly vestiges of racism. Obama’s own identity allows him to inherently understand both black and white experiences. He symbolizes who we strive to be as a nation — multiracial, why can’t-we-all-just-get-along, Kumbuya-singing, we-can-change-the-world idealists.
His message of hope, vision and promise has inspired Americans of all hues, especially younger generations unfamiliar and/or unconcerned with entrenched racial politics. Throughout the primaries, Obama has struck an amazing balance, being neither a “race man” nor a token, steadily trying to stay above the fray. He has refused to use white guilt or black victimhood to achieve what he labels “change,” but rather has attempted to focus on overall structural shifts that he believes ultimately would help everyone.
While Geraldine Ferraro attributes Obama’s success to his blackness, it’s more likely that he is where he is despite his heritage as well as because of it. It would be incorrect to believe that Obama’s background did not factor into his popularity, as much as we would like to believe that racism and colorism are relics of the past. But, in a counterfactual world, if he were dark-skinned, and looked like say, the rapper 50 Cent, yet had all the same attributes, mannerisms, and credentials, he would not likely be embraced by white America in the same way. By shifting any number of demographics, Obama blurs into a different figure.
Many pundits seem to suggest that Obama only began to address race in the Philadelphia speech. Yet, even before that address, you could hear racialized concepts within his message. Throughout his campaign, he has invoked “freedom” and “justice” and spoken of the pain of Selma as ideas that are not to be overcome by one race but rather as part of our overall past that now needs to be healed collectively. Obama knows what structural and individual racism has done and continues to do to our nation. He isn’t colorblind, but rather coyly strategic. By using universal terminology and blurring the color line, he will owe no one — and everyone — if he gets elected.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, history shows us how easy it is for politicians to use racial bigotry and hatred to their advantage, a la Willie Horton. Rare is the opportunity for an astute politician to use his race to stir the emotion of a nation in a positive direction.