Obama can't fight race prejudice alone

In the year since his election, as he has since he first appeared on the national stage, Barack Obama has embodied the fundamental paradoxes of race in America: that we live in a still racially fragmented society; that we share a public culture with an outsized black presence, but that in the privacy of homes and neighbourhoods we are more segregated than in the Jim Crow era; that we worship more fervently than any other advanced nation, in churches and synagogues that define our separate ethnic identities and differences, to gods proclaiming the unity of mankind. Why are we this strange way? Is President Obama the ultimate expression of our peculiarities? Has he made a difference? Can he? Will he?

We became this way because of the peculiar tragedies and triumphs of our past. Race and racism scar all advanced nations, but America is peculiar because slavery thrived internally and race became a defining feature of personal identity.

Slavery was quintessentially an institution of exclusion: the slave first and foremost was someone who did not belong to and had no claims on the public order, nor any legitimate private existence, since both were appropriated by the slaveholder. The Act of Emancipation abolished only the first part of slavery, the master’s ownership; far from removing the concept of the ex-slave as someone who did not belong, it reinforced it.

Definition of race

At the same time, the status of blacks as permanent outsiders made whiteness a treasured personal attribute in a manner inconceivable to Europeans. Whiteness had no real meaning to pre-immigration Swedes or Irishmen because they were all white. But it became meaningful the moment they landed in America, where it was eagerly embraced as a free cultural resource in assimilating to the white republic. In America race had the same significance as gender and age as defining qualities of personhood.

The great achievement of the civil rights movement was to finally abolish the lingering public culture of slavery and to create the opportunities that fostered the black middle class and black political leadership. This was a sea change. But Obama, by virtue of his unusual background as a biracial child reared by loving, though not unprejudiced, white caregivers, is acutely aware that the crude, dominating racism of the past simply morphed into a subtler cultural racism of the private sphere — significantly altered though hardly less damaging.

Seeing blacks as culturally different permits all kinds of complicated attitudes and misjudgments. Their differences can be celebrated on playing fields, dance floors and television, in theaters, hip-hop and cinema, and not least of all in that most public and ambivalently regarded arena of mass engagement: politics.

A disaster

What then can we expect of  Obama? One thing we can be sure of is that he will not be leading any national conversations on race, convinced as he must be that they exacerbate rather than illuminate. During the campaign last year he spoke eloquently on the subject, but only when he was forced to do so by the uproar over the Rev Jeremiah Wright. And since he took office, his one foray into racial politics was a near political disaster that must have reinforced his reluctance.

Obama’s writings, politics and personal relations suggest instead that he prefers a three-pronged strategy. First, he is committed to the universalist position that the best way to help the black and Latino poor is to help all disadvantaged people, Appalachian whites included.

Second, Obama appears convinced that residential segregation lies at the heart of both black problems and cultural racism. He is a committed integrationist and seems to favour policies intended to move people out of the inner cities.

Third, he clearly considers education to be the major solution and has tried to lavishly finance our schools, despite the fiscal crisis. More broadly, he will quietly promote policies that celebrate the common culture of America, emphasising the extraordinary role of blacks and other minorities in this continuing creation.

All of these approaches are likely to alienate the identity-seeped segment of black leadership, and they will not prevent the extreme cultural right from accusing him of overplaying race, whatever he does.

The uniqueness of Obama provides both obstacles and opportunities.

IHT

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