We hear a lot about the dynamics of race in our politics, particularly presidential politics. President Obama has, of course, served as a lightning rod for the attitudes race surfaces, but to the surprise and dismay of some, he does not go out of his way to enter this domain. We so easily think of him as black, and forget that he is half-white. And we forget that which “we” regards his race profoundly colors the way “we” see him and others. A case in point: the Congressional Black Caucus, both their members and their recent conference at which Obama spoke so forcefully and, to the private consternation of some attendees, challengingly. They understandably show great pride in having as president an African-American, whom they choose to see as one of them, and therefore theirs in some unique way the rest of us do not, cannot share. To their chagrin, the President does not share their view. He has more than one foot in their end of the pool, for sure, and when he speaks to them his cadence, his diction, his rhetoric, even his pitch lilt slightly toward the speech of southern black migrants to Chicago, with echoes of Dr. King. He speaks this way to one special constituency with which he shares much, but not everything, and to whom he likewise owes much—but again, not everything. We have not ended racism in the United States, but one begins to see a shift in how it plays out in our lives. Blacks no longer form the largest minority; Latinos have surpassed them. Herman Cain speaks eloquently to the fact that the black experience has ceased its more apparent than real one-time univocality, like him or not. Candidates such as Obama or North Carolina State Senator Ty Herrell insist that they represent all their constituents equally, not just those with whom they share—or not—a sub-culture and skin tone.
The assimilationist tendency of politicians such as Obama has one interesting side-effect that particularly irks the members of the Black Caucus. They have lost some of their sense of specialness, of uniqueness and yes, of entitlement, none of which they feel prepared to relinquish, and with some very good reasons. And yet they sometimes seem blind to others and their very good reasons for attention. Some, such as Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California), seem unaware or unconcerned that they come across as spoiled children in complaining that the President pays them too little heed. They do not have a special claim on him, but the same claim we all have, however unique both his role and their vindication in history: the claim to his very divided attention as chief executive to our national and personal well-being and freedom. Have we perfected the melting-pot theory of American cultural absorption? Of course not. Have we conquered racism? Hell, no. We have, however, approached a point where a black politician can eschew political blackness. Those of another generation and more left-leaning views—a Waters or a Cornel West—find this repugnant, but perhaps it has become almost safe to name such parochialism while remaining sympathetic to the particulars of its grievances. Or if not safe, then perhaps necessary.
Chapel Hill, NC
September 25, 2001