Saturday, August 20, 2011

Is Barack Obama a black president?

By Donald Sensing

Increasingly, black Americans seem to be saying, "no."

The media have been covering (lightly!) how black Americans are increasingly discontented with President Obama. Although the discontent has been long simmering, Obama's bus tour through middle America did not include stops in black communities, led to voices being heard. For example, left-wing US Rep. Maxine Waters:

Then there is the spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, Niger Innis, and Jehmu Greene.

Former Harvard Professor Cornel West (who, I admit, is a bit of a looney toon) said in May:
"I think he does have a predilection much more toward upper-class white brothers and Jewish brothers and a certain distance from free black men who will tell him the truth about himself as well as what’s going on in black communities, brown communities, red communities, and poor white and working-class communities."
Indeed, they even see the problem from across The Pond:
The first black president seems to go out of his way to avoid being a champion of the race he checked off as his own on his 2010 census form.
So the question sort of begs itself: Regardless of what Barack Obama checked on his census form, is he in fact a black president at all?

In asking this question, I take note of Bill Clinton's characterization as America's first black president:
In her now-famous defense of a scandal-plagued Bill Clinton, Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison, went so far as to call him "our first black president. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children's lifetime." "Clinton," Morrison wrote in the 1998 New Yorker essay, "displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."
And in so noting, I trust the reader will see that the question posed by this post's title is unrelated to President Obama's ancestry, but, rather, with his American ethnic identification.

That Obama is an African-American is not the question. The question is, Is Barack Obama a black American? And to this question, I think the answer is at best open.

Consider the president's biography. He has no ancestor who was part of the historic black experience in America. His mother was white and his father was Kenyan. What do I mean by the "black experience?" I'll let black Americans answer that. Ralph Remington:
I remember my father telling me, "You're not like them. Our people came over in slave ships." This is the black experience in America.

I remember being told that we have two cultures and speak two languages. This is the black experience in America. ...

I remember "family summer vacations" being day trips or taking car rides "out there" to see how white people lived and going to day camp at urban recreation centers, while white classmates spoke of going to Disneyland and meeting new friends at overnight camp while living in many of those big houses that I peered at from car windows, with my parents, with my bare legs sticking to hot vinyl car seats. This is the black experience in America.
But Barack Obama has no experience with any of this. Instead, it's off to Martha's Vineyard, playground of rich and famous white folks (where he has maanaged to get the wrong optics for everybody):
Choosing an exclusive enclave like the Vineyard after spending three days on the road railing against the rich and the wealthy and the millionaires and the billionaires and the corporate jet owners who vacation exactly in the same place — and then spending ten days in their company — speaks of a kind of dissonance or hypocrisy.

You know, the Vineyard doesn’t have any bridges to it. You either get there on a ferry in your Maserati, or on a jet or a helicopter. It’s not exactly where ordinary folks will take a vacation.
The black American "two-cultures" environment, which was (and still very much is) so central to their lives, was absent from Obama's upbringing. He lived in Hawaii from birth to high school graduation, where the racial friction has always been between Hawaii natives and whites rather than between whites and blacks. Second, he spent ages 6-10 in Indonesia. This is not the childhood the the black experience in America, in which blacks grow up in and spend adulthood in a black culture that "is heavily southern American," even for northern blacks.

The experience of being raised in a distinct black culture, surrounded by whites and significantly controlled by them, is to be immersed in a culture with its own historic baggage of slavery and subsequent racism and Jim Crow, a culture with its own music and coded jargon and Southern Gospel religious heritage. This is a culture that has never been part of Barack Obama's experience. It is literally alien to him.

Even in 2007, this disparity led Time Magazine to ask, "Is Obama Black Enough?"
As much as his biracial identity has helped Obama build a sizable following in middle America, it's also opened a gap for others to question his authenticity as a black man. In [Joe Biden] calling Obama the "first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," the implication was that the black people who are regularly seen by whites — or at least those who aspire to the highest office in the land — are none of these things. But give Biden credit — at least he acknowledged Obama's identity.

The same can't be said for others. "Obama's mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan," Stanley Crouch recently sniffed in a New York Daily News column entitled "What Obama Isn't: Black Like Me." "Black, in our political and social vocabulary, means those descended from West African slaves," wrote Debra Dickerson on the liberal website Salon.
(Time concluded however, that not only was Obama black enough, he was "too black," without explaining what that meant!)

Now , if President Obama became a president over-devoted to the special interests of black Americans he'd be criticized from here to the moon. I think he must know that. And so do, I am sure, his black critics. What is leading them to speak out is that, as Rep, Waters said, it seems the president is doing nothing to address the declining prosperity of blacks and their high unemployment. After all, Obama's just-finished bus tour was through mainly white middle America, where he made no stops in any black community.

(Not that Obama has done anything for the prosperity and employment of whites, either. "Casino and hotel executive Steve Wynn, a Democrat, calls the Obama administration 'the greatest wet blanket to business and progress and job creation in my lifetime.'")

So, having been raised in Asian-Pacific Island culture until he was 18, did Obama have subsequent experiences that joined him to the black American identity? Matt Patterson recounts that Obama was,
... ushered into and through the Ivy League despite unremarkable grades and test scores along the way; a cushy non-job as a "community organizer"; a brief career as a state legislator devoid of legislative achievement (and in fact nearly devoid of his attention, so often did he vote "present"); and finally an unaccomplished single term in United States Senate, the entirety of which was devoted to his presidential ambitions. 
Let's see: From Hawaii to Columbia University to Harvard Law to Chicago machine politics to the Illinois legislature, then briefly to the US Senate, then to the White House. Is this remotely like the typical career path of even the most talented, gifted black American?

A lot of whites voted for Barack Obama because he would be the first black American president. But he's not. Will this make a difference in 2012? I think it will, and not only among whites.

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