Thursday, February 15, 2007

Of Skin Tones and Other Looming Matters

Earlier this week I watched an online 60 Minutes feature about Obama. Interviewer Steve Kroft brought up a comprehesive slate of topics, among them the weight of racial demographics in voting patterns. He mentioned that one Democratic primary poll (he didn't identify which) had Clinton leading 53% to 27% in the black community, to which the candidate responded (I'm paraphrasing here) that the African American voting public is heterogeneous and complex, and that it would be a mistake to make assumptions about who they endorse and why.

Prior to hearing this stat (which I suppose I should take with a grain of salt, given the lack of citation and the general unreliability of polls), I didn't feel like the "Obama isn't black enough" idea carried much practical impact. That is to say, it might generate catchy fodder for talking heads, but I figured it lacked real consequence for the impending election; Obama himself dismissed the idea during the 60 Minutes feature as something obsessed about by "black and white intellectuals," but not the common citizen.

And according to his own reasoning, I shouldn't link his deficit in the poll with respondants' perception of his blackness. But to say that people don't frequently vote in large part based on race is (a) willfully ignoring basic sociological patterns that dictate a lot of our day-to-day behavior, and (b) forgetting that we're talking about an activity where some people make selections based on which name on the ballot they've heard of before.

So, since those poll numbers are pretty stark, let's indulge in a little of that obsessing and take an inventory of where Barack is 'deficient'. His mother was white. His father was not an African American, but a Kenyan, so the legacy of slavery is not of his family tree. And he grew up in Hawai'i and Indonesia, raised mainly by white relatives in fairly privileged circumstances.

Does this somehow mean that he cannot represent the interests of the black community in this country? You might argue that this is the case, if you just took these basic facts into consideration (and if you did argue this, I would argue against you, but let's save that for another time).

These are facts that are out of his control, part of the arbitrary fates handed down to us before we come into ourselves, before we have achieved self-definition. So let us also take into consideration the dawning of his activist consciousness in college, his tireless grassroots work in deprived Chicago neighborhoods, his vice-like grasp on legal and Constitutional issues as molded at Harvard and galvanized at the University of Chicago, and his meditative exploration of his heritage, with all its finer meanings and wider implications, in Africa.

If you still don't have faith in the ways he has shaped himself, and prefer to get hung up on those facts of fate, there are others you might want to keep in mind. I suggest starting with his skin color, which demonstrates its influence when he gets passed up trying to hail cabs on the street, or when his wife Michelle gives perspective to the risk he faces from a sniper's bullet on the campaign trail by noting, "As a black man, Barack can get shot going to the gas station."

And if you're still not satisfied, then I don't know what to tell you... but I'll return to what will always be my main point about Obama, and which in the end counts the most: that this man has proven himself to be a distinguished, intelligent, charming, hard-working, and compassionate candidate who can represent us all.

I hope that's what voters will be seeing when they look at him.



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