The Dartmouth Observer

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Monday, February 05, 2007
Why Obama Must Navigate Racial Politics Carefully

This post is inspired by reactions to a piece in the New York Times on why Obama "can't take the black vote for granted" in the primary Democratic elections.

In response to this quote:
"Obama isn't black" [...] "I've got nothing but love for the brother, but we don't have anything in common," said Ms. Dickerson, who wrote recently about Mr. Obama in Salon, the online magazine. "His father was African. His mother was a white woman. He grew up with white grandparents.

many of the reactions have been more or less "I have no particular feelings either for or against Obama, but I have nothing but disgust for the modern conceits of identity politics."

This post will takle the conviction that discussions of Obama's racial identity (by anyone, but especially black citizens) is a disgusting perversion of (an already problematic) identity politics.

I strongly disagree that this particular form of identity politics is a problem, even though I vehemently disagree with the content and nature of the discussions about Obama's racial identity within some quarters of the black community.

It is important for black voters to decide in which ways they will choose to support aspects of Obama's political message, because, whether anyone wishes it or not, an Obama administration would define discussions about race in America more hegemonically than other administration before. It is precisely because of the acute differences in the lived experiences of those persons who come to be portrayed as and identify with "black" American citizens that the Obama campaign will generate a lot of discussions within black communities about the nature of black political identity itself and what the tensions in that identity will mean for future discussions.

These differences in lived experiences largely track along socioeconomic lines. It is an empirical fact that the kinds of people who end up being categorized as black who also attend elite institutions are (more often than not) of Caribbean or African immigrant ancestry and a middle-class background. The composition of those who end up being seen as black but who also "under-perform" usually lack (non-slave) immigrant ancestry and come from working and lower class backgrounds. (It is roughly the difference between the identity politics of Dartmouth's African-American Society, and those of the black student union at City College in New York.) Because the larger racial order lumps them together, there is an uneasy alliance between two classes who, other than the social meanings invested into their variegated skin pigmentations, have little in common socially, politically, and economically.

Whereas immigrants and middle class black still largely support affirmative action--because its a useful tie-breaker for them-- working class black would prefer to live without the stigma and the misplacement that AA engenders. Working class blacks generally prefer a re-targeting of the American welfare state to provide less benefits to the propertied middle and upper-middle classes, and more to those persons who, for many reasons, historical and legal, do not live in suburban affluence. Failing a re-targerting, working class blacks support European-style universal welfare programs over the targeted ones of the current system. The black working class provides those members of society whose "averaged" African American LSAT scores at elite school is less than the "averaged" white LSAT scores.

What *is not* important in these averaged scores, as opponents of race-based affirmative action would have you believe, is the discrepancy between the scores of blacks and non-black others. By definition, averages compress the extremes into a simplified statistic. That means that even in elite law schools there are blacks whose LSAT scores were significantly better than that of some of their admitted white classmates, even though through the language of (a rather convenient) appeal to "race blind" "justice" every white can claim to have been admitted on "merit" whereas blacks have to live with the stigma of preference.

What *is* important is the spread/ distribution of scores. Black (and Hispanic) scores probably have larger variance than those of other groups. The qualified are pretty much guaranteed admission--in equal contests that candidate supported by affirmative action always wins--and admissions officers have to reach down to bring the target numbers up to a percentage range determined by them. Recruiting these lower scores to create a target population is what Justice Thomas lampoons as ethnic window-dressing. This variance is a reflection of the very different lived experiences of those Americans who come to be known as "black" and matters greatly for their respective worldviews, and, more importantly, for their social and political options within the hierarchies of capitalist society.

That suppressed and rather testy discussion about black political identity, then, bubbles to the surface as many of the poorer and working class blacks, and their (largely self-appointed) ideological re-presentatives question loudly in whose interests Obama's racial constructions are forged. And they have good reason to believe it's not going to be in their interest.

Lastly, many blacks fear that the election of Obama, or even his successful nomination. will be used as an excuse to close the chapter on an increasingly bitter celebration of the post-King civil rights era. (I say post-King because with King's mythologization as a democratic saint, popular histories about the period erase the tensions that were present even then, and project them into an equally mythological "betrayal" of King's "legacy.")