Eugene Robinson finally got one right about race in the US. Usually he (and Bob Herbert at the NYT and Tavis Smiley) represent the worst unreconstructed, temperature-raising, black vs white, ‘civil rights’ commentary. So he deserves recognition, even if he did take the time to remind us that Obama is black, even while telling us no one is thinking about it (he clearly is). Kinda snarky there, but understandable given what a breakthrough Obama was.
The notion that somehow Obama’s great relevance is his race is astonishingly irrelevant, parochial, and incorrect. If the liberal commentariat and black political/academic elite absorb this, then hopefully the notion of a ‘black America’ as a Quebec-like societe distincte will slowly disappear. It is divisive, unhelpful, and empirically inaccurate anyway; Obama’s own election demonstrates this, as does the wide popularity among non-black Americans of black socio-cultural contribution – Oprah, jazz, rap, Michael Jordan, C Powell on the lecture circuit, the brief and rather quixotic ‘Condy for president’ wave, whatever. This is Obama’s own vision (‘no white America, no black America’) – as well as ML King’s of course – and the promise of the US melting pot. The alternative is that hideous and divisive multiculturalist metaphor – that the US should be a ‘tossed salad’ of clumped ethnic groups simply living in proximity. This strikes me as risky (Canada, Yugoslavia) and inaccurate – with the exception of Native Americans and the Amish, I don’t think most minorities in the US are so removed or culturally alienated that they merit the classification francophones demand in Canada. Do we really want to give up on integrative Americanization in favor of self-segregated suburbs and gated-communities?
Irrelevant, because in the midst of 2 wars and the worst economic crisis since the Depression, who really cares? Parochial, because he is president of the whole country, and a simple black-white bifurcation no longer corresponds to its ethnic reality anyway. To say he is one of ‘us’ against them is narrow, racist, and needlessly perpetuates US racial divisions. Finally, it’s incorrect, because – if you must read race into his presidency – his mixed race background is the real story, not his ‘blackness.’ His family is a great story of the integration and tolerance the US seeks to achieve.
And in point of fact, the great man has not governed in any recognizably ‘black’ manner. IR feminists used to hope that women in power might in some way be more peaceful or multilateral, than their male counterparts. Yet women as different in background as M Thatcher, G Meir and I Gandhi were just as ‘realist,’ nationalist, and prickly as any other male foreign policy figure (too bad…sigh). And Obama too has shown that black American presidents will go the same way. Abroad, he has increased Predator strikes in Afghanistan and has raised US troop levels there. He is holding the line on NK (sort of), and Ipredict he will soon be confronting Russia and Iran in the place of the vaunted but empty ‘reset.’ (They’re simply too illiberal and nasty for a liberal like Obama to stomach for long.) At home, his governing style is marked by gifted oratory and outreach, but this veils a clearly partisan agenda. He has not talked up or openly identified ‘black issues’ for special treatment, and his staff is packed with white technocrats. All these choices are his right – he won. But it shows that he hardly self-indentifies as a ‘black politician’ in the sense of classic ‘civil rights’ figures like Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry, or George Forbes. He is clearly a racial bridge-builder, but he seems to do this naturally, not as a stratagem for power or moral recognition on cable TV. (In this he is similar to former Cleveland mayor Michael White.)
So stop telling us he is black, start judging him by his record, and even better, start admitting that its not going so well.