Saturday, January 26, 2008

Obama wins SC, and not just because he's black!

I find the recent narrative regarding South Carolina ridiculous, because nearly a year ago, in their February 1, 2007 issue, Time magazine asked, Is Obama black enough?
[When Senator Biden called] 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.

"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. Writers like TIME and New Republic columnist Peter Beinart have argued that Obama is seen as a "good black," and thus has less of following among black people. ...

The black-on-black argument seemed to be bolstered by recent polls showing Obama significantly trailing Hillary Clinton among black voters. But reading into poll numbers that way is a clever device, hatched by mainstream (primarily white) journalists who are shocked -- shocked! -- to discover that black people aren't as dumbstruck by Obama as they are.

What they fail to understand is that African-Americans meet other intelligent, articulate African-Americans all the time. In almost every cycle since 1984, at least one of these brave chaps has run for President. Forgive us if we don't automatically pledge our votes to Obama and instead make judgments based on things besides skin color -- like, heaven forbid, issues.
Here's what Debra Dickerson had to say in that Salon article mentioned by Time:
Not descended from West African slaves brought to America, he steps into the benefits of black progress (like Harvard Law School) without having borne any of the burden, and he gives the white folks plausible deniability of their unwillingness to embrace blacks in public life. None of Obama's doing, of course, but nonetheless a niggling sort of freebie for which he'll have to do some groveling.

Which brings me to the main reason I delayed writing about Obama. For me, it was a trick question in a game I refused to play. Since the issue was always framed as a battle between gender and race (read: non-whiteness -- the question is moot when all the players are white), I didn't have the heart (or the stomach) to point out the obvious: Obama isn't black.

"Black," in our political and social reality, means those descended from West African slaves. Voluntary immigrants of African descent (even those descended from West Indian slaves) are just that, voluntary immigrants of African descent with markedly different outlooks on the role of race in their lives and in politics. At a minimum, it can't be assumed that a Nigerian cabdriver and a third-generation Harlemite have more in common than the fact a cop won't bother to make the distinction. They're both "black" as a matter of skin color and DNA, but only the Harlemite, for better or worse, is politically and culturally black, as we use the term.
While I personally find Dickerson's comments bizzare, they were representative of a segment of the writing population at that point in time.

Then came Iowa. And Iowa changed everything, as Bill Schneider at CNN pointed out:
Barack Obama just won a state whose population is less than 4 percent African-American. On January 26, he will be on the ballot in a state with a considerably higher percentage of African-Americans: South Carolina, where that demographic makes up nearly 50 percent of Democratic primary voters there.

African-Americans have been intensely loyal to the Clintons, and continue to support Hillary Clinton over Obama in the Palmetto State. But that gap has significantly narrowed in recent weeks -- and with this key win tonight, it's unlikely they will stand in his way there.
I present these quotes to show that for months, Obama was at a disadvantage among black voters. They didn't think he was black enough, didn't share their history. They were "intensely loyal" to the Clinton machine. They had doubts that Obama could win anywhere BUT the south.

What the pundits aren't mentioning today is that for the last several months of last year, the polls in South Carolina had Clinton up, often by 10 points or more, over Obama. It wasn't until his Iowa victory that, as Schneider predicted, South Carolinians started giving Obama a second look.

But don't miss the point here. Until Obama won a nearly all-white state, his victory in South Carolina was far from assured.

As a white woman voter, I had to wait to see if Obama could win in Iowa too. That mattered to me. I needed to know how far beyond race issues our country was willing to move. Iowans spoke up loud and clear, and told us race doesn't matter. I didn't want to support yet another candidate who didn't have a chance of winning. I've been down that route too many times. I know the roadside stops by heart. Neither did a lot of people in South Carolina.

It's not just because he's black. Yes, he's black enough. But that was never the full story, and we need to hold the media's feet to the fire to remind them that being "black" has never qualified Obama for instant support. Being a winner, with a strong message, is what caused the upswing of support for Obama in South Carolina.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did you see Time Mag's headline "Obama's route rejiggers the race"?,8599,1707277,00.html

Think maybe Time likes to use code words for the unwashed masses?

11:49 PM  
Anonymous simpilmindz said...

This is good news. As for the "pundits" I don't pay much attention to them.
I'm in South Africa at the moment so only get limited time online at internet cafes. I want to comment on your "Oswald's Ghost" article but will have to wait until I get home March 1.
Reading "The Assassinations" at the moment. Excellent stuff! :)

2:50 AM  

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