Monday, July 07, 2008

Racial Fantasies

The supporters of Democratic Senator and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama had a bit of a scare the other day, as the media reported that his plane, headed for Charlotte, North Carolina, had been forced to make an emergency landing in St. Louis, Missouri.

Here's the article from The Guardian:
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's campaign plane made an unscheduled landing in St Louis, Missouri, today after experiencing a control problem in the skies over the mid-western US.

The plane's pilot told passengers the trouble involved the "controllability of the pitch". Pitch is the position of the nose up or down relative to the wings.

The aircraft was en route from Obama's hometown of Chicago to Charlotte, North Carolina, where Obama was scheduled to give a speech on the economy.

Midwest Airlines said the problem developed because an emergency slide located in the tail cone of the MD-80 airplane deployed in flight but never threatened the safety of the flight.

The plane landed safely, and a mechanic boarded the plane for an inspection. The Illinois senator remained onboard for a while and read a newspaper.

Obama telephoned Charlotte to apologise for the trip's postponement and summarise his speech.

Upon takeoff from Chicago, passengers had felt the plane dip briefly, causing a stomach-rolling sensation like being on a roller coaster, but the unexpected movement didn't alarm the frequent fliers on board.

Obama told reporters he was never worried about the safety of the plane.

"Anytime a pilot says something's not working the way it's supposed to, then you make sure you tighten your seat belt," he said. "Everything seemed under control. The pilots knew what they were doing."

Obama, in his message to his supporters, was quick to joke that the media was certainly going to make an issue of this, but not to worry. For a while, as the item was tossed into the 24 hour news blood stream as breaking news and fodder for news scrawls, this was the case. As the words "emergency landing" and "Obama" appeared on CNN and MSNBC, I'm sure that there were plenty of Obama supporters in gyms across America, whose hearts skipped a beat.

I'm being a little bit silly here, since the incident turned out to be nothing to worry about, except that Obama's change train was diverted from one potential swing state to another. But, on the other hand, given the way people of so many different generations are reacting to Obama and his candidacy, and seeing it as something new and transformative, the fear that many have of Obama's life being in danger could be legitimate. Since the airline malfunction, comments from the liberal blogs I've scanned already show that while people are thankful nothing bad happened, they are still fearful that Obama might be a target for the corrupt and the powerful. This is been a persistent fear amongst his supporters for months.

Comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy have both been common, due to Obama's race, his politics, and the demographics that he draws his core support from. But as the race has dragged on, and Obama moved from being an insurgent Democratic candidate, to the presumptive Democratic nominee, the fates that were plotted for both MLK and RFK have begun to haunt Obama and his most faithful and loyal supporters.

When Senator Hillary Clinton made one of her many infamous comments regarding RFK and his 1968 campaign for President that was cut short by his assassination, she inadvertently pushed into the mainstream, the concerns that many Democrats have had for more than a year about the safety of Obama. These worries all derive from the aura of Obama as an outsider, not a typical member of your Washington elite or entrenched political/economic classes.

This non-normativity isn't really rooted in his political positions, since he is pretty much mainstream in this regard. Is Obama that politically threatening? No. He is not advocating any radical changes, just another carefully blended brew of lefty and righty talking points, to try to create a political platform which would try to keep together as much of those whom his campaign considers to be their existing coalition, and also attrach enough Republican or independent votes to push them over the top.

Where then does his appeal and his freshness come from? Its instead tied primarily to the intersections he represents, the identities he is shouldered with because of his heritage, his life experiences and physical features. In his introduction for Senator Obama during the APIA Vote Presidential Townhall in May, California Congressman Xavier Becerra, touched on some of these characteristics that give Obama his positional freshness, if not his political one:

"And I am very proud today to tell you that there is a man running for the highest office of this land, the highest office on this world, to take us to a different place. A different place from where we've ever been. Because we have never had someone who can serve us so well. When was the last time you heard of a candidate for president of the United States who could say that he has history growing up in Hawai'i. Has history and understanding, growing up in Indonesia. Whose family includes someone who is half-Indonesia, his sister. Who sometimes can tell you about growing up without a father in his home. Who can tell you what it was like to be called one thing by one race and one thing by another."

From this perspective Obama does represent a huge shift. He is not just another rich white guy, who came from a perfect American home and had plenty of perfect American opportunities. He is not part of that fallacy of American normativity. Since he comes from modest means and a broken home, he does have a much more actual American story than most Presidents. But as a person of color, he also knows the pain of being an American who must constantly endure the racism of American race relations, where those with different names, skin colors, phenotypes or religions can always be treated like outsiders and always be told in both polite and impolite ways to "go home" or back to where they came from. Obama, as a Presidential candidate still isn't exempt from this. Despite being born in the United States and being a US citizen, there are still very strong rumors working their ways through "hard working" communities that argue that he isn't an US citizen and was in fact born in Kenya.

But, Obama's story has its own value to the United States, in that he represents a collection of differences which can be narrativized into yet another fantastic American success story. So although Obama can still be treated as a foriegner and mistrusted as a Muslim or a radical Black Panther Party spy, he can also be accepted as something "uniquely" American (this is a point he himself endorses). America is after all the only place where a skinny kid with big ears and funny name could run for President and possibly win. While he is threatening as something different than the usual heterosexual, rich white male leader and symbol of America, he also represents a more multi-cultural America and an America in a potentially post-American world. Obama is the sort of international and the national blended smoothly together. He has the face of a cosmopolitian, international world, but speaks only in the language of American exceptionalism, supremacy and greatness. In this way, although Senator Obama is still the most radical liberal member of the US Senate, he is nonetheless still something that could be celebrated and elevated, even in Sean Hannity's America.

Speaking of that horrifyingly scary place, that is Sean Hannity's America, so who then, does Obama still represent a threat to? Most prominently, racists, or more accurately white supremacists, those who explicitly claim America as a white nation, who see its character and spirit as being white, and who see those who are non-white as subordinate races, marginal supporting figures in the great story of America. For this group, the idea of a black man being elected President, is just another way that their great nation is being colonized by minorities and multi-cultural, political correct nonsense who will ruin this great nation. If there was some way of squeezing affirmative action into this equation they would eagerly snatch it up and run with it. The fantasy of white people losing jobs and losing their way to black people because of the spectre of affirmative action has gained incredible traction (even Obama gave it credence in his famous speech on race). So its very possible that there is already talk amongst certain groups that this year's election will be the country's first "affirmative action Presidency."

Do these people represent though, a mortal danger to Obama? Would some racist go far enough to try to take him out because of what he'll do in terms of weakening America and defiling what white men have worked to hard to build (with racialized labor and ethnically cleansed native lands)? Perhaps.

Elections, especially national and large scale elections are decided by low information voters. People who don't know very much, who don't do much of their own research or really take the issues involved seriously. And so for low information racists, or people who aren't really thinking or aware of the sort of structure of their privilege or their hatred, Obama is a very clear and present danger to them. For all the reasons listed already, he is the enemy.

He is the result of a huge fissure in the natural order of races and civilizations. He represents the elevation and valorization of all the evil characteristics that black people in the United States have been shouldered with for centuries. So for these low info racists, to elect Barack Obama means to celebrate and make authentically "American" all the ridiculous stereotypes and cultural pathologies that constrict the lives of African Americans, and keep ever fresh and vibrant beliefs in white supremacy and exceptionalism.

A few weeks ago on Alan Colmes' radio show, I had the honor of hearing one of these voters explain in very simple and plain terms, why he would not vote for Barack Obama. His well reasoned argument, was that black people are lazy.

Colmes, who is much more matatnga on the radio than on TV, took this caller to task for this racism. He also should of reminded him about how much vacation time Bush takes even while he's supposedly the most powerful man in the world, or how notoriously lazy while in office Ronald Reagan was. But that's the point isn't it? That's how racism works. After a natural disaster, when desperate white people break into stores they are looking for food. When black people do it, they are looting.

From these groups, who don't really understand racism, but simply enjoy it and seek to defend it in very crude and silly ways, the threat is very real.

For other, more subtle types of racists. Those who know more about how it works and where their privilege comes from, Obama is not really a threat. On the surface he might appear to be, but in a much deeper discursive sense, he could actually be a gift, a boon from racist heaven. He is potentially the sort of figure which could enhance their ability to be racist, given them the sorts of public talking points which could take their enjoyment of exceptional and glorious whiteness and disparaging of color and blackness to higher levels.

This might appear to some to be a sort of paradox, since so many people are supporting Obama or believe in him for the opposite reason, because he will represent the taking of the country into a more racially harmonious and just place. Perhaps. There is a slight chance that this could happen, but unlikely since few people and the American people are not exception are predisposed to dealing with the skeletons in their closet in very productive and meaningful ways, and so the election of a black President doesn't really change much, except at the surface.

But this shift in the surface is something that racists can work well with. There are two basic ways in which the election of Barack Obama would actually be a dream come true for racists in the United States, or people who want to continute to cling to their fantasies of black pathology.

1. If Barack Obama does become president, he will basically have to bat 1000. He will have to be flawless, perfect. He cannot make any mistakes. Because, in another instance of how racism works, while everything mistake that a white man makes does not end up staining all white men, a black man in the position of the presidency will end up stigmatizing all black people. His mistakes will end up marking all other African Americans.

We can see this happening in the CNMI with the election there of the islands' first Carolinain governor Benigno Fitial. As the governor becomes more and more unpopular, his "failures" or mistakes end up being transferred to all Carolinians, and become a sort of racial talking point for future gubernatorial prospects. The way this tends to appear in conversation is that for Chamorros, they will never take a chance with electing a Carolinian again. For Carolinians, there is a fear that Fitial is screwing things up and that he'll give us all a bad name with his failures, thus ensuring we never get this opportunity again.

Should Obama be elected, and end up not being perfect, then he will basically become in the minds and speech of those who are motivated by a need to perpetuate white supremacy in the United States, a quick and easy point through which one could say "I told you so."

2. Should Obama be elected president he will become another historic milestone through which structural and subtle forms of racism can be excused or dismissed. By becoming the first black/African American president, Obama provides another easy sort of talking point through which those who critique the prevailing system of power and privilege in America through a racial lens can be silenced or dismissed. For those who say that African Americans have it so hard or that they are treated unfairly in this country, how did Barack Obama become president? Through this sort of political achievement, where a black man can be elected president, the still very legitimate claims about racism and discrimination in this country can be de-legitimized in some very pathetic, yet common-sense ways. Attempts to reveal or change the racist under-currents to American society become far more difficult. If you think that discussing productively racism in the United States is tough now, it will be almost impossible when Obama is president.

By a black man occupying this highest symbolic and political office, racism moves even further from being seen as a structural problem and therefore beyond the scope of any large institutional change. Programs designed to help African Americans can be gleefully argued against due to this success. Now that African Americans have "made it," any claims to structural inequality can be left aside, and things such as educational, economic and health disparities or poverties can be attributed to the same old pathologies and stereotypes, but now "the system" because of the way it allowed and supported Obama as president can be absolved of any culpability in holding black people back. In the discourse of those invested in white supremacy (both overt and covert) this means that there can be no more excuses, and that nothing is holding black people back anymore save for their individual and cultural pathologies and problems.

So for those who want to continue to be incredibly racist, but just not in open or overt ways, Barack Obama is hardly something to fear. He just might make your enjoyment easier and possibly more satisfying. The next time someone complains to you about discrimination in the workplace, in the job market, in the economy, at the hospital, even in the line at the DMV, just eagerly remind that whistleblower that a person of color is president now, and so that their argument is therefore puru ha' take'.

For these two points, I'm not referring to organized white supremacists groups, but individuals and more organic communities who are attached and draw much of their political identities from white supremacist ideologies. For organized white supremacists groups, there has already been some small murmurrings of the value for white racists if Obama was elected. The rationale behind this guarded and measured support is that Obama might be the catalyst that unifies white people, and makes them recognize their embattled and victimized position in today's multi-cultural and politically correct America.

Well known racist David Duke, in his essay "A Black Flag for White America," sums it up well with this statement, analogizing Obama with an ominous sore on the white body:

“Obama is like that new big dark spot on your arm that finally sends you to the doctor for some real medicine. … Obama is the pain that let’s [sic] your body know that something is dreadfully wrong. Obama will let the American people know that there is a real cancer eating away at the heart of our country and Republican aspirin will not only not cure it, but only masks the pain and makes you think you don’t need radical surgery. … My bet is that whether Obama wins or loses in November, millions of European Americans will inevitably react with new awareness of their heritage and the need for them to defend and advance it.”

Is my analysis endorsing this reasoning? Is this sort of new unbridled white racial enjoyment something that I want? Absolutely not. But I am fairly certain that this will happen because of the way Obama has risen to prominence and the sort of careful way in which he is supposed to represent a more equal and open America, yet those very things he is supposed to represent a resolution or a healing of, still cannot be mentioned or dealt with!

My pessimism on this point is derived from that fact that Americans and the media, and Obama himself go to incredible lengths to not reveal the role of racism in everyday life. And by racism I do not mean racist individuals, which is the way you can still talk about it publicly (and not be treated as a lunatic), but racism which is embedded in all the systems of life, from politics, the media, the economy, health care and the criminal justice system. The reason that Obama is not every racist's nightmare is because if he is elected, he will not be elected as a figure to force America to confront its racist past and present. He is not one of those "black leaders" who make white people so very uncomfortable.

He will be elected as a sort of racial shortcut, a way in which America can simply gloss over its racism, and pretend that the problem has been solved or that there is nothing more to deal with here. In Senator Obama's speech on race in Philadelphia, he spoke of the racial elephant in the room of America, but took not steps to actually forcing a change, he simply mentioned it, and didn't give it any sort of critical or potentially transformative angle, just mentioned it.

I'm sure many expected him to go further, but why would he? He is not here to do that difficult work of restorative justice and racial transformation. He has a set of experiences and a particular history which make give us the impression that he would have a sort of critical ethnic consciousness and desire to change in very radical ways the way Americans see race and are racially invested and motivated. But of course, it would be impossible to get elected president if your platform was such. Instead Obama will most likely be ushered into office on a wave of people who want something done about the race problem in the United States, just as long as they aren't implicated in it, or have to give anything up in the process. And thus, Obama will be elected president, and while he will color the face of the nation slightly differently, he will leave unscathed and largely untouched the racial fantasies and logics that run this nation. It is because of this that, he is hardly the nightmare of invested racists in the United States, and while the story covering the Ku Klux Klan's endorsement of Barack Obama for president was a joke, its not to difficult to believe.

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