Sunday, February 11, 2007

Barack Obama Brings Out New Black Nativism

Barack Obama's campaign for the presidency has yet to be embraced by black America. The New York Times reported last week that the Illinois Senator was struggling to attract African-American voters:

He is hailed by his supporters as the hope of an increasingly multicultural nation, a political phenomenon who can wow white voters while carrying the aspirations of African-Americans all the way to the White House.

So why are some black voters so uneasy about Senator Barack Obama?

The black author and essayist Debra J. Dickerson recently declared that “Obama isn’t black” in an American racial context.
Such black resistance to Obama's candidacy -- and especially this question of black authenticity -- raises some troubling questions about the nature of the contemporary civil rights agenda. Orlando Patterson, in an essay in this week's Time, argues that the identy of African-Americans historically was inclusionist and progressive. African-Americans wore their blackness like a badge of pride, Patterson notes, and black identity knew no national origins:

Black leaders took a deep interest in oppressed peoples throughout the world. The Pan-African movement and early black nationalism were part of emerging notions of black solidarity. Blacks took deep pride in the Haitian revolution, and black American missionaries played an important role in the Christianization of Jamaican and other West Indian blacks. Black Americans were also open to the inspiration of black immigrants: W.E.B. DuBois's father was Haitian; James Weldon Johnson's mother, Bahamian. One of the first mass movements of African Americans was led by a Jamaican, Marcus Garvey, in the '20s. An impressive number of black leaders and civil rights icons--Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, Louis Farrakhan, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, to list a few--were all first- or second-generation immigrants....

In recent years, however, this tradition has been eroded by a thickened form of black identity that, sadly, mirrors some of the worst aspects of American white identity and racism. A streak of nativism rears its ugly head. To be black American, in this view, one's ancestors must have been not simply slaves but American slaves. Furthermore, directly mirroring the traditional definition of whiteness as not being black is the growing tendency to define blackness in negative terms--it is to be not white in upbringing, kinship or manner, to be too not at ease in the intimate ways of white Americans.

Barack is married to a black woman, has spent years doing community work in the ghettos and is by lineage certainly more African than most African Americans. But black America's view of him is clouded by the facts that he is the son of an immigrant and that he was brought up mainly by middle-class whites whose culture is second nature to him....

This is tragic, for like all other once excluded groups before them, black Americans are in need of the social and cultural capital that comes from living with and in the white majority, the value of which is nowhere more powerfully demonstrated than in the enormous achievement and potential of Barack Obama.
I blogged previously about black rejection of an Obama presidency on policy grounds. Obama's less likely to pursue a racially redistributive political program than was the case in previous White House bids by traditional civil rights leaders, such as Jesse Jackson. His appeal has suffered accordingly. Nevertheless, Obama has promised that his candidacy would not focus on race, saying "that he hopes to make race irrelevant in his bid to become the first black to occupy the White House."

For the Washington Post story on Obama's official campaign announcement, click here.

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