Obama: Race and the Race- Part II


By Uchenna Osigwe

In a few days, the world would know if majority of Americans will keep the American dream alive by electing its first black president in the person of Barack Obama. Given what we know now, one week to the election, and barring any serious scandal or blunder, Obama cannot lose the election on the issues. He has shown beyond reasonable doubt that he has a far superior grasp of the issues, from domestic to foreign, compared to his main opponent John McCain. His solutions are also better thought out and more appealing. If he loses, it may not be because Americans are racists. It may be because of a phenomenon known as "racism without racists." This is a situation where people who are not racists by any stretch of the imagination still behave in racist ways. Make no mistake; there are racists in the USA, just as in all parts of the world. We have been seeing and hearing racist comments and depictions of Obama on the campaign trail. But the truth is that the dyed-in-the-wool racists account for about ten percent of the population, according to credible studies. The good news is that these racists are mostly conservatives who would not vote for any democrat anyway, no matter his or her skin color. Thankfully, they are not enough to sway the vote. What may cause Obama the presidency is racism without racists. 

What is this strange phenomenon? Nicholas D. KRISTOF, writing in the New York Times of 5 Oct 2008, spoke of the results of experiments on the phenomenon. According to him, the experiments show that whites do this without thinking of themselves as racists. "In the experiments, the applicant's folder sometimes presents the person as white, sometimes as black, but everything else is the same. The white person thinks that he or she is selecting on the basis of nonracial factors like experience. Research suggests that whites are particularly likely to discriminate against blacks when choices are not clear-cut and competing arguments are flying about - in other words, in ambiguous circumstances rather like an electoral campaign. White participants recommend hiring a white applicant with borderline qualifications 76 percent of the time, while recommending an identically qualified black applicant only 45 percent of the time."

This experiment may be true in all materials particular. But from all indications, Obama has been able to shirk the stereotype reserved for most blacks. Let me use the Clintons as an example. Now, neither Bill nor Hillary is in any way racist. But they didn't realize, until it was too late, that Obama has worked very hard to counter this phenomenon; and has been largely successful. The Clinton campaign subtly accused the Obama campaign, just before the South Carolina primaries, of injecting race into the race. And after Obama won the primary in the state, Bill reminded Americans that Jesse Jackson won the state twice. He conveniently forgot that John Edwards, who is white, won the state primary in 2004 even though there was at least a black candidate, Al Sharpton, who was also running. Clinton was unconsciously appealing to the sentiment of white Americans. He was appealing to racism without racists. The Clinton campaign thought that Obama was just an upstart who was unlikely to be taken seriously by mainstream America. Because of this fatal error, they had no effective plan beyond the "Super Tuesday", the day they hoped mainstream America would have put Obama where they believe he rightly belongs. By the time they realized their mistake, Obama had moved so far ahead it was impossible for them to catch up. Would Americans do for Obama what the Democratic primary voters did for him? We will soon find out. 

Ironically, the first time Obama was a direct victim of racial discrimination was when he first went to visit his relatives in Kenya, the land of his father.

In Dreams, Obama tells the story of how, during his first visit to Kenya, he went to eat at a Nairobi restaurant with his sister, and how the waiters, all Africans, all Kenyans, all blacks, refused to even come to their table to take their orders. As far as those waiters were concerned, the privilege of eating at a restaurant was for whites or in any case, non Africans. His sister, Auma, was so furious she threw more than enough money for the food at the waiter who had spurned them and they walked out in protest. The sister then went on to tell him how Kenyans are discriminated against in favor of foreigners, mostly Europeans. As Obama reflected on the incident, he asked himself "Did our waiter know that black rule had come? Did it mean anything to him? Maybe once, I thought to myself. He would be old enough to remember independence, the shouts of "Uhuru!" and the raising of new flags. But such memories may seem almost fantastic to him now, distant and naïve. He's learned that the same people who controlled the land before independence still controlled the same land, that he still cannot eat in the restaurants or stay in the hotels that the white man has built" (Dreams 314).  It was less tragic when billionaire Oprah Winfrey was refused entrance into a famous Paris boutique, reportedly the Hermes, in April 2006, because of the color of her skin. Yes, it is tragic when a black person who believes in the lie that his skin color makes him inferior treats not only himself but other blacks with contempt and disdain. Many Africans, who have assimilated this inferiority complex, believe the only way they can give themselves value is by trying to be as European as possible. 

Obama took a different route.  He consciously identifies himself as a black man, but without attaching to himself, nor allowing other to attach to him, the destructive stereotypes associated with being black in America.

Throughout his adult life, Obama has considered himself a black man. He does not hesitate to call himself "a black guy with a funny name." He also sees his quest to be the president of the USA as "improbable".  Although he is actually "biracial", as he grew into adulthood, he also took steps to assert his blackness. In the introduction to Dreams, he tells of how, at the age of twelve or thirteen, he ceased to "advertise" his mother's race because he began to suspect that by doing so he was ingratiating himself to whites. When he started running for president blacks said he wasn't black enough and Clinton was winning the black vote by a large margin. Now, he jokes that it appears he's too black. When he first went to Chicago, he identified himself with the black community there and met his wife, a black woman, there as well. He had earlier had a white girlfriend while he was in NYC, but broke up with her after a public spat. They went to watch a play written by a black. After the play the girl complained that blacks were always angry, whereupon Obama said "it was a matter or remembering - nobody asks why Jews remember the Holocaust…she said it was different and I said it wasn't…We had a big fight right in from of the theatre." The girl told him that she could try but that there was no way she could be a black woman (Dreams 211).

In Dreams, Obama recalled a conversation he had with an Iranian who wanted to know why black people didn't fight back, or worse, choose death to being enslaved. When told that blacks did fight, the Iranian responded: "Slave rebellions…Yes, I have read something about them. These were very brave men. But they were so few, you see. Had I been a slave, watching these people do what they did to my wife, my children…well, I would have preferred death. This is what I don't understand - why so many men did not fight at all. Until death, you see?" (Dreams 116). The answer Obama gave to the Iranian deserves an extended citation: "I took up the attack, asking the Iranian if he knew the names of the untold thousands who had leaped into the shark-infested waters before their prison ships had ever reached American ports, asking if, once the ships had landed, he would have still preferred death had he known that revolt might only visit more suffering on women and children. Was the collaboration of some slaves any different than the silence of some Iranians who stood by and did nothing as Savak thugs murdered and tortured opponents of the Shah? How could we judge other men until we had stood in their shoes?" (Dreams 116-117). This, in a nutshell, is the story of colonialism and the Trans-Atlantic slavery. Our forebears did fight, but their arms and ammunitions faltered in the face of superior fire power of the Europeans.  Our forefathers were not outwitted, they were defeated in war because first, as Obama's grandmother told him, they welcomed the Europeans with the characteristic African hospitality, believing that as all visitors, they were going to leave eventually(Dreams 398); and secondly, because when they decided to fight, they couldn't match the firepower of the Europeans.

Obama knows all these. He also knows that divisions based on race are superficial because at the core we all belong to the same human race. So he has been working very hard, and is succeeding, to bring people of all races together.

The third and final and part will look into what an Obama presidency could mean for the North-South relations, specifically, what it could mean for Nigeria.

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