"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 06/05/08

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Black Man in the White House: Can Obama Make it? (II)

Farooq A. Kperogi
As I said last week, it’s not possible to exhaust all the reasons why I think Obama’s chances to become America’s first non-WASPish (WASP, if you didn’t know, stands for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) president are bright. I will discuss only a few more this week.

Perhaps the surest sign that Obama can survive the furious and ferocious crucible of American politics and emerge victorious is his incredible capacity to recuperate from life-threatening political traumas with grace and renewed vigor, a feat that earned him the epithet “Teflon candidate.” (Teflon is a substance used to cover the surface of cooking utensils, etc in order to prevent extraneous substances from sticking to them).

On several occasions, I had had cause to suspend my optimism on Obama’s chances. First, there was this widely circulated picture of him in traditional Somali garb, surrounded by an elder who appeared to be initiating him into some cult. The picture had no context— and no caption. It was, in essence, a blank slate provided for everybody to inscribe the fears, anxieties and suspicions that lurked in the deep recesses of their minds about Obama.

Some Americans who had insisted that Obama was, in fact, a Muslim who was merely pretending to be a Christian because he wanted to be America’s president found a “confirmation” of their suspicions in the picture. Mass-circulated smear emails even suggested that paparazzi surreptitiously took the picture when Obama was being secretly initiated into an al-Qaida cell.

It turned out that the picture was taken when he visited Kenya, along with such high-profile Americans as a U.S. military general, after his election into the U.S. Senate sometime ago. In the course of the visit, he was honored by ethnic Somali elders in eastern Kenya and was fitted out in the traditional attires of the people.

When it came to light that the picture was mischievously released by the Hillary Clinton campaign to a right-wing blog, Obama harvested tremendous political sympathy from it.

The controversy generated by the publicizing of his pastor’s controversial sermons was perhaps the biggest threat to his candidacy. Suddenly, the American media that had seemed so irresistibly obsessed with him turned against him. I was so troubled by the unbelievably negative publicity that attended this controversy that I actually canceled my cable subscription. I wanted to save myself the emotional injury of seeing a promising brother go down because of guilt by association.

But he used the “opportunity” of that controversy to give a well-received speech about race in America. The controversy, rather strangely, also worked to reverse initial doubts about his claim to being a Christian, at least among people who are open-minded. The truth is, Obama was neither a Muslim nor a Christian until 1988. His mother—and maternal grandparents—were non-religious. So was his absent Kenyan father who, though born a Muslim, was a “confirmed atheist,” according to Obama. Obama’s paternal grandparents also practiced a syncretism of Islam, Catholicism and traditional African religion. So Obama was distrustful of religion until 1988 when Reverend Wright, the pastor whose sermons put him in political hot-water recently, converted him to Christianity.

This fact, coupled with his middle name (Hussein), has given many conservative and not so conservative Americans cause to doubt his commitment to Christianity. (Americans who are concerned about his middle name don’t even realize that Obama’s first name is also a Muslim name. Barack, as many Muslims know, is the Arabic or, to be sure, Semitic word for “blessing.” The last name of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is only a variation of Obama’s first name). Plus, in the past, Obama had publicly confessed to being fascinated by the Muslim call to prayer and had expressed sentiments that are now interpreted as pro-Palestinian—and therefore “anti-Semitic.”

However, it does seem that doubts about Obama’s commitment to the Christian faith are subsiding now. So are concerns about his patriotism, concerns that came to the fore on account of his refusal to wear the flag lapel pin and failure to put his hands across his chest when the American national anthem was being sung as a prelude to a presidential debate sometime last year.

Sorry I digressed. Obama also has the distinction of having a well-oiled, brilliantly coordinated network of uncommonly dedicated supporters that invest not just their money and emotions but also their time, logistics and organizational acumen into his electioneering. Many American commentators admit that the level of dedication that Obama supporters devote to his campaign has no parallel in recent memory in America. Obama’s political opponents often deride these remarkably dedicated supporters as “Obamamaniacs.”

Among these “Obamamaniacs, interestingly, are a lot of cross-over Republicans, often called “Obamacans” (that is, Obama Republicans) who will rather vote for him than vote for John McCain. McCain’s problems are many and various, but I won’t bore readers by stating them here. It suffices to say that two gaffes he made earlier in his campaign have continued to haunt him. For instance, he once said, in a moment of extreme excitement, that he wouldn’t mind if the U.S. remained in Iraq for 100 years. He also said he didn’t know anything about the economy—at a time when the country is on the brink of a recession, if it’s not already in it.

Similarly, one of the factors that redound to Obama’s electoral formidability is the vast financial resources at his disposal. These vast financial resources were raised, and continue to be raised, largely from regular, everyday Americans who contribute as little as $15 to his campaign.

When Obama began his run for president, the main concern then was how he could possibly raise the resources to finance a presidential campaign, being a rookie politician who is not connected to big corporations and special-interest groups.

But he not only proved skeptics wrong, he confounded them with his phenomenal and revolutionary fundraising skills. He has raised stupendous amounts of money from the Internet from millions of ordinary Americans who contribute so little to his campaign that they can afford to keep giving without feeling financially burdened. These little amounts collectively add up to a lot.

It’s been said that Obama has raised more money for a presidential primary than any presidential candidate in American political history. While Obama is awash with a lot of cash for the primary and general elections, by contrast, Hillary Clinton, once considered the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, is deep in the throes of debt.

Well, now that it seems fairly obvious that Obama might be the next American president, what should we expect? Sadly, I think we should temper our enthusiasm with a little reality check. As scholars of American politics have noted, the American presidency is a very conservative institution. This fact limits what a president can do. American presidents are merely symbolic heads whose actions are circumscribed by the requirements to operate within rigid, time-honored institutional structures that don’t lend themselves to radical, revolutionary transformation.

The significance of Obama’s presidency, I think, is in its symbolic significance, especially for many African Americans and Africans who have internalized notions of their inferiority. Nothing more.

I actually fear that an Obama presidency will give rise to what sociologists call the crisis of rising expectation—or even worse. This can only lead to a lot of tensile stress for Obama himself.

And I predict that because he would want to assure white America that he is the president of all Americans, black Americans may actually be worse off under his presidency than in previous administrations. Africans should expect the same.

I also think he may yet turn out to be one of America’s most belligerent presidents. And this why: he is already dogged by insinuations and whispering campaigns that he is a closet Muslim with suspect patriotic credentials. In order to prove that he is as patriotic as any American can be, he might feel compelled to be exaggeratedly exhibitionist in his patriotism. And there is nothing more dangerous than forced, exaggerated nationalism.

Truth be told, when I rein in my emotions and allow reason to take control of my thought-processes, I actually shudder at the prospect of an Obama presidency. I fear that, at best, it will be like any previous American presidency, at worst needlessly cautious and pernickety when it deals with historically oppressed groups, and excessively, even hyperbolically, hawkish in its Middle East foreign policy. I hope and pray I am wrong.

The significance of Obama’s presidency, in the final analysis, lies not in what it will deliver but in what it represents. I wish I ended on a happier note.

Black Man in the White House: Can Obama Make it? (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This is a dizzyingly exciting period in American politics, a period in which Barack Obama, a man of part African ancestry, looks poised to rupture age-old racial barriers and become America’s first nonwhite president.

Two enduring questions that many Nigerians have asked me are: Can Barack Obama, a black man, be president of the United States given the history and nature of race relations in that country? Can he even win the nomination of his party? My straightforward answer is, to inflect Obama’s own campaign slogan, yes he can.

It is, of course, presumptuous, even arrogantly self-indulgent, for anyone, not least a sojourner like me, to be this declarative and cocksure about the political fortunes of a candidate in a political climate as notoriously kaleidoscopic as America’s. But my optimism is informed not by mere instinctive racial solidarity with an amazingly dazzling brother, but by my assessment of the objective, material realities of contemporary American politics.

Needless to say, like most people of African ancestry all over the world, I am profoundly emotionally invested in Obama’s presidential candidature. I have followed, and continue to follow, the highs and ebbs and the frissons and anxieties of his presidential bid with more zest than I have ever committed to any political contest.

When Obama visited Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church (the church in which the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached when he was alive) on an oppressively frigid day in January this year, I persuaded my wife and my daughter who had paid me a visit at the time, to brave a subzero degree temperature, drive several miles, and wade through thick crowds of animated people just to see him.

In spite of our best efforts, however, the church had filled up to capacity before we got there. But we watched him speak on wide screens erected outside the church premises amid a vicious and unforgiving cold that literally deadened our bodily sensations and rendered us immobile.

There are several reasons why it is safe to assert that the prospect of an Obama presidency has transcended the realm of wishful thinking to a real, graspable possibility, but I will only discuss a few here. For starters, it is almost certain that Obama will be the nominee of the Democratic Party. Not even a bleeding cynic will dispute that. His lead in the delegate count is practically insurmountable and there is not the faintest inkling that the Democratic Party will countermine the will of the people and hand over the nomination to Hillary Clinton.

Now, what are his general-election chances?

One of Obama’s greatest strengths or, if you like, appeals, ironically, is his race. Or, to be sure, the intricate tapestry of racial identities that he so amazingly and powerfully embodies. American conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh once satirically called him a “Halfrican American”—at once a play on the phrase “African American” (the term by which many, perhaps most, Americans of African ancestry like to be called) and a reference to the fact that he is an American (by virtue of being born in America—by a white American woman) who is half African on account of being the biological son to an absent Luo father from Kenya.

It also hints at the fact that he is not historically African American since none of his ancestry is even remotely traceable to the legion of West Africans enslaved and brought to the Americas in the 16th and 19th centuries, although he is “black” by America’s racial typology, is married to a historic African American, and has immersed himself in the African American cultural universe as an adult (thus, he is “half” African American—and “half” white American).

What this all means is that in Obama many white Americans desirous of assuaging the historic guilt of the enslavement of Africans, and the attendant ill-feeling it has spawned in Black America, see an opportunity for racial reconciliation. Here is a man who is culturally white, having been raised by his white grandparents, but who self-consciously chose to reconnect with his paternal black roots and has now become the most important black American today.

What is more, although he has now been accepted as black (after initial, largely media-induced, reservations in Black America about whether or not he is “black enough”) he defies, even subverts, the stereotypical construction of the American black male in the typical white American imaginary—perpetually angry, congenitally slothful, wracked by debilitating feelings of low self-worth, underachieving, prone to violence, etc.

So a majority of white Americans find him to be a safe, non-threatening black male whose distinctive cultural and biological exceptionalities endue him with the capacity to serve as a bridge between white and black America. Added to this is the seemingly insignificant but nonetheless remarkable fact of Obama’s genetic relationship to many ex-American presidents from his maternal genes.

A recent analysis of his DNA showed that he is distant cousins with more past American presidents than any living American president—or presidential candidate. His distant cousins include Gerald Ford, Lyndon Johnson, Harry S. Truman and James Madison. Other Obama cousins include British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and Civil War General Robert E. Lee. (Obama is, in fact, the 11th cousin of current President George Bush and the 9th cousin of Vice President Dick Cheney!). That doesn’t hurt a black man one bit.

Obama himself is acutely aware of his racial singularities. That’s why he has run on a “postracial” platform, a platform that was severely, if briefly, threatened when video clips of his pastor’s controversial, incendiary, and racially tinged sermons became public knowledge sometime ago.

I think, in the final analysis, it is a testament to the phenomenal strides in racial tolerance in the American society that a man sired by an African father even stands a chance to be president in a country whose constitution once called Africans “three-fifth of a man.”

But it will be overly simplistic and unfair to limit Obama’s acceptability to white America to historic guilt over slavery or to the fact of his remote ancestral linkages with the icons of white America. I am only bringing this up because many people tend to think that Obama’s race is, or will be, his major encumbrance. I am not, of course, discounting the fact that there are still many Americans who will never vote for a nonwhite person as president, but such people are, in the main, becoming endangered species in America.

I also think that many Americans believe electing Obama as president will send a strong and clear message to the world that America not only evangelizes the gospel of democracy to the rest of the world but also practices and lives it.

I have heard many Americans say that a “power shift” to Obama on January 2nd, 2009 will have the same kind of historic and symbolic significance as the March 4, 1797 handover of power to John Adams, America’s second president. On that day, George Washington, America’s first president, became the first person in the world to effortlessly hand over power to someone who was not his blood relation.

More importantly, Obama’s entry into America’s national politics has inspired an unprecedented number of hitherto apathetic, apolitical young Americans to get involved in politics. These new entrants into American politics, often dubbed “the Obama generation” by the American media, will be crucial in deciding who gets elected as America’s president in November this year.

Conservative Republicans have dominated the U.S. presidency largely because young people, who tend to be liberal and Democratic, don’t vote. But courtesy of the unexampled ways in which Obama’s entry into national politics has electrified and energized American young men and women, for the first in several years, the youth may turn out to vote in large numbers in the November presidential elections. And this bodes well for Obama.

It was Winston Churchill, Obama’s distant cousin, who once famously said that “a young person who isn’t a liberal has no heart, and an old person who isn’t a conservative has no brain.” This is obviously a broad stroke, but it essentially captures the connection between age and political affiliation.