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The High Possibility
The first thing I ever heard about Barack Obama was that he had a white mother and a black father. Interestingly, the person who informed me of this spoke only matter-of-factly, with no hint of the gossip's wicked delight. Yet this piece of information was presented as vital, as one of those all-important facts about a person that, like the first cause of a complex truth, plays a role in everything that follows. Apparently, it is Barack Obama's fate to have notice of his racial pedigree precede even the mention of his politics -- as if the pedigree inevitably explains the politics. And I suspect that some people would feel a bit defrauded were they to hear his political ideas and only later learn that he was racially mixed.
Of course, I am rather sensitive to all this because I, too, was born to a white mother and a black father, though I did not fully absorb this fact, which would have been so obvious to the outside world, until I was old enough to notice the world's fascination -- if not obsession -- with it. To this day it is all but impossible for me to actually stop and think of my parents as white and black or to think of myself, therefore, as half and half. This is the dumb mathematics of thinking by race -- dumb because race is used here as a kind of bullying truth that pushes aside actual human experience. So I never know what people really want to know when they ask me what it is like to be -- and here come the math words -- "biracial" or "multiracial" or "multicultural." The self as the answer to an addition problem.
But, as best as I can surmise, what people really want to know is what it is like to have no race to go home to at night. We commonly think of race as a kind of home, a place where they have to take you in; and it seems the very stuff of alienation to live without solid footing in such a home. If this alienation is not nearly as dramatic as the old "tragic mulatto" stories would suggest, it nevertheless does exist. How could it not in a society like America where race once meant the difference between slavery and freedom? Racist societies enforce the idea of race as home by making race an inescapable fate. So, still today, this fundamentally odd -- even primitive -- idea remains embedded in our democratic national culture, the legacy of our past. People who are the progeny of two races have a more ambiguous racial fate and, therefore, at least some feeling of homelessness. They stand just outside the reach of that automatic racial solidarity that those born of one race can take for granted.
So, people like Barack Obama and me are always under a degree of suspicion. The "one drop" rule formulated in the days of slavery -- one drop of black blood makes you black -- consigns us to the black race (happily so for me and, I would imagine, for Obama as well), but the fact of an immediate white parent differentiates us and interrupts solidarity with blacks. And all this is worsened by the fact that whites are historically the "oppressor" race. Thus, by the dumb logic of racial thinking, our very mother's milk comes through a collaboration with the enemy. More literally, this "collaboration" may mean that we enjoy more exposure to the dominant culture, more advantages in a color-conscious society. Mistrust and even resentment from other blacks often ensues. And from whites come the sneers one commonly hears in reference to Obama -- "he's not even really black."
Our vulnerability is that both blacks and whites can use our impossible racial authenticity against us. Both races can throw up our mixed background to challenge our authority to speak. And both races can squeeze us in a blueslike double bind where the absurdity is as comic as it is tragic: we dismiss you for not being authentically black, yet we will never accept you as authentically black. Ha ha. When people can call you inauthentic and undermine your moral authority, they have a degree of power in relation to you. And where they have power, you have vulnerability.
This would have to be an old and tiresome vulnerability in Barack Obama's life (as it is in mine), and all the more so because he has chosen a public life. One senses that his first book, Dreams from My Father, was meant in part to diffuse some of this vulnerability. In it he does not merely "own up" to his interracial background as if to a past indiscretion; he candidly explores it. He practices that brave and aggressive self-disclosure that disarms by taking away the gossip's ability to surprise. It is harder to deploy a man's vulnerability against him when he publishes it in a book.
Still, I glimpsed some of the weariness he must feel at having this vulnerability regularly probed in a 60 Minutes interview that aired near the launching of his presidential campaign. It was the usual 60 Minutes setup, the camera in close enough for a dermatological exam. And there sat Obama, perfectly composed and seemingly ready for anything, the now famous ears framing his good looks in eternal boyishness. The correspondent, Steve Kroft, asked a series of predictable political questions and then, hunching forward a bit, entered the territory of identity. There was an allusion to the mixed-race background, and a question about how Obama saw himself. And here -- probably because I knew so well what to look for -- I saw the very faintest exasperation come into his eyes and then instantly vanish. Barack Obama has no doubt had a lifetime of rehearsals for this moment, and he must have had a hundred answers immediately at hand, all rehearsed to the point of glibness. Yet the answer he finally gave had real pathos precisely because it was so glib.
He was "rooted," he said, in the African-American community, but he was also "more than that." To be sure, this is the formulation of a man with a very complex identity trying, understandably, to make himself simpler and more recognizable to a society not used to pondering his like. Yet, this is also a formulation that reduces Obama's identity to a banality. What could "rooted" or "more than that" mean? How would the two be simultaneously possible? And, for that matter, what could "African-American community" really mean? A culture? A politics? To become recognizable, he processes himself through the same dumb racial math -- he is one thing plus something else -- that has been the very source of his vulnerability. He collaborates with the same tired racial conventions that made him an odd man out to begin with.
And yet a great part of Obama's appeal in broader America -- especially his political appeal -- can be chalked up to his complex identity. He is interesting for not fitting into old racial conventions. Not only does he stand in stark contrast to a black leadership with which Americans of all races have grown exhausted -- the likes of Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and Julian Bond -- he embodies something that no other presidential candidate possibly can: the idealism that race is but a negligible human difference. Here is the radicalism, innate to his pedigree, that automatically casts him as the perfect antidote to America's corrosive racial politics. After all, this is the radicalism by which Martin Luther King put Americans in touch -- if only briefly -- with their human universality. Barack Obama is the progeny of this idealism. And, as such, he is a living rebuke to both racism and racialism, to both segregation and identity politics -- to any form of collective chauvinism. For all his misfittedness, he also embodies a great and noble human aspiration: to smother racial power in a democracy of individuals. To stand in the glow of so high an aspiration is to seem a bit enchanted or, at the very least, charismatic.
It doesn't matter that he sometimes goes along with race-based policies, or that he made his own Faustian bargain with affirmative action (no college-bound black of his generation could avoid this self-compromise). No one is excited because Obama nods to identity politics; people are excited because he represents an idealism that opposes such politics. Any black who takes on the near-absolute visibility that goes with seeking such high office will function as both a man and a symbol, and sometimes the two will be at odds. So it is not surprising that Obama the man may vary a bit from Obama the symbol.
And, as a symbol, he raises several remarkable possibilities. Is America now the kind of society that can allow a black -- of whatever pedigree -- to become the most powerful human being on earth, the commander of the greatest military in history? Have our democratic principles at last moved us beyond even the tribalism of race? And will the black American identity, still so reflexively focused on victimization, be nullified if a black wins the presidency of this largely white nation?
The cultural and historical implications of Obama's candidacy are clearly greater than its public policy implications. While Obama the man labors in the same political vineyard as his competitors, mapping out policy positions on everything from war to health care, his candidacy itself asks the American democracy to virtually complete itself, to achieve that almost perfect transparency where color is indeed no veil over character -- where a black, like a white, can put himself forward as the individual he truly is. This is the aspirational significance of Obama's campaign, the high possibility that it points to quite apart from its policy goals.
Copyright © 2008 by Shelby Steele