Sunday, January 6, 2008

Merely Symbolic

I know that a lot of my posts to this site have been about Obama. As some of you know, I’m writing something about him for academic publication, which is partly why the blog is oriented that way. I will be covering more than just his candidacy in the coming months (and btw, I’m not necessarily voting for him in the primaries). But today I want to address a common theme in the coverage of his Iowa win around which I see a lot of confusion and poor thinking: the “symbolic” nature of having a black man win the first race in the presidential nomination process.

This line of thinking usually goes in one of two directions: (1) Obama’s popularity is merely symbolic, and does not herald substantive change in the economic fortunes or social status of African Americans; or (2) Obama is only symbolically a black man—he was raised by a white family, has spent most of his life in white-dominated institutions, he “acts white” and so therefore isn’t “really black.”

I want to address the latter idea first. There is some validity to this point: racial structures are largely symbolic (there’s almost no genetic difference between racial groups—for those of you who argue that there’s now evidence that certain races are more prone to some kinds of genetic anomalies and so therefore there is genetic variation, I ask this: should we consider people of African descent and people of Ashkenazi Jewish descent as a single racial group because they’re both more prone to sickle-cell anemia?) But even if racial structures are symbolic they nevertheless produce serious material consequences. They determine, perhaps more than any other social identity, your economic placement as you work through adulthood.

There’s also the question of why we categorize a biracial person like Obama as black instead of white. In the U.S., we still live under the sway of “the one drop rule,” which means that anyone who has one parent from a dominant group and one parent (or other traceable blood ancestor) of another is automatically categorized as part of the non-dominant group. The “one drop rule” is an example of what anthropologists call “hypo-descent laws,” or social rules by which anyone of inter-group ancestry is automatically assigned to the less-esteemed group. Not all societies use hypo-descent laws; interestingly, many Islamic cultures assign mixed-group children to the more privileged group. These rules are a matter of tradition and social history, but that doesn’t mean that being assigned to one group or the other is without profound material consequences.

One thing I find interesting about this point is that it’s one I hear or read most frequently from white sources or from folks who in my guess haven’t had a whole lot of contact with black people. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m more or less as white as they come (we have a joke in my family about looking like poster children for Aryan Nation), so I’m not making any pretensions to “being down with the hood” here. But in my researches, I’ve had the good fortune to make professional acquaintance or friends with a fair number of academics of color, of a range of racial and economic backgrounds, and based on conversations of which I’ve been a part (as listener or more) I just want to offer the following: living your life in primarily white institutional settings does not necessarily determine you as “less black.” We all perform roles based on the institutional role we find ourselves inhabiting: we take on one with our kids, one with our teachers, one in our church, one with our boss, one with our friends, one with the cop writing us a ticket. If you want to get along with people, you learn to adopt—not just adapt—the culture of the group. But playing a role does not necessarily mean that your essential personhood is determined by it. Roles do affect us, there’s no doubt, but they as often work on us in ways surprising and unpredictable—for all we know, spending his life in white institutions may well have made Obama acutely aware of his racial identity, may have reinforced his own sense of his blackness, even when he may have thought he was trying to fit in with the white people around him. He claims as much in a telling moment from his autobiography:

I learned to slip back and forth between my black and white worlds, understanding that each possessed its own language and customs and structures of meaning, convinced that with a bit of translation on my part the two worlds would eventually cohere. Still, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right stayed with me, a warning that sounded whenever a white girl mentioned in the middle of conversation how much she liked Stevie Wonder or when a woman in the supermarket asked me if I played basketball; or when the school principal told me I was cool. I did like Stevie Wonder, I did love basketball, and I tried my best to be cool at all times. So why did such comments set me on edge? (Dreams from my Father, p. 82,

Obama describes here a sensation almost of being “caught-out,” as though his attempt to create a kind of cultural consistency between the two racial worlds with which he is identified is disrupted when white people attempt to identify with him through putatively “black” cultural objects (Stevie Wonder, basketball, coolness). Obama experiences this attempt as an act of exclusionary naming, as marking him as outsider at a time when he’s trying to fit in. The opening lines of this passage are key: “convinced that with a bit of translation on my part, the two worlds would eventually cohere.” What Obama learns in those moments is that he was marked as black regardless of how much he behaved like all the white teenagers around him; white people tell him all the time that he is black, even when they don’t mean to do so. He can’t “just be who he is,” which to him isn’t racially determined at all, because white people won’t let him. His racial identity is pointed out to him as inconsistent with, outside of, distinct from that of the largely white world he moves in.

If you believe that Obama is only symbolically black, I really do suggest that you read his wonderful autobiography. It details how he tried to sort out what it meant that he was biracial and considered black by the white world. He gets involved with black student groups in college, he lives in a black neighborhood and works with black organizations after he graduates and takes on community organizing. And it’s pretty clear that he feels a lot more at ease socially in those settings than he did in his white high school (his white mother and grandparents who raised him he seems to have loved with pretty few misgivings). It’s a compelling read as well, one that IMHO should be read by everyone who wants to understand better not only Obama’s pre-Harvard life (an important part of his personal formation), but a little about what it might be like to deal with being bi-racial. It would be a good read even if the guy weren’t a front-runner for president.

I have a similar point to make about the first line of argumentation as well, that Obama’s popularity (and his win in Iowa) is only symbolic. If racial systems are largely symbolic in origin but have weighty material consequences nevertheless, the same true of Obama’s popularity. I promise that it makes a huge difference to black children in U.S. to see somebody who looks like them making that victory speech in Des Moines. This one I fully concede is a comment based on personal experience—it made a huge difference to me as a little girl to see women protagonists on TV and film, in politics, in fiction. We learn behavior through what we see modeled for us; no models for black successful politicians, hard to become a black politician. It will make a big difference to just the possibility for a generation of black leaders in mainstream politics to emerge having Obama around. I’d be really surprised if there aren’t a lot more black children—especially boys—saying they want to be U.S. President this year in kindergarten. To be fair, whether or not they’re able to become one is another question, but just being able to imagine yourself in that position because there is already a black man sitting in the Oval Office in this country is a major, major change in our social realities, and one that should not be underestimated.

There is, of course, the Thatcher Problem—a political executive from a disenfranchised group will by no means necessarily push through policies that improve the conditions of that group. Margaret Thatcher was the head of a political party (and political movement) that created policies with horrible effects for women. But it’s also true that there are more women MPs in the British Parliament now than there were in 1979 when she became Prime Minister. Some of that is generational—more women have become represented in high-prestige professions in general over the last forty years. But the exponential growth of that dynamic is at least in part due to having women already working in those fields. Again, to use personal experience (which I know is flawed as a way to analyze large-scale social dynamics, but bear with me), I was a teenager in Britain in the ‘80s and it made a huge impression on me to see a woman making policy, shouting down and outwitting other MPs during Question Time, brokering treaties as Head of State, and getting the kinds of attention and respect that in my own country was reserved solely for men. It meant that I could imagine myself doing those things, something I hadn’t done before, and it demonstrated to me that a woman could in fact “do it.” I find it really hard to believe that having Obama serving in those capacities won’t make a difference in the racial make-up of the U.S. Congress, and of the Oval Office.

Perhaps this is part of what Obama means by “the politics of hope,” for which he’s often derided—that part of voting for him is putting into action your hope that the symbolic realm can make a difference for the better, and not just for the worse. We are most of us wholly persuaded by the latter—we wouldn’t have ongoing debates about stereotypes in the media or the effect of pornography if we weren’t. Perhaps it’s time to allow ourselves to imagine that the symbolic realm can create positive social outcomes as well.

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