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.

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Big Losers

Aaaand they’re off!

For all that reporters are making surprised noises about Huckabee’s and Obama’s victories in Iowa yesterday, for those of us who were poll-addicted over the holidays the results from last night were certainly well within the realm of possibility. Even Huckabee’s win as the evangelical “insurgent” has precedent; Pat Robertson was close on Bob Dole’s heels in Iowa in 1996 (they won 23% and 26% of votes respectively), but he never gained that kind of enthusiasm anywhere else.

There are several serious omissions from the mainstream election coverage that I find troubling. I’m going to abandon my performance-based analysis this morning to point out some major issues that emerged for me in the course of last night’s reporting but that major news outlets neglected to discuss in much detail. Some of these ideas have been covered in blogs, but either they haven’t been discussed in detail or haven’t been brought together in one place.

1) Iowa is not a primary and the caucuses violate the most basic tenets of democratic process. Chris Hitchens, of whom I’m not particularly a fan, had a good piece on the problems of the caucuses yesterday in Slate, but these issues warrant repeating. They’re held for two hours in the evening—if you can’t be there at that limited time, you can’t vote. If you vote in the Democratic caucuses, you don’t even get to vote anonymously—you mill about towards a poster of a candidate with all your neighbors and co-workers and family members watching your decision. This leaves the “voting” subject to all kinds of peer pressure, and as Mike Madden puts it today in Salon, looks "more like an elementary school recess activity gone awry than an exercise in democracy." As those on the fence try to make up their minds, their friends in the other groups call to them to persuade them to their corner. The caucuses don’t even follow one-person, one-vote procedure. In certain precincts, the votes are weighted based on participation from that precinct in the last caucus. So if you vote in a precinct that was poorly attended in 2004, your vote is worth less than that of a voter from well-attended precinct. This phenomenon is especially troubling when you consider that you’re far more likely to vote in the first place if you’re wealthy enough to own a car to get to the caucus, to afford a baby-sitter to watch your kids, or have a job that you can leave at six p.m. to get to the caucus—the upshot of this is that if you live in a rural county, your vote doesn’t carry the same weight as those in a suburban county. If the U.N. were to observe the caucuses, they would declare them illegal and invalid. We don’t let our high schools elect their class presidents this way. Why do we use this system to elect the president of the nation? It’s time to end the caucuses.

2) Mike Huckabee does not believe in evolution. This position is not just a matter of Huckabee’s religious beliefs; it has major policy ramifications, which makes it not just an appropriate point of analysis for our reporters, but a necessary one. This platform will not only effect the way education would be structured should Huckabee win the election (even as vice-president, which I heard kicked about as a possibility last night), there will be ripples felt throughout the economic sector as the U.S. becomes less and less able to produce people who understand basic scientific operations that are the basis for expanding technologies. Moreover, the denial of evolution is akin to a denial of gravity. It isn’t like a theological debate over transubstantiation; it demonstrates a clear lack of reasoning on Huckabee’s part. Evolution is an objectively observable process. I’m not sure which is more upsetting: that we have a major front-runner who claims that one of the basic laws of biology simply doesn’t exist, or that none of our major news outlets have drawn attention to this facet of his candidacy.

3) Obama and Huckabee are not outsiders. The major spin last night was that the caucus results offered a victory for the outsider, the underdog, the insurgent (more on this last term below). This conception is simply untrue for Huckabee, who is the former governor of Arkansas (hint: Bill Clinton’s job before he was president—not coincidentally, Huckabee took over after Clinton’s Lieutenant and successor Jim Tucker resigned after a fraud conviction for his part in the largely Republican-constructed Whitewater scandal). But it’s even less true of Obama; he had backing from major donors, many of whom are long-standing contributors to the Democratic party. Remember the dust-up over Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen over the summer? Oprah campaigned for him, for crying out loud—you don’t get a whole lot more establishment than that, even if she’s not normally a fixture in electoral politics.

4) What Obama did in Iowa that was unusual, and that reflected his pre-Harvard origins as the little guy, was instruct his Iowa operation to run as community organizers. He had volunteers (not just paid staff) working for him who went out and really tried to get to know the locals they were trying to persuade. They had beers with them. They held public forums to which folks could bring their kids. They worked through the local churches to find out what people needed. My guess is that the personal touch really paid off for him in the long run, just as a similar church-based organizing structure worked for Huckabee.

5) John Edwards is a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. Of the more breathtaking omissions in the coverage from last night was the near dismissal of Edwards’ slip past Clinton. Apparently, the newsrooms are so attached to their narrative about the Democratic race as one between a black man and a white woman that they’re just not going to talk about Edwards. He mounted an impressive operation in Iowa—stumping in the oft-neglected rural western part of the state in ways that clearly paid off for him. Moreover, he’s the one Democratic candidate front-runner who has truly embraced populist politics. He’s been very vocal about corporate corruption in the U.S., and has pointed out repeatedly that the entities who hold the reins of power are not about to give up their influence without a fight. He spent a lot of energy exposing the glaring hypocrisy of Clinton’s idea that corporate interests “need a place at the table” when we sort out health care, for example. Iowa voters responded to his role as the boy who points out that the Emperor has no clothes. I suspect that they will in other states as well, but we’ll have to watch to find out. The Democratic race is genuinely a three-way one.

6) Giuliani took an utterly humiliating face-in-the-mud finish at sixth place with only four percent of the take. Personally, I feel particularly good about this given the “vote to crush the muslims” campaign ad he’s been running, which is possibly the most meticulously manipulative, racist ad since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, one more reminiscent of the anti-Japan film shorts run in U.S. movie houses in the wake of Pearl Harbor than a contemporary campaign ad. Joe Biden and Chris Dodd had the good grace to pull out after their results last night, and it’s time for Giuliani to do the same. He’ll almost certainly stick around to see how he performs in New Hampshire, but the Republican base in Iowa seem to think that he’s just a bad, bad choice for leader.

7) We should be worried that we’re using the Bush administration’s language of war to describe our electoral process. I can’t be the only person disturbed that so many commentators talked of “surges” and “insurgents” last night, and not just because these were inaccurate descriptions of what happened. One of the hallmarks of fascism is the saturation of daily discourse with the vocabulary of war, making war seem normal, everyday, and unremarkable. We’re watching this happen now, and not just from outlets like Fox where one would expect that kind of language to hold sway; I heard commentators on NPR this morning calling Obama and Huckabee “insurgents.” I’ve been concerned for a while that we’re losing our ability to think about events outside of the way the Bush Administration has constructed them for us; the bellicose descriptions of the caucuses chillingly confirmed this for me. Is our political vocabulary truly so impoverished that we can no longer imagine the world outside of war?