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Obama and the End of Identity Politics

November 12th, 2008 · No Comments

One of the most unfortunate book titles of the last year was Shelby Steele’s A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can’t Win.

The book was published in December 2007, and beginning with the Iowa caucuses the following month, Steele had to explain with increasing difficulty why Obama still wouldn’t win.

Steele’s argument begins with race – his and Obama’s.

He begins his book, “The first thing I ever heard about Barack Obama was that he had a white mother and a black father.” A few paragraphs later, Steele, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University, revealed part of why he was excited about Obama. “I am rather sensitive to all this because I, too, was born to a white mother and a black father,” he wrote.

But, instead of seeing their racial heritage as a unique plus, or a neutral non-issue, Steele finds it a serious problem: “Our vulnerability is that both blacks and whites can use our impossible racial authenticity against us.”

The failure of Steele’s book subtitle, and the book’s argument, is that it is stuck in the same old identity politics, as if our outward racial, gender, class, regional, or religious identity should be our most important qualification, and that our identity predicts what our policies will be.

For Steele, the racial identity of African Americans forces them to be either “bargainers” (he gives the example of Oprah or Bill Cosby), those who assuage white guilt about American racial history, or “challengers,” those who presume whites and the system are racist until proven otherwise by the gift of a racial preference policy, like affirmative action.

Steele’s notion that Obama wouldn’t win is based on the idea that blacks would view “Obama the bargainer” as a sell-out to whites, and not support him, and whites would view “Obama the challenger” as some kind of Al Sharpton figure, rubbing white Americans’ noses in their racist history.

Caught between these two identities Obama would be a disappointment to both black and white Americans, Steele argued.

Identity—race, religion, and other variations—was still an issue in the campaign. Most of it bubbled below the surface with rumors that Obama is a Muslim (as if that in itself is a bad thing) or glided above the surface with lightly coded terminology about who constituted “real” Americans (wink, wink: if you are urban or suburban, highly educated, nonwhite, gay, or nonevangelical, you’re not real).

But, identity, to the Obama campaign’s credit, wasn’t the defining factor in this contest. Obama wasn’t running to be the first African American president.

Didn’t we want someone who can represent all of us, or at least try to? That was the difference of Obama’s campaign, compared to the past 30 years of identity politics, which has set us against each other for political advantage.

Ultimately, Obama’s authenticity wasn’t bound up in his brown skin, it was in his more convincing argument that he is the best candidate for the times, the most qualified candidate to deliver change. (Polls bear out that some made race their primary reason to vote, or not vote, for him, but in 2008 these voters didn’t constitute the majority.)

In an interview with Bill Moyers back in January, after Obama’s victory in Iowa, Shelby Steele still believed that Obama would not win, because we would be stuck with the same old race relations, the same identity politics, for a generation or two more.

But others on the right were more optimistic, and sensed that we really did need change in the discourse of campaigns. George Will, reviewing A Bound Man for the Washington Post, wrote: “Steele radically misreads Obama, missing his emancipation from those perversities. Obama seems to understand America’s race fatigue, the unbearable boredom occasioned by today’s stale politics generally and by the perfunctory theatrics of race especially.”

Whatever your politics might be, amid this time of falling stock values and budget deficits, Obama’s victory creates a huge surplus of global goodwill. Most Americans, and citizens of the world are genuinely excited by the prospect of an Obama presidency, even though Steele ultimately wasn’t. (He supported McCain.)

Ironically, the historic identity of an African American as president is a part of that goodwill.

But, the biggest source of goodwill comes from, and will ultimately be sustained by, the idea that this particular president bases his politics on more than simply identity.

Tags: Books · Elections

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