The President’s Racial Politics
Originally Published in the Huffingtonpost.com
With the national euphoria of inauguration, the multi-billion dollar corporate bailouts, and even the historic economic stimulus all recent memories, one untold story of the early days of Barack Obama's presidency remains-the advent of a concise, bold and fearless new racial politics.
"Subverting race," Jabari Asim, editor of the Crisis magazine, calls it in his important new book What Obama Means.
And President Obama's uncanny knack for it takes on even greater significance post election-not simply avoiding the predicable knee-jerk behavior of traditional politics that for too long has governed race business, but advancing a more enlightened, informed and balanced racial outlook that shifts the debate at the same time.
It's a new racial politics for a US president that, if maintained and amplified in the days ahead, will fly in the face of Barack Obama's predecessors.
Although there have been other sightings (Attorney General Eric Holder's statement in February that when it comes to race, America "is a nation of cowards," for example), mostly this new racial politics has come in the form of Obama's foreign policy overtures: toward European leaders as partners we actually respect, and the recognition of Iran, Korea, Cuba and others as sovereign nations with their own national interests.
Of course there was also President Obama's strike back at the handshake backlash:
"It's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."
A New York Times/ CBS poll released last week hints that something is afoot. Its chief finding was that Americans across race since the election of Barack Obama were more optimistic about race relations. 66 percent surveyed last month said race relations are good, compared to 53 percent who said the same nearly a year ago.
The right, which has long advocated the old racial politics at home and abroad, especially when dealing with non-Western (read: black and brown) leaders, has spent much of the last three months struggling for a response. This has meant rifling through their well-worn playbook and hurling literal sticks and stones like "dictators," "national security," and "anti-Americanism."
All seem desperate attempts to maintain a global racial politics perfected during the Bush years, especially when one of the "dictators" in question is the democratically elected leader of his country.
What else could have pushed former Vice President Dick Cheney to make more prominently positioned media appearances in a week than during most of the last eight years?
"He has gone to Europe, for example, and seemed to apologize profusely," Cheney said expressing his disdain for the new president's way of engaging world leaders, "and then to Mexico, and apologized there...Both our friends and our foes will be quick to take advantage of a situation if they think they're dealing with a weak president or one who is not going to stand up and aggressively defend America's interests."
Newt Gingrich, the Republican presidential hopeful in-waiting, added to this in his April 21st appearance on Fox News: "If the president recently bowed to the Saudi King, he has been friendly to the Iranians . . . he basically backed off his threat to the North Koreans, he has made life easier for the Castro dictatorship in Cuba, why not be friendly with Hugo Chavez? It sends a terrible signal . . . to how the administration regards dictators."
From Cheney and Gingrich right on down the food chain, these proclamations parallel the stuff of the slave codes of the 18th and 19th centuries, those laws enacted to govern behavior between whites and blacks in order to ensure that white supremacy wouldn't be a matter of chance. If both are as fixated on symbols as their comments suggest, are these metaphoric calls for the return to the good old days?
Luckily for the future of the country, Americans across the board aren't buying in. The same New York Times / CBS poll referenced above found Barack Obama's job approval rating (68 percent) to be higher than any recent US President.
Such support is fortunate, as President Obama attempts to swing the pendulum on race.
It turns out that the "change we can believe in" includes a change in racial politics after all. Who knew?
To be sure, as is the case of any social transformation, real progress is going to take the effort of everyday people. And that will require organizations like the NAACP, Urban League, and emerging activists of the younger generation to get out of the proverbial deer-in-the-headlights awe of having elected the first Black president.
Instead, now is the time to begin to supplement these new day efforts.
May 5, 2009