Monday, May 19, 2008
When Barack Obama went bowling for votes during the Pennsylvania primary, he was trying to align himself with a traditionally white, working-class voting block. This effort failed, miserably.
Not only was Obama's bowling score terrible (a 37, for those of you who know anything about bowling), so was his statistical support among Pennsylvania's white, working-class voters.
Of course, Obama's difficulty in connecting fully with white, working-class voters as well as Hillary Clinton does is accounted for by much more than his lousy bowling skills. The primary cause is the common perception of him (a perception that he himself embraces) as "black." And like many other states, Pennsylvania has a high percentage of working-class whites, many of whom simply won't vote for a "black" candidate.
And yet, what people continually overlook about Obama is that he's actually half black, and half white.
As I've written before, Obama is perceived as African American, despite his biracial status, because by the magic of America's racial double standards, his white mother and black father had a black baby. If the parental situation were reversed, with a black mother and a white father, they still would've had a black baby.
In both the actual and the hypothetical case, the half of Obama that is black trumps the half of him that is white, because it's still the case that white women can have black babies, but black women can't have white ones. Ever since Obama was born, Americans have overlooked his white half, allowing the black half to rise up and virtually obliterate it.
Obama's opponents have occasionally called his patriotism into question, in part because he has declined the fashion option of a flag pin on his lapel. A more consistent reason for these doubts has been his presumed blackness. The automatic nature of this racial status, no matter which of the two parental options described above might have been the case for him, is a hangover from the days of America's more overtly white supremacist past, when people adhered to something called "the one-drop rule."
Becuase white Americans used to generally believe in the innate, genetic superiority of their race, threats to white racial purity, via sexual intermingling with the black race, were feared and denounced as a threat to that supposed superiority. Thus, as an expression of popular "common sense," the one-drop ruled stated that even one drop of black blood meant that a person was no longer "white," and was thus "black" instead.
The Wikipedia article on this rule is fascinating; it notes, for instance, that if America still fully adhered to this rule, people like Mariah Carey and Angelina Jolie would be considered African Americans. Fortunately, the rule's power as constructed common sense has faded, but it still informs our perception of Obama--a person who is a full 50% white--as black.
Remnants of one-drop thinking also inform our holding of Obama to standards that do not apply to Hillary Clinton, such as the demands for racial accountability that resulted in his delivery of a major speech on race because of racially charged comments made by his minister.* No similar demand for racial accountability was made of Clinton after racist comments that she herself delivered (for more on this double standard, see the post on Clinton's whiteness below). This racial double-standard applies to Obama but not to Clinton because she "is white," and because despite Obama being half-white, he "is black."
Most white Americans like to think that the white supremacist thinking that resulted in such absurdities as the one-drop rule is a thing of the past. However, a widespread favoring of whiteness clearly continues to guide our perceptions of reality. As Thomas DiPiero notes, "believing is seeing," and for most Americans, a mostly unconscious presumption is that the sight of a white American is that of a "true"American.
"American means white," as Toni Morrison has written, and there still is a sense in which the most genuine, full-blooded Americans are those with roots in its colonial past. Those, that is, who are white, and preferably even whiter than those from countries besides England who later became white. This current mode of subsumed white supremacy was recently exemplified by Kathleen Parker, a columnist for the Washington Post who questioned Obama's ability to fully embody and represent true American-ness because he is not "white."
Parker opens her column by quoting the preference of Josh Fry, a white West Virginian voter, for a "full-blooded" president. Fry cited full-bloodedness as his reason for liking John McCain more than Obama. Instead of explicating and denouncing the white supremacy that likely informs Fry's remark, Parker lauds it as a down-home bit of common-sense wisdom:
His feelings aren’t racist, he explained. He would just be more comfortable with “someone who is a full-blooded American as president.”
Whether Fry was referring to McCain’s military service or Obama’s Kenyan father isn’t clear, but he may have hit upon something essential in this presidential race.
"Essential" indeed. Parker tries to say that the essential difference between Obama and Clinton isn't so much "about race and gender as about heritage, core values and made-in-America." Parker never says as much, but the fact that Obama's father was a black man born in Kenya does makes him, for Josh Fry and for herself, less American than Clinton, less connected to those "core values." What Parker also implies, rather than directly states, is that Clinton is more American than Obama because she's more white.
"It’s about blood equity," Parker writes, "heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots. Some run deeper than others, and therein lies the truth of Josh Fry’s political sense."
Again, Parker steers clear of an outright statement about Obama's less-than-fully American black blood; the blood she directly refers to is that spilled by the real Americans in its many wars. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear just who these real, "ordinary" Americans are for Parker--the white ones:
What they know is that their forefathers fought and died for an America that has worked pretty well for more than 200 years. What they sense is that their heritage is being swept under the carpet while multiculturalism becomes the new national narrative. And they fear what else might get lost in the remodeling of America.
Aside from her blithe setting aside of the fact that for most of those 200 years, America wasn't working very well at all for African Americans, Parker gives voice here to a very common brand of contemporary white supremacist thinking. This is the mindset that considers the most ordinary, real, hard-working, sacrificing, and thus most deserving Americans to be the white ones. To declare them white would clearly be "racist," but to imply that they're white is supposed to be okay.
And to imply that Obama and his sort, including those African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans and others, whose free and underpaid labor did as much or more than that of many "white" Americans to "build this country"--to imply that these people are not as truly American because they're not white, is to write something so exclusionary and fundamentally racist that it's a wonder the Washington Post actually published it.
Bowing to what she would no doubt perceive as politically correct pressure not to call a spade a spade, and a white person better because she's not a spade, Parker declares Clinton the better choice for president because of DNA: "Clinton’s own DNA is cobbled with many of the same values that rural and small-town Americans cling to. She understands viscerally what Obama has to study."
If pressed to explain what she means by this difference, Parker would probably say that because Obama's father is from Kenya, at least half of his ancestry was not involved in the building of America with those small-town values. You know, those small white towns that kept black people out, and lynched them if they didn't stay out. (The temptation to point out the many racial blindspots in Parker's argument is hard to resist.)
And since those "values" somehow get passed down right through a person's "blood" and "DNA," Obama's racial status can only make him, at best, half as qualified for the presidency as the full, superior whiteness of Clinton makes her.
But for Parker and the many white Americans who think and "feel" this way (you know, with visceral feelings, those honest, real feelings), Obama isn't even half-white. He's black. Parker never mentions, of course, the extensive "roots" of Obama's ancestors in the kind of white genealogy she prefers. That Obama is actually related to Dick Cheney and can trace his ancestors back to colonial times is irrelevant for her, because she overlooks his whiteness. It's trumped by his blackness.
It would be nice to think that Parker's brand of covert white supremacy and various other degrees of it are not widespread, but they are. That's why Barack Obama doesn't spend much time bowling, or hunting, or downing beers and shots with good ol' white boys. He and his advisers know that the half of him that's black will almost always overshadow the half of him that's white.
Update: For another way in which the image of Barack Obama bowling resonates in racial terms, see Amy Goodman's piece on the murder of black protesters who sought the right to bowl. As Goodman writes,
it was not too long ago when African-Americans were not allowed in some bowling alleys. In Orangeburg, S.C., three young African-American men were killed for protesting against that town’s segregated bowling alley.
It was Feb. 8, 1968, months before the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. It was more than two years before the massacre of students at Kent State University in Ohio. Students at South Carolina State University were protesting for access to the town’s only bowling alley.
* In response to a question in the Comments about what Wright said that was "racist," I've replaced that word with the description "racially charged." I can't find any comments in Wright's church performances that qualify as "racist."