Monday, February 2, 2009
I was delighted and honored recently to receive an invitation to write a guest post from one of my favorite bloggers, Renee at Womanist Musings. If you're not reading her blog, you should be! Her analysis consistently gets me thinking in new ways, especially about the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways that power operates, both to oppress and to maintain itself. Here's a topic that I've been thinking about, which I turned into a guest post--the original and some comments appear at Renee's blog here. As always, I invite your further comments, there or here.)
Soon after the presidential election, many Americans—most of them white—beamed with nationalistic pride over Barack Obama’s victory. “Only in America!” they said with a patriotic smile and a hand on their hearts.
Well, okay, few of them actually had their hands on their hearts when they said that. But as the Obama administration gets underway, the patriotic pride such people continue to express when they talk about Obama, especially with that phrase, “only in America,” has struck me as excessive.
What are white people really saying when they say “only in America” in reference to Obama?
When Obama won, editorial writers across the country used the phrase in the titles of their jubilant celebrations of his victory. Or rather, their jubilant celebrations of America as a supposedly exceptional country, because it chose a black leader.
In “Obama . . . Only in America," which appeared in the Orlando Senior Examiner, Tom Holbrook wrote (amidst an array of oddly irrelevant numbers),
Only in America!!! On July 27, 2004, at the Fleet Center in Boston, MA, a young Illinois State Legislator, 8 days shy of his 43rd birthday, approached the podium and before thousands of screaming Democratic National Convention delegates delivered one of the most talked about and remembered Keynote Addresses of any political convention.
Fourteen weeks later this same young man would win the election for United States Senator from Illinois. Exactly 1,493 days later we would accept his party's nomination for Presidency of the United States and 66 days after that, at the age of 47, he stood before a live audience of 125,000 and a TV audience of many millions throughout the country and the world, and gave his victory speech as the 44th President-Elect of the United States of America. As I said at the top... only in America!!!
Holbrook emphasizes Obama’s youth here, as if that’s what makes his rise exceptional, but he soon moves on to his real cause for joy, Obama’s race. Or rather, the idea that despite Obama’s race, America elected him. And so, Holbrook’s real object of celebration is America itself, not an individual named Barack Obama:
For America, with an ugly history of black oppression and suppression, this momentous election is indeed an historic one and should speak loudly and clearly that the American credo of ‘In America anything is possible for anyone, who wants it and is willing to work for it,’ is still true.
In another example of this common white usage of Obama, also entitled “Only in America,” the editors of the San Diego Union-Tribune declared Obama’s victory “a profound testament that America is the land of opportunity. Less than 50 years after Jim Crow laws kept many blacks living second-class lives, a black man has been elected president. This is astonishing and heartening.”
So what are white people really doing when they express their appreciation for Obama this way?
It seems to me that they’re not really celebrating Obama himself; they’re using him to celebrate the supposedly exceptional country that elected him. They’re doing so in order to proclaim America an exception because its people have gotten over race to such an extent that they’re even willing to elect a black president. And so what they’re really talking about, when they say that such a thing could only happen in America, is white Americans.
I think that ultimately, this claim that Obama’s story is only possible in America could be a tacit assertion, or perhaps a recognition, that white Americans are still in power, as well as a claim that because they elected Obama, their racial group in general is no longer racist (never mind, of course, that only about 43% of white Americans voters voted for Obama).
But then, if the phrase “only in America” in this context has such racial, ultimately racist undertones, why did Obama himself often uses such terms to describe himself during his campaign? As New York Times columnist Frank Rich notes, Obama often framed his own rise the same way: “'In no other country on earth is my story even possible,' Obama is fond of saying.”
‘That is true,” Rich writes, “and that is what the country celebrates this week.” In his article—a meditation on the meaning of Obama’s ascendancy for race in America—Rich indicates that what he thinks America should be celebrating is not so much Obama himself, but rather a major milestone in ever-improving relations between black and white people, as manifested in a shiny new, black president. Once again, the real message is that white Americans can use Obama’s victory to pat themselves on the back for their collective goodheartedness.
During the campaign, Obama seemed to recognize a common desire among white Americans to congratulate themselves and their country this way. Although he rarely spoke directly about race, he (and/or his campaign staff) clearly recognized how that phrase, “only in America,” strikes a racial chord for many white Americans. In Obama’s one major speech that did focus directly on race, which he delivered in March of last year, he said,
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. . . . I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. [emphasis added]
Obama apparently delivered that speech in response to the Reverend Wright debacle, which tied him in racial terms to comments made by the preacher of his church (never mind, white Americans seemed to say, the far more outrageous comments made by John McCain’s spiritual advisor). If white concerns about Wright’s remarks did push him to make that speech, then what he said was largely addressed to white Americans, especially those who felt anxious about his blackness. Implicitly praising America for an exceptional egalitarianism that allowed his ascent, despite his racial makeup, was one way to calm such anxieties.
It is of course common wisdom that in order to get elected, politicians must cater to various voting blocks. Obama clearly addressed white voters at times, and one way to do so was by declaring America a great country, particularly because it is, supposedly, the only country where a rise like his is possible. This strategy was especially evident last August, when Obama accepted the Democratic nomination.
Afterward, the Democratic Convention closed with a song that had already been used on other patriotic occasions, "Only In America," by the country music duo Brooks and Dunn. The lyrics to “Only In America” actually express some ambivalence about American opportunity, and the official video includes a fairly diverse cast of “Americans.” However, the Brooks and Dunn audience is pure, flag-waving, “red, white and blue,” by which I mean, almost exclusively white. So again, attaching Obama to that phrase, “only in America,” resonates in especially racial terms, and specifically for white hearts and minds, as a way to celebrate America, more so than Obama himself.
Aside from the underlying racism of white American fondness for the idea of Obama’s rise as a singularly American possibility, there’s also the disillusioning fact that this claim isn’t true. Many other countries have seen the rise of minority figures to national leadership (and never mind, the American triumphalists again seem to say, the many other countries that have also elected women as their leaders).
As Noam Chomsky pointed out in an interview with Amy Goodman, Obama’s
election was described as an extraordinary display of democracy, a miracle that could only happen in America, and on and on. . . . [But take] the second poorest country, Bolivia. They had an election in 2005 that’s almost unimaginable in the West, certainly here, anywhere. The person elected into office was indigenous. That’s the most oppressed population in the hemisphere, that is, those who survived. He’s a poor peasant.
Chomsky also cited the election in Haiti of populist candidate Jean-Bertrand Aristide; Venezuela’s election of another first-time indigenous candidate, Hugo Chavez, seems to me another example. As David Berreby points out in a Slate article, many historical precedents also exist, as “people who came out of stigmatized ethnic minorities or ‘foreign' enclaves to lead their governments . . . are an uncommon but regularly recurring part of history”:
Alberto Fujimori, who held both Peruvian and Japanese citizenship, was elected president of Peru in 1990. Sonia Gandhi, born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino in northern Italy, led her Congress Party to a resounding victory in India's 2004 elections. Daniel arap Moi is from the Kalenjin people, not the Luo or Kikuyu who are the nation's largest ethnic groups and its centers of political gravity. But this did not bar him being president of Kenya from 1978 to 2002.
Obama himself may well believe that America really is the only nation on earth where a rise to the very top by someone like him is possible, but it seems to me that conceiving of his ascendancy that way is especially gratifying, and soothing, to white Americans. Like the suddenly prevalent claims that Obama (and even his daughters) are biracial, thinking of Obama's story as an "only in America" story also helps them feel like more a part of that story. It bridges a gap that many white Americans feel at some level between a president who's black and themselves as white.
As Toni Morrison writes of another cherished idea, the American Dream, "only in America" is a "well-fondled phrase." It seems to me that the Americans who fondle it most dearly are usually white Americans, and they do so because they want to hold onto a cherished and increasingly brittle conception of American greatness. They seem to feel that America’s supposed moral leadership is slipping away, and so holding up Obama as an example of America’s superiority, rather than as an individual, potentially great leader, becomes a way to use Obama’s blackness to assert a national delusion.
And so, finally, to celebrate Barack Obama’s rise to leadership as an “only in America” story is an insult—it’s a way of using him for one's own, ultimately racist purposes, like a cartoonish, blackfaced puppet.