Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sociological Thoughts About Barack Obama

When I teach a Race & Ethnicity course, I show students a portion of a 60 Minutes interview with Barack Obama dating back to 2007.

Here are some interesting parts of the interview, beginning around the 6 minute mark:

1) Obama gives a sociological answer about his racial identity: "If you look African-American in this society, you're treated as an African American...and...when you're a child in particular, that is how you begin to identify yourself."

2) Steve Kroft asks: "You think the country's ready for a black president?" (Remember when that was a common question discussed in various media outlets? Two elections later, we have an answer to the question.)

3) Kroft says: "There are African-Americans who don't think that you're black enough..." Not Kroft's finest moment. As part of his answer, Obama says: "I also notice when I'm catching a cab, nobody's confused about that either..."

4) Kroft asks Michelle Obama a question to find out if she is concerned about his safety. She says: "I don't lose sleep over it. Because the realities are, as a black man, Barack can get shot going to the gas station. You can't make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen..."

This interview goes well with one of the assigned readings in our course, "Black by Choice" by Melissa Harris-Perry, from April 2010. Her piece begins:
"President Obama created a bit of a stir in early April when he completed his Census form. In response to the question about racial identity the president indicated he was "Black, African American or Negro." Despite having been born of a white mother and raised in part by white grandparents, Obama chose to identify himself solely as black even though the Census allows people to check multiple answers for racial identity. This choice disappointed some who have fought to ensure that multiracial people have the right to indicate their complex racial heritage. It confused some who were surprised by his choice not to officially recognize his white heritage. It led to an odd flurry of obvious political stories confirming that Obama was, indeed, the first African-American president."
Later in the piece, she writes: "But Obama did more than disrupt standard definitions of blackness; he created a definitional crisis for whiteness." She makes the case that Obama's candidacy disrupted the idea of whiteness; she suggests that the selection of Sarah Palin as Vice-Presidential candidate was a "desperate attempt to reclaim and redefine whiteness as a gun-toting ordinariness that eschews traditional and elite markers of achievement."

Harris-Perry offers this analysis:
"Obama's whiteness in this sense is frightening and strange for those invested in believing that racial categories are stable, meaningful and essential. Those who yearn for a postracial America hoped Obama had transcended blackness, but the real threat he poses to the American racial order is that he disrupts whiteness, because whiteness has been the identity that defines citizenship, access to privilege and the power to define national history."
She concludes:
"So in April, Obama did as he has done repeatedly in his adult life: he embraced blackness, with all its disprivilege, tumultuous history and disquieting symbolism. He did not deny his white parentage, but he acknowledged that in America, for those who also have African heritage, having a white parent has never meant becoming white."
For more resources about Obama, fast forward to August 2012 to read "Fear of a Black President," an amazing piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I think this might be the best piece that's been written about Obama. Coates writes:
"The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches."
And here is Coates in a piece he wrote last month, entitled "The Champion Barack Obama":
"Barack Obama was not prophecy. Whatever had been laid before him, it takes gifted hands to operate, repeatedly, on a country scarred by white supremacy. The significance of the moment comes across, not simply in policy, by in the power of symbolism. I don't expect, in my lifetime, to again see a black family with the sheer beauty of Obama's on such a prominent stage. (In the private spaces of black America, I see them all the time.) I don't expect to see a black woman exuding the kind of humanity you see here on such a prominent stage ever again. (In the private spaces of black homes, I see it all the time.) And no matter how many times I've seen it in my private life, at Howard, in my home, among my close friends, I don't ever expect to see a black man of such agile intelligence as the current president put before the American public ever again."
He ends the piece this way:
"There are moments when I hear the president speak and I am awed. No other resident of the White House, could have better explained to America what the George Zimmerman verdict meant. And I think history will remember that, and remember him for it. But I think history will also remember his unquestioning embrace of "twice as good" in a country that has always given black people, even under his watch, half as much."

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