The Promise of America

November 18, 2008 at 4:42 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)

 

Barack Hussein Obama’s election as President of the United States is, as innumerable commentators continue to point out, a momentous, path breaking, and rejuvenating turn in US history. Obama’s life story, his biracial identity, and his meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency all point to a central myth of American self-fashioning, whereby one can make oneself anew in the new land. In the eighteenth century Hector St. John de Crevecoeur asked a question quintessentially related to the United States: ‘What is an American’?

Crevecoeur’s answer implied that the American is special because he is not subject to the constraints of his European forbears; the American has unique opportunities to make his own life anew, to refashion himself as if there was no past; in America history begins. ‘He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. … There is room for everybody in America;’[1] Obama’s election represents one of these pivotal moments of change, of transformative agency which the rest of the world desires but cannot engineer in quite the same way as the United States has done. Part of the acclamation and euphoria – especially in Europe – can barely conceal the fact that Obama is the first non-white leader in the Western world, and there are no Obamas likely to spring from European soil in the foreseeable future. Europe’s celebration – genuine though it is in the hope of new directions in US foreign, economic, and environmental policy – reveals the extent to which race relations in the ‘old world’ are mired in platitudes of multiculturalism and diversity training. This is a moment for America to proudly proclaim its catholicity, that ‘there is room for everybody in America.’

 

The change that Obama intoned during his campaign and premised in his election is related to the history of slavery – the ‘original sin’ of America’s founding – and that fought for and dreamt of by Civil Rights leaders. Again, this has been commented upon to emphasize the extent to which the nation has not only changed since the days of slavery and Jim Crow laws, but the manner in which the country has redeemed itself in electing a black president, putting to rest the demons of a shameful past of overt and often violent racism. The transformation since the time of lynchings, beatings, and segregation is indeed dramatic. African-Americans such as John Lewis who survived the beatings at Selma or the Rev. Jesse Jackson have testified to a sense of disbelief and wonderment, of awakening to a world hitherto inconceivable in their lifetime. Obama has acknowledged that he stands on the shoulders of giants who preceded him, who indeed made his moment possible and real. In his speeches he seems to encapsulate the inclusivity articulated by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his immortal ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. That sense of inclusion is crucial for a contemporary black community apt to blame the white man for all their travails, to thrive on a diet of victimhood thereby disabling a crucial aspect of their ‘Americanness’, the ability to refashion themselves anew. In the example and life of Barack Obama they see a possibility now of renewing the American Dream, of re-entering the community from which they were excluded or excluded themselves. Inclusiveness is also implied in the fact that Obama could not have won without significant support from white people. There was no ‘Bradley effect’ this time round because blacks, Hispanics, and whites voted for an idea of a future not entirely corralled by race. In this context it is obviously interesting that Obama is biracial, that when his parents married inter-racial marriages were against the law in 22 of the United States, and that anti-miscegenation laws were on the statute books in Alabama till 2000. Thus this election holds out the hope of a ‘post-racial’ America where policies and intelligence, rather than race will determine suitability for elected office.

 

The hope of transcendence is further bolstered by the fact that Obama seemingly overcame a prejudice related to Islam and the idea that his middle name designated him as a Muslim. Islamophobia existed in the US prior to 9/11 as Edward Said, among others pointed out. 9/11, however, legitimated a pillorying and worse of Islam in ways that race or sexual orientation cannot be, at least in public conversation. The easy trashing of Islam and Muslims was evident during the campaign when rumours of Obama’s Islamic faith and his terrorist leanings circulated virally over the internet. The connection between Islam and terrorism was heightened during some of the McCain-Palin rallies and when Palin declared that Obama had been ‘palling around with terrorists’. Although it was William Ayres, the former Weather Underground bomber that Palin was referring to it was easy for Republican crowds to portray Obama as a terrorist because of his Muslim middle name and the fact that he had been in school in Indonesia.[2] The demonization of Obama as Muslim was not impacted by the fact that he is a Christian and had some traction both during and after the campaign. Moreover, as Colin Powell pointed out in his endorsement of Obama, being Muslim is not in itself a negative appellation or attribute; that it should be seen as such says much about America and its peculiar pathology vis-à-vis Islam. Every election campaign has its negative and hateful aspects. This one was unique in the ways in which Obama was consistently portrayed as un-American, an alien, and an outsider with dubious connections and therefore not to be trusted with the presidency. Here too the suspicion harks back to the question of who or what is an American? Can a biracial man with a peripatetic childhood and a ‘funny name’ be classified as ‘American’? The currency of these ideas did not disappear after the elections. Michael E. Ruane of the Washington Post noted this the day after the elections. A McCain supporter in Houston, Texas reversed the once-in-a-lifetime narrative of the Obama win: ‘“It’s going to be very painful,” Charles Leff, 81, said of an Obama win. He added: “I never would’ve believed it. Not in my lifetime.”[3] Among others Ruane quoted ‘Sean Frost, 23, another disgruntled McCain supporter, [who] said, “They elected a terrorist.”’[4] These could be dismissed as natural post-election blues from the losing side but they presage a narrative of resentment and hate which has emerged across the country since the election.

 

Anti-Obama and racist graffiti was scrawled in a multi-racial locality in New York soon after the election. An article on November 15 documented the extent of race threats and crimes following Obama’s landslide victory:

Cross burnings. Schoolchildren chanting “Assassinate Obama.” Black figures hung from nooses. Racial epithets scrawled on homes and cars.

 

Incidents around the country referring to President-elect Barack Obama are dampening the postelection glow of racial progress and harmony, highlighting the stubborn racism that remains in America.

 

From California to Maine, police have documented a range of alleged crimes, from vandalism and vague threats to at least one physical attack. Insults and taunts have been delivered by adults, college students and second-graders.[5]

 

The article catalogues instances of hate such as leaving faeces in pizza boxes outside the house of Obama supporters the day after the election as well as second and third grade students in Idaho saying that Obama should be ‘assassinated’. What is disturbing about the latter instance is the way in which younger minds have received and then repeat hate speech from adults. Within this paradigm the change presaged by Obama’s election is a travesty, a ruination of America and its founding ideals which are premised as fundamentally white, Anglo-Saxon, and Christian. The article quotes one Grant Griffin, a 46-year old white Georgia native who said: ‘“I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change. If you had real change it would involve all the members of (Obama’s) church being deported.”’[6] It is possible that these are lone voices and stray incidents but to dismiss them as such is to overlook a not-so-subterranean sense of outrage and a recrudescence of racist hatred. For better and for worse Obama’s election represents a seismic change in American politics in terms of its actual and symbolic representative and while this is a welcome and long overdue one for African Americans, minorities, and liberal whites, it is a moment of fear and anxiety for the rest. ‘Change in whatever form does not come easy, and a black president is “the most profound change in the field of race this country has experienced since the Civil War,” said William Ferris, senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina. “It’s shaking the foundations on which the country has existed for centuries.”[7] The contours of this recent change will be shaped in the years to come and much will depend on President Obama’s success or lack thereof. There can be no doubt that his ascendancy to the position is a ‘profound’ shift and representative of the ways in which America has been transformed in political, electoral, demographic, and attitudinal terms. To point to the post-election incidences of racial hatred is not to undermine the changes but to highlight how the Obama revolution brings to the fore contradictions and fissures within the American polity that cannot be wished away.[8] To cite Ferris once more: ‘“Someone once said racism is like cancer. It’s never totally wiped out, it’s in remission.”’[9] There can be no ‘post-racial’ utopia in the sense of erasing racial prejudice or hate speech. While Obama will have to tackle two wars, the economic meltdown, climate change, and a host of other major issues, he is the heir to both the hope of a new world and the bitterness of loss for a significant section of America. That sense of loss cannot merely be dismissed by liberal elites as the voice of unenlightened barbarians clinging to their guns, religion, and bitterness. In this sense the context of the American Civil War is important because it brings to the fore another era of loss and disenchantment. In many ways America has worked its way through that period and Obama’s presidency is part of a trajectory of hope and fulfilment arising from the Emancipation Proclamation and subsequent battles for black and minority empowerment. That this is only a beginning was evident in Obama’s sober and down-to-earth acceptance speech in Chicago but he too shied away from the contradictions of race. While Obama ascends to the most powerful position in the world he would be aware of his co-ethnics who are not only in prison or ghettoized by poverty and lack of education, but those who now face the bigotry unleashed by his very power. This is perhaps an unintended consequence of his success but it highlights both the immense possibilities and the perils of this epochal moment. America is unique in its ability to reinvent itself, to reenergize and fulfil its sense of possibility and destiny. That is what Barack Obama represents in his person and in the people who have put their faith in him. The promise of America, however, is a work in progress and this is but one stage towards the possibility of a ‘more perfect union’.

– Subarno Chattarji


[1] Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, ‘Letter III: What is an American?’ Letters from an American Farmer. 1782. London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1951, 45, 57.

 

[2] Some sources projected Obama as a Muslim anti-Christ.

[3] Michael E. Ruane, ‘With Obama Win, Elation and a Lingering Divide,’ The Washington Post, November 5, 2008, A10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] ‘Obama election spurs race threats, crimes,’ Associated Press, November 15, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27738018/page/2/print/1/displaymode/1098

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] One salient contradiction was the passing of Proposition 8 in California outlawing gay marriages, a proposition supported by a majority of black and Hispanic voters.

[9] ‘Obama election spurs race threats, crimes,’ Associated Press, November 15, 2008, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/27738018/page/2/print/1/displaymode/1098

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