It is quite easy to fall into racial traps. Thankfully, with the election of Barack Obama some of those traps are becoming more obvious, if no less disturbing and often just as tragically comical.
The latest insult black Americans are facing after generations of racial injury and injustice is the weird notion by many more whites than one might imagine that Obama is really not black after all.
This is odd because for some, he is, in the words of a racist song, “Barack, the Magic Negro”. And for others he has magically gone from a black Senator to a mixed-race President of the United States.
Of course, our racial categories are a social construction rather than a biological reality. But such illusions have very real consequences including carefully designed codes of whiteness and blackness which have often instilled feelings of insecurity in black people and -- more often -- racial superiority within whites.
Discrimination was not typically based on degrees of colour, but on a clear dividing line as to what constituted black and white. A mob readying itself to lynch a man of Obama’s complexion during Jim Crow would not have said, “Stop, he’s mixed race, let’s go find ourselves a real nigger!”
Further, racial codes are often fastened to the issue of class. An even lighter skinned and lower income black man than Obama, caught up in the criminal justice system is obviously black while the leader of the most powerful nation on earth must be mixed race.
You see the play? Black is equated with failure, while success requires a mixed race explanation. Obama’s rise explodes and exposes many racial stereotypes by those who are still struggling to understand an age old reality which America’s newest President represents. This includes his Vice President.
Suppose that then Senator Joe Biden said of his colleague Joseph Lieberman during the latter’s run as Al Gore’s Vice-Presidential running mate in 2000: “I mean, you got the first mainstream Jewish American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean that’s a storybook, man.”
Howls of anti-Semitism -- legitimately so -- would have rained down on Senator Biden from the Jewish community and others, and his campaign may have ended soon thereafter.
But when Senator Biden made similar comments about then Presidential candidate Barack Obama, many people couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
If Lieberman had won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 2004, instead of John Kerry, and Biden had made his anti-Semitic comments at that time, the latter would probably never have even been considered as a running mate for the first successful Jewish American to receive a major party nomination.
Many Jewish leaders and much of the so-called mainstream media would have relentlessly hounded Biden about his comments, making him politically radioactive for years.
Yet Biden is now the Vice-President to the first African American President, his racist comments largely forgotten. Indeed, his regular guy, hail-fellow-well-met background, which included a legacy of off-colour comments about non-whites did not hinder and may have helped him secure the Vice Presidency.
It seems that a tinge or more of racist comments against blacks, rather than being a disqualifier, may actually be a qualifier in achieving higher office in the US: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Is Joe Biden racist? No, but he does exhibit some clear racial prejudices. His troubling comments show that even a man with his liberal instincts, progressive voting record and general bonhomie often falls into racial traps.
Biden and many who shared his opinion seemed genuinely surprised to find a black American politician who was articulate and bright, rather than inarticulate and dim-witted or lacklustre.
That America has not had more African Americans running for the presidency says more about its legacy of racism than the quality of black leaders, including those in the political arena. That’s the real story, man.
Most of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, with far greater experience and ability, would have run circles around George W. Bush as President of the United States.
Bush, who cultivated an image as a clean mainstream sort of guy promoted a radical foreign policy agenda that was mainstream only for a neoconservative fringe that plunged America into the fetid morass in which it finds itself.
In terms of the economy, most of Bush’s policies were mainstream only for Wall Street barons who have destroyed much of Main Street. Neither Bush nor these greed merchants come out of this financial meltdown smelling or looking clean.
One of the racial traps which African Americans and other racial minorities endure is having to prove their Americanness, that they are “one of us”, that they are not some exotic radical other, that even though their navel string has been buried in America for several generations, they are as American as a first generation white American whose parents are foreign born.
Mr. Biden and others may want to take note of the current generation of articulate, mainstream, bright, “clean” African American leaders who join the treasury of exceptional black leaders America has produced for generations, including W. E. B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, an advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dr. Ralph Bunche, a Nobel Prize recipient.
Some of these contemporaries include federal leaders such as Members of the House of Representatives like Artur Davis of Alabama, a graduate of Harvard Law, Eleanor Norton Holmes from Washington D.C., a Yale graduate and Professor of Law at Georgetown University, and former successive Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice.
They are mirrored at the state level by Mayors Corry Booker (Newark, New Jersey) and Adrian Fenty (Washington DC), Governor Duvall Patrick of Massachusetts, and respectively from Colorado the Speaker of the General Assembly and President of the State Senate, Terrance Carroll and Peter Goff.
Speaking of mainstream: that the Republican Party possesses not a single black leader in Congress or as a governor means that it is they who are out of the mainstream. Again, it says more about the GOP than it does about America.
Of course, there are many more racial traps into which many unwittingly fall and which many wittingly play on because of their own ingrained racism and a misunderstanding about racism by many.
There are degrees of racism, but they are all founded on the singular proposition that one group is intrinsically unequal to or inferior to another. What makes it diabolical is when that sentiment is tied to power.
To wit, racism against people of black African descent isn’t just about sentiment, it is also about the power to turn prejudice into a history of slavery and a legacy of discrimination. It is about the ability to use the instruments of government, business, the church, the media and various social structures to actively deny the equality of others based on the colour of their skin.
Those who suggest that black Americans should “stop complaining” and “get on with their lives especially since a black man has been elected President might want to take note of this recent report from The Huffington Post:
“Black homebuyers have been 3 1/2 times more likely to receive a subprime loan than white borrowers, and six times more likely to get a subprime rate when refinancing. … Blacks still were disproportionately steered into subprime loans when their credit scores, income and down payment were equal to those of white home-buyers.”
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), under its dynamic new leader Benjamin Jealous, is launching a class action lawsuit against Wells Fargo and HSBC over allegations that these banks forced potential black homeowners into truly sub-prime mortgages.
Barack Obama’s election is a milestone with regard to the question of race, and tremendous progress has been made. But there is much work to be done, including the task of unmasking and dismantling the racial traps that still ensnare.
Simon is a young Bahamian with things on his mind who wishes to remain anonymous. His column 'Front Porch' is published every Tuesday in the Nassau Guardian. He blogs regularly at Bahamapundit and can be reached at email@example.com