Putting Barack Obama’s Candidacy In Historical Perspective

A host of pre-eminent Black scholars sound off on the historical and sociological significance of Sen. Barack Obama’s candidacy and its aftereffects on Black America.

Sen. Barack Obama’s historic candidacy for president of the United States has generated an intense and thoughtful national discussion within Black America. His campaign has brought several issues to the fore. This summer, Diverse spoke with five of the most pre-eminent Black scholars in the nation to search out some of their thoughts on five key subjects of passionate discussion in Black America, including the impact of Obama’s campaign on the phenomenon of race in America and the effect an Obama presidency can have on Black America. They are:

Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, a professor of African American studies at Temple University, is one of the most published Black scholars, having published more than 65 books and 300 articles. His latest book, An Afrocentric Manifesto, continues to advance his innovative philosophy and intellectual approach, Afrocentricity.

Dr. Darlene Clark Hine, the Board of Trustees Professor of African American Studies and History at Northwestern University, is arguably the most prolific and highly regarded historian on African-American women in the world. Hine is also the co-author of one of the most widely used textbooks on Black history, The African-American Odyssey. Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most revered and read poets. Currently a University Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech University, Giovanni has written about 30 books over her illustrious career as a writer and activist.

Dr. Manning Marable, a professor of public affairs, political science, history and African-American studies at Columbia University, is one of the nation’s most influential and widely read intellectuals. Marable is completing a comprehensive biography on Malcolm X, entitled Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

Dr. Shelby Steele, the Robert J. and Marion E. Oster Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, specializes in the study of race relations, multiculturalism and affirmative action. Steele, who recently published White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era, is one of the nation’s leading voices for Black conservatism.

Although Diverse asked them all the same questions, their comments were edited for space. Visit www.Diverse Education.com Education.com for a full transcript of their interviews.

DI: What do you think Barack Obama will do (or not do) for Black America if he is elected president?
Hine: I anticipate that Barack Obama will initiate programs and policies that will benefit Black Americans in the same way that they benefit all Americans. But most important, Obama’s substantive shattering of the most public and powerfully symbolic barometer of outsider status, that is, achieving the U.S. presidency, will inspire all minority and majority racial and ethnic populations in addition to African-Americans. If elected, Barack Obama will not solve all of the problems of Black America. The struggle against racial, gender and educational inequities will continue.

Giovanni: I sincerely think it is an improper question. The reason I think it is an improper question is that Barack is Black. We cannot hold Barack Obama to a standard that we don’t hold anybody else to. So there’s no candidate, not John McCain, not anybody and any of the 43 presidents that we’ve ever asked, ‘What are you going to do for White Americans.’ You can’t say, ‘What are you going to do for Black Americans?’ We have to say: What are you going to do for the country, for poor people, for single mothers, for gays, for the military? What are you going to do in the world? But you can’t take him to a standard that we don’t ask everybody else, unless you ask John McCain, ‘What are you going to do for White people?’

Marable: Barack’s victory will bring us to what we call the first post-Black-president presidential era. Black elected officials in the 1970s and ’80s were largely elected through represented minority districts. Regardless of class, Blacks saw themselves as largely linked in terms of their racial interests. That’s changed. And it’s changed, in part, because of the declining significance of race, or to be a little bit more accurate, the increasing significance of class. There is not really one Black America. There is a Black America of the upper middle class that is doing remarkably well. There is a Black working class, and there are the truly disadvantaged, the Black poor, that are undergoing a severe crisis. So it’s a new environment. [Black] politicians and their success are measured by their ability, in part, to win over White majorities to support their programs. They do not privilege Black interests in the framing of the politics as opposed to, say, Jesse Jackson.

Asante: Symbolically he will have a great impact on the African-American community. African-Americans live with a constant sense of doubt about the possibilities in American society. And the election of Obama would immediately remove that particular situation from the community. However, on the other hand, should he not win the election, then we will be back to 1877, when the Union army moved out of the Southern states and race relations deteriorated for the next 60 years. I think that is also possible if Obama does not win the election, that there will be another 30 or 40 years of tense racial relations in this country.

DI: Has the Barack Obama campaign impacted the meaning and/or performance of race in America? Giovanni: The impact is going to be devastating in another way when Sen. Obama is the president, because one of the first things that the community is going to lose is any concept of racism. It is not going to go out. There will be racism. It just might not carry any weight. So the Black community and I think our intellectuals and leaders and the people who do the economic thinking and the sociological thinking are going to have to find another way of expressing the needs and obligations and responsibilities of this country to citizens that it has traditionally denied.

Marable: In the United States, Obama’s victory [in securing the Democratic nomination] moves away from the old system of American apartheid, of Jim Crow segregation, toward a more Brazilian system where a segment of Blacks functionally are honorary Whites. The kind of humiliation and stigmatization that was ubiquitous in Jim Crow that wealthy Black people could not escape — we don’t live those kinds of stigmatized lives as Black middle class people did say 50 years ago. That’s just a fact. So there’s a change in how race and class interact with each other. And I think Barack’s victory [in securing the Democratic nomination] is accelerating us towards that kind of new racial future. That’s not necessarily good news as a matter of fact because the challenge to transform racial injustice in the United States really does require the construction of a movement that involves Black people of all kinds of class background to challenge racial injustice.

Asante: It is quite historic that the first person who would be elected president of African descent does not have a name like Williams, Thomas or Johnson III, but rather has a traditional African name. That in itself should forever destroy this notion that African-Americans have, that if I change my name then I won’t have advantages. Also, I think he may change the discourse on race. He may change two aspects of it, which I think are extremely important. One is the depth of selfhatred that African-Americans have that we have basically inherited. And the other is the depth of guilt and irrationality that White people carry around with their notion of White racial dominance.

Hine: Barack Obama’s campaign has forced America to confront its history and legacy of race and racism, in ways at once unsettling and yet long overdue. His campaign forced new discussions of race, and even more profoundly, it illuminated the intersection of race, gender and class in American society.

DI: Why has Barack Obama succeeded in securing a major party nomination where other Black presidential candidates have failed?

Steele: Barack Obama is what I call a bargainer. Blacks enter the mainstream wearing different masks. One of them is bargaining. Bargainers say to Whites, ‘I will not rub the history of racism in your face if you will not hold my race against me.’ Oprah Winfrey is a classic bargainer. Bill Cosby was back in the ’80s; Sidney Poitier, Tiger Woods and so forth. Well again, Whites love that, and Obama is the first one to take bargaining into politics and try to turn it into real votes. So because he has the craft of bargaining down so well, that’s what accounts for his success in winning the Democratic nomination. Challengers — these are Blacks who say they are not going to take Whites off the hook. I am going to presume you are a racist until you prove to me that you are not a racist. People like Jesse Jackson, people like Al Sharpton — both of whom recently ran for the presidency — will never ever have any chance of succeeding because they make Whites feel guilty and nervous and uncomfortable and embarrassed. Most of the Blacks — I can’t think of any exceptions — who have run for the presidency before Obama were all challengers. The challengers just simply have no chance of wide mainstream acceptance. You have to take Whites off the hook and feed their self-esteem and say, ‘I’m going to bet that you are not a racist.’ That’s such an appealing bargain that I think it accounts more than anything else for Barack Obama’s success.

Hine: It will take a very long time for scholars and writers to unpack the myriad forces that converged to give rise to Barack Obama’s successful quest to become the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee. His decision to campaign as an American without the hyphen, perhaps, was the most obvious contributing factor to his success where others failed.

Asante: I think he has several attributes that are important. One, he is not ashamed of his cultural heritage. Some candidates feel, ‘perhaps I should minimize my cultural heritage, my ethnic background, my biological makeup.’ But he has used it. He has a strong sense of identity, and I have always argued that it is essential for a person to be centered in his or her own cultural background if they are going to be effective. I mean, you can’t run away from who you are. And so this guy, he wraps himself in it: ‘My momma is a White woman from Kansas; my father is a Black man from Kenya.’ It is transparent. This is me. You either take that or leave it. There is something beautiful about that.

DI: How would you put into historical perspective Barack Obama’s campaign?

Giovanni: Well, he’d be the first known Black president, first of all. And people ought to say that. If you look at [President Warren G.] Harding’s grandmother, she was a Black woman. He’s one of the presidents that nobody wants to talk about. Having the first known Black president is going to be a step up for America. I think it says that we are maturing. And we will look forward to our first woman, to our first Chinese or Asian American, to our first Latino.

Marable: I believe to a large extent Barack Obama is playing the role of Nelson Mandela in the United States: That for a segment of tens of millions of White Americans, by voting for Obama, they can make their guilt go away. And, as I said, this is a good news and bad news situation. He would create a whole new environment for politics and for race in America. But my fear is that by voting for him, millions of White Americans will say, ‘Well now, Black people have nothing to complain about. One of their own is president.’

Asante: If you look at the candidates that we have had that have been the most prominent African-American candidates for the presidency, you are talking about preachers, ministers. Barack is not a minister; he’s an attorney. And the second part of that is that they are mostly out of the civil rights movement, and I think the civil rights movement has much legitimacy and is extremely important, but I think it is stuck too much in what I call now ‘the old ethicalmoral paradigm.’ There’s no American — you don’t even have to say African- American here — there’s no American politician who comes with as many advantages as Barack. He is the candidate of the modern era, or really of the post-modern era.

DI: How has the Barack Obama campaign impacted your own personal theories and/or research pursuits concerning Black people?

Steele: One of the things that I have argued for well over 20 years now is that we have to be more responsible for our own fate. And groups that give away responsibility or expect other people through some idea of social justice to be responsible for them, to help them, always lose and never get ahead. We have not learned this lesson in Black America. Barack Obama has now introduced this idea that we are to be more responsible in his speech on Black fatherhood. Blacks, because they are so excited about his possibility of winning, have opened to this idea in ways that they never have in the last 40 years. And so, I think Obama may make some actual progress there with that message of responsibility to Black America. And from someone who has argued for 20 years and knows the price you pay for arguing that among Blacks — you are marginalized as a Black conservative, an Uncle Tom and so forth — to see that idea have a new life has confirmed my faith that I believed all along that Blacks would be open to this idea.

Marable: Nearly 15 years ago, I wrote a book, Beyond Black and White, and it predicted that in the United States, we were moving towards a new kind of racial politics — a kind of politics where the old Black versus White would no longer be the sole framework of racial politics. Well, in the 15 years since then, there has obviously been a dramatic transformation of politics. Blacks no longer represent the largest single racialized minority group. We have seen the de-industrialization and also the destruction of the manufacturing sector, especially under George W. Bush, in the first decade of the 21st century, and that has had a destructive impact upon African-Americans. The whole mortgage crisis, to cite just one thing — it has been the greatest loss of Black wealth in American history. So issues such as globalization, issues such as the transforming of the nature of work in the United States, moving away from manufacturing; all of those have had an impact upon how, in my own research, I’ve tried to document the politics of race.

Giovanni: I’m a poet, and I’ve always liked Black people. I think we are wonderful, so just watching this young man with his two lovely daughters with his really smart, really hip wife — I’ve been enjoying it. I just enjoy watching this young man enchant the world.

This version appeared in the Oct. 16 edition of Diverse. Although Diverse asked them all the same questions, their comments were edited for space.

Click Here to read Asante’s interview

Click Here to read Giovanni’s interview

Click Here to read Hine’s interview

Click Here to read Marable’s interview

Click Here to read Steele’s interview

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