AS PUNDITS dithered late last week over “the Bradley effect” and other racial clouds on Obama’s horizon, the candidate was making a difficult, possibly final, visit to the white mother of his white mother. Few commented on the implications of the fact that while racial identity runs deep in America, maternal bonding runs deeper. But maybe our Hollywood-besotted political culture requires the drama and sentiment in Obama’s farewell visit to “Toot” (the Hawaiian name for “grandma” is “Tutu”) to drive those implications home.
Sarah Palin claims that Obama doesn’t know or represent the real America. That both Obama’s color and his childhood exposure to Muslims are assets to America’s image abroad doesn’t matter much to Americans who are still offended or frightened by racial and religious difference. Image is one thing; intimate fears another. In a small former steel town in Pennsylvania this weekend a 71-year old woman, a Democrat who considers McCain a grouchy old man and Sarah Palin a joke, paused when a New York Times reporter asked her about Obama. “He scares me,” she said finally. “The coloreds are excited, but my friends and I plan to write in Hillary’s name.”
No one mentions that Obama’s biracial provenance and childhood brush with Islam launched him on struggles that have prepared him unusually well to address one of his country’s most daunting challenges: youthful alienation in inner cities where, at least until 9/11, the Nation of Islam held a certain appeal.
Nor have I heard anyone tell Palin that there is no America more “real” than the one Obama embodied last week off the campaign trail in his grandmother’s apartment. John McCain, adoptive father of a Bangladeshi daughter, does understand this, and he hasn’t let Palin make an issue of race—or even use the outcries of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Obama’s unsought endorsement from Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Everybody knows that Obama embraced Wright as a young man while immersing himself indelibly in an inner-city, African-American community. But no one talks about what a daunting and unusual choice this was for a son of transracial Hawaii: Southside Chicago was Obama’s community only by color, not by virtue of his upbringing or childhood culture and the post-racial prospects it had opened. Inner-city blackness was something he felt he had to come to terms with because he understood that the African-American experience runs as deeply within American identity as American identity does within inner-city blackness.
The unintended irony in Palin’s charge that Obama is different from “real Americans” is that he’s also different enough from many black inner-city youths—yet also similar enough—to have turned their heads, big-time, even more than his supporter Colin Powell has done.
Some of us envision an America where this delicate balancing of differences and similarities won’t always be as necessary as it is now. “The old strategies of accusation, isolation, and containment have broken down,” wrote the late black historian C. Eric Lincoln hopefully in 1995. “If transracial marriage is here, and biracial children are here, can transracial adoptions be far behind?….It is time now to reach for the hand that is reaching for tomorrow, whatever color that hand may be. The evening of today is already far spent.”
Lincoln wasn’t thinking of McCain’s transracial adoption, although he could have been. He was addressing black nationalists as well as white racists and even white liberals. He understood, he told me, that to watch blacks running political and military machines, municipalities, media organizations, and even money markets is to watch the angels of a romanticized blackness withdraw along with the demons of something feared and loathed. It is also to surrender an exotic white condescension along with contempt.
For all of us, it is to acknowledge that this country’s redemption has not–and will not–come through keeping race a central organizing principle of our polity and civic culture, let alone a wedge for partisan politics.
America’s image abroad has been helped, too, by Obama’s readiness to take us a step closer to Eric Lincoln’s promised transracial land. But the most important gain for this country would be some Americans’ acknowledgment that color is not disqualifying and other Americans’ acknowledgment that the most effective solvents of racism don’t always march under banners that are marked “anti-racism” or that are colored black or blue.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is author of The Closest of Strangers (Norton 1989) and Liberal Racism (Viking 1997). Homepage and feature photography by Bbsrock (wikimedia commons / creative commons).