Copyrighted material


by Sunil Adam

Obama Inherits Democrats' Flawed Script on Race

(PNS) -- "Only one man in a thousand," said Groucho Marx, "is a leader of men -- the other 999 follow women." That may not be the case, if one were to go by the opinion polls in the early primary states. At the time this magazine went to press in mid-December, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama appeared to have gained a decisive momentum against the first credible woman presidential candidate, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If he manages to win Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, the "skinny guy with a funny name" has a reasonable chance to stage a momentous upset against the national frontrunner on Super Tuesday, when most major states hold primaries, and capture the nomination of the Democratic Party. It will probably be at that stage that America will sit up and really conceptualize what an Obama presidency might mean for the country and the world.

Perhaps it will then become obvious that for the first black man to come within striking distance, the road to the White House actually begins beyond the bridge too far.

The number of variables, obstacles and challenges on that treacherous road are almost impossible to overcome without a dramatic churning in American society -- even greater than what was witnessed during the civil rights era.

Perhaps, compelling evidence of why Obama's audacity of hope will come to naught is offered by Shelby Steele in his new book "A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win." Steele, who like Obama is biracial, poignantly portrays the Promethean shackles that still pin down the politics of America.

His essential thesis is that Obama's popularity has to do with the fact that he's a "bargainer" -- someone who strikes a bargain with white America: "I will not rub America's ugly history of racism in your face if you will not hold my race against me."

Steele argues Obama is being warmly received inside the white picket fences of American suburbia because he's not a "challenger" like Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton -- who charge "whites with inherent racism and then demand that they prove themselves innocent by supporting black-friendly policies like affirmative action and diversity."

There is no doubt that Obama's appeal for white America has to do with the fact that he represents the kind of black man that liberal whites thought the civil rights movement would develop.

Not just "articulate and bright and clean," as Sen. Joe Biden once described Obama in what was alleged to be a stereotypical image of an African American who doesn't talk and act black, but a black man who is educated, ambitious, amiable and married to someone named Michelle rather than Shaneque.

In other words, someone who's not unlike an average middle class white man. MSNBC's Chris Matthews is right when he says supporting Obama "makes us feel good."

Indeed, the man with a Muslim middle name has become a redemptive symbol of white Christian America's collective guilt about the state of African Americans, even if they apportion some of the blame to the blacks themselves.

Obama himself, if one were to go by a very insightful analysis by Andrew Sullivan in Atlantic Monthly, is not only aware of this expectation but also has conditioned his behavior and structured his career and politics to suit that image. "No sudden moves" is apparently his mantra to deal with white America's fear about the black man, something that Obama learned while dealing with his white mother.

Sullivan quotes Obama from his best-selling book, "Dreams from My Father," where the Illinois Democrat, who inhaled, describes how, as a teenager, he once flashed "a reassuring smile and patted (his mother's) hand and told her not to worry," when she charged into his room demanding to know if he was "drifting into delinquency."

This, Obama says, was "usually an effective tactic, because (white) people were satisfied as long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved -- such a pleasant surprise to find a well-mannered young black man who didn't seem angry all the time."

"No sudden moves" perhaps also accounts for why Obama did not attack Clinton for most of the year, despite the fact that she was forging ahead unchallenged and he was lagging behind, much to the chagrin of his supporters, who were spoiling for a fight.

Nor did he plunge head-on into defending the "black causes," lest he should, in an effort to establish his often-questioned blackness among African Americans, offend the whites who, for instance, were not entirely convinced of the happenings under the schoolyard tree in Jena, La.

Only after he established his "benign" credentials did he move to counter Clinton to make headway in Iowa and then deploy Oprah Winfrey to harness the black skeptics in South Carolina -- two states where the New York senator may be vulnerable. The results have been spectacular so far. But will this strategy work in the general election where the rules of engagement will not be so benign?

Polls have shown that a majority of Americans are supportive of the idea of a black president as much as they are of a woman president. But are they ready to make race a dispassionate subject of political discourse, something that is bound to happen if Obama emerges as the Democratic Party nominee?

Without the lightning rod called George W. Bush on the ballot, will liberal America still be galvanized enough to usher a revolutionary change in these uncertain times? Are the majority of Americans, not just white, but Latinos and Asian Americans, ready to welcome a black man (and woman) into their living rooms every day through network television?

Will they be ready to face the floodgates of implausible expectations that the Obama presidency is likely to open for black America? Will they accept a black man symbolizing America on the global stage, virtually redefining the country's identity?

Will they be ready to face a backlash in the form of resurgent white nationalism, whose rumblings have already been echoing since the attacks of September 11? I am skeptical.

But I could be relying on conventional wisdom. I could be underestimating America's capacity for transformational politics. I may not have fully understood the genius of the American Idea. If that is the case, Obama may not be ushering in a revolution, but like any great leader who just happened to be the right person at the right place at the right moment, he could merely be preparing to preside over a revolution that is already under way. He could well be Benjamin Disraeli asking, "I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?"

Sunil Adam is the editor of "The Indian American," a bimonthly magazine. This column appears in the Jan-Feb issue of the magazine.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor   December 26, 2007   (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.