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Obama and the Centrality of Race

by Ben Pitcher
16 Nov 2008 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Commons

Apparently we all got carried away with Barack Obama. The excitement generated about race in the American election was, we are increasingly told, overblown. Sure, this was an important symbolic moment for black America, but our exhilaration now needs to be tempered with political realism lest the empty rhetoric of ‘change’ mask the stubborn continuity of more-of-the-same.

Such is the general tenor of intellectual comment of many on the left in this interstice between the election and inauguration of America’s 44th president. While it is an analysis that of course holds a great deal of truth, it is a truth that is surely as banal and short-sighted as the uncritical elation it sets out to critique. The long 21 months of scrutiny Obama faced since announcing his intention to stand as Democrat nominee gave us plenty of time to adjust to the likely realities of his presidency. It should come as no surprise to those with even the most passing acquaintance with the man’s politics that the President Elect is an enthusiastic champion of neoliberal capitalism; though of course there will be necessary changes of emphasis, there is no reason to suspect that he will deviate in any substantial manner from the longstanding orthodoxies of US foreign policy. By whatever yardstick, it has been clear from the start that Barack Obama’s presidency will in nearly all respects be a case of business-as-usual.

What risks being sidelined in the statements of the obvious that derive from commentators like Judith Butler is the real significance of Obama’s victory to the politics of race in America. In their clamour to set out the limitations of the forthcoming presidential programme, such analyses are themselves delimited by an incredibly narrow reckoning of the social and cultural import of this moment. Race, while clearly central to Obama’s campaign, now tends to be dismissed as a subsidiary issue. Certainly, Obama mobilized the non-white vote, but the hopes of black America, as Simon Critchley argues, will now likely be rendered impotent by their neutralization in the machinery of government.

I’d like to entertain here the possibility of an alternative viewpoint, one that emphasizes the centrality of race as a political issue, and in doing so does not reduce the import of Obama’s victory to the agenda, policies and actions of the US president (for progressive change deriving from this quarter will indeed be modest). A focus on the wider realm of race politics, however, might tell a different story. It would, firstly, remind us of the absolute centrality of race to shaping and structuring the very fabric and foundations of American life. As such, it is difficult to overemphasize the extent to which Obama’s election represents (and will continue to effect) changes in the composition of that culture and society. To dismiss as ‘merely’ symbolic the significance of this historical moment is to severely underplay its importance to the beliefs and behaviours of all Americans. Though it is impossible to predict in advance the kinds of change that might transpire, we should not underestimate the possibilities here. Given that racial slavery, segregation and their legacies remain constitutive of the American experience, it would actually be rather odd to imagine that the change in racial politics signalled by Obama’s election won’t have far-reaching implications for America, however unclear its potentialities are to us in November 2008.

Such an emphasis of course moves us away from the specific event of Obama’s ascendancy, and focuses our attention on the nature of a culture and society that has elected a black president. From this perspective, the election becomes less of an exception and more the crystallization of an incremental but very real shift in American life. This shift brings with it as many dangers as opportunities, for of course the symbolism of a black president is (as Obama himself recognizes) the fulfilment of the national postracial mythology of the American Dream. The beguiling notion of racial transcendence will need to be strongly resisted in our attempts to reckon with America’s changing racial landscape, but this is a reckoning that can only take place once we begin to understand that change as something more important than the mere ornament of rhetorical flourish. While Obama does not close the history of American racism, neither does he leave it untouched.

We should be in no doubt, then, of the significance and centrality of race to the election of America’s new president. In so many other respects, the importance of Obama is exaggerated: those invocations of fundamental change are indeed mainly illusory, yet the 2008 election does represent something profound as the expression, symptom and catalyst of America’s politics of race in the new century.

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Ben Pitcher writes about race, politics and popular culture. He teaches sociology at the University of Westminster, UK.
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