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Jeff Chang

Jeff Chang

Posted: February 12, 2008 05:36 PM

The Ongoing Evolution Of Obama's "Post-Racial Politics"


Ginger Thompson, Jeff Zeleny, and Kitty Bennett write today about Obama and his staff's internal wrangling over the place of race in the campaign. They show Obama's evolving sense of what it means to be a "post-racial" candidate.

Thompson begins with an early strategy meeting, in which Obama lays out his philosophy in five words:

Halfway into the session, Broderick Johnson, a Washington lawyer and informal adviser to Mr. Obama, spoke up. "What about race?" he asked.

Mr. Obama's dismissal was swift and unequivocal.

He had been able to navigate racial politics in Illinois, Mr. Obama told the group, and was confident he could do so across the nation. "I believe America is ready," one aide recalled him saying.

The race issue got all of five minutes at that meeting, setting what Mr. Obama and his advisers hoped would be the tone of a campaign they were determined not to define by the color of his skin.

Obama has shown a desire to box away his experiences as a student activist during the 80s. In his autobiography, he has been dismissive of his days in the anti-apartheid, pro-multiculturalism, pro-affirmative action battles at Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard. He regards his experiences in Chicago's Southside, which he still cites as the transformative period of his life, as certainly more authentic. Yet his language--drawing freely from Gandhi and Chavez--suggests he has a more conflicted relationship to his student activism years than he is ready to admit.

Was he so eager to suppress the memory of that era's campus culture wars (over multicultural curriculum, affirmative action, hate speech, etc.) that he embraced too naive a view of how to articulate an approach to race in his campaign?

Staff divisions didn't help. Early on, high-ranking white advisors deliberately steered him away from African American audiences.

Instead of following a plotted course, Mr. Obama's campaign has zigged and zagged, reacting to outside forces and internal differences between the predominantly white team of top advisers and the mostly black tier of aides.

The dynamic began the first day of Mr. Obama's presidential bid, when white advisers encouraged him to withdraw an invitation to his pastor, whose Afro-centric sermons have been construed as antiwhite, to deliver the invocation at the official campaign kickoff. Then, when his candidacy was met by a wave of African-American suspicion, the senator's black aides pulled in prominent black scholars, business leaders and elected officials as advisers.

Aides to Mr. Obama, who asked not to be identified because the campaign would not authorize them to speak to the press, said he stayed away from a civil rights demonstration and did not publicize visits to black churches when he was struggling to win over white voters in Iowa.

Remember this Cornel West rant on the weekend Obama announced his candidacy? Black aides struggled to rectify this mistake. Thompson later describes how Obama took care of the snub of Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Covenant With Black America. (West is now prObama.)

(In an aside, Rev. Al Sharpton takes credit for Jena 6, not only inviting comparison of himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and Obama to LBJ, but entirely rewriting the history of the protest. It was actually called by Color of Change and organized by thousands of young activists working in an entirely decentralized manner on the web and in the schools.)

Obama's black advisors pushed to make Michelle Obama central to the campaign.

"It took Barack a while to agree," said Charles J. Ogletree Jr., a Harvard professor who is part of the black advisory group. "But we told him she had to be the one to confront the myths and fears of black voters.

"Here was a black woman, a mother, who grew up poor, learned to sleep without heat and rose above that to get an Ivy League education," Professor Ogletree added. "But she was also the kind of woman who would take her shoes off because her feet hurt. She was real from the moment she stepped on stage."

In other words, Obama's black advisors told him, forget the "color-blind" pitch. Michelle embodied the idea that no one could escape history, that a "post-racial" politics still needed to account for racial solidarity and to directly address the desires and needs of racially oppressed communities. She delivered big-time in South Carolina, the turning point for Obama in the African American electorate.

But, in no small part because of their denial of the realities of race, Obama and his campaign still had to play catch-up against the Clinton campaign with Latino leaders and communities.

The campaign claims it has learned from California, and his Latino field director says Obama will apply to Texas the same kind of attention it has lavished on Iowa and South Carolina.

One quote should raise worries. Here's his top advisor, David Axelrod, who seems to suggest that the campaign still views even African Americans more as emergent--useful for votes and campaign donations--than insurgent--needing to be considered carefully in agenda discussions.

"He believes you can have the support of the black community, appealing to the pride they feel in his candidacy, and still win support among whites," Mr. Axelrod said.

Do "post-racial politics" merely mean a new way of marginalizing a racial justice agenda?

Jeff Chang is the author of Can 't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the editor of Tot al Chaos: The Art And Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. He blogs at: www.cantstopwontstop.com/ blog.

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