A front page story in today's New York Times explores the way in which Barack Obama's presidential candidacy has precipitated excitement and anxiety among African Americans underscores the way in which race continues
to contour the dynamics of this historic election. Obama's march to the Democratic Party's presidential nomination has produced what I call "racial vertigo" in the United States and beyond. Racial vertigo is characterized by a profound inability to comprehend historic events and phenomena due to the way in which they upend pre-conceived notions of America's color-line. This is to say that the prospect and promise of Barack Obama being elected America's first black president has dramatically transformed the national political landscape in ways that continue to defy analysis. In America, what the pre-eminent black intellectual of the twentieth century--W.E.B. Du Bois--called "double-consciousness" cuts both ways. Du Bois defined "double-consciousness" as the tightrope between American citizenship and black marginalization that African Americans faced. Famously, Du Bois wrote of a "veil" or wall that separated blacks and whites in a world where skin color shaped social, political, and economic reality. The color-line imposed its will on white folk as well, allowing them to embrace an identity that, in large measure, defined itself as anti-black. This fiction was backed by an elaborate mythology that used popular culture, public policy, and, as a last resort, racial terror to rationalize black oppression. Racial vertigo distorts these deeply ingrained assumptions that shape the hopes, dreams, ambitions, potential, and imagination of all Americans.
Obama's dramatic primary battle against Hilary Clinton revealed stark racial and gender cleavages within the Democratic Party and the nation as a whole. In his two best-selling books, Dream From My Father and The Audacity of Hope, Obama expressed a romantic admiration for 1960s era civil rights heroes and a generational fatigue with the cultural wars that continue to
remain one of that decade's most enduring legacies. Many of Clinton's most ardent supporters participated in these culture wars and are openly skeptical of Obama's candidacy. Although couched in terms of Obama's perceived lack of political experience, such women offer up telling examples of the effects of racial vertigo. Many of these women view Obama as the
worse kind of example of Affirmative Action, where America's vicious legacy of racism trumps what they view as an even more pernicious and enduring gender inequality. Feminist icon Gloria Steinem lobbed the first salvo in this discourse, arguing that Obama's gender made his candidacy possible in a provocative New York Times op-ed that distorted the nation's tragic legacy of racism and sexism by arguing that blacks received the right to vote fifty years before women, while conveniently forgetting that most African Americans could not vote until 1965. Geraldine Ferraro, former congresswoman and the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential nominee, ratcheted up this line of attack further by suggesting that Obama's race proved to be his major asset among a media and public enthralled by the voguish notion of racial identity. When critics objected, Ferraro hurled allegations of reverse racism and displayed a spirit of entitlement and seething anger at black advancement that echoed the passionate white response to Boston's busing crisis of the early 1970s.
Such attacks, of course, proved to be a double-edged sword. As noted scholar and public intellectual Boyce Watkins has observed, Bill Clinton helped make Obama a political "king" through his ill-advised comparison of the Illinois junior senator to civil rights activist Jesse Jackson. Billionaire entrepreneur Bob Johnson and Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangle inadvertently contributed to Obama's ascent through equally impolitic assertions that brought up Obama's admitted past drug abuse. Cumulatively, explicit and implicit racial attacks against Obama galvanized unprecedented black support. The candidate who, at the beginning of 2007, faced blunt questions about his racial authenticity has evolved into the most popular and
universally beloved black public figure since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Obama's soaring popularity has stoked hopes, dreams, and fears about the transformative power of his candidacy. Liberals, neo-liberals, and conservative magazines, newspapers, and journals (ranging from the New York Times to Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report) have openly wondered whether Obama's extraordinary ability to attract white voters in the Democratic primaries illustrated America's evolution into a "post-racial" phase of national politics. From this perspective, white voters' embrace of Obama during the January 2008 Iowa caucuses signaled a watershed moment in America's racial history.
More provocatively, some have suggested that Obama's election as president could signal the "end of black politics." In this narrative Obama's ability to situate himself as a candidate who happened to be black, rather than the black candidate, is evidence of the decline of identity politics among black elected officials. Fresh political faces, including Massachusetts Governor
Deval Patrick, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, are touted as post-racial elected officials whose appeal transcends the explicitly racial identifications of the civil rights-Black Power era.
Contemporary events have complicated both of these arguments. Obama's difficulty in attracting white working-class voters in Ohio and Pennysylvania, coupled with the explicitly racial tint of Clinton's victories in Kentucky and West Virginia belied notions of a post-racial American political landscape. The raging controversy over Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, dominated media attention and threatened to undermine the candidate's universal appeal. Ironically, faced with the toughest political test of his career, Obama responded with his most forceful, eloquent, and thoughtful statement on race. Obama's speech, "Toward a More Perfect Union," came closest to outlining the litany of historical ills and contemporary burdens that plague the African American community. At the same time, he leavened this criticism by empathizing with the fears and concerns white Americans have about black people in general
and, by proxy, his own groundbreaking candidacy. In the aftermath of this widely discussed speech journalists and commentators predicted a renewed national conversation about race on a level unseen since the 1960s. Obama's campaign however, quickly dropped this controversial subject in favor of more unifying themes focused on the bread and butter economic issues facing the vast majority of the electorate.
The black community's overwhelming support for Obama has been tempered by this complex political landscape. Nationally, media pundits and journalist have interpreted Obama's individual political success as a litmus test for America's racial progress. Such a formula confuses Obama's iconic run for the presidency as positive proof of the end of institutional racism. In effect it substitutes individual achievement for collective racial progress. Certainly African Americans have embraced Obama's candidacy with a mixture of pride, admiration, and anxiety at witnessing history unfurling before their eyes. Obama's candidacy may in fact be one of the few points of unity between the civil rights and Hip Hop generation. Both groups, for different reasons, admire Obama's confidence, self-determination, and sense of style. Obama's candidacy also reflects a watershed of sorts, in terms of individual achievement in American society, one built on barriers broken during the civil rights era and by a host of entrepreneurial, sports, and entertainment figures. Yet the myth that Obama's ascent means the end of racism remains a
powerful allure of his candidacy. A host of social-economic indicators--from dramatic rates of AIDS/HIV, incarceration and poverty rates to income, wealth, educational and health care disparities--contradict this myth. Nonetheless, Obama's campaign continues to be interpreted by mainstream opinion makers as empirical proof of the declining significance of race.
Black leaders have reacted cautiously to the bold new racial and political landscape Obama's candidacy has seemingly ushered. Old guard civil rights leaders, unable to believe that the same nation that terrorized civil rights workers could actually elect a black man in their lifetime, enthusiastically supported Clinton's candidacy only to be chastened by history's spectacularly dramatic tide. Jesse Jackson, whose important 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns paved the way for a black president, publicly supported Obama but privately grumbled and inadvertently went on record castigating the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee as "talking down
to black folks." Veteran civil rights activist, former Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Chairman, and Georgia Congressman changed his support from Clinton to Obama after agonizing months of deliberation. Meanwhile, a new generation of black elected officials embraced Obama's themes of change. For this new cadre of black elected officials, claiming national political power in states, cities, and a nation dominated by a white electorate required a new political paradigm. Whereas racial solidarity led to the election of the first wave of African American officials ushered into office after the 1965 Voting Rights Act, this new guard touts individual achievement, intellectual ability, and political effectiveness in an effort to convey to white voters their ability to judiciously utilize political power. Finally, despite rumors of their demise, grassroots activists related to the Black Power era have offered perhaps the most stinging denunciations of Obama's candidacy. On August 1, 2008 an Obama rally in St. Petersburg, Florida, was disrupted by local black militants who held up a sign, "What About the Black Community, Obama?" Obama's reluctance to embrace a robust agenda for racial justice, urban renewal, and anti-poverty has left such activists fuming and embittered. Along with former representative Cynthia McKinney's third-party candidacy and the intellectual dissent of a small group of black scholars and activists, the St. Petersburg militants have expressed the most vocal opposition to Obama's candidacy.
The inability of such dissenting voices to be heard is unfortunate inasmuch as it reflects a lack of political maturity within national and African American politics. Obama's pursuit of political power has struck his radical critics as ruthless, even as they attempt, through their own more limited means, to gain political strength through organizing at the local level. The extraordinary numbers of African American willing to follow Obama rather than grassroots black militants illustrates the profound gulf that currently exists between radical rhetoric and reality. Ultimately, Obama's impact on black politics remains an unfolding historical process, one whose
reverberations continue to be felt at the local, national, and international level. Since only a future Obama administration can effectively answer the blunt question posed by young militants in St. Petersburg, perhaps the question should be rephrased as part of a national dialogue about race that instead asks: "What about the black community America?"
Peniel E. Joseph is associate professor of African and Afro-American Studies at Brandeis University. During the 2008-2009 academic year he will be a fellow at Harvard University's Charles Warren Center. Dr. Joseph is the award-winning author of Waiting 'Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America. His forthcoming book is entitled, From Black Power to Barack Obama. He is a frequent national commentator on issues related race, civil rights, and democracy and is providing historical analysis for both the Democratic and Republican Conventions as part of PBS NewsHour.