Monday, January 21, 2013

'Black like me': on milkshakes and the malignancy of race.

And so Barack Obama begins his second term as the nation's forty-third white president.*

You think me a wise-ass? And/or maybe a clumsy-mouthed racist to boot? No, I'm just making a statement that has as much validity as proclaiming Mr. Obama the nation's first black president. I'm not going to fully rehash arguments I made when he launched his campaign for the 2008 presidency and/or in other entries about race (you can sample those thoughts here, here and here), but I truly believe it would nudge the nation meaningfully toward the post-racialism to which we all claim to aspire if we simply concede, for starters only, what is incontestable biological fact: that with a black father and a white mother, Barack Obama is, if anything, half-white, half-black, no matter what he looks like or how he self-identifies. In fact, though I hate to go farther down this sorry path, one could make the case that inasmuch as he was raised mostly by his white mother and her white parents, he is closer to white than black...maybe about 71.4% white. See how stupid this gets?

(It's like a milkshake, people: If you mix equal parts of chocolate and vanilla, you aren't having a chocolate milkshake simply because the resulting concoction looks more brown than white.)

Moreover, and this is the lamest of all possible reasons for urging Mr. Obama to renounce his blackness, but just think about how many of the zillion whites who voted the other way did so, at least in part, because they were offended at Obama's ostensible (if not patent) rejection of their race. ("Oh, he's got a black daddy who abandoned him, and a white mama and two white grandparents who raised him...and he's black!? What a bigot! Clearly this guy's got something against white people...") Understand, this isn't about appeasing the racists who are going to hate Mr. Obama even for being half-black, but if you think about it, there's some merit to such sensitivities. If you're Irish, and a guest at your home whom you know to have an Irish mother and an Italian father vehemently declares himself Italian, pointedly refusing the "half-and-half" label, might you not feel a bit put off by it? (Of course, we shouldn't be thinking in terms of ethnic identities, either, but that's another post for another day.)

Which returns us to the theme of how stupid this gets, and leads me to ask: Why do we need race at all? Race divides unnecessarily (and, I would argue, unscientifically). It's a social cancer that is forever metastasizing to places where it doesn't belong (which is basically everywhere). As a construct, it was wrong in the Deep South, and it remains wrong today, even in its more upbeat, affirming manifestations (like "the first black" this or "most outstanding black" that). To be clear: I am not proposing some bizarre and offensive equivalence between  the unspeakable evil of slavery and Barack Obama being anointed as the nation's first black president. I'm simply arguing that both are part of the same sad phenomenon: categorizing people by (and indelibly linking them to) their supposed origins, thereby also leaching them of their individuality and perpetuating an Apartheid view of life.

So Mr. Obama, why not use the occasion of your inauguration to renounce your race? Renounce all race. Show leadership. Cast off the mantle (yoke?) of being the nation's first black president and declare that henceforth you are a man without a race. You are just Barack Obama, period. And there is no better time to do this than on the day given over to Martin Luther King, who famously upheld character over skin color. The stars are aligned.

As Spike Lee should put it (but wouldn't in this case), do the right thing.

* I know, technically he's listed as the 44th president because of that Grover Cleveland anomaly, but he's only the 43rd different person to hold the office.


Anonymous said...

As an outside observer, I've never seen Obama as a man who makes a big deal of his racial origins--he has been scrupulous about avoiding that kind of identity politics. And for those to whom it does matter, declaring himself 'not black' would cut no ice at all because what matters to them is skin colour. He is still an unacceptable shade of brown.

Oddly, your piece had me thinking more about Michael Jackson and his facial surgeries and attempts at skin bleaching than about Obama--who clearly feels no need to disavow anything about himself. Nor should he as an intelligent person.

His record on foregn policy and civic rights though (and he a constitutional law professor!) is another matter. I fear that history, assuming that we have a future where history will continue to be written, will not view the first black president of USA with much kindness.

Steve Salerno said...

Interesting, Anon. "Outside observer," huh? Is anyone really "outside" anything anymore with today's 24/7 global cycle of news and infotainment?

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm certainly not outside of the consequences of the freakshow that is the US political machine but I am observing from the geographical outside of the US and yes, it is some freakshow.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you get off this kick? Were you doing all this posting about racism when all the presidents were white, did you ask Bush to renounce his whiteness?

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve, I don't think that any practical, productive purpose would be fulfilled by President Obama's taking the stand you suggest. Were he to verbally renounce his race as an issue, he would actually be further polarizing an already polarized nation; black racists would accuse him of being an "Uncle Tom," while white racists would assert that he was admitting the inherent inferiority of the black race. And more reasonable individuals would see such an act as being nothing more than political theater and an attempt to pander to one or the other fringe element. IMO, the President has done a commendable job of eschewing race as a pertinent factor in his own efforts, and that should be sufficient for anyone - even (especially) Dr. King.

In response to anon's comment, I think history will look quite kindly upon President Obama, and that the vast majority of his legislative shortcomings will reflect more negatively upon the petty polarization of our elected officials than upon the President's abilities, vision, or character. If, however, we continue to re-elect extremists to both parties, I suspect that the populace itself will be the target of history's derision.

a/good/lysstener said...

It's an interesting position, Steve, that you've taken before but totally unrealistic and probably would only inflame things. Can you imagine asking people to "give up" their first black president after everything blacks have struggled with to get to this point? I think you forget sometimes that principal has to take a back seat to sensible policy for the real world. :-P

a/good/lysstener said...

And on MLK Day!!!!!

Steve Salerno said...

Alyssa, and I think you forget the correct spelling of "principle" for this usage. ;)

Sorry, but yes, I get your point, as well as Ron's similar one--and Anon's, above--and I have to give those thoughts a lot of validity. I just wonder, When is it going to be the right time to stop keeping score re all these things? We still have to "do" women, I suppose, and Hispanics, and who else? Then can we be a true melting pot?

Should I start lobbying for the first Italian president? Maybe Joe Flacco, when he's done beating the Niners in the SB...?

Anonymous said...

[The other anon]
So you don't know what yranny is ?

WikiP says this ~~~

"In ancient Greece, tyrants were influential opportunists that came to power by securing the support of different factions of a deme. The word "tyrannos", possibly pre-Greek, Pelasgian or eastern in origin,[6] then carried no ethical censure; it simply referred to anyone, good or bad, who obtained executive power in a polis by unconventional means. Support for the tyrants came from the growing middle class and from the peasants who had no land or were in debt to the wealthy land owners. It is true that they had no legal right to rule, but the people preferred them over kings or the aristocracy. The Greek tyrants stayed in power by using mercenary soldiers from outside of their respective city-state. To mock tyranny, Thales wrote that the strangest thing to see is "an aged tyrant" meaning that tyrants do not have the public support to survive for long."

Jenny said...

"Do" women? Cute, Steve. Cute!

I do see your point(s), though. I am a U.S. citizen of mixed breed European heritage, with at least four countries of origin (not counting the U.S.) in my ancestry. My husband is from the Middle East and, as far as I know, his family's roots are pretty deep there. But you never really know, do you? Our daughter is half-WASP and half-Arab, and that makes no sense at all. I'm not entirely sure all my ancestors were Protestant. Also, what does it mean to be an Arab?

All of these identifiers mean something, but they ought not define us because who we are is a complex mix that includes, but is not limited to, ethnic heritage and personal experience.

Anon the Outsider said...

The inauguration speech has been playing on our global 24 hour news today, intercut with MLK's speech in the same geographical spot. Now that was a man who could deliver a speech--it still sends chills down my spine all these years later.

I think that the answer to 'the right time to stop keeping score' is the same as the requirements for a workable democracy--eternal vigilance.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, and insofar as my remark about "doing" women, I got a much more pointed reply than yours. Wowza.

Anonymous said...

Well, skipped daintily away from tyranny there. Thought I might get an insight into the American psyche. Never mind, plenty more fish on the net.

Jenny said...

Pointed? Care to share more? I suppose that's not surprising because people see what we see in other people's writing, nibbling on the morsels that interest us.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, "nibbling on morsels" is what I was getting at. I was offered the opportunity, perhaps facetiously, to nibble on morsels. Funny/bizarre world we live in.

Anon the Outsider said...

'One of the best decisions the US ever made was to commemorate King's birthday as a national holiday. He's as close to a prophet as American history offers.'

Still sort of on topic, the above was taken from this interesting piece:

which also quoted this gem:

'(Max Blumenthal suggested that Obama's second inaugural speech be entitled "I have a drone").'
We might as well look for the comedy in this awful mess we're in, sweet f.a else we can do.

Another riveting, visionary and woefully neglected speech by Dr King, delivered a year before he was killed, the full text is here:

Maybe Michael Jackson could have benefitted from using Dr King as an exemplar rather than whoever he was trying so hard to turn into.

Steve Salerno said...

You know what's odd, though, AtO--and I grant you going in that of all the points in your comment to perk to, this is the most trivial and downmarket--but Janet and LaToya (sp?) Jackson don't look all that different from Michael's examplar, either--at least not when he was at the midpoint of his odyssey. Did they all go the same plastics guy?

AtO said...

Hail trivia! I remember reading that MJ was attempting to look like Diana Ross but who knows the truth in tabloid gossip?
Maybe they all went to Diana's surgeon, although from what I remember of the Supremes she was always dazzlingly gorgeous to look at and needed no help.

(Martha and the Vandellas fan myself)

Steve Salerno said...

But did Diana Ross originally look like Ving Rhames (long before Ving himself did), and she began the hot pursuit of plastic enhancement back when she was a pre-teen, working from a rough sketch of a visage she dreamed? Imagine, then...all of this scalpel work to try to emulate a face that never existed in the first place.

Maybe Steve needs a drink...?