The Threat of Race

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The Threat of Race by David Theo Goldberg Now available from Blackwell Publishing and

Thursday November 13, 2008


Posted by David Theo Goldberg 2 comment(s)

In preparing for one of her infamous interviews during the US presidential campaign, Sarah Palin apparently revealed that she thought Africa a country. To be fair, she couldn’t name the countries in North America either (Alaska? Russia?), nor—perhaps more happily—those covered by NAFTA (New Mexico? California?). She is reported to have asked her handlers whether South Africa was a region of the country of Africa. 

This supposedly quirky and idiosyncratic ignorance of a small-minded candidate, nominated for high office pretty much overwhelmingly for political expediency, nevertheless reveals something larger about a range of tensions in the political fabric of America.

As Barack Obama’s momentous electoral triumph became evident on Tuesday evening, the world—not just America but most anyone paying attention almost anywhere—broke into spontaneous celebration.  From the sprawling throngs of supporters and well-wishers in Grant Park, Chicago (site just 40 years ago of a dramatically different if not altogether unrelated kind of democratic undoing) to the country’s other mega-cities, coast-to coast. Time Square to Union Square, Rockies to Gulf, Minneapolis to New Orleans. From his father’s homeland of Kenya to Africa’s Little America in Liberia or oil-rich Nigeria, from de-colonized Cape Town to Cairo. From the cities flung clear across Europe to the Far East, Brazil to Beijing and Shanghai to Sydney; from the Middle East to Manila, India to the West Indies. 

These spontaneous celebrations in witnessing a world-historical event–the closing of the Civil Rights circle, the rewriting of the book on American slavery, Martin Luther King’s dream no longer fully deferred–were as much collective sigh of relief as victory celebration.  The world had been waiting to exhale—from eight excrutiatingly endless years of arrogance and incompetence, a politics of make believe and compulsion, raw aggression and naked power, self-regarding faith and imperializing politics, visions and hubris. The celebrations, tears of joy and apprehension, in city parks and town squares wherever thinking people sought to gather, was as much then a response to bringing closure on the Bush world as it was joy at Obama’s ascension.  It was, in short, a moment of pure catharsis. 

Considered against this backdrop, there was a striking contrast between the 250,000 swelling crowd sprawled across Grant Park into the streets of downtown Chicago and the barely 3,000 despondent invite-only die-hards at John McCain’s concession gathering at the famous Biltmore in Phoenix, Arizona. This contrast reveals something much more significant about the world represented by McCain-Palin and that projected by the Obama vision.

Like the crowds that came to McCain-Palin rallies, the somber gathering at the toney Biltmore, built by Frank Lloyd Wright  to service America’s social elite seeking relief from the depths of frozen winters, was overwhelmingly white.  Indeed blond.  Nary a face of color to be found beneath the wintry suntans and plastic surgeries.  The likes of Joe the Plumber, who on a usual day might be found on the hotel grounds only fixing pipes after 120 degree days or frosty nights, was scarce to be seen.

Grant Park, by contrast, had faces hailing from every continent, arms linked together, flesh pressed hard against each other, tears and face-splitting smiles not even waiting to take turns.  This was hybrid America true to its historical making, Obama’s “mutt” make-up rocking to the groove in the public square. Poor and rich, black and white and brown and every conceivable shade of color betwixt, between, and beyond.  Matched in Times Square and Santa Monica, Trafalgar Square and a town hall in Japan’s Obama, Cairo and Kenya, Ramallah and Tel Aviv, even Bagram and Baghdad.

The broader message was palpable.  America is the world writ small, the global America writ large.  Plato’s resonance across the ages.  Not exceptional, above.  But one of.  A part, not apart. Heterogeneous and messy, engaged and interactive, example not exceptional. The culture of Rambo and the Terminator, torture and terror, is on notice. The pull of the metro outrunning the retro (Obama prevailed in states home to 11 of America’s 15 largest cities). Mutts of the world unite.

The country formerly known as Africa, birthplace of the human even for those who still insist on origins reduced to Adam’s throbbing rib. Even the humanity of those too caught up in their own little worlds to know that “Adam’s rib” was really birthed in real time elsewhere. If Palin’s impetuousness  is born of this ignorance, Obama’s wisdom and sober judgment are his inheritance from this long-boiling hybrid cauldron of human strife and suffering.

“I am a redneck and proud of it,” Palin reiterated at repeated election stops, fueling frothing Rambo wannabes in too tall Stetsons desperate to contain their Hooters horniness before her Neiman Marcus sexiness. Talking of his campaign, by contrast, Obama’s subtle self-deprecation appreciated that “It was built by working men and women who dug into what little savings they had to give five dollars and ten dollars and twenty dollars to this cause. It grew strength from the young people who rejected the myth of their generations apathy; who left their homes and their families for jobs that offered little pay and less sleep; from the not-so-young people who braved the bitter cold and scorching heat to knock on the doors of perfect strangers; from the millions of Americans who volunteered, and organized, and proved that more than two centuries later, a government of the people, by the people and for the people has not perished from this Earth.” (Obama Election Night Speech)

A different kind of coalition politics than the forcefully coerced one “of the willing.” This a coalition represented by the patchwork quilt in Grant Park, all corners of the world, those as much used to the kitchen as the board room, the shop floor as the hard wood floor.  Thirteen percent more women voted for Obama as for McCain, even as men were fairly evenly split between them.  And those younger than 30 voted for him almost 2-1.

That a black man could get elected President by appealing to such a broadbrush coalition has led the tired old colorblinders to push once again for a completely individualized color-blind polity.  The Thernstroms, for instance, immediately called for an end to “racial gerrymandering” of political districts, reading Obama’s success as a mandate for “color-blind voting.” (“Racial Gerrymandering is Unnecessary,” Wall Street Journal). This reduces racial registers once again to the surface of individualized preference schemes, belittling the enormous supererogatory effort necessitated by black candidates facing political, educational, or employment considerations, and reduces the value added of coalitional political organizing to hyper-individualized political instrumentality. This election gave the lie to that latter mode too.

Philomena Essed quipped to me a week or two before this momentous election that black men historically have always been called to clean up after the mess-making of white men, of The Man, just as women still get to clean up on a daily basis. Women, it could be said of this historical moment, came to make common cause with black folk.  And a little revolution—quiet, bloodless, dignified, digitally and socially networked—was afoot.

If Bill Clinton could lay some claim to being America’s first black President, then celebration of Obama’s election most everywhere around the world in a sense, perhaps metaphorical, has marked him as the first global president.  Not in an imperial or messianic sense, as Judith Butler has perhaps justifiably worried about, but aspirationally. (“Uncritical Exuberance?”) He is one who, looked to for leadership, has a mandate to bring together dispirited and fractured worlds, to rally the conflicted to reach accord, the downtrodden and the over-compensated to the realization that we inhabit common ground, the condition of one causally connected to that of the other. The Effective Facilitator. Not the Great Dictator, as Republican congressmen repeatedly kvetch about. (Georgia Congresswoman Warns of Obama Dictatorship) Effective facilitation entails getting principals to find ways to act together, for each others’ sake, and not just instrumentally, self-interestedly.  That’s the sense of sacrifice to which Obama continuously alludes. A great weight to be borne, to be sure, but an opportunity to help re-make inhabited worlds in more appealing, less dispirited, divisive, more aspiring ways. 

Barack Obama’s comfort, if he has any facing these trying times, is to know that the goodwill and support he has earned globally and locally are as much resource as comfort, as much generative fuel as support base in setting out and seeking to institute an appealing agenda genuinely and expansively speaking—reaching–to collective wellbeing.

That’s the difference us mutts of the world are counting on.

Irvine, California
November 2008

2 responses to “A COUNTRY FORMERLY KNOWN AS AFRICA By David Theo Goldberg”

  1. Joe says:

    I definitely agree with you, what an exciting event – not only for us, but literally the world!

    Political Opinion

  2. Education says:

    Thank you very much for that superb article

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