Obama Series #1: Exploring The Barack Obama Movement

I don’t think I have ever seen anything like the movement to elect Barack Obama. Like it or not, like him or not, he has touched something in people unlike anything I have ever seen in the American political landscape. People simply go crazy at his rallies it seems, and the energy is palpable through the telly or online, and I haven’t even seen him in person.

Now I am clear that part of the attraction is his charm and good looks. I mean, I wasn’t really following him until I saw him about a year ago on Oprah, and I found myself swooning from my living room sofa. I think if he were unattractive the “energy” around him, sapped of that sexuality, would we be so caught up?

Also I am aware that a lot of his efforts to “de-racialize” his campaign has given a lot of white people (liberals and conservatives alike) the idea that electing him would put to bed issues of systemic anti-black racism in our society so “we can all just get along,” and get on with it. They are sick of feeling guilty and are really hostile to Black people, and may in some ways see him as a way of shutting down Black political concerns around racial justice (To be fair, I heard Barack say recently that just because he decided to run a campaign that didn’t focus on his race as a candidate did not mean that the issues facing America did not have institutionalized racism at their very core.). It is this issue that I think unnerves alot of Black folks about his campaign.

But I think that it is not only whites (or I guess I should say, non-blacks) who want to stop talking about racism, I think that many black people are tired of talking about racism too–and I think this is a particularly new phenomenon we will need to grapple with. We know that Black conservatives are on that tip–Ward Connerly and the like–but that’s not who I am talking about. I think a lot of masses of Black people want to get beyond the conversation of race too. This is complicated, but I think it makes sense, whether I agree or not.

First, I think that many Black people may feel somewhere, that organizing our political issues squarely around race has failed. Nevermind the reasons why, but given the conditions the Black community currently faces, many people may feel it simply has not worked. Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement, as Cathy Cohen, Angela Davis and Tommie Shelby have pointed out, the black community has not been able to successfully mass-mobilize around causes because they mostly affect particular aspects of the community we have never really organized to protect specifically–women, queers, poor people, youth, etc.

Secondly, I think being the most segregated and marginalized of all groups has meant that the community is not really in any position to organize solely on the basis of race. And I think a lot of Black people–because of our particular social/political isolation–want to feel apart of something beyond their race, whether it’s really possible or not–the desire is there. We also have to admit that we had help (albeit often problematic) during the Civil Rights Era, and other communities just don’t seem very interested in racial solidarity with Black issues as a whole. Black folks are well aware racism still exists, but what does it mean when we feel so marginalized from each other that Blackness may not be the place to organize from around most issues adversely impacting Black people? We can get on board with nooses around a tree in the South, but we can’t when we gotta talk HIV/AIDS–cuz it affects queers and women and poor people who don’t make good “innocent victim” types for bullet-proof campaigns.

These of course, aren’t the only reasons Black people are supporting Obama, but I think that there are some things at work more than just supporting him because he’s Black. Consider that it took a big Iowa win (a state with a 4% Black population) for Black support for him to turn in the polls in his favor over Clinton. It reflects a new cynicism that Blacks folks didn’t feel comfortable supporting him until they new he stood a chance at winning. We, as a whole, have never been that invested in supporting our own just because they could win before. To be sure, the more he campaigned, the more people got to get a better sense of him, since he is fairly new to the national stage. But sometimes we supported other Black people out of sheer spite–even when we knew that the Black person was DEAD WRONG! (Does the name R. Kelly ring a bell? Marion Barry? Sharpe James? I could go on…).

So here comes Barack Obama — representing in different ways, the hopes of people to move beyond divisive politics, be it along racial lines, political lines, etc.–and interests that are sometimes conflicting. He is, in that way, like Regan–different groups get different messages all from the same messenger. And tomorrow, Super Tuesday, people will begin to cast their vote for that sense of longing–either for the politics of yesteryear in Hillary Clinton or the longong for something new in the promise of Barack Obama (although some would argue that the first woman President would also be a promise of something new, but I think that narrative is harder for Clinton to claim because people feel as though they know her so well after being such a public figure for the last 15 years). He is capturing something that people, albeit for very different reasons, want–to belong and feel that they are apart of something. American culture not only has become politically polarized, but even more psychically alienating, and the longing to be included is something that he rightly recognizes and is pursuing as his brand, and it is this that many people have on their hearts as they go to vote.

The Left has paid far too little attention to this aspect of life, by trying to win on “issues” and trying to connect those issues to people’s sense of longing–as my friend Suzanne Pharr has been discussing in recent years. So, to those who do not like Obama, and feels he is promoting a shallow and hollow rhetoric, that’s fine. But understand, people just don’t vote their economic interest, as time immemorial has proven. The Left has a big job ahead–figuring out how to transform, curtail or destroy American (western or white supremacist) domination is going to necessarily require a different engagement in the emotional alienation that people feel, and working to transform that.

With this framework in mind, I’ll be bringing a couple other thoughts about his candidacy this week.