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Monday, March 17, 2008

Obama's (Bi) Racial Predicament

Conventional political wisdom holds that Barack Obama's biracial identity works entirely to his benefit politically. Having a foot in both camps, so to speak (the theory goes), he doesn't have to play racial identity politics of the kind that have earned Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton reputations as notorious race hucksters. The problem with the Ebony Plus Ivory hypothesis is this: It doesn't really give Obama the best of both worlds. In a very real sense, Obama's 50-50 racial status saddles him with a special kind of burden, namely: what seems to be his entrenched psychological need to prove that he's "authentically black." Obama the memoir writer has recounted the many blessings he got from his mom and her side of the family, education being at the top of the list. What did Obama get from his dad? Try: an aching sense of emptiness, owing to his father's physical absence from his life. Obama has written about his quest to be reunited with his father, in person as well as in spirit. How very understandable, that his absent father is a psychological "presence" that he finds intolerable. Obama's search for his father is synonymous with his search for his identity as a black man in America. We know this because Obama tells us so, in his remarkably eloquent book, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance. Jeremiah Wright is a stand-in for Obama's missing dad. Morally, Wright falls short because he is a virulent racist and fiery demagogue. Obama's dad fell short morally by abandoning his wife and son. Obama's relationship with Wright is ambivalent, like his relationship with his father. Hence Obama's condemnation of Wright is clearly hesitant, just as Obama had to be pressed to reject Louis Farrakhan. If Obama repudiates Wright entirely, it can only look to many of his supporters that Obama is doing the white man's bidding — and somehow repudiating his own blackness in the process. Obama's major speech about Wright and the role of race in the campaign will tell us all a great deal about his character. Is this a man with the inner resources to come to terms with the "family romance" he has inherited, and its powerful hold on his psyche up until now? Tune in and find out.