Carmen Van Kerckhove
President, New Demographic, a consulting firm that addresses race and racism
Watching news coverage of Jesse Jackson’s remarks about Barack Obama “talking down to black people” reminded me of a conversation I had in 2000.
I was chatting over lunch with a couple of co-workers about celebrity gossip, and the conversation turned to Halle Berry's multiracial identity. My co-workers scoffed at the idea that a person could identify as biracial, declaring: "When it comes down to it, you know what side Halle's on."
At the time I wondered to myself: When it comes down to what? The inevitable great race war? Will we all have to pick a side once and for all and declare our racial allegiance?
Much has already been made about the supposed rift between “the old guard” represented by Jackson and “the new guard” represented by Obama. But to me, the Jackson incident is emblematic of a different issue. Namely, the anxiety that different racial or ethnic groups - especially blacks and whites - are feeling about whether Obama has their best interests at heart.
Judging from the Democratic primary results, Obama enjoys overwhelming support among African-American voters. But that doesn’t mean that black voters have no criticisms or doubts about his intentions. Many black journalists and bloggers, for example, expressed concern that Obama’s father’s day speech, though delivered to an all-black audience, was really aimed at assuring white voters that he could deliver “tough love” to people of his own community.
Similarly, all the hand-wringing about Obama’s patriotism (or lack thereof, according to some flag pin enthusiasts) has really been a coded way of asking: Is Obama going to look out for white folks too? The countless internet rumors and conspiracy theories - the “whitey” tape, Obama’s birth certificate, Obama’s secret Muslim faith - to me all indicate an underlying sense of unease among many whites. Few would admit to it openly, but I think that on some level, there are white Americans who fear that Obama will use his presidency to exact racial retribution for the historical oppression of African-Americans.
As a multiracial person myself, I know a thing or two about having my racial loyalty and authenticity called into question. But the racial tightrope Obama has to walk is on a whole other level.
No matter how hard he tries to distance himself from folks like Farrakhan or Wright - those who are associated in the public imagination with radical black politics - he will still be viewed with suspicion by some white voters. No matter how hard he emphasizes his involvement and contributions to the African-American community - some black voters will still believe he’s not committed enough to racial justice.
Editor's Note: Carmen Van Kerckhove is an Obama supporter. New Demographic is a consulting firm that addresses race and racism.
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