Saturday, January 05, 2008

Obama as a 'Brown' Candidate

I had a moment of Obama-identification when I saw the following anecdote from the Iowa caucuses in the New York Times last night:

The Boyd household, perhaps, is atypical. She supported Mr. Obama, while her husband, Rex, walked into the caucus as a Clinton supporter. Before the final headcount was conducted, she said, he changed his mind and moved over to the Obama corner of the room.

In an overnight e-mail, she offered an explanation.

“Rex went to Clinton and I wore a Obama sticker. As people milled and talked, he changed before the count as he heard people stating they could not vote for someone with a last name like Obama. One said, ‘He needs to stay in Chicago and take care of his family.’

“Rex came over to Obama, where he heard not one negative bit of talk. He felt they both stand for pretty much the same ideas, but our leader needs to be positive and Obama puts that feeling out there. That is important in this world.” (link)

There goes that 'funny' name again. Obama has joked about it at times in his stump speeches, but here it seems like it might really be a liability for him after all. For someone to say "I couldn't vote for someone named Obama" is to my eye code: it's a way of saying "I couldn't vote for someone foreign."

The problem of the funny name, and the association it carries with foreignness, as has been discussed many times at Sepia Mutiny, is a characteristic most South Asians share with Mr. Barack Obama. (He has a nickname, by the way -- "Barry" -- though he has admirably chosen not to campaign on it... yet).

This little anecdote is a reminder that this campaign is still, in some sense, a referendum on race and, more broadly, "difference." Clearly, some voters (even supposedly less race-minded Democrats) really aren't ready for a black candidate, or a "different" candidate -- but as, in the anecdote above, there are also an equal number of voters who are drawn to Obama for precisely the reason that others are prejudiced against him.

Obama's difference obviously isn't exactly the same as that which many South Asian American dcontend with, of course: he's Christian, and many of us are not (though it's worth pointing out again that he doesn't have a Christian name). He's also visually and culturally identifiable to most Americans as "black," while Desis often have the problem of looking merely foreign and unplaceable. (In his second gubernatorial campaign in Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, as I've discussed, found a formula to get around this, but since it entailed positioning himself in some cases against the interests of African Americans, I don't think it's a formula I would encourage others to emulate.)

Obama assiduously avoids making the campaign about race in his speeches and debates (except for the obligatory references to Selma, which even white candidates make), though I think he finds coded ways to address some of voters' doubts about his difference after all. Take the opening of his recent victory speech in Iowa:

"You know, they said this day would never come. They said our sights were set too high. They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.

But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do. (link)

When he started out this paragraph, I could have sworn he was going to say that "this day" is the day a black man overwhelmingly won a primary caucus in a state that is 95% white. But in fact, the punchline is something much more neutral: it's the day people "come together around a common purpsoe." Those first few phrases are in some sense code, but Obama knows better than to directly play the "racial vindication" card.

He does something similar at the end of the speech, when he talks about "red" and "blue":

To end the political strategy that's been all about division, and instead make it about addition. To build a coalition for change that stretches through red states and blue states.

Because that's how we'll win in November, and that's how we'll finally meet the challenges that we face as a nation.

We are choosing hope over fear.

We're choosing unity over division, and sending a powerful message that change is coming to America.


(Obama sure is a master at vague but potentially inspiring language!)When Obama talks about bringing together "red states and blue state" and "unity over division," it's hard for me not to think that he's again using a kind of code, what he really means is, he'll bring together a coalition of of white voters and non-white voters.

Obama seems to have found a method to invoke race, and hint at his own racial difference, without making it a "problem" for white voters. (We'll see if he can remain as subtle after running up against the Clinton "firewall" in New Hampshire...)



Anonymous aestas said...

thanks for this, Amardeep. It makes me see Obama in a new light -- he is definitely one who knows how to use language politically and effectively.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Gautham said...

I didn't see his speech as vague or even remotely promising some sort of racial healing. Rather, I think it was the heartfelt sentiment that perhaps change is actually approaching.

It seems like this post is composed more of your own views of Obama than anything you could ascribe to him politically. I have never seen him make an issue of his race or identity in the manner you seem to be alluding he is; perhaps unlike many other progressive navel gazers, Obama is perfectly comfortable with who he is.

3:51 PM  
Anonymous Degrees said...

Obama is one of the candidates that I am on the fence on. personally I think there is something wrong with him. Hidden agenda? I m not sure.
But on the outside he seems very capable. Again it might be my own read on him.

Not sure if I would vote for him or Hilary

7:41 PM  
Anonymous Acai said...

not sure if obama and biden have what it takes to take down mccain and palin

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Colon Powell said...

Hi Amardeep

Obama became the first brown president in history

4:40 AM  

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