by Andrew Jolivette, author of Obama and the biracial factor
There are now just days to go before the U.S. decides on its next commander-in- chief. As with the 2008 election, race continues to be a central theme although it is seldom discussed in the mainstream media. Perhaps the overwhelming salience of race and politics in this cycle’s campaign can best be exemplified by the first presidential debate that found news commentators obsessing over why President Obama did not go after Republican challenger Mitt Romney with more force and aggression. But what was true in 2008 is true in 2012. As a man of mixed African descent the President has to be careful in his calculation of how he is perceived and being the “angry black man” simply won’t help his favourability or likeability at this crucial moment.
Obama’s presidency has ironically shifted race relations in a somewhat negative way as it relates to policy, particularly education and immigration policies. This is not due to his own policies per se, but as a result of the negative backlash he experienced from more conservative groups in the U.S as he entered office. If we look at Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, known as SB 1070, or the Texas State Education Board’s attempt to erase slavery from their history textbooks, we can see a retrenchment from race in education and immigration policy in the U.S. since President Obama took office. Because U.S. ethnic and racial demographics are changing toward a white racial minority, there have been several conservative attacks on gains from the 1960s Civil Rights movement. Because Obama is the first person of color, biracial person, and African American president, he is caught in the difficult position of trying not to appear biased when it comes to national policies. Since 2009 he has suggested that education and economic reforms along with immigration would help all Americans and in the process help ‘minority’ communities. He has also stated that he is the President of the entire United States, not just one particular demographic. However as I note in my recent book, Obama and the biracial factor (Policy Press, 2012):
“Since taking office many have argued that President Obama has not done ‘enough’ for people of color. I argue that his approach to race policy is not only intentional but deliberate. Mr. Obama, not only during the 2008 campaign but throughout his first two years of office, has taken a more ‘hands-off’ approach for two reasons. First, any action seen as a direct benefit to African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, Asian Americans, Arab Americans or LGBT Americans will not only be read as arrogant liberalism and favoritism, but it will weaken his credibility with independent voters. This isn’t to say that he does not intend to slowly and institutionally expose racism and white supremacy. In his silence on some issues, he is allowing neoliberal and conservative racism to expose itself. Not unlike other people of color his legitimacy and qualifications for his current job have been thoroughly questioned. Thus the second reason for what seems to be a ‘hands-off’ approach to race is to maintain the diverse new American majority that he built. Mr. Obama understands that ‘playing the game’ involves having a stronger hand and in the end without at least two terms in office he will not be able to have any lasting impact on the status quo.
Consider, then, candidate Obama’s response to former President Clinton’s comments about having the ‘race-card‘ played against him by the Obama campaign:
“So, former President Clinton dismissed my victory in South Carolina as being similar to Jesse Jackson and he is suggesting that somehow I had something to do with it,” Obama said laughing. “Ok, well, you better ask him what he meant by that. I have no idea what he meant. These are words that came out of his mouth, not out of mine.”
Here again, having lived with both working-class white grandparents and having attended Ivy League majority white universities, Obama knew full well that he was up against a very popular former President, and to openly call him a ‘racist‘ would have quickly led to his own downfall as a candidate. Instead, Obama (as he is currently doing with the Tea Party and other anti-Obama individuals and groups) allowed Clinton to expose his own deep-seated sense of superiority not only to Obama, but to any African-American candidate who would dare to think s/he could do more for ‘his people‘ than Clinton himself had done.” (from the introduction to, Obama and the biracial factor).
What President Obama has done is highlight and open up a national dialogue about where the USA is as a nation when it comes to race. It is clearly not a ‘post-racial’ society, despite his election as President in 2008. A silent scab has been pulled off and, while at times painful to watch, it is clear that the nation is talking more about race. If re-elected I believe we can anticipate an even more aggressive policy agenda from Mr. Obama that will more critically and qualitatively impact the lives of people of colour including African Americans. His election in 2008 and current re-election campaign are in and of themselves an indication of a shifting political majority. He has been successful because, unlike Kerry and Gore before him, he brought together the most diverse coalition of supporters in U.S. history. This is directly related to his biracial background which continues to allow him to navigate policy compromises and see the commonality between two different sides of the same issue. In other words, his duality racially and his duality politically are both his greatest assets and his biggest challenges.