12/11/2007

Oprah, Obama, and Race! Oh my!

Much has been written about Barack Obama and the support he's receiving from Oprah Winfrey. Most of what I've read has focused on how she will benefit his campaign, how she may be a more compelling speaker than he is, how much celebrity endorsements matter, and how Hillary Clinton must be fuming over the way the race has gone over the past few weeks.

However, I've been hearing a lot of rumblings primarily from conservatives, Republicans, and Whites about this story that have annoyed me: that the only reason why Oprah Winfrey is supporting Barack Obama is because he's Black. The latest gripes I've heard about this came from Justin Jackson over at Political Derby and the comments to a post written by prominent conservative blogger Michelle Malkin.

Now, before I go any further, keep in mind that Barack Obama's chief appeal is his message of transcending our differences for the sake of unity. But it would seem, at least according to these conservative critics, that Blacks should not embrace this message as well lest they be accused of supporting him "just because he's Black."

White movie stars, White lawmakers, and White icons have endorsed White politicians in America for centuries, but not once have you heard anyone say "it's because the guy running for office is White." When Whites endorse Whites, it's race-neutral. It's "because of the issues." When Chuck Norris endorsed Mike Huckabee, for example, did you hear any of this stupid conjecture about him doing so because Huckabee was White? But when Oprah endorses Obama, suddenly "it's because Obama's Black." Why the double standard?

This thinking is offensive for another reason. When you ascribe race as the primary reason for something happening, you are completely ignoring the possibility that perhaps the decision in question was based on its actual merits. Conservative critics of affirmative action should be familiar with this argument. But do these critics really think that the calculus behind Oprah's endorsement was that simple? Do these critics think that Black electoral behavior is really that straightforward? For those who are criticizing Oprah for supporting a candidate "just because he's Black," why did she not endorse Jesse Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign? Why didn't she throw her support behind Colin Powell in 1996? Why didn't she get on the Carol Mosley-Braun bandwagon in 2004? The Mosley-Braun snub should be an even bigger surprise because she's a Black woman! Or is Obama different because he's much more viable?

I am not an Obama supporter, but I do acknowledge that there are many things about Obama to like. He seems more in touch with average people and he talks about things with a greater level of sincerity that many other politicians only pay lip service to or avoid talking about altogether, especially when it comes to issues important to Blacks (like cleaning up rap and hiphop). He did not grow up detached from reality because he did not spend his entire life living in a gated community, attending prestigious academies, and getting cushy jobs that he didn't have to work for because his parents set him up for them. He exudes youth, vigor, optimism, and freshness unlike most of the other politicians you see running around Washington. He actually does seem different in that he has infiltrated Washington and is not one of the "good ol' boys." And he is a bit more internationally minded than the other candidates in that he knows firsthand about how we are perceived around the world and how our actions here impact our relations elsewhere. (I gained the same perspective living and working abroad.) This is not to say other candidates don't have this worldly knowledge and experience, but Obama seems more sincere with it because of his deeds. Seemingly small gestures like getting tested for AIDS in Kenya mean a lot to people around the world who view the United States as aloof. (Interestingly, I remember talking with a conservative coworker about Obama's Africa trip and the coworker said, "big deal." Actually, considering how little attention most other politicians pay to Africa, to a lot of voters, this is a "big deal." But I digress...)

In light of all these positive qualities, it is easy to see why Obama is so popular and why he is so appealing to so many people even across racial lines. America has never been confronted with such a candidate before, so a lot of voters view Obama's candidacy as a way to send a message about what America represents. And there are a lot of jaded voters out there who would like to give Obama's "new politics" a try, especially seeing that the normal way of doing things has failed so miserably.

But to these conservative critics, none of that has entered the equation. To these critics, nobody, including Oprah, could possibly support Obama for any of these various reasons. His Blackness somehow supercedes all his other qualities. His skin color matters more than his policy positions, his biography, or his political philosophy. And that is insulting to Oprah, insulting to Obama, and insulting to his supporters, regardless of their race.

And this situation is fraught with Catch 22's. Where were these conservative critics when the media and voters kept asking "is Obama Black enough?" Oprah hadn't even endorsed Obama then. And what if Oprah had endorsed a White candidate? Had she endorsed John McCain, for example, there would have been a flurry of news stories about "why Obama can't attract the Black vote." Oprah would have been bombarded with questions about why she didn't support "the Black candidate." So now that she has endorsed "the Black candidate," people are saying "it's because Obama's Black." Well, which one is it? I suspect that conservatives probably wouldn't have said anything about a McCain endorsement. So why should they be more critical of an Obama endorsement? Or are Black people not supposed to support Black candidates, even if they are really just candidates who happen to be Black?

Where was the conservative outrage when Fred Thompson was attracting the endorsements of other Southern White male politicians? These politicians thought that Thompson, a fellow Southerner, would be the best representative of their political objectives. Where was the conservative outrage when Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani were tripping over each other for endorsements from the evangelical community? These evangelicals were supporting these candidates because they thought they would be the best advocates for evangelical Christian issues despite their obvious pandering. Where was the conservative oturage when Mitt Romney was attracting endorsements from other Mormons? Aren't these supporters displaying the same level of superficiality that they are accusing Oprah of doing with Obama and his race?

Then again, why did conservatives criticize Al Gore so heavily for failing to carry his home state of Tennessee in the 2000 presidential election, even though basing one's support for a particular politician on something as simple as geography or home state affiliation is apparently so wrong? John Edwards was similarly savaged for "failing to deliver his home state" of North Carolina for John Kerry in 2004. So perhaps there's another explanation.

I believe it's human nature for people to look out for their self interests and support people who are like themselves. This loyalty can be based on a shared geography, military affiliation, political party, alma mater, membership in a fraternity, gender, or even religion. But conservatives seem not to want to talk much about these other criteria that we use to make decisions about where to place our political support. Race is the easiest one to use as a scapegoat. And since conservatives are the ones who commonly talk about how race should never matter, why are they the ones who are throwing race back in everyone's faces by delegitimizing Oprah's support for the candidate of her choice who just happens to be Black?

And if she is supporting Obama because he's Black, then who cares? Why should people not be allowed to do so? One only need look at the mayoral races of New Orleans and DC to find evidence of this! And how many times have Whites supported other Whites just because they're White? The North Carolina Senate races with Jesse Helms come to mind, for example. If race matters to these voters, then let them vote according to the issue they care about! It's just a bit unfair to penalize one group for doing this while turning a blind eye to another group who does the exact same thing. It reminds me of conversations I commonly heard as an undergraduate at Duke University in the dining halls there. Many White students would look at the lone table of Black students and ask "Why are all the Black students sitting together?" These same White students were completely oblivious to the fact that there were 20 other tables of White students doing the exact same thing.

Conservatives often say that race should not be a prism through which people see the world. While that may certainly be ideal, it ignores reality. Race might not matter to some people, but it does matter to others. One person's race is another person's abortion. One person's abortion is another person's Iraq. Or Confederate flag. Or gay marriage. Or tax cuts. Or Southerner. Or West Virginian.

Blacks and Whites are alike in that they both want to preserve their self interests. However, a lot of these White conservatives who are griping about Oprah right now are hypocritical because they often do the exact same thing they are accusing her of doing. However, the difference is that these White conservatives have the ability to hide behind the invisibility of their race while Blacks are less able to do so because of the conspicuousness of theirs.

It seems that Barack Obama would like to move past all this. But in the event that some of his supporters can't, then they should be allowed to retain their ignorance without criticism, unless these conservative critics don't only single out Blacks for such superficial thinking.

5 comment(s):

Nikki said...

Interesting post. Honestly my thought on Oprah supporting Obama was not that he is black, but that he is extrememly liberal(at least to me he is). I had someone post on my blog that Oprah could take the spot light off Obama and on to her and that could hurt Obama. I thought that was a good point, however campaigning really is marketing and while they all scramble for exposure Oprah sure gave Obama some air time. There was some criticism of Oprah a few years ago from some prominent Black leaders that she wasn't "black enough" or doing enough for the black community with her platform. This criticism is strange to me since I have seen and heard other prominant black prople get the same treatment. Colin Powell is an uncle Tom, Condaleeza Rice is a sell out, Clarence Thomas is a pervert and an uncle tom? I have been thinking about this since your other post as to why more black people aren't republicans.......could it also be that the name calling would start and like uncle tom or a sell out are used to intimidate black people into a left leaning party? To me it would appear that Jesse jackson, Al Sharpton and Charlie Rangle(sp?) drive the car and tell it where to park. Maybe I am wrong. Saying Oprah supported Barack because of race is stupid. I may disagree with her on most issues but I am smart enough to see that she doesn't get involved in politics very often......but maybe she is feeling comfortable with the fact that she can do what she wants, she is, after all a billionaire.

Schenck said...

Nice post, Palmer. It should be required reading for everyone. The ignorance which fuels views like "Oprah's with Obama 'cuz he's black" is the exact mindset that Obama yearns to overcome, that we as a country NEED to overcome to move on to the 21st century, to unite in harmony for the advancement of our country instead of against one another. (Excuse my hippie-ness and slight Obama-touting)

Anthony Palmer said...

Nikki,

I think most Blacks vote Democratic, but not because of the influence of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson. Blacks don't really like the Democrats that much, but they also believe Republicans write them off without even trying to woo them. Blacks are generally conservative on issues like gay marriage and religion, but Republicans seem a bit more hostile towards them. Perception matters.

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Schenck,

Thanks for the comment. I agree wholeheartedly with what you said. I would probably vote for Obama if he were the nominee because even though "sending a message" is often derided as a superficial reason for supporting someone for president, I really believe Obama represents something positive that resides in all of us and has been absent in our political discourse since...well since a very long time ago: civility.

Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

the only race they are is green, cash

Mag said...

Excellent post.

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