On Election Day, The State ran a Eugene Robinson column connecting the Tea Party ire to the fact that the president is, well, black. He was quite moderate and reasonable about it, taking pains to say that “It’s not racist to criticize President Obama, it’s not racist to have conservative views, and it’s not racist to join the Tea Party.” This was followed, as you might expect, by a significant “But…”
And I think he makes a fair, if not airtight, case for the argument that the Tea Party would not be as big a phenomenon as it is if this president were not noticeably different from every president we’ve had before. I think that’s true. And I think for a lot of people, his alleged blackness forms a part of it. But that’s only because most Americans, black and white, seem to buy into the idea, promoted by the president himself, that he is, indeed, black.
But not I. As you know, I’ve never considered him to be black. I set out my reasoning in that double-length column in October 2008, “Barack Like Me” (in which I argued that Obama had as much in common with me as he does the average black American). Rather than revisit every word of it, I’ll give you one short reason why he is not “black” in the sense that it is used as a sociopolitical designation in this country: Not ONE of his ancestors was brought to this country as a slave. Not one. This puts him entirely outside the American narrative of race.
Aside from that, he was not raised as a black American. Blackness was something he personally decided to embrace as a teenager looking for an identity, as kids — particularly kids with childhoods as unrooted as his — tend to do.
And because of all that, I think Robinson gets it slightly wrong in his conclusion:
I ask myself what’s so different about Obama, and the answer is pretty obvious: He’s black. For whatever reason, I think this makes some people unsettled, anxious, even suspicious – witness the willingness of so many to believe absurd conspiracy theories about Obama’s birthplace, his religion and even his absent father’s supposed Svengali-like influence from the grave.
Obama has made mistakes that rightly cost him political support. But I can’t help believing that the Tea Party’s rise was partly due to circumstances beyond his control – that he’s different from other presidents, and that the difference is his race.
I come up with a different answer when I ask myself that same question — “what’s so different about Obama”? Sure, his being the child of an absent African father and a white mother makes him different from any other POTUS, ever. But so do several other rather glaring factors that may be related to his alleged blackness, but which could exist completely independently of the ambiguous color of his skin. Such as:
- His name. “Barack Hussein Obama.” It’s extremely foreign. Set aside the connection with Islam and Arabic, and all the freight those carry at this point in history (such as the uncanny closeness to the name “Osama”), for a moment. Just in terms of being different, it’s easily light years beyond the name of anyone else who has even come close to occupying the Oval Office. The most exotic name of any previous president, by far, was “Roosevelt.” I mean, “Millard Fillmore” was goofy-sounding, but it sounded like an English-speaker. And I don’t think it was a coincidence that the first Catholic to receive a major party nomination had the vanilla/whitebread name “Al Smith.”
- His father was a foreigner, regardless of his race. He was a man who spent almost none of his life in this country. He came here briefly, fathered a child, and went home. Show me the parallel to that in the biographies of former presidents.
- While he never really knew his father (he had to learn about him at a distance, the way we learn about figures in history), he did know his stepfather, who was Indonesian. Young Barry spent a goodly portion of his childhood in Indonesia. In my earlier column I drew a parallel to my own childhood sojourn in South America, but I was there undeniably as an American. Barry Obama lived in SE Asia as an Indonesian, or as close to it as someone of Caucasian/African heritage could.
- The fact that, to the extent that he is connected to African roots, it is a heritage that is totally divorced from most presidents’ sense of connection to Europe. I didn’t fully realize that until the Churchill bust episode, which caused some Brit to note something that hadn’t fully occurred to me: This is the first president the modern UK has had to deal with who doesn’t have the Special Relationship hard-wired into his sense of self, if not his genes. In fact, quite the contrary: Unlike any previous president (except maybe Kennedy, who spent his adult life living down his father’s pro-German sympathies leading up to WWII), Obama’s grandfather actually experienced political oppression at the hands of British colonialists.
- His unearthly cool. His intellectual detachment, the sense he projects that he takes nothing personally. Weirdly, this takes a trait usually associated, in most stereotypical assumptions, with Northern Europeans, and stretches it until it screams. He looks at problems the way a clinical observer does. Probably more maddeningly to his detractors, he looks at his fellow Americans that way — as though he is not one of them; he is outside; he has something of the air of an entomologist studying beetles with a magnifying glass.
Bottom line, I think that last trait probably contributes most to the alienation many feel toward him. They sense that detachment, and they find it off-putting, and their minds grope for explanations, and they see all the other different things about him. That last one is one with which I can identify to some extent. I think one reason I’m a journalist (as are a lot of military brats) is that I moved around a lot as a kid, and was never quite of the place where I lived, and tended to look at a given place and its people with the detachment of an outsider. It wasn’t until I moved here to the place of my birth in my 30s (and I was only born here; I grew up everywhere else) that I embraced fully the identity of being a South Carolinian, but as a conscious act of will, rather like Obama’s decision to be “black.” I have a certain claim to it — mostly genetic (my family tree is three-fourths South Carolinian) — just as Obama has a genetic claim to blackness, but it’s nothing like the SC identification of someone who has lived, say, in Cayce his whole life.
As you can see, I still feel an affinity for Barack Obama, as I did in 2008. He has my sympathy, and since he IS my president, I hope he is successful as president — even though I supported McCain. And I in no way excuse the extreme, personal hostility to him among many of the voters who voted the Tea Party way on Tuesday. But I do find myself trying to understand it, based upon available facts. And I think the factors I listed above are at least as relevant as the color of his skin, if not more so.