Thursday, December 31, 2009

Obama and Our Post-Modern Race Problem. Shelby Steele spells it out.

I was reading this thoughtful opinion piece by Shelby Steele when I had the misfortune of getting fragged. Steele, one the keenest minds and observers on race relations, puts forth a compelling series of thoughts on what propelled Obama to the presidency. He contrasts him with Reagan and certain celebrities, examines the elements of symbolism involved, and he beautifully deconstructs the manipulation of perception that was essential to achieve the intergalactic fluke that was the 2008 presidential election. The closing paragraph eloquently states "And yes, white America conditioned Barack Obama to emptiness—valued him all along for his "articulate and clean" blackness, so flattering to American innocence. He is a president come to us out of our national insecurities."

Now that the blind euphoria around Obama is subsiding, the messiah's failings are becoming more apparent, and Obama's is star is clearly waning, I think America will devote some serious time and consideration to understanding just what the "hell happened" because in many ways 2008 was a fluke.

I chalked 2008 result up to the confluence of several factors:

On the election side, the Obama camp ran a highly disciplined and professional campaign. It was impressive. The McCain camp lacked discipline, never defined their territory, and allowed their internal divisions to boil the surface, disrupting the entire operation. I also think McCain lost the will to win, as he refused to exploit Obama's obvious weaknesses to his own advantage.

Bush fatigue, incompetent Republicans, and an exhaustion from the perception that we were losing in Iraq. This hurt Republican voter turnout and alienated independents.

The tabula rosa syndrome. Obama was able to be everything to everyone. Voters were able to project their aspirations onto him and see him as a vehicle for these dreams. While this proved inherently false ex post facto, and only works once, he had a mystifying sway over considerable segments of the voting population that I think drove voters to the polls on his behalf.

White guilt. Steele is a billion times more eloquent at flushing this out and in much greater detail than I could ever hope to. However, I noticed among some of my peers at business school, former colleagues, and contemporaries, that their whiteness or "pinkness" (as some of the more slavishly politically correct ones would say), was a liability to which the bore a burden. I think that they imagined casting a vote for Obama would somehow absolve them of the imagined sins that they were somehow accountable for in their own minds. It was the worst form of self-loathing, but, it clearly manifested itself heavily.

Energized democratic voter turnout. Blacks turned out in record numbers, as did younger voters, and other traditional democratic constituencies. There was an irrefutable energy shrouding Obama, and the historic nature of his campaign, that inflated this numbers. I also think Bush fatigue played a part, although not as much in energizing the liberal base, as deflating the GOP base. The irony of the high black voter turnout, is that while it increased Obama's margins, it also ensured that the gay marriage ban in California would pass, as black voters are overwhelmingly against gay marriage. The irony is priceless.

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