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People Like Obama

With all the continuing Obama hype, I was reminded to go back and find a column by the late Dr. Samuel Francis, who had understood the reason for the enthusiasm for Obama long before anyone else.  In August 2004 he had written:

The reason, Tilove suggests, is that black political style in this country is changing. Sharpton’s overt and in-your-face attack style is vanishing, and Obama’s smooth moves are crystallizing. “I think this is really the end of an era of race and politics,” history professor Angela Dillard told Tilove. “Something’s shifting and changing, and people like Sharpton can’t change with it, and something new and different is being created, and it is about people like Obama.” What kind of people are “people like Obama” exactly?

One reason for Obama’s smoothness and fashionableness is his Harvard degree (Keyes has one, too), but more to the point is his racial ambiguity, a trait that as Tilove notes cuts both ways. Obama, you see, had a father who was a black native of Kenya and a white American mother. “People like Obama” are multiracial people.

His racial identity or supposed lack of it enables him to be both black and non-racial, white and multiracial, at the same time. When he wants to be black, he can be and is. He calls himself black, and the media routinely identify him as a “black” or “African-American.”

But he can also be white or not racial at all, which is useful when he’s presenting himself as “above” race and appealing to the white voters he’ll need if he’s going to be elected or when he’s denouncing his critics and opponents for playing race cards as he himself of course would never do. Moreover, while openly racial candidates like Sharpton or Jesse Jackson helped instigate white racial consciousness—if they can be black, why can’t whites be white?—Obama works against it: If he’s neither white nor black, why should you be white?

Obama, in other words, is both a living testament to the power of black racial consciousness and identity and at the very same time a living renunciation of white racial identity. He joins Tiger Woods and Halle Berry as the model of what the New American is supposed to be—the multiracial utopia where every racial identity is legitimate except that of whites.

As Tilove notes, Obama “can argue for policies virtually indistinguishable from Sharpton’s in cooler, non-racial terms, while still affirming a message of racial identity and uplift implicit in his very being.”

“I think he is talking about race when he’s not,” Dillard says. “Something about the way he pitches things is perfect for this moment.”

And what is “this moment” exactly? It’s the moment when America ceases to be a nation defined and characterized by the white racial identity of its founders and historic population and is transformed into the non-white multiracial empire symbolized and led by “people like Obama.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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