Race Traitors, Sellouts, and Uncle Toms: Thoughts on the Election of Barack Obama

Last summer, I came across this thought-provoking piece by conservative pundit Larry Elder.  In it, Elder responds to a letter he received attacking him for being, essentially, a traitor to his race by supporting John McCain.  “How can a fellow black American feel this way?,” his reader asked.  Elder goes on to attack the premise that the only way to cast a compassionate vote for “the underprivileged”–specifically, the underprivileged Black community–is to vote for Barack Obama.  He declares, “Compassion is not about making people dependent on government.”

Elder’s rebuttal provoked a tidal wave of responses from me, none of them, I suspect, the ones he intended.  Though he tried to make the case that the Republican party represented more potential progress for Black Americans, he did so by embracing the basic assumption of the letter writer.  He proceeded from the assumption that, in fact, Black Americans should be voting for candidates who support the broader issues confronting them as a people.  That the political awareness of people of color should include an awareness of “race” and the distinctive issues it frames for the nation.

In this post, I want to embrace this fundamental assumption as true yet as something more than the simplistic form of “race politics” as expressed in the above piece. I then want to use this as a first step in making sense of the (upcoming) presidency of Barack Obama.

To point you in the direction I am heading, I want to emphasize the importance of thinking about Tuesday, November 4th not as an end but as a beginning.  This is not a beginning of a new form of government, or even of a new day in race relations in the United States. It is the beginning of a new opportunity, if we will it. It is time for progressive people of color and our allies to begin the difficult work of transforming all the electoral energy and organization we see around us and refocus it toward nurturing the change we seek in our nation and our world.  This thirst for change fueled these electoral efforts, and now they have elected a new president. But that is not change in and of itself. In fact, unless we do something about it, this change in leadership will not bring about any of the meaningful transformations of public life we seek. Historically, that kind of change has only come with the realization of common purpose and the mass mobilization and organization of people.

This begins with a sober realization.  While Barack Obama will be president of the United States of America, his electoral victory is not “justice,” racial or otherwise.  This election–like all elections in this nation’s history–has not been about changing the nature or location of power in this nation but, rather, about who should manage it.

The Obligation of Racial Solidarity
The question at the heart of Larry Elder’s piece is: Are African Americans, and people of color more generally, “obligated” to vote for Barack Obama? Are they “race traitors” if they don’t?

You might think this question is simple. “Of course not,” you say. “People can vote for whoever they want.”  To suggest otherwise is, in the view of many, a kind of “reverse racism”–voting for him because he is black is equivalent to not voting for him because he is black.  But for people of color–especially those who are politically engaged–the question unleashes a host of complicated issues. In the end, the question is not as simple as it may seem, and the reason is anything but “political correctness” or the “policing” of people’s politics. Instead, it has everything to do with power.

As a person of color, (many) other people of color assume Barack Obama understands their realities of “non-white life in the U.S.” like no other candidate we have ever seen.  This is not because he is black.  This is because he expresses a sensibility that he understands what it is like to be black in the U.S.  You see, white candidates can (and have) also expressed this sensibility before.  Even the best of them, however, can only empathize–say they understand in the imaginary.  Another person of color can sympathize, express solidarity with and validation for your own personal and communal experience.  [It is the difference between saying you can imagine what it is like to walk in my shoes and showing me your own pair, looking and feeling just like mine.]

I say “can” very intentionally here because not all people of color do express this sensibility.  Not all people of color in the U.S. express a consciousness which is rooted in the same analysis of race.  Not all seek out political power that recognizes these.  And, of course, not all can therefore sympathize.  Barack Obama does.  This isn’t about the color of his skin, then, as much as it is about the life he has experienced because of it and the meanings he associates with and becasue of it.

Let me state, without hesitation, that certain basic assumptions guide my thinking on the following points.  In fact, these assumptions are the point I am trying to make.   I believe race (both “white” and “non-white”) continues to be a factor shaping people’s lives in the United States.  I believe white supremacy has been fundamental to this nation’s history and continues to operate in measurable ways as the de facto standard of most of our systems.

These assumptions are grounded in my own experience as well as the experiences of people I know.  They are complimented by the things I study for a living, a distinct process which nurtures my understanding providing me a context to the above assumptions.  Combined together, I see race not as anything biological but rather as a set of historic meanings assigned to biology.  I see racism not as people’s beliefs in racial superiority or inferiority but as systems of power whose rationals of allocation are based upon these.  [For the sake of space and time, let me say these beliefs are easily “provable” historically.]

All this is the context of most of the support of communities of color for Obama.  It is the hope, that for the first time in this nation’s history, a person who can affect profound change–DIRECTLY–is a person who understands your struggles.

Talking Race and Voting Race
So where does this leave “us”?  As Larry Elder and I are both suggesting, people of color bear a heavy responsibility in dealing with racial inequality (itself a reflection of that inequality) and one of the ways to do this is to advocate for “our” issues within the systems of political and economic power.

But the election of Barack Obama doesn’t necessarily bring with it the changes we seek.  Just as the election of McCain wouldn’t have, what we debated these months is the person most likely to be an advocate for those changes.  The first step is, of course, an ability to understand these issues exist but, also, to be a steward for them.  This is where Barack Obama defeated McCain for many of us.  It is the difference between (yet again) placing your hopes in the good intentions and effort of “white” politicians or in another person of color.  But those changes still have to be made into realities.  Those issues still require relief.

I believe the 2008 presidential election will be a watershed moment in the history of the United States with respect to “racial discourse,” that is, the way we think about and talk about race in this nation. In saying this I mean to suggest it will act as a moment for the society-at-large to consider what they really and truly think about race, and, more importantly, why they think it.

These moments have happened before, but not all that frequently. They are moments in history where the national focus revolves around race and/or the consequences of race. These are moments which almost force us to take pause and be reflective, just by their context.  Perhaps one of the first such moments in U.S. history was the conclusion of the Civil War, when Northerners and Southerners alike had to reevaluate the ways they thought and talked about race, even if it was only to reinvent and strengthen what they had thought before. The same sort of phenomenon occurred in the post-WWII era, when the Civil Rights Movement and a host of radical movements for change forced the nation to look at itself in the mirror and contend with what they saw.

Moments such as these are not inconsequential to the life of “race” in this nation. In fact, they are its flesh and its bone, its breath and its thought. That’s because “race” has very little to do with a person’s biology. It has everything to do with the way a society thinks about that biology.  That is where the election of Barack Obama is very important, in and of itself.  A black man ascending to the highest elected office in the land will unquestionably alter how some people think about African Americans and future elected officials.

But, on November 5th, the core of racial inequality in this nation will remain in tact. Big changes will come in how people think, in how they view the racial “other,” but this is but the pretext to an altering of the system of power and power allocation with which we live.

Our Work has Only Begun
I do not mean to sound as pessimistically as did George Will when he recently opined “The question we settle on election [day] is not whether elites shall rule but which elites shall rule.” While I do believe the two party system is often nothing more than competing factions of the same interests, there are tangible differences between the two parties and very real world differences in how we each experience life under their respective rule. I also don’t want to minimize the symbolic significance of a nation whose history is inseparable from the enslavement of millions of Africans electing as their leader a man whose personal history is also intertwined with these two continents.  This, too, will have real effects in the way we see race, and in the ways we racialize leadership.

However important these developments, they are both really just the context of change, not meaningful change itself.  The racial system is which we live (in which we are trapped) has existed so long because it creates advantages for its maintenance.  Its defeat will require what has always been required: active mobilization by people of conscience to create change.

Many people are beginning to express a concern for Barack Obama since they 1) believe he will seek to ameliorate “their” issues, and 2) they know he will face opposition from a system of power opposed to progressive (racial) change.  While this may be true, I think it is far more complicated than that.  The maintenance of white privilege doesn’t just create incentives for its protection and nurturing for “whites” but for everyone, Barack Obama included.  He will require no less pressure and effort by “us” to make the changes we seek (and, after all, he never ran on a fundamental altering of the system of power in question).  But he, alone, is not the source of change.  Racial injustice is far bigger and diverse than saying what the color of the president has to be.  Accordingly, we shouldn’t read too much into that change, or expect too much from that person to create change.

This also sheds light on the obligation many of us felt (feel) to vote for the first black president.  We have never before been presented with the opportunity to cut through so much of the struggle toward power–that is, having to communicate your “reality” to a politician.  This also sheds light on the idea of a racial “sell-out.”  The inequality of the system has placed the cause of racial justice in the hands of people of color instead of where it should belong, in the hands of those who have historically most benefited from it. Regardless, what do we do?  We advocate for the change we seek by representing the issues of our experience and those of our communities of solidarity as best we can.  To ignore this, smacks of working to maintain that system of privilege rooted in the past.  If you read Elder’s piece carefully, you will see how even he works from an awareness of this.  The notion of a “race traitor” or “Uncle Tom” is far more complicated, then, than merely violating the rules of the “thought police” or a breech of “political correctness.”  It is rooted in the numerous historical examples where white supremacy has sustained itself on the backs of people of color and, sadly, often due to their effort.  Right or wrong, it comes from a very nuanced understanding of the system of racial inequality in which we continue to live, one which encourages people of color to ignore the specificity of their own experience.

In the upcoming months, progressive people of conscience (“non-white” and “white” alike) will have to begin the difficult work of checking their own assumptions.  Many have this belief that because a black man will be in the White House that everything will magically become better.  Many expect Barack Obama to take a leadership role in transforming the political system in meaningful ways.  But why?  Why should this special burden be placed on Barack Obama when it has not been evenly placed upon all politicians?  Of course, he does have a special obligation regarding race, but that is the same responsibility we all share–white, black, or otherwise.

This week can be the beginning of a new course for our nation.  Barack Obama may be a big part of that but, if it is to be true, we must be.  The brilliant James Baldwin said it well, in his 1960 speech titled “In Search of a Majority”:

“…the majority for whch everyone is seeking which must reassess and release us from our past and deal with the present and create standards worthy of what a man should be–this majority is you.  No one else can do it.  The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.”

2 thoughts on “Race Traitors, Sellouts, and Uncle Toms: Thoughts on the Election of Barack Obama

  1. I believe you’re vastly over complicating matters. If you vote for a candidate or against a candidate based on his race, you’re a racist and should be treated as such. All the apologetics in the world won’t change that.

    You do a wonderful job of rationalizing the rampant racism in the “non-White” peoples in America, but that’s all it is – rationalizing. It’d be very easy to do the same from the White perspective.

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