Monday, October 20, 2008
Caught Between Joe Louis and Jack Johnson--Obama's Black Man Dillemma
Allow me this blasphemous thought: Did Barack Obama really win the final debate with John McCain? I know that most pundits, critics, and other informed observers declared Obama the winner. But, and I have struggled with this in the days following the event, in my heart of hearts, I don't really know.
Now, allow me a qualifier. Returning to the boxing metaphors so common to politics and punditry (and which I used in my analysis of Biden-Palin), I certainly believe that Obama won on points. But was Obama really victorious? In his artful moves, skillful jabs and counter punches against McCain, did Obama let him land too many head shots and visibly damaging punches? The very types of blows that judges--in this case those Joe Six Packs and teetering Reagan Democrats--respond to in their scoring?
Barack Obama's dilemma in how to best approach McCain and Palin's attacks is a literal embodiment of the "two-ness," the schism which exists at the heart of being Black and American.
Obama's racially marked life is a careful balancing act on the precipice of authenticity politics. On one hand, Obama is not black enough. On the other hand, he is too black. Barack Obama, as vanguard flag bearer for a 21st century understanding of Blackness, is still shadowed by a set of 20th, 19th, and 18th century stereotypes about black personhood and humanity. These stereotypes, of black violence, underachievement, arrogance, of being "uppity" and untrustworthy are the fuel for McCain and Palin's assault on his candidacy. Obama's eloquence is dismissed as snake oil--a contemporary spin on the oft-used phrases, "you are so articulate," "or where did you learn to speak so well?" that many of us are all too familiar with. He is told to "respect" Sarah Palin, a polite nod to the rule that "boy you better know your place" and "you best not reckless eyeball at a white woman."
In Barack Obama's metaphorical boxing match with McCain-Palin (and yes, they are flip sides of the same coin--2 heads on a Right wing leviathan) he has been urged by his supporters to fight back, to take the battle to the Republicans in a visible and direct way. Obama has skillfully countered with commercials, through his surrogates, and in eloquent campaign speeches. But here is my worry, in those moments of direct interaction, in that squared circle of the boxing ring that was the debate, he has avoided direct counters for fear of scoring too damaging a shot.
For example, during the debate Obama passed up obvious attacks and counters, including a lazy left hand cross that was the moderator's question on Sarah Palin's candidacy, in favor of dodges and quick flurries. When McCain dared to play the victim and label Congressman Lewis's comments about Republican race bating as a type of hate speech and smear against Republicans at large, Obama took the blow and shrugged it aside. Likewise, the provocative shots on Acorn and William Ayers were parried but never counter-punched despite the relative ease of Barack landing a killing blow in that instance if he so desired (the Keating Five; Republican efforts to disenfranchise voters; Reverend Hagee, the Bridge to Nowhere, Palin's association with the Alaska Independence Party; McCain's support for death squads in Latin America, etc. etc.).
Barack is forced to be the gentleman's champ. In our boxing metaphor he is Joe Louis. In his efforts to remain above the fray and to speak to the issues, Barack has avoided being too aggressive lest he lose the tenuous support of a significant segment of the white public. Like Joe Louis--America's heavyweight champion during World War 2 who happened to be African American--Obama has to deftly perform a non-threatening black masculinity. He is cool. He is calm. He is collected. And he can never let himself be perceived as too impassioned or angry.
Again, the two-ness, the duality of Barack's identity comes to the forefront. Obama is already perceived by many in the Heart Land, and those others immersed in the Republican echo chamber, as an uppity negro who doesn't know his place. Most important, this stereotype looms in the hearts and minds of some voters who are actually considering voting for a black Man despite the power of their racist fears and anxieties.
In the racial subconscious of these voters, Barack Obama is Jack Johnson. He is unrepentant blackness. Yet, and this is the absurdity of racism, they are fundamentally different figures who are somehow related in this twisted psyche of white supremacy. Unlike Papa Jack, Obama does not defy white supremacy and the threat of white racial terrorism by publicly cavorting with white women, a life threatening move when the noose was still enforced. Nor does Obama stuff socks down his pants in order to intimidate his opponents through a performed and exaggerated black masculinity. Nevertheless, in the minds of many voters, Obama is a moment, a split second, an opportunity to be taken away from becoming that figure.
In a slightly more benign form, Barack Obama represents the dual figures of Apollo Creed and Clubber Lang. The Rocky films, thinly veiled narratives of white ethnic uplift in the face of black entitlement, are caricatures by design, but their story speaks to this political truth. Like Apollo Creed, Obama is in the eyes of Right wing conservatives, arrogant, a show off, and a celebrity figure. Rocky, is the All-American Horatio Alger in boxing trunks, a scrappy hard worker who lacks physical gifts but who succeeds despite the odds against him.
To this same public, Barack Obama is a Clubber Lang figure. And if Obama responds with more force to McCain and Palin's assaults, he moves a step closer to validating their worst fears about black criminality, violence, and of how an Obama presidency may disrupt the "rightful" and "natural" order of things:
This is the ugliness at the root of white Conservative fears and anxieties about Obama, and how they have so easily cast him as some variety of strange, foreign, Other. When local Republican Party Organizations depict Obama with fried chicken, Kool-aid, and watermelons on their posters and flyers they are signaling to this deep and profound racism and prejudice. When the Right links Obama to Osama bin Laden they are speaking to this bigotry. When they circulate emails with a picture of his African relatives in traditional clothing, the Right is speaking to a sentiment that Obama, on an existential level, does not belong in their "White" house.
But, if politics is the exercise of compromise, of a practical exercise of power, Obama needs the support of some of these voters. People, who like those featured in Sunday's New York Times Magazine harbor deep levels of anti-black animus, but are actively considering voting for Barack Obama because economic self-interest trumps their bigotry.
My ultimate worry is that Barack's tactically sound engagement with McCain and Palin may surprisingly hurt him: if there is a "man-code" of sorts, a set of rules regarding personal honor, dignity and reputation, will Barack's necessary and artful dodging, jabbing, and amazing footwork be his demise? Should Obama move to a more devastating and direct strategy where he goes for the inevitable knockout punch?
Perhaps, these gun-toting, "God fearing" "Heartland" voters want to see if Barack will stand up to these attacks on his manhood and honor. Maybe, and I truly worry, their assessment of his manhood, of his ability to be an effective president is linked to Obama's necessary unwillingness to land a devastating knockout punch to John McCain's metaphorical glass jaw. This approach is a direct contrast to Obama's current strategy of beating McCain-Palin through a death of a thousand cuts. Will this be enough? Will McCain's newest cut man, Joe the Plumber, be enough to recapture momentum during these last few weeks? Or will Obama's newest trainer Colin Powell push him over the finish line?
Sarah Palin and John McCain are textbook, school yard bullies. And maybe, just maybe, Barack Obama just needs to punch John McCain in the nose to prove a point. And maybe, just maybe, Obama through that one deed will have earned the respect (and votes) of those Joe Six Packs and Lunch pail voters come election day. Or am I being too hopeful?