Now the world is full of Barack Obama, but 50 years ago another young, charismatic Black American filled the world in his own way. For years in New York, I lived three streets from the Audubon Ballroom where the African-American militant Malcolm X was shot dead in 1965. Daily, on my way to the subway station, I would pass the building, which had almost been torn down a few years previously. It took vigorous protests by the surrounding community to save the façade as a kind of monument to the memory of Malcolm.
By the time he was assassinated, Malcolm was quite possibly the most electrifying Black leader in America. He was provocative and fierce in the defence of the rights of black people. Two years before his assassination, he said in an interview, “If you’re born in America with a black skin, you’re born in prison.” Since Malcolm had spent years in an actual prison as a petty criminal before his reformation and conversion to Islam, quite possibly he knew what he was talking about.A different story
Barack Obama’s story — equally phenomenal in its own way — is quite different. Unlike Malcolm, a jailbird and a largely self-taught descendant of slaves brought over from Africa generations before, Obama is the son of a Kenyan father who came to America to study and a white American mother. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia and attended elite educational institutions all the way through college and law school.
Unlike Malcolm, for whom race was everything (he did begin to take a more nuanced position towards the end of his life), Obama has a much more ambiguous relationship to race and its politics. While his record shows significant engagement with Black issues, in the presidential campaign he has given the distinct impression that he would like to transcend racial politics and Americans, it would seem, are responding to him.
Is Obama, then, as some in the American media have begun to ask, evidence of an emerging post-racial America? Is his success the first promising sign of an America that has finally left behind race — an America that does not think in terms of black and white (and brown and yellow)?
The great African American intellectual W. E. B. Dubois said at the beginning of the last century, “The problem of 20th century is the problem of the colour line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” Does the rise of Obama mean the colour line has been successfully erased in 21st century America? Permeating society
For centuries, race has been the central social reality of America. Equally the result of an economy based till the middle of the 19th century on the enslavement of millions of Africans regarded as an inferior race and the devastating exploitation and virtual extinction of indigenous people regarded as a race of noble (and sometimes not so noble) savages, the idea of race and racial difference helped organise all aspects of American life throughout history. This idea of race often presents itself as scientific.
But how could there be anything scientific in a racial category called “White”, which today can include Jews as well as those descended from Germans and Russians? Or in “Asian,” which can include those who can trace their descent to Japan as well as India? Nevertheless, despite the scientific vagueness of the concept, Americans have lived, or been forced to live, by the idea of race.
As recently as 2005, race was a major issue in the fiasco that followed Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas. Racism, innumerable reports have asserted, played a large role in the inadequate relief response on the part of various government agencies to the aftermath of Katrina. As terrible as the physical damage caused by the hurricane was the social catastrophe that followed. The ensuing emergency relief has been widely criticised as callous to the victims, the most badly affected of whom were Black.
How, then, do we get from racial Katrina to post-racial Obama in just three years?
We don’t. We can’t. Rather than an end, the rise of Barack Obama may signal a new manifestation of racial politics in America. His rise does not mean America has now become post-racial. It demonstrates an evolution in racial politics. As a Black man, Obama stands for a different history than Malcolm X. Obama is not a descendant of slaves and he has had a cosmopolitan, multicultural upbringing. Both are crucial factors in his success.
Many non-Black voters are drawn to Obama not because they see him as post-racial, not because they ignore his Black-ness, but precisely because he is a different kind of Black man. They like what his rise says about America. They like the hope it gives them in the liberal promise of America (everyone has a chance here, they are able to say), even as the terrible history of slavery and its legacy is once again swept under the carpet.Exciting event
There is no need to be overly pessimistic in making this observation. History often works in increments. It would be foolish to disregard the unprecedented nature of a Black American making a plausible run to be president, even if he is not himself the descendant of slaves.
Were Obama to win, it would be a historic and exciting event and it would say a great deal about America and its many real freedoms. His victory would mean that it is now possible for a Black politician to command support from enough Americans of all races to win and that would in itself be a thing to celebrate.
However, one should not mistake this extraordinary development for a sign that race and racism are disappearing from American social and political life. The success of Obama does not mean that the unyielding protest that Malcolm X embodied half a century ago is now irrelevant in America, anymore than the rise of Indira Gandhi at the same time meant women’s issues had become irrelevant in India. In celebrating Obama, there is no need to forget either Malcolm or Katrina.
7 months ago