Sunday, May 4, 2008

Me and Obama

My home state, North Carolina, has its primary on Tuesday, May 6. Like other states, NC has early voting and for the first time this year, folks that weren't registered to vote, could register and vote at the same time.

I considered taking advantage of early voting to save the lines that I hope will be wrapped around the polls on Tuesday. I changed my mind because I realized that I wanted the excitement of going to my polling place and casting my vote on Tuesday.

By now, you know that my vote will be for Barack Obama. Regardless of what some of the media reports, I will not cast my vote for Obama because he's black. Certainly I am pleased that a person of color is a serious contender for the highest office in this country. Quite frankly, I didn't have a lot of hope of such an event occurring during my lifetime.

My use of "person of color" in referencing Senator Obama is very deliberate. He is no more black than he is white. I say this not to disparage Obama's accomplishments thus far, but to acknowledge the truth and the inherent irony in that truth. For all practical purposes, Obama's experiences in this country have been those of a black man, because in the United States, we continue to make much ado about race. In particular, we cling to concepts of race, developed during slavery and further defined during Jim Crow, that result in a child produced of a white parent and a black parent always being identified as black. A good friend of mine once said that he found it disturbing that it took two white people to make a white person, but only one black person to make a black person.

I find it curious that it rarely occurs to most people to question this system of classification. It makes no logical sense and it has little basis in science. I once left a comment on a blog stating that race is primarily a social construct. The blogger sent me an email asking me what I meant.

I wasn't offended but I was surprised. The blogger was a person with a great many credentials, a writer about public education issues on a national scale. I was surprised that he was unfamiliar with a widely expressed view of the scientific community that race is not a biological or scientifically based system of classification, but a system of social classification similar to class. (Note, there has not been a total dismissal in science of the concept of race. Groups of people share cultural and physical characteristics. Many scientists attribute these differences to geographical locations and human migration patterns. It's a fascinating area of study.) The big difference, is that to varying extents, class is mutable; it can be changed. Race is an immutable characteristic. Senator Obama can't decide to identify himself as white, although that classification is just as accurate as black. (Immutable based on societal norms.)

The rigidity of the classification has expanded and the black community has adopted the standards for race imposed by the dominant white culture as our own. When golfer Tiger Woods tried to define his identity in terms of all of his lines of heritage, including those of his Asian mother, many African-Americans condemned what they perceived to be a denial of his black heritage. I think that Mr. Woods was simply trying to say that he was the sum of all of his ethnic and cultural heritages.

The U.S. census now permits people to identify themselves as multi-racial. I'm not certain that this is a major improvement. It still accepts the basic premise that race actually means something, that there are differences among people based on race. The problem with race as the litmus standard for classifying people is that most of us rely on external characteristics such as skin color to make racial classifications. Human beings are much more complex. There are physiological characteristics linked to different areas of geographic origin. However, science has determined that although there are shared characteristics among large groups with a shared ancestry, these characteristics aren't absolute, nor are they shared only within the specific group.
The straightforward biological fact of human variation is that there are no traits that are inherently, inevitably associated with one another....Indeed, despite the obvious physical differences between people from different areas, the vast majority of human genetic variation occurs within populations, not between them, with only some 6 percent accounted for by race...
So when I cast my vote on Tuesday, it won't be because Senator Obama and I share a significant amount of melanin in our skin. I will vote for him because he gives me hope that this country can do better by its uninsured, those living in poverty, the homeless, the unemployed, its disabled veterans, and all of those in need. It's because I think that his domestic agenda offers a solid list of plans to address all of these issues. It's because I think that his foreign policy will help this country regain its place as a power for right not might. It's because I don't think that the measure of a man or woman's patriotism lies in placing his or her hand over her heart but in a commitment to working to make this country hold to its ideals of a government for the people, and by the people.

The icing on the cake is the sweet irony that Barack Obama is the physical manifestation of the joining together of black and white in a nation that has been far too long divided.

I found the video on YouTube. It features images from Obama's campaign backed by the Pointer Sisters singing "Yes We Can, Can." It's a definite dance around the room beat!

1 comment:

Marc said...

I once heard the true story of a carful of Protestants who pulled up next to another carful of men in Northern Ireland and asked them their religion, and when the answer was Catholic, shot them. The same sort of thing occurs between Sunni and Shia in Iraq, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda and so on from the beginning of history, and the groups murdering each other are basically physically indistinquishable. They usually speak the same language and their theological differences amount to hairsplitting.
The marked difference in appearance due to melanin simply reinforces an illusion that the difference between us here is real, and that there is some qualititative difference inherent to the physical difference.
The sad truth about human beings is we do not apportion resources equitably, and those who gain more than their fair share tend to do so at the expense of those who don't. To justify their wealth the haves create narratives of superiority and inferiority, narratives that sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies. The have-less in any cultures are also the less educated, the more alcoholic, the less refined ergo less "deserving," etc.
What we need to examine as a species is our drive to be better than, to oppress, to exploit. In this country, this expresses itself through the prism of race, but I think Obama's real hope is that we expand that to a discussion of class, and the social urges that resist a true egalitarianism and how to overcome them.
Good discussion of the issue. A+.