Obama and the myth of racial transcendence


Much of the appeal around Senator Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy is based on an idea of “racial transcendence”: the state where one actually rises above any definition of race or racial identity, past or present. I hope that at this time, we can all put the myth of racial transcendence to bed.

Let’s examine the term. The idea of racial transcendence is mired in the philosophy that Black folks can and should rise above their station in White folk’s minds. The effect of this would lessen the necessity for White people to do the rich cultural work that is vital to help bridge differences. Racial transcendence is almost never applied to White individuals because Whiteness is a given societal norm.

Many theorists, artists, politicians and others from the White mainstream feel that the term “colorblind” is a positive word and a goal for which we should all strive. But when a White person says: “I am colorblind,” it is not a compliment. On the contrary, it denies all of who I am as a person of color. Racial differences should be celebrated and understood, not ignored.

However, to truly celebrate racial difference means that much work has to be done to understand those tropes. When someone says, “Obama transcends race,” they are really saying, “Obama transcends Blackness and truly makes me and everyone else forget that I’m even looking at a Black man.” This is not a good thing, because what it really does at a deeper level is solidify the normality of White supremacy. Therefore, Whiteness is the gold standard, after all other cultures or cultural ideas have been extinguished.

The biggest problem with the idea of racial transcendence is that it isn’t true. Our own very real class system is anchored by a hierarchical understanding of race and culture in our society. Sixteen percent of voters polled exiting in Pennsylvania stated that they did not vote for Barack Obama simply because he is Black. Sixteen percent admitted it! Imagine all of those who didn’t.

The entire Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap is grounded in the idea that the patriotic loyalty of Black people in America is always fair game to be questioned. It doesn’t matter whether that’s Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama or even his wife, Michelle Obama. It doesn’t matter that Wright served this country proudly in the U.S. Marine Corps. It doesn’t matter that Barack Obama is a sitting United States Senator and a former two-term state senator from Illinois.

The very essence of being Black to some Americans means, “You’re not one of us.” Not to even mention that Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright are two entirely different people.

There is a deep-rooted feeling, based on guilt, within the fabric of American society that Blacks must and should be angry for all that has and continues to happen. Many White power brokers and key influencers are simply waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, the facts are ignored. Blacks have been one of the most loyal groups to ever enter this country. Blacks literally built America’s physical and financial infrastructure. We have fought in every war with distinction, and many of us have served dutifully and honorably in elected office. African Americans have been in the United States as long as or longer than almost any other group except indigenous Americans.

Every European ethnic group, however, was able to meld with the Europeans who arrived before, thus trading in ethnic affiliation for Whiteness. Because of restrictive sexual-racial lines of demarcation, Africans in America were denied that path to acceptance.

So racial transcendence? We won’t be able to rise above race until there is a genuine understanding of what “race” is, even if Obama becomes president. And, the goal shouldn’t be to rise above race anyway, but to embrace difference and become a warrior against White supremacy no matter who you are: White, Black, Asian, Latino or Native. White supremacy damages all of us.

Therefore, the goal and the norm should be multiracial cultural pluralism. After 300-400 years of that, maybe then we will be able to deconstruct the concept of race itself, and throw that where it belongs, in the cultural dust heap. That may truly christen a post-racial era.

Apparently, Obama isn’t a racially transcendent figure after all, nor should he be. That isn’t a character flaw. Instead we should respect and appreciate him for who he is: a remarkably talented, intelligent creative politician who, yes, is an unapologetic Black man.

Ralph Remington is the Minneapolis 10th Ward city council member. He welcomes reader responses to Ralph.Remington@ci.minneapolis.mn.us.