Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Significance of Obama's Election

I want to take a moment and reflect on the significance of Obama's election to the presidency of the US. As a student of history a philosopher and theologian in the face of the jubilation and the claims of the "historic" nature of this election I'd like to attempt to sort out the way's in which this is historic and worthy of jubilation and what our claims for the election might hide from view.

First and simply this was an historic election because we have elected the first African-American (Black) president. This is historic and something to rejoice over. The thought of a Black president even just 20 years ago when I was first able to vote, was a distant dream of a distant future. Yet this is also historic because Obama's campaign has brought brought together various segments of our society- and as a friend who was at the rally downtown Chicago election night- this diversity was shown in the crowds that gathered in Grant park. Also, it is historic in that this election will probably go down as among the highest percentages of voter turnout since 1968. Such a high turnout is a sign that our democracy may not be as bad off as some were thinking. In part there is much rejoicing and this is seen historic because many had come to despair under the Bush administration.

So, there are sign that America may not be on a particular brink that many have thought we were about to go over. I think though that a particularly stark experience and interpretation of the Bush Administration has hidden from us that Americans like to live on a pendulum swing when it comes to politics. So we let one party and/or ideology run the gamut for awhile. Then when it has been shown that the ideas and people implementing them have human limitations and/or are selfish and/or are corrupt, we vote in the other party and its ideology and run with that for some period of time. So the good news is that Americans are acting like Americans, we have unseated those who we perceive as having made a mess of things and have put the Democrats in a position to run things at least briefly. We have also shown that we are still interested in the Presidency and will pin our hopes in our government and nation upon that office, so we turn out in droves to vote for the President (this would be truly historic if this level of voter turnout could be sustained at midterm and state and local elections). lastly Americans showed themselves to not let the color of a persons skin decide that they shouldn't vote for that person.

Skin pigmetnation and its racist taxonomy is what makes the election of Obama so historic. However it also makes this event something that is only skin deep. Or rather it should cause us to examine or own claims. For as we herald the overcoming of the racist taxonomy of "Black" and "White" we are also finding ourselves firmly within that racism. I say this because in seeing Barack Hussein Obama as simply Black or African-American we erase so much of who he is by erasing his family from veiw. First it erases his mother and mother's family who according to this taxonomy are "White". Our celebration erases Obama's European ancestry. Of course this is what the racist taxonomy does, because it is based on skin pigment primarily and only secondarily parentage. Yet, it also erases Obama's father and that Obama is on his father's side the first generation to be born in the US, and most if not all of Barack's family on his father's side are Kenyan. On a certain level we know this. We can find tidbits that tell us his mother's family have been in the States since the beginning of this country some may have even owned slaves. And he is the son of an African immigrant from Kenya, and his father's religion has been at times a tempest in a tea pot. The claimof this historic event hides from view how this family history makes a difference: There is a different experience of being African and being Black whose families came out of slavery and segregation and discrimination. When saying that Barack is Black or African-American we erase the complexity of the person we in fact do what the racist taxonomy is intended to do, highlight skin pigment as the only meaningful characteristic, or at least the most meaningful.

So, it is important I think to note what has not happened in our having elected the first Black president of the United States: We have not elected a man whose great grandparents were slaves, and thus whose ancestors struggled to get out from under the racist regimes and taxonomy that we use in continuing to name a man as black who also has European ancestry. Though I am sure he has experienced this erasure and discrimination as someone who would be viewed only as a Black man. He has experienced the erasure of his family and history that this skin deep measure accomplishes. We elected a son of an African immigrant and of an established "white" middle class American, of European ancestry. That is reason enough to rejoice, and if we use the racist short hand "Black" let us not forget Obama's European ancestry that also makes him who he is. And let us also remember that we have yet to elect as president one whose ancestors were enslaved in this country, only a few generations ago. Perhaps if we remember these things we will see that we don't have a "Black" president because the taxonomy of "Black" and "white" is a racist taxonomy that is by intention only skin deep.