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What Obama Means

Why does Barack Obama’s rhetoric work? It is tempting to claim that his person represents the fulfilment of the civil rights movement and the transcendence of identity politics. However, it is wise to be skeptical of claims of transcendence. Too often they call to mind the logic of Jim Crow, turning Obama into a good nigger AHEM one of the “good ones.” As Yglesias noted in December, transcendence too is often little more than avoiding the strident rhetoric of black identity politics. For Obama, if he aims for transcendence at all, he aims for a trap.

But I am not convinced that Obama’s aim is transcendence at all. It seems to me that his aim is not transcendence of race, but rather to understand race as something global. To that end, the conclusion to this essay by Darryl Pinckney is revealing:

It could be said that Obama’s way has been prepared not by Colin Powell, dutifully holding up the vial at the UN, but by Nelson Mandela, who emerged from his prison not bitter, calling for reconciliation.

In isolating Mandela, Pinckney further emphasizes Obama’s Kenyan heritage and his trip to Africa recounted in Dreams from My Father. What Pinckney suggests is startling: Obama might be the first postcolonial American president.



It only seems fitting, then, that he will likely be running against the last (we can hope, can’t we?) imperialist candidate.

We can hope; but I doubt McCain marks the last of them.

Interesting idea, that.

As imperialism for the last five centuries is inextricable from whiteness, a non-white person with such a broad international profile in the White House would be a rebuke to the colonial system simply by means of identity. Especially if he got there by defeating the political face of the neoconservative movement (McCain was their candidate in 2000).

What is even more fascinating is to imagine what it might mean to be a figure of postcolonialism in the White House. Even if you assert that U.S. power is in decline—or, at least, that non-U.S. powers are in ascendency—that is still an awful lot of power to put in the hands of someone who might be unencumbered by dreams of empire and might even believe in the bottom-up empowerment he preaches.

But then there’s this, which to me sounds absolutely dreamy.

re #4: I’m envisioning something Carteresque. I mean that in the best possible sense.

re #5: Yeah, I saw that earlier. It’s amazing. I’m getting dangerously close to being emotionally invested in this election.