Yesterday I wrote that it was the best instance of a black politician articulating the anxieties and racial resentments of whites. It’s worth reflecting for a moment on the (obvious) fact that we still refer to Obama as a black politician rather than a half-black-half-white politician. Someone with an Irish mom and an Italian dad would be described as half Irish, half Italian.
Yet someone with a black dad and white mom is described as black. His skin color defines him more profoundly in our eyes, and, to some degree, in his own mind. That’s just the way race works in America.
But on racial matters, part of Obama’s promise is not just that he’s empathetic and listens well. It’s that he can transcend race in part because he is black and his mother is white. Biography matters as much as ideas. I hate to sound horribly cruel, but if he loses the election, I can’t help but think it will partially be because his mother isn’t alive to campaign with him.
One of the most remarkable, and complex, parts of the speech was this line:
I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.
Unpack that sentence. On one level, in this anecdote the grandmother is acting as a negative example — a white who caused him pain, as a black, with her words. But he’s also conveying that when he hears insulting or racial things, he goes immediately to a place of attempting to understand where it comes from, just as he had to with his own grandmother. Most important, he reminds people that he was raised by whites and felt loved by whites. While some blacks (perhaps Jeremiah Wright) may view whites as more oppressors than helpers, Obama has been nurtured, loved and treasured by whites.
But there’s a missing piece: how did having a white mother enable him to understand the anxieties of whites better? So far he’s tried to make the point simply by stating what he thought those resentments were and expressing sympathy:
And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.
But this doesn’t connect explicitly back to his own biography. We know how he felt as a black man hearing the negative stereotypes from his white grandmother. But how did having white mother and grandmother help him to identify with whites? Perhaps he feels he shouldn’t have to be this explicit. Perhaps he’s cautious about “using” his mother when she’s not here to approve or elaborate. Only he can know. But we can infer from the fact that Obama is a remarkable man, that she must have been a remarkable woman, who not only encouraged him to dream but also helped him to have a world-historic sense of empathy. I don’t think she’ d mind if he conveyed that a bit more.