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The Race Trap | The Nation

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The Race Trap

Observing Barack Obama run for president has been like watching a home movie blown up into a glorious, IMAX blockbuster spectacle. It's been more than a little unnerving to see the thread of something so familiar writ so large. But there he has been on TV, in the newspapers and in front of stadium-size crowds, winning the lavish praise of white liberals (you don't get more lavish or more white liberal than Caroline Kennedy's endorsement). At the same time, he's patiently borne the skepticism of his fellow minorities, slowly garnering their support. Every day he risks igniting the wrath of either clan. Run too far away from the Sharptons and the Jacksons, and you get tarred a race traitor. Run without the Kennedy-liberal establishment, and you become nothing more than a race man, a mouthpiece for the ghetto. Suspicion abounds on all sides; trust is always hard-won. This is the gauntlet of American racial politics that Barack Obama has skillfully navigated to date, and every model minority knows the wily tricks he has had to use in this game of representation.

I won't go so far as to call Obama "the first Asian American" presidential candidate--though the metaphor might suit him just as well as Bill Clinton's coat of blackness once did--but he is our first "model minority" candidate if you consider model minority-ness a matter of situation. The term might just as well accommodate the pioneering black lawyer or the postcolonial subject on a special visa from the tropics. It is the racial other that both represents and transcends race itself [see Patricia Williams], and whatever the unlikelihood of blood relation, there is something that I (a "high-achieving," Korean American scholarship boy) recognize in him (the Kenyan American Senator with the Harvard JD). It is this recognition that both attracts me to and, frankly, repels me from Barack Obama as a presidential candidate.

At times I have watched him speak and been struck with awe--not at his eloquence or charisma--but at the sheer nerve with which he's executed the model minority role. Indeed, he has flaunted his racial virtuosity throughout his campaign--nowhere more so than in his South Carolina victory speech when, having turned the tables on the Clintons' race-baiting strategy and won with 24 percent of the white vote and 78 percent of the black vote in a state where the Confederate flag flies in front of the Capitol and blacks are far more likely than whites to be in jail, foreclosure or poverty, he had the chutzpah to say that he did not "see a white South Carolina or a black South Carolina" but rather "South Carolina" while the mixed crowd below chanted "Race doesn't matter!"

What cunning! What mad skillz! You have to applaud the magician's sleight of hand, even as you wince at how easily, how desperately the audience suspended their disbelief.

But believe they have and in droves as Obama evokes race only to transcend it, indeed to attach its transcendence to his own political victory. Any minority who's tried to leverage their success on behalf of others might find a glimmer of recognition in this trick of racial rhetoric: what's good for me is good for other people of color is good for us all. There is always some lie, some whiff of venality in this equation--some uneasy way in which personal ambition, the politics of racial representation and the fuzzy unity of institution (or country) must be spoken of in one tongue. Obama has proven himself remarkably good at this alchemy. But his Kennedy-meets-King stylistics can only hold so much together for so long; at some point push must come against shove--and what will Obama do then? As much as I don't always trust myself in such situations, I also don't trust him.

Case in point: in yesterday's Slate the ersatz liberal Richard Kahlenberg made an appeal to Obama to win the working-class white vote by selling out blacks and Latinos on affirmative action. As Bill Clinton ended welfare as we know it, could an Obama presidency end affirmative action? Kahlenberg practically salivates at the possibility. It's a move, he argues, that would befit the "tough liberalism" of RFK--who took a "colorblind approach," opposed "racial preferences" and "called for a crackdown on violent crime." By ending race-based affirmative action in favor of class-based affirmative action, Obama could not only demonstrate that he is, once again, "forcefully reject[ing] identity politics" but also win over that key Hillary contingency--the white, working class.

As a matter of strategy, who knows if Kahlenberg is right; he's clearly masking an ideological agenda as merely savvy tactics. But it's not hard to imagine a scenario where President Obama is confronted with such choices. Already on the ballots this year are five state initiatives (in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma), to ban affirmative action. Modeled after Ward Connerly's successful backlash bids in California and Michigan, such measures are perfect wedge issues for Republicans. Indeed, in terms of peeling off voters from the Democratic party, anti-affirmative action initiatives hold much more promise than anti-gay marriage drives--which succeeded in turning out the evangelical base for the GOP, but not in making party converts. Let's say that Connerly is successful this year in getting his initiatives through. Aided by "tough liberals" like Kahlenberg, could 2010 or 2011 see a federal, anti-affirmative action measure? What about posing affirmative action as a kind of "litmus test" for judicial nominees?

Kahlenberg for one believes that Obama would support the end of affirmative action, noting with approval his reply to George Stephanopoulos' own race-trap question. Would Obama want his daughters to get into college on the basis of racial preferences? Obama's response: "I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged...I think that we should take into account white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty and shown themselves to have what it takes to succeed."

It's a worthy duck on Obama's part, taking a page from John Edwards' economic populism while deflecting the matter of structural racism--as Obama has on other issues like criminal justice, the death penalty and sub-prime mortgages. But it does beg the question: what would Obama do when his own rhetoric of "race doesn't matter" comes back in the form of a civil rights backlash? Having built no groundwork for leading on racial justice--how long can he evade the race traps, not from the fringe-right, but from the center?

All this said, I'm going to vote for Obama today anyway. He's a better choice for progressives than Hillary Clinton (as others have laid out in this magazine). And moreover, I vote for him, at least in part, with admiration at the cunning and bravado with which he's played the game. I salute his audacity.

But hope? Hope for a day when the traps of race might not just be evaded, but genuinely, truly dismantled? For me, Obama does not offer that hope--only trepidation.

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