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Does Obamamania Divert Us From The Problems Of Race?

I take David Greenberg's point that Obama's election wouldn't in itself do much to solve a number of the problems facing African Americans. I also concede that some white liberals are positively delusional about what an Obama victory could bring in terms of racial reconciliation. But Greenberg comes pretty close to arguing that Obama would actually set back the cause of racial progress, or at least of solving the public policy challenges race presents, which seems pretty off-the-mark to me.

Greenberg writes:

None of this is to minimize the barriers that Obama has faced and still faces because of his race. ... And racism is a far fiercer demon in America than anti-Catholic or anti-Jewish prejudice. Nor is this analysis of what stirs his enthusiasts meant to deny that an Obama presidency would be a watershed. But neither would the election of Obama be quite the same thing as the election of Jesse Jackson or Shirley Chisholm.

Ultimately, it is a fantasy of easy redemption. America's racial history -- mixed into our culture at its foundation -- will be with us always, even as personal prejudice recedes and inequality is chipped away. For all we know, a President Obama might make the so-called underclass his top priority. But Obamamania -- the phenomenon, not the man -- leads us to believe that if only we vote for an African American, an avatar of "change" and healing, we can slough off the burdens of our past -- the burdens of finding answers to problems such as the rising number of out-of-wedlock births, the obscene size of the black male population behind bars, the rotten state of city schools, the simmering white resentment about affirmative action, the black-white gap in life expectancy and the cascade of government failures that turned Hurricane Katrina from a breakdown of emergency relief into a disgraceful racial scandal.

Obama's boosters are not fired up about finally confronting those intricate and intractable problems, for which the answers lie not in identity but in politics and policy. Inspiring and exhilarating as it is, Obamamania allows us to sidestep the hardest challenges, at least for now.

This is along the lines of the old Communist argument about liberalism--that it's a diversionary tactic deployed by capitalist overlords, a way to deceive people into thinking their lives are improving without resolving capitalism's contradictions.

We can argue about how much attention a President Obama would devote to the problems facing African Americans--though I'd argue that the evidence (at least from Obama's state senate career) suggests these problems are actually pretty close to his heart. One can also argue that, even if Obama himself is keen on solving these problems, that's not why most whites are supporting him.

But even if Obama ended up completely neglecting these problems, the symbolic fact of his presidency would make it easier to elect African American candidates who were preoccupied with them. (I'm not sure Jesse Jackson is the best example, but pick whomever you like.) That's assuming, of course, that Obama didn't turn out to be a complete disaster (George W. Bush or worse), but I doubt he would. And, in any case, that's not what Greenberg is suggesting.  

Try applying Greenberg's argument to Jackie Robinson in 1947 and you begin to see the problem. Something like: It would be great if we could integrate the Major Leagues, but this Robinson guy's too educated and affluent, too far removed from the daily existence of most African Americans. Whites relate to him too easily. He's as likely to divert our attention from the problem of racism in baseball as he is to do anything about it

Obviously symbolism matters more in professional sports--whose major contributions to society are symbolic--than it does in politics, where substantive change is the goal. But symbolism matters quite a bit in politics, too. Paving the way for others is not nothing. And it's certainly not a net negative.

--Noam Scheiber