On MLK and What Obama Is Not

Color is not culture. Obama was raised by white Kansans, not the American descendants of African slaves. Why would we assume that white Kansans taught anything but tolerance of the American status quo?
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Progressives bemoan Obama's failure to fulfill his perceived promise to challenge the status quo. During the historic 2008 presidential campaign, Americans both black and white read his book, saw his skin, heard his occasionally preacherly speech cadences married to an academically trained intellect, and the bargain was sealed. They saw, they heard, they made assumptions, and progressives swooned.

Their assumptions were wrong. During the campaign, there was a major kerfluffle when some black commentators suggested that Barack Obama was not 'black like them.' It was a statement of truth, but unfortunately it was perverted and condemned because it was presented in language warped by centuries of ignorance, race hatred, and self-loathing. Barack Obama's appeal as a progressive game-changer, a candidate to inflict blunt-force trauma on the status quo was largely predicated on his skin color. Extensive evidence that his domestic policies sat to the right of some of his primary opponents and articles like Larissa MacFarquhar's "The Conciliator," clearly indicated that he was not the man to wage war against existing power structures. But we looked at his skin, heard the words "African-American," and assumed he had the heart of an outsider, someone born and raised to be suspicious of the status quo, born of a people willing to subvert it. None of this was true.

In fact, Barack Obama is not "black like me." Of course, he is as black as any other black man. He is as African-American as any other man or woman of African ancestry. What he is NOT is raised in the culture of the American descendants of African slaves. He is not culturally "Afro-American." This is what most Americans very imprecisely mean when we say "black" or "African-American." We are talking about the culture, not the color. We are talking about drinking in generations of lessons learned, cultural touchstones, habits of being, speech, worship and communication that have bubbled up on American soil over the past 400 years. When most of us say "black," we mean culturally Afro-American -- the culture born of the American descendants of African slaves. This Barack Obama is not. He has no association with it save accepting it in young adulthood. It is not endemic to him. For Obama, the cultural Afro-Americanism that so many voters assumed is an academic add-on, not a cultural foundation.

Color is not culture. Obama was raised by white Kansans, not the American descendants of African slaves. No Kenyan father and no stint in Malaysia, regardless of how exotic they sound to most Americans, trump the lessons he imbibed from the people who raised him. Why would we assume that white Kansans taught anything but tolerance of the American status quo and its centers of power? Yet, we saw dark skin and assumed the political iconoclasm associated with deep cultural Afro-Americanism where neither existed. And now we whine that we have been betrayed.

We let Obama's late adoption of (as opposed to nurturing within) an Afro-American cultural mantel blind us to his actual cultural foundations. We heard some sing-songy, grade B speechifying and anointed him another MLK -- another black man come to wash America's dirty moral linen. We called it a "movement" and thus made it the first "movement" in history in which nobody actually moved. It was a virtual "movement," an ersatz "movement" by proxy because its members weren't committing to any kind of long-term struggle. They were simply appointing a servant to do another MLK -- but this time we didn't ask him to wash the sins of segregation away. This time we wanted him to scrub out the Bush years.

Afro-America should have sounded the alarm. We tried. But we have allowed the majority to dictate our self-image for so long, we were unable to articulate the relevant cultural aspect of our very American being. Which is not surprising because we don't even credit ourselves with that aspect. The majority conflates color with culture, so we follow suit. The majority historically told us that "a nigger's a nigger," so we believe accordingly. We have always been told that we are culturally valueless, little more than color and a political "issue," and so we ignore our own culture; we fail to codify, painstakingly record it or teach it to our young. So a dark-skinned man raised by white Kansans is assumed to have the same cultural innards as I, and when he behaves like what he has been all along -- a typical politician who promises what must be promised to gain office and then waffles on achieving it once there, we complain that he doesn't behave in accordance with our ignorant assumptions about him.

Obama's election was a step forward for America, but his mixed-race and white cultural antecedents wrapped in dark skin and glazed with an intellectual acceptance of Afro-American culture exposed America's deep confusion about race matters. His election testified to his brilliant manipulation of that confusion.

On the negative, though, his election also highlights Afro-America's gross failure to culturally define, and therefore value itself.

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