Dubious quote of the week

Barbara Ehrenreich, in The Huffington Post, on Obama:

“We, perhaps white people especially, look to him for atonement and redemption.”

But isn’t that precisely the problem? Obama as “Magical Negro”, absolving white people of their racist guilt? (thanks to Minister Faust for this reference…).

13 Responses to “Dubious quote of the week”

  1. Gordon Potter says:

    Thanks for bringing this up. It does seem problematic. Frankly, I am surprised Ehrenreich would say something like that. It really is amazing the psychic capital people have projected into Obama. In a sense this gets to his whiteness, his emptiness. He is kind of like a public tabula rasa upon which everyone can put anything they want. I worry about this trend in our politics. Because so many people in the Obama camp seem to elide much of the racial complexities while attacking the “impurities” of the Clintons from a perceived position of purity.

    I find very interesting the whole Jesse Jackson “scandal”. So many people, especially the media, quick to attack Bill Clinton for what he said or didn’t say, its almost as if the whole subtext is: how dare you call Obama black or make any comparison to a “real” black man like Jesse Jackson. The way Jesse Jackson’s very identity and existence was turned into a dirty word. And the whole time Jesse Jackson is not allowed to speak for himself. I mean, if you want to talk about suppressing racial identity, case in point. The whole time I expected Jesse Jackson to get on one the the news talk shows and say “What am I? Chopped liver?”

    Obama can no more atone for white guilt than Bill Clinton can legitimately claim he is black.

    And why has feminism taken such a back seat in this election cycle? Where’s the enthusiasm about Hillary as a potential female president? Can’t chauvinistic males atone for their crimes by electing a female president? I suppose it is one of those things where the feminist cause can simultaneously be dismissed and taken for granted.

  2. Seyfried says:

    “And why has feminism taken such a back seat in this election cycle? Where’s the enthusiasm about Hillary as a potential female president?”

    Ruptured by her quasi-masculine ideals, supposedly. But you’re right: misogyny has been much more of a lengthy enslavement than, well, slavery.

  3. The problem is not with Obama, but with white people. Both with those who think that voting for him proves that they are not racists, and with those who support Clinton on the alleged grounds that “misogyny has been much more of a lengthy enslavement than, well, slavery.” In other words, both white Obama supporters and white Clinton supporters are failing to come to grips with the depths of racism in American society.

  4. Unconvinced says:

    Frankly, I don’t fancy either Clinton or Obama. They’re both lawyers, both boring and both seem to want the thing way too much. It’s unseemly. And the throngs for Obama are playing out some sort of psychodrama that goes beyond race or generation – it’s a yearning for someone or something to show them the way out of their quandries, their doubts, their miseries. Hope is just another for nothing left to lose.

  5. Mrs. evil tongue says:

    Seeing earnest well-intended white people of bad faith gushing all over Obama (such as our girl doing in the Huffington Post) only makes this nasty tempered black woman want to blow a gasket. My greatest fear is when we have a President Obama (a.k.a. The Redeemer) that all of these so-called sensitive “we are so beyond race and racism” types (of all stripes) will immediately end their subscriptions to Ebony, cease dining at Sylvia’s, and stop buying Alicia Keys and/or John Coltrane cds.

  6. Many white people are descended from white people who never owned slaves, some of whom died or seriously risked dying to end slavery. Are they supposed to feel guilt about something? And should they act like they feel guilty even if they don’t?

  7. Carl Freedman says:

    Most of the silly blather being talked about the Obama campaign could be eliminated if we simply judged the man for what he very obviously is: an immensely talented and immensely ambitious American politician. As such, he is open to all sorts of criticism, even from a viewpoint no more left-wing than that of John Edwards. Nonetheless, the fact remains: Barack Obama will be the next president; or else it will be Hillary Clinton, the corporate thug from Wal-Mart who ran a plainly racist campaign in South Carolina; or else the increasingly lunatic John McCain, who (as only Pat Buchanan really seems to have noticed–why hasn’t the left?) has *explicitly*–yes, explicitly–promised to lead America into more wars. In this context, the superiority of Obama seems to me about as obvious as anything could be.

  8. Carl, I entirely agree with your analysis. Obama is vastly preferable to the other two candidates.

    The object of my original posting, however, was to say something about what you call the “silly blather being talked about the Obama campaign” — because I do think that this blather is symptomatic of how perceptions of race are working ideologically in American culture today.

  9. wedge says:

    Interesting how people who gushed over welfare-destroyer, Africa-bomber Clinton (‘first black president’ remember?) are so intent on putting Obama under the microscope about his ‘racial’ credentials. Am I supposed to find him inauthentic because he’s not Malcolm X? He’s running for president, for Christ’s sake! I thought that entailed making the the electorate feel ‘safe’ (in a way that Bush clearly hasn’t)?

    I’m finding fairly offensive the suggestion that he’s fielding white votes out of ‘guilt’ (maybe ‘fear’ would be more healthy, as with Hilary?). The ‘magical negro’ theme is interesting, but I would like to assume that people are voting for clear and present concerns (like their country and others being royally fucked over since 2000), not out of appeasing literary/cinematic archetypes.

    Maybe they think a former civil rights lawyer would have some conviction, not yet another oligarchical dynasty. His obvious charisma is another factor, compared to the shrill, cold arrogance of Hilary. She’s already throwing malicious tantrums as if she’s ”entitled’ – even Al Gore wasn’t as lacking in grace when he was robbed of the presidency itself! She lacks Slick Willie’s charm, and seems unconvincing when playing ‘hawk’. With her current ‘race card’ rhettoric, she also reveals her baby-boomer ‘idealism’ for what it is – hollow authoritarian horseshit (the same smugly ‘idealistic’ political generation as New Labour, lest we forget).

    As for bringing ‘chauvinism’ into this – puh-leaze! Do women form the majority of death row convicts? Does this make contempt for Thatcher a feminist issue? She may have forced more women into an increasingly exploitative labour market – by making it impossible to run a household on one income – but that’s not really my idea of emancipation…

  10. kirbyolson2 says:

    Maybe McCain is the answer.

    I can’t really get behind a candidate until I see their evil side. Obama still hasn’t shown that.

    I don’t believe there is anyone without sin, and unless I see that, I don’t think I am seeing the real person.

    I liked Obama for the first time when he mentioned that he would send a predator drone into Pakistan without the authority of Mushareff in order to take out OBL. He implicitly praised W. for doing the same thing to OBL’s #3 two weeks ago. He did this in last night’s debate.

    Suddenly, I thought, oh, this guy is great! And for the first time I imagined voting for him.

  11. Nate says:

    I’m not following the election beyond the info my wife forces upon me, I feel completely disaffected from all this. (Not an argument or a political position, though I think arguments against all of this or caring about all of this could be made, mine’s just gut level disconnection.) One thing I will say – is the racial guilt that is the main subject of this short post really a bad thing? Surely it’s not _solely_ a bad thing, right? I think it’d be a better planet if more men in the US had a similar guilt about gender relations and had similar feelings toward Clinton as those you mention toward Obama. (That said, Clinton has ties to an anti-union PR firm which I think speaks to what she would do as president and is further evidence, if anyone needed it, of the uselessness of the Democrats. http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Mark_Penn .)

    take care,
    Nate

  12. Joshua says:

    Steven,

    As a black man who may eventually run for public office in the United States, I am wondering if there is any way to avoid being called a “magical negro” by you, say, fifteen years down the road. I don’t fit any of the non-tautologous criteria listed by your friend over at Strange Horizons, but then, neither does Barack Obama. You may of course reply that you are speaking about our collective image or fantasy of Barack Obama, rather than the man himself, but I wonder then if there is any possible experience or piece of knowledge that could cause you to alter this opinion.

    It seems like you and Minister Faust are very concerned that whites might be obtaining absolution through some loophole, rather than allowing their white guilt to run its course. Why do you think that this absolution is a problem, and what do you think that course is? Personally I don’t think this absolution is even happening, though I wish it were, since I’m not directly interested in making whites feel psychologically uncomfortable. I am interested in having them take an honest look at present injustice, their implication in it, and the historical underpinnings of this situation, on the way to rectifying it. This may be an uncomfortable process, but that discomfort isn’t the motor of the process–it’s as though you thought medicine worked because it’s bitter.

    -Joshua

  13. Steven Shaviro says:

    Joshua,

    thanks for your comments. I really don’t think it is a question of guilt, or of making white people feel psychologically uncomfortable; but rather of the way racism and privilege still work today. If reparations were ever to be paid to African Americans for the damages of slavery, Barack Obama would not be eligible to receive them, since he does not have ancestors who were enslaved. And for that matter, my own ancestors didn’t arrive in the US until after slavery had been abolished. Nonetheless, Obama has had to deal with racism, as every person in the US with dark (or darker) skin has had to. And I have benefited throughout my life from white skin privilege, regardless of who I am inside or when my ancestors got here. (Something that is much more complicated now that I am part of a multiracial family). So all in all, I very much agree with what you are saying.

    My worry, as regards the current campaign, is that, just as there are white people who embrace Obama for “atonement and redemption,” or to prove to themselves and others that they are non-racist and beyond race, there are also many white people who simply will not vote for Obama, because indeed they are racist (even if they give other reasons, and are unwilling to admit their racism to others, or even to themselves). These are two sides of the same coin, two coexistent expressions of the same situation.

Leave a Reply