Sunday, May 18, 2008

Racial Passing: A Concept Whose Time has Passed?

Senator Obama's meteoric rise from obscurity just 4 years ago to his almost certain clinching of the 2008 Democratic Party nomination (and barring a kamikaze move by the Clintons, the presidency) has raised the specter of race in both public and private conversation to levels not seen since the Civil Rights era. And what has become clear is that there is no longer a consensus on the assumptions that most folks make both privately and publicly about identity and culture, and how they relate to the political sphere. The fact that there are differences in perspective, especially along generational lines as opposed to racial ones, appears to be a strange shock to a lot of folks in the 50+ set. It's as if the Baby Boomers took the Civil Rights Movement as the end in itself, and not the means to the end - which was supposed to be a color-blind, more racially equitable society.

Clinton minions who wish to see her secure the nomination at all costs are consistently the worst perpetrators of this strange myopia, insulting the generations who grew up in an integrated society because they don't (and can't by definition) subscribe to the neurosis of that barrier-busting generation. Senator Obama spoke directly to this generational divide in regard to the African American community when he tried to give some context to the anger expressed by Reverend Wright in the clips aired ad infinitum on Fox News, et al. The Reverend was not to be outdone by the Clinton crew, and his fratricidal impulse in defense of his generational worldview nearly derailed the aspiring candidate. A lot of black folks wondered aloud what the hell Wright was thinking. Did the brother have his eyes on the prize or what?

For me these are the moments when the long view is instructive. A suave, black gentleman friend of mine aged 72 years young regularly puts these issues of race and identity in perspective for me. A life-long New York city native who grew up in Harlem and now lives in Brooklyn, he remembers when sanctimonious Northern cities were (informally) segregated, and shares strategies with me on how he worked his way up the ladder in the architectural world to operate his own design firm. He is not just a student of history, but lived it.

Over brunch on Sunday we talked about an issue that is basically taboo in discussions about 20th century black life – namely the tensions between the light skinned (biracials) and dark skinned (blacks) where issues of leadership are concerned. Yes, there were the Marcus Garveys out there, but on the whole it is biracials who occupied the higher tiers of black society. One need only look as far as Reverend Wright, with his even lighter skin and even more European-looking features contrasted to the biracial Obama, to see an example of this. Could the Reverend’s public unhinging have to do with his deep-seated frustrations at not being allowed to play the leadership role that Senator Obama has been occupying in our brave new “postracial” world – as Obama hinted at in his speech on race? Is the Reverend suffering from a jealously heightened by a form of tragic mulatto-ism?

During our conversation my friend mentioned an interesting factoid of which I was not aware, that if true, adds a further dimension to the discussion. Apparently, the member of President Truman’s inner circle who convinced him to integrate the military was actually a black man “passing” as white. Passing is a phenomenon generally vilified by black folks; a famous fairly recent example is Henry Louis Gate’s posthumous outing of Creole writer Anatole Broyard, resulting in his daughter Bliss’ memoir One Drop. However, since One Drop rule made it traditionally impossible for the biracial leadership to get really close to the annals of power it could only be “passing” blacks or sympathetic whites who could turn the ears of powerful men to do the right thing. I’ve wondered if that ever stuck in the craw of biracials like Gates or Wright who might have had the same vision as an Obama, but the times wouldn’t allow them the space to lead beyond the Jim Crow era race categories.

Obama is messing with black people's minds as much as white's because he is a biracial that is not out there solely representing the black struggle, as was the case for the majority of the Civil Rights leadership of the 20th century. His platform and worldview can be summed up as a rising tide lifts all boats. There is no denying that things are still bad for many black folks and there is a lot of work to be done. However, opportunities for black advancement have improved in the post Civil Rights era -- along with the minds of many white people young and old about the intelligence and leadership capabilities of people of color. If this were not true, Obama would not be winning!

It is precisely because Obama is biracial, not just genetically but also culturally and politically, that many white people feel comfortable in his ability to represent the needs and desires of all Americans not just black ones. His biracial appeal to whites is also the reason why black people eventually came out overwhelmingly in support of him; they recognized that he was being taken as a viable presidential candidate, and not just seen by whites as running for the president of black America.

One drop rule may have once been agreed to by whites and blacks alike – as a necessary mechanism of economic control for the white elite while also a way for blacks to foment solidarity for the freedom struggle. But in President Obama’s America will it still be necessary or even possible? Will newly biologically white folks (read: passing) need to hide African descent in order to advocate for black advancement when there is a bi-racial president advocating for all people's advancement? When there are blacks, biracials and other people of color (not proportionally representative but getting there, albeit slowly) in leadership positions in government, business, academia and media across the board? And just where does that leave the Reverend Wrights of the world?

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