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Celebrating Obama's Blackness

By       Message Ron Fullwood     Permalink
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I want to express and celebrate my black pride in watching Barack Obama advance up the political ladder to the presidency. I'm hesitant, though, to let my hair hang completely loose in the face of a Democratic convention where the fact of Obama's blackness hasn't really been explicitly highlighted or overtly vocalized by the major speakers who've stepped up to the podium to sing his praises, or even by the candidate himself.

It's not as if I would be, at all, comfortable or accepting if the McCain camp opened their convention next week with a celebration of their candidate's whiteness. However, American politics has reached a historic milestone which most of my family and peers have been impatiently anticipating all of our lives, yet, would not have predicted it to happen now. It's fair to say that many in the black community (and without) have been inspired to believe that a black man can be elected president, in this day and age, by the audacity and urgency of Barack Obama's bid for the highest office in the land. It's also fair to say that much of that inspiration and belief has come from the mere fact of Obama's success in this campaign, so far, in convincing so many non-blacks to support and elevate his candidacy.

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It's becoming common, among some who would define Obama's candidacy, to express and tout one's 'colorblindness' and detachment from the fact that Barack Obama is black. Indeed, the refrain from some of the folks who are sidestepping the fact of Obama's blackness is that his advancement is a harbinger that racism is dead; a relic from the older generation which may be fine to sentimentalize, but has no significant relevance for the new generation of Americans who have grown up regarding blacks as equals.

Racism certainly isn't chic anymore; not like it was in the days where slurs, slights, and outright discrimination were allowed to flourish under the umbrella of segregation and Jim Crow. But, it has still been used by some, over the years since the dismantling of that institutionalized racism, to manipulate and control the level of access and acceptability of blacks in a white-dominated political system.

I still recall the mere handful of blacks I found in Congress when I first explored the Capitol. I remember seeing the tall head of Rep. Ron Dellums, ever present on the House floor, and imagining that there were many more like him in the wings. It wasn't until 1990, though, that we actually saw a significant influx of minorities elected to Congress, enabled by the 1990 census Democrats fought to reform and manage (along with their fight for an extension of the Voting Rights Act which Bush I vetoed five times before trading his signature for votes for Clarance Thomas) which allowed court-ordered redistricting to double the number of districts with black majorities.

Open racism hasn't been in fashion for decades, but the fear and insecurities which underly discrimination and prejudice still compel some to draw lines of distinction between black and white aspirations and potential for success. What is often unspoken is the reluctance some Americans have in envisioning blacks in a position to make decisions for a white majority, resulting in attempt to set boundaries and define the roles blacks must assume to achieve success and approval.

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Advancement for blacks has been complicated by the lack of an expansive power base which would facilitate and enable upwardly-mobile black aspirants. The shortage and lack of black managers, executives, and political veterans leaves the black community with an often cliquish, white majority to decide on the placement and shepherding of black entrants. And, in our political system, non-blacks don't see a need to make broad appeals to black voters, and consequently, the needs and concerns which disproportionately impact their community are often ignored.

Blacks have a real need for candidates who aren't afraid to say, 'I'm one of you and I recognize, understand, and will directly respond to your particular concerns.' However, both political parties, in the last few decades, have been more concerned with cultivating the support of white males. So, in order to garner the support of party regulars and voters, black candidates are persuaded to position themselves to appeal to voters 'across racial lines.' But, the idea of wooing white males suggests that the ideals and aspiration of blacks are not good enough for white Americans, or somehow, separate and polarizing.

It's no accident, though, that the bulk of the concerns of black Americans which have been ignored by our politicians are well in line with the heightened concerns of all Americans who've been squeezed and neglected by the ruling class of corporatist republicans. With confidence, we can assert that, the salvation, representation, and advancement of blacks is ultimately good for all Americans, they just need a continually persuasive and forceful argument in support of government's role in establishing, defending, and preserving those rights and benefits which sustain and enhance our collective futures.

The federal advancement of group rights was an important element in securing individual rights for blacks, before and after the abolition of slavery. Government's role has been expanded, mostly in response to needs which had gone unfulfilled by the states; either by lack of will or limited resources. After the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, the federal government had to assert itself to defend these rights -- albeit with much reluctance and not without much prodding and instigation -- by passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That effort, and others by the federal government were a direct acknowledgment of the burdens and obstacles facing an emerging class of blacks.

Indeed, the efforts in the '60's to bolster and nurture black Americans into the social, economic, and political mainstream of America has meshed perfectly with the needs of our expanding economy and the growing markets which have eagerly absorbed millions of black Americans who were advantaged by the educational opportunities and initiatives which were focused on lifting their communities out of the squalor of indifference and disrespect of the past.

It's not uncommon, as many folks so breathlessly want to express, to find blacks succeeding and operating at almost every level of opportunity, industry, or occupation. But, that advancement of black Americans did not occur in some vacuum of 'colorblindness,' nor, will the progress of black Americans in our political system be served by a revisionism which automatically suggests the playing field has been fair or accommodating to the interests of the individuals -- or, even, to the black communities which are assumed to have advanced along with those who manage to get elected.

The gains blacks have made in our political institutions have not kept pace with even the incremental gains which have occurred in the workplace, for example. We may well have an abundance of black CEOs, military officers, business owners, doctors, lawyers and other professionals. However, Americans have yet to support and establish blacks in our political institutions with a regularity we could celebrate as 'colorblindness.' And, to be fair, not even many blacks would likely agree that we've moved past a point where race should be highlighted (if not overtly emphasized), in our political deliberations and considerations.

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Who are we? We the people of color? We the African Americans? We Minorities, we Negroes, we Blacks? Our history in this country is rooted in slavery and oppression, but in the search for the roots we sometimes find that the more we draw closer to our black identity, the more we seem to pull away from the broader America. An insistence that our community must necessarily be at odds with white America, because of our tragic beginnings, threatens to render our successes impotent. But, what becomes of a quest for a national identity when many of blacks' contributions in developing and reforming this nation have not been acknowledged or reciprocated? Can we really put aside our identification with our unique heritage and regard ourselves as 'homogenized,' even as our particular needs are seemingly ignored?

For black Americans, there is an undeniable heritage in this country to strengthen and inspire our children. W.E. Du Bois expressed it best: "Your country?" he wrote. "How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song - soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years before your weak hand could have done it . . ."

For me, Barack Obama's advancement toward the highest office in our land represents black Americans' gift to our country, as much as it represents the efforts of those who have shared their own gifts and made a place for him in our political system with their votes and support. I'll enjoy more than a small amount of pride in reflecting on the efforts and events which have made his nomination possible. I'm going to take a moment to indulge myself with pride in my fellow black American's advancement -- black pride -- and, just as quickly, move to unite.

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Ron Fullwood, is an activist from Columbia, Md. and the author of the book 'Power of Mischief' : Military Industry Executives are Making Bush Policy and the Country is Paying the Price

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