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Posts Tagged ‘Obama’

Black by Choice?

A couple of weeks back, we witnessed two quite different but intriguing cases of people laying claim to an African-American identity without having the lineage that we generally assume provides that identity– biological descent from African slaves in the United States. These two people were, in effect, asserting that they could choose to be African-American.

One was the media-circus case of Rachel Dolezal, who had become a leader in Spokane’s African-American community despite, it was eventually revealed, no apparent African-American ancestors. She, in effect, chose to be black.

The other was the somber and uplifting address by President Obama on the occasion of the murders in Charleston. He delivered a sermon in the style and cadences of the African-American church, from the start–“Giving all praise and honor to God”– to the end–breaking out in “Amazing Grace”– and in the middle–explaining the obligations of receiving undeserved grace. This from a man with no ancestral claims on African-American culture, a man with a white mother and a Kenyan father who was raised by white grandparents. Along the way Barack Obama nonetheless chose to be African-American and act as if he, too, came from a family that endured slavery, sharecropped cotton, and sang gospel.

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

Choosing who one wants to be is a powerful American cultural theme. It would be amazing if we are glimpsing–though still far from entering–an era when even American blackness is a choice.

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Risk Taking

President Obama made a key social science claim in his second inaugural address. He said, “the commitments we make to each other–through Medicare, and Medicaid, and Social Security [and presumably through other parts of the welfare state, too]–these things do not sap our initiative; they strengthen us. They do not make us a nation of takers; they free us to take the risks that make this country great.”BHO

This passage includes a put-down of Mitt Romney’s controversial campaign comment that 47% of Americans supported Obama because they were dependent “takers.” (See an earlier post on the 47% comment.) More fundamentally, Obama’s statement asserts that government-provided security does not undermine individuals’ entrepreneurial spirit, but instead bolsters that spirit. An interesting – and controversial – hypothesis.

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Obama’s Racial Penalty

Barack Obama has run his presidential races with an extra weight on his shoulders: being black. Sure, there are some pundits who claim that he benefits from his race – black loyalty, white guilt, and such – but serious scholars understand that his race has been, in net, a notable disadvantage. My rough sense from looking at some of the political science analyses of the 2008 campaign is that he may have gained about 1 percent in the final vote by garnering more black support than a white Democrat would have gotten, but that he lost about 5 percent of the vote by getting less white support than a white Democrat would have gotten – for a net minus of about four. Four points in a presidential race is a lot.

As an historical matter, it is striking that Obama’s racial penalty has not been higher. As a political matter, the question of whether the penalty will still be that high in 2012 may make all the difference in who wins the White House. Or maybe, one study suggests, the penalty might be even higher.

(The picture here, by the way, is from a 2009 study showing that the less favorable on-line respondents were to Obama, the more likely they were to pick the darkened picture of him as the accurate one.)

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End Times and Presidents

The heated controversies around President Obama – the questioned birth certificate, the supposed Muslim connections, his seeming foreignness – have generated more than a whiff of fire and brimstone. Snopes.com, the website devoted to fact-checking common rumors, felt compelled in 2011 to fact-check whether the president was the antichrist. They decided he was not.

FDR (LC-USZ62-87317)

The concern on the religious right about a president’s satanic connections is not new. Historian Matthew Avery Sutton, in the Journal of American History (here; and podcast) describes the rise of similar suspicions about President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s. Given the events of the day, the suspicion probably fit FDR better then than it does Obama today. Sutton also argues that the connection that developed in the 1930s between millennialism – anticipating the End Times – and politics lay the groundwork for today’s religious right militancy.

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A. Lincoln, Socialist?

A while ago, I was dumbstruck by a comment a Republican party insurgent in Utah made about her former governor, Jon Huntsman, Jr., a Republican politician who received strong kudos from the libertarian Cato Institute. “‘On a good day,  a socialist,’ said Darcy Van Orden, a co-founder of Utah Rising . . . .  ‘On a bad day, he’s a communist’.” And, of course, people like Ms. Van Orden consider it obvious that Barack Obama is a socialist, if not worse. David Koch, one of the brother team of conservative financial angels, commented, for example, that Obama’s “father was a hard core economic socialist in Kenya . . . [and Obama] was apparently from what I read a great admirer of his father’s points of view.”

It is striking how the term “socialist” has been redefined so that almost any policy and anyone can get that label. Indeed, many a past president would qualify by these standards – surely FDR, Truman, and Democrats through Clinton – but so would Republican presidents. By the standards of people such as Ms. Van Orden and David Koch, Abraham Lincoln was surely an out-and-out “socialist-communist.”
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