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Obama Floats (PBS Religion & Ethics Newsweekly Online) March 19, 2008

Posted by daviddavenport in Newspaper Columns/Essays.
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I have said elsewhere that Barack Obama is the Muhammad Ali of presidential politics. You remember when traditional fighters stood in the middle of the ring and tried to hit Ali they rarely could because, as he put it, he floated like a butterfly. Ali said he was too pretty to be hit, that your hands can’t hit what your eyes can’t see.

That captures Barack Obama, who, so far, has floated like Ali above the fray of traditional politics. We don’t know where he stands, which has been part of his appeal. Amazingly, Obama himself wrote in THE AUDACITY OF HOPE that he serves “as a blank screen on which people of vastly different stripes project their own views.”  

Race has been one of those issues over which he has sought to float. He has presented himself as a new kind of candidate, one who is neither black nor white, one who, some have inferred, is post-racial. But as Shelby Steele points out in his book A BOUND MAN, Obama’s approach to race is not really new. Steele argues that African Americans have often chosen to wear one of two masks in dealing with white society: that of the bargainer or the challenger. Challengers, such as Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson, challenge whites to prove they are not racist, usually by giving something such as affirmative action or racial quotas. Obama has been a bargainer, like Oprah or an early Bill Cosby, saying to white society: I will think the best of you. I will treat you as though you are not racist, and you can accept me and not feel threatened.

The recent revelation that someone so close to Obama–his long-time minister and mentor–is a strong racial challenger, not only to whites but to America itself, threatens to undermine Obama’s bargaining and floating about race. People rightly wonder, when they hear his pastor (or before that his wife, Michelle) challenging America and white society, where he really stands. How can he really be non-racial, or post-racial, when his wife and his 20-year pastor make such strong challenging statements?  

Obama’s speech on the subject was both rhetorically eloquent and substantively unsatisfying. He said that his pastor’s statements presented a distorted view of America and were divisive. But, as with so much of Obama’s rhetoric, those statements are really about the process of dealing with race, not Obama’s own positions about it (which we still don’t know). He acknowledges that white people are sometimes angry about affirmative action, but never says what he would do about government policies of affirmative action. He points out that many African Americans are still angry about slavery and racism, but stops short of telling us what policies about racism he would pursue as president.  

Obama describes Reverend Wright as “imperfect.” That’s a wonderful psychological term, and we all sympathize with human imperfections. But people rightly wonder why he would continue in that church all these years. (I recently, painfully, left my church of 20 years over strong differences about its leadership.) And, more than that, they are left to wonder what Obama’s policies and actions might be, since his beautiful rhetoric deals in psychology and sociology, not in policies and positions.  

All of this goes to the heart of Obama’s campaign strategy. By staying above the fray, Obama hopes to appeal to the many Americans who are frustrated by partisan politics. But, in the end, he offers the even more frustrating alternative of voting for a candidate whose actual policies and positions remain unknown. In a Democratic primary, where the candidates’ positions aren’t all that different, this strategy has largely worked. His pastor’s comments have, really for the first time, poked a hole in that lofty campaign-by-rhetoric. Perhaps voters will begin now to demand more of him. And it may also be that a strong Republican challenger in the fall may finally force him to stand and fight on policies and positions, not just float on the wings of psychology, sociology, and rhetoric.

By Religion and Ethics Newsweekly on March 19, 2008 11:07 AM

Link to the article:  http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/blog/2008/03/david-davenport-obama-floats.html

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