Five Ways We Talked About Race and Identity This Election

Can we talk about race for a minute? I know -- we've been talking about race since 2007, when Barack Obama formally entered the primary. The 2008 election has galvanized discussions of race (as well as class and gender) in America. Since Barack Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech challenged Americans to take the discussion of race relations into their homes and communities, all forms of media have found themselves searching for trends, meaning, and analysis all along racial lines.

So what were the major themes that emerged from this national conversation on race?

1. Mixed race identity is only employed when absolutely necessary -- or when it is needed to make a point.

For all intents and purposes, Barack Obama has been the "black candidate" for most of 2008. Though Obama often speaks of his father from Kenya and his mother from Kansas, most of the time, Obama's background is overlooked. While a few articles explored Obama's understanding and acceptance of blackness as a racial/cultural identity (like "The Identity Card," published in Time magazine and Newsweek "When Barry Became Barack"), Obama has more often found himself waging war against the racial stereotypes that haunt black men in America.

What has largely been forgotten is the time in 2007 when many high profile members of the black community weren't quite convinced that Obama was black. Ta-Nehisi Coates summarized this controversy in the pages of Time, asking "Is Obama Black Enough?"

"Obama's mother is of white U.S. stock. His father is a black Kenyan," Stanley Crouch recently sniffed in a New York Daily News column entitled "What Obama Isn't: Black Like Me." "Black, in our political and social vocabulary, means those descended from West African slaves," wrote Debra Dickerson on the liberal website Salon. Writers like Time and New Republic columnist Peter Beinart have argued that Obama is seen as a "good black," and thus has less of following among black people.

The "is Obama truly black" debate raged on throughout the beginning of the primary season, prompting noted journalist and racial commentator Marjorie Valbrun to pen "Black Like Me" for The Washington Post, further exploring some of the themes touched on in Coates' article:

At a time when blacks living in this country, whether by birth or by choice, should be harnessing their collective political clout to empower all black people, we're wasting time debating which of us are truly black. […]

It makes me angry. I'm angry for Obama, too. People are asking whether he's black enough to represent them. I ask, black enough by whose standards? Why must Obama's life follow the same track of "authentic" black folk to pass this litmus test?

Even though activists like Jen Chau from the multi-ethnic community building organization Swirl Inc., calmly broke down what it means to have a mixed race identity, some people still didn't understand. "Mixed race people should not have to defend the way that they identify. Those who are mixed are always up for public scrutiny, and this is problematic," writes Chau. Obama's self identification often stands on the sidelines to what people want to project upon him, depending on their own definitions of race and identity. Sadly, however far we have come in discussions about mixed race identity, there will always be people like Rush Limbaugh, who refuse to see Barack Obama as anything but a "magic negro."

2. White Americans found themselves exploring that it means to be white -- and reexamining their ideas on race.

Who exactly is the mythical Joe Six Pack (or Joe the Plumber, for that matter)? What happened to the soccer moms, NASCAR dads, and hockey moms? For far too long, these shifting labels have masked the political identity of white voters, who have had the luxury of not having to deal with the issue of their race in past presidential elections. For the only ethnic group that was permitted to be split into unique demographics instead of a monolithic voting block, Obama changed the game forever. While some whites -- like Time Wise, antiracist activist -- debated the nature of whiteness and white privilege, others denied race was a factor. The GOP held tightly to the ideas of whiteness at the Republican National Convention, holding a convention with the lowest number of minority delegates in years. Even white supremacists were torn! There were racists who would not call themselves racists, but who openly explained how they were not voting for Obama because of his blackness, while whites with negative views toward blacks urged others (or themselves) to look beyond race and vote for the best qualified candidate.

White Americans were not the only ones finding themselves probing deeply into the intertwined issues of race relations, bigotry, and progress. People of all racial backgrounds wondered if racism would cost Obama the election. Whites wrung their hands about racist relatives and concern for John McCain and Sarah Palin's vision of a very limited America. Lou Dobbs and other conservative pundits tried to argue that America "doesn't have a problem with discussing race," while repeatedly attempting to shut down all discussions that veered into racial territory. And a lot of white writers tried to explain and understand race relations. Sometimes, they were humorous, like the slightly misguided GQ feature in which the writer advertises in Craiglist for a black friend, seeking an end to an increasingly white social circle. Others were more striking. Nicholas D. Kristof of The New York Times devoted more than five columns to race and race relations, in which he managed to break beyond the most basic of conversations surrounding race and heritage and probe deeply into the nature of discrimination and bias.

The conversations are happening in the white community, but ultimately the question still remains: what will this mean for race relations in the United States?

3. Stereotypes in the Key of Blackness

"But blacks are the real racists -- they are all voting for Barack Obama!"

And so goes the latest rallying cry, repeated ad nauseum in comments sections, blog posts, and RNC talking points. This is all part of essentializing and otherizing blackness -- removing social agency from blacks, where the assumption is that whites will vote based on the candidates platforms while blacks will blindly vote along color lines. While this ignores the long history of blacks voting for white candidates based on the issues, and passing over most other black candidates running for President (including Alan Keyes, Al Sharpton, Carol Mosely-Braun, and Cynthia McKinney), it also ignores that approximately 90 percent of blacks identify as Democrats or politically independent. Sure, Obama's polling at 90 percent of the black vote -- so did Bill Clinton. John Kerry and Al Gore both hovered around 88 percent. But none of that matters.

Even Colin Powell, a long time Republican and staunch conservative found his thoughtful and reasoned arguments on Meet the Press dismissed by the likes of Pat Buchanan. Apparently, it is obvious that Powell would have voted for Obama, despite his long time record of supporting Republicans. And it is not because of a poorly run McCain campaign, an increasing rift on the issues, or the lapse in judgment when picking Sarah Palin to be a heartbeat away from the White House. Oh no -- it's obvious. Blacks just stick together.

It also speaks to the pervasive idea of blacks as a monolithic group. Though some media outlets have probed the growing divide between Civil Rights Era and post-Civil Rights Era methods of political and racial organizing, most reporters (particularly those on the right side of the aisle) see fit to ignore the obvious. Barack is still expected to be the polar opposite most black male stereotypes, and he is aware of how other's perceptions are shaped. Even Michele Obama is not immune to racial scrutiny, contending with the angry black female image, charges of not being "truly proud of her country" and working overtime to provide a People magazine approved and accessible version of herself to white voters.

Even with this kind of progress, the rehashing of stereotypes abounds. The widely publicized case of Ashley Todd -- the McCain campaign volunteer who fabricated a story about being robbed and physically assaulted by a crazed Obama supporter -- renewed memories of Susan Smith and other women who tried to capitalize on existing racial stereotypes to support false charges.

4. Black/White/Not So Whatever -- The Emerging Influence of Other Ethnicities

Spoken word artist Kelly Tsai recently posted a video called Black, White, Whatever, a slam poetry piece taking the presidential candidates to task and explaining that people who have a racial background outside of the black/white binary still matter. On the positive side, it seems that some have finally caught on -- news media focused on the growing power of the Latino (often referred to as Hispanic) and Asian voting blocks this election season.

Unfortunately, the media seemed interested in only two types of stories -- the immigration issue as a major wedge or the idea of a race war between blacks, Latinos and Asians. (There was little mention that Latino identity is an ethnicity and not a race, and no analysis of what it means to be an Afro-Latino.) A CNN report drew heavy criticism from the Asian American community as it searched for the Asian American voting block in grocery stores and generally painted Asian voters as ill informed and slightly racist. Other mainstream news agencies have tried their hardest to shoehorn Asians and Latinos into tight voting blocks ignoring the variations within each group based on ethnic origin, nationality, and generational differences.

And, as usual, Native Americans were ignored by most major news outlets, with the exception of Politico. Native American voters in South Dakota are experienced difficulties with early voting, which looks a lot like voter suppression -- but, unfortunately, this appears to be a non story for most of the mainstream media.

5. The Conversation that Didn't Happen -- Islamophobia

Speaking of Powell, he was the only major political figure to call out an important conversation that has not happened in this election -- the casual demonization of Muslims. While Islam is a religion, and not an ethnic group, the image of Muslims in this country has been racialized. Fatemeh Fakhraie, editor of the feminist blog Muslimah Media Watch, wrote about this very issue in her review of Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law & Politics for Racialicious.com:

Islam is represented in mainstream media as South/West Asian brown-skinned people who are bearded and turbaned or veiled and hidden: this racializes Islam. Now, before you start typing a response that there are non-West Asian Muslims and that Muslim isn't a race, re-read what I just wrote. There are Muslims in every country in the world, and they are all colors and sizes. But Western media representation of Islam and Muslims simplifies this world-wide group of people into one picture: that of a brown guy with a beard and a keffiyeh. His female counterpart is a brown woman with a veil. Reducing an entire group of people to these static images that have to context or history creates flat attributes (such as the incorrect assertion that West Asia = Muslim) that can be applied to anyone deemed in the "Muslim" category.

Even the progressive forward thinkers on the Obama campaign did not know how to relate to Americans who follow Islam-- they originally started off addressing the rumors that he was secretly a Muslim and countering the claims of him having attended a "secular madrassa." However, as the rumor began to take hold, the Obama camp began to distance itself from Muslims, strongly denouncing smears and referring to him often as a Christian. Occasionally, the campaign found themselves the subject of scrutiny for how much distance they showed. There was the embarrassing incident of the woman wearing a headscarf who was asked to not to sit on the stage with Obama. And Mazen Asbahi, Obama's Muslim Outreach Coordinator, was resigned after dubious questions about his past affiliation emerged -- without much of a fight from the Obama campaign.

With all of this quietly accepted Islamophobia swirling around an election process supposedly marked by inclusion, Powell's comments on Meet the Press became a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale political atmosphere. Powell stated:

Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim," Powell said. "He's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer's no. That's not America."

The Houston Chronicle published Powell's words in the context of an article about Muslims and their perceptions of the election. The article goes on to say:

Neither campaign has visited a single mosque on the campaign trail. "It's a humiliating feeling," said Ghani, who runs a Muslim nonprofit, Crescent Youth. "I feel I've contributed to my community, I'm an elected official -- I serve on my (Municipal Utility District) board -- but for my presidential nominees to not even want to be associated with Islam, it's degrading."

In a nutshell, the dominant conversation on race in America has shifted. Race is no longer the issue that is tip-toed around in articles and editorials. However, the truly interesting conversations about America's identity, our ideas, and the lives of most of our nonwhite citizens are still flying far below the radar.

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