Columns written for the Berkeley Daily Planet newspaper, Berkeley, CA
Berkeley Daily Planet

Portrait by John W. Pearson




February 8 , 2008

I ran into a good friend of mine on Shattuck Avenue on election day, a longtime Berkeley progressive, hurrying to buy some Chinese food so he could get back home and watch the returns on television. He said that John Edwards had been his first choice, but after Edwards dropped out, he had agonized over who to vote for. He liked Barack Obama’s energy and promise of change, he said, but said that Hillary Clinton closest to his positions on the two issues he cared for the most, nuclear power and universal health care. He said that even on his way to the polls, he was still agonizing over who to choose.

I went away chuckling, feeling that for progressives, the Democratic presidential primaries has come to be something like the story of the man who has had to scuffle to find meal money all year, and suddenly finds himself invited to a cousin’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. Discovered grumbling in his chair, he confesses that he has found himself in distress because he cannot decide on the pumpkin, sweet potato, or mince pie for dessert.

Enjoy the moment, guy. If only all the world’s days were made up of such choices.

This is not to minimize the policy differences between the remaining major Democratic primary contenders, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama. There are differences, and for those of our friends around the nation—Ohio and Pennsylvania and thereabouts—whose primaries have not yet occurred, or for those who may be delegates to the Democratic National Convention, they may yet play a role in the process of who the Democrats choose. But I doubt it.

Instead of policy, the choices between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama swirl more around identiy, and, more particularly, gender and racial identity. For the first time, ever in the history of the nation, the nominee of a major political party will be either a woman or an African-American. For progressives who for years have fought for the elevation and equality of both groups, the question is which one should take precedence.

If it were merely a question of which one is preferable to open the Presidential door for this year, woman or African-American, I would choose African-American, but only on the very narrow grounds that I believe Ms. Clinton’s candidacy is going to automatically open the way for other women presidential candidacies, while the jury is still out on whether Mr. Obama’s will immediately do the same for African-Americans.

Past non-whitemale presidential candidacies in recent memory—Shirley Chisolm, Jesse Jackson’s two runs, Geraldine Ferraro for Vice President—were all saddled by the “exotic tag.” Ms. Chisolm and Mr. Jackson were always and ever the Black candidates, Ms. Ferraro was always the woman candidate, with other political issues taking a back seat with supporters and detractors alike. But at times during the 2008 Democratic primaries, a remarkable event has occurred: Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama were able, each, to step away from gender or race, to be judged independently only as candidates. Clearly that is happening more among the hip-hop generation than among those of us in the older crowd, and it has not always happened, but it has happened, a historical river crossed.

Regardless of what happens at the convention or in the general election, the effect of Ms. Clinton’s candidacy is that forever after this year, national women politicians in this country will be judged for their presidential possibilities, in the same way national male politicians are. That will begin immediately as soon as the November elections are over.

I am not as certain that Mr. Obama’s candidacy will lead to such an immediate door-opening for African-Americans.

Mr. Obama has a background that is distinctly different from most African-Americans, not so much because he is biracial, but because his father was Kenyan, rather than American. In addition, despite the fact that he was raised by the white side of his family, he appears to have slipped easily and unpretentiously into African-American culture as an adult. This is a more difficult task than would be imagined for those who are not African-American. The dual result is that Barack Obama is almost universally accepted by African-Americans as an African-American, while at the same time—and this is difficult to explain, so bear with me—not projecting such an African-Americannness that he scares off the whitefolks in the far reaches of the exurbs and small towns in Utah.

Part of it, I believe, is the weight—the personal and racial memory—carried by African-Americans from the slave trade, through slavery, through the hundred years of terror between the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights and Votings Rights Acts. Many in the hip hop generation believe that history is no longer applicable—many of them believe that they have transformed the meaning of the word “nigger” (or “nigga”), and race itself has no meaning at all. I don’t know if that is true, and what will happen when the generations of those of us born before Selma and Montgomery are no longer here. But we are still here, and, to paraphrase Gibran, we are arrows that can only travel as far as the strength and position of the bow which shot us.

For that reason, I believe that without Mr. Obama’s unique background, it is going to be difficult for future African-American presidential contenders to repeat that feat. Mr. Obama’s race will make the way for future African-American candidacies easier, but it will not make them automatic. And so, it is not so much a case of whose “turn” it is—as the argument so often happens in America when it comes to opening the door for those many to whom it has long been closed—but more so that for women politicians, the “turns” will probably come in steadily increasing cycles, such as we see in countries from England to Israel to Pakistan, while for African-Americans, it may be another long drought before the next drink of cool water.

But in a twist on Einstein’s theory of why solid matter can’t ever reach the speed of light, the reasons African-Americans originally thought it important to have an African-American President may be dissipating the closer that such a presidency comes to reality.

I grew up in a generation that focused on African-American “firsts,” a term you sometimes still hear, but which is only a pale—no pun intended—echo of its original powerful meaning.

In my parents’ time, African-Americans were actively and affirmatively excluded from many levels of American social and political life. The completeness of that exclusion is difficult—if not impossible—to understand for those of us born following those days. My parents also lived through the days when the Oakland Fire Department—Oakland, California, not Oakland, Georgia—were hired to fight fires from the segregated, West Oakland Engine 22 station, but thought not intelligent enough to serve as officers.

I was born the year after Jackie Robinson was hired by the Brooklyn Dodger organization and broke the baseball color line, and so I missed entirely the turmoil and excitement that surrounded that event. By the time I began paying attention to baseball, Jackie Robinson was aging and about to retire, and African-American players were both the norm and among the recognized stars—Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente (not actually an African-American, true, but included in the pantheon), Frank Robinson. In my time, it was the coaching ranks of all major league sports, and the quarterback position in football, where African-Americans met the closed doors. It is difficult to figure how—with African-American coaches permeating all levels of major sports, and African-American quarterbacks running too many college and NFL teams to count—that it was once argued, openly and without apparent shame, that African-Americans were too dense and excitable to fill those positions. I grew up in a time when African-Americans were so scarce on national television that Jet Magazine—the national African-American news magazine of the 50’s and 60’s—were able to print a weekly, one page schedule of Black appearances so that we could all tune in.

I have lived, in my time, through a number of African-American political “firsts.” The first African-American member of Oakland City Council. The first African-American Oakland mayor. During my years in South Carolina, I witnessed the first African-Americans in the South Carolina state assembly since they were run out—through assassination, violence, and fraud—a hundred years before following Reconstruction. Beyond that, I witnessed the first mass voting of African-Americans in Alabama since Reconstruction.

But all of these “firsts” were accompanied by what used to be called the “Black agenda,” an outgrowth of the civil rights and Black Power and Black Nationalist movements, and movements further gone, which detailed a direction that the African-American community should take, goals to be accomplished, thresholds to be reached. In those early days of modern Black politics, African-American politicians could only be elected from majority Black districts, and to be elected, they had to have a history in the movement and, at least on paper, a commitment to that “Black agenda.”

But time and victories have dissipated that agenda, so that the term is rarely, if ever, used in recent years. In addition, African-American politicians have jumped the color line and slowly begun to win victories in districts that are not majority African-American. To do so, they have had to maintain the delicate balancing act of maintaining their political base among African-American voters, but in such a way that they are not identified as a “Black candidate” who scares off the necessary non-Blacks. The smaller the African-American voting percentage becomes in the district being pursued, the further the African-American candidate and office-holder must wander from a strictly Black agenda, until a Black agenda ceases to exist.

That is what we are seeing in the candidacy of Mr. Obama. He identifies himself as an African-American, and many of his political traditions have their roots in the African-American community. If he were to win, he would promote many policies that would be favorable to that community. But distinctly more favorable than those that would be promoted by Ms. Clinton? That, I believe, would be a difficult argument to make.

In the end, progressives, African-American, and women who identify with the Democratic Party are left with a feast of riches, almost an embarrassment of riches, considering the past famine—two credible, serious candidates who we don’t have to grind our teeth to vote for. Hell, you could throw in John Edwards, put their names in a hat, close your eyes, guarantee that the one you picked would be the President come next year, and most progressive, African-American, and women Democrats would be tickled to death at the prospect.

Something to remember, even as we support and pull for the candidate of our choice, in the meantime.

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