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Reviewed by Richard Thompson Ford
Sunday, January 18, 2009


For Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future

By Jabari Asim

Morrow. 223 pp. $21.99

Barack Obama's historic struggle to become the nation's first black president is over, but the fight over the meaning of his victory has only begun.

In What Obama Means -- one of what will certainly be many efforts to interpret and define the Obama phenomenon -- Jabari Asim argues that Obama's victory is the culmination of decades of black political struggle, social advancement and cultural achievement. Obama promises to continue this cultural transformation with a new style of racial politics: more productive and less antagonistic than that of the "charlatans and camera hogs with whom we are all too familiar" (a group in which the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson figure prominently) but no less committed to social justice. Asim, editor of the NAACP's journal the Crisis and former deputy editor of Book World, insists that Obama is the latest and most inspiring of a long line of "dedicated champions of black advancement." Because of Obama "it's becoming cool to be thoughtful, temperate and monogamous," writes Asim, and Americans "may come to associate blackness with brilliance, thoughtfulness, confidence, and radical optimism."

By contrast, Obama's detractors, left and right, have suggested that the new president inevitably will be limited by the racial politics of the past. Last year the conservative commentator Shelby Steele argued in A Bound Man that Obama was tethered, by his liberal ideology and racial loyalty, to a counterproductive politics of grievance that exaggerates white racism and denies the need for individual responsibility among blacks. By contrast, left-leaning black social commentators such as Cornel West, Tavis Smiley and Jesse Jackson have complained that, to win elections, Obama pandered to white voters, ignoring his responsibility to blacks.

Asim has the better argument: Black politics is undergoing a healthy transformation away from the confrontations of the culture wars and toward a new maturity. This change means that black politicians can faithfully and effectively serve multi-racial constituencies without being seen as sellouts, Americans of all races can grow comfortable with black role models and authority figures, and blacks can acknowledge their internal divisions without fear of disintegration. As Asim argues, "Obama's rise doesn't spell the end of oppression, but it exposes the fallacy of referring to all black Americans as particularly oppressed or oppressed specifically because of their blackness."

What Obama Means dispatches a formidable battery of references to pop and high culture with the machine-gun pacing of a music video. Often, the results are both entertaining and insightful. Asim's enthusiasm for his subject keeps the reader engaged, and the strength of his underlying thesis about changing race relations usually grounds his heavily anecdotal exposition.

But the rapid fire can turn scattershot. For example, in a scant four paragraphs, W.E.B. Du Bois competes for attention with Booker T. Washington, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Malcolm X, Ida B. Wells, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Baldwin and Edward Said -- not to mention Barack Obama. In such tight space Asim can't develop that crowd of examples or explain their relevance to his larger thesis; he can do little more than refer to them and race on.

The book is most persuasive when Asim's examples stick closely to Obama's distinctive strengths: The chapters on politics and oratory are far stronger than those that compare Obama to professional athletes and popular musicians. In the weaker passages, the attempts to connect pop cultural figures to Obama occasionally misfire. For instance, Asim argues that Obama's biography parallels that of the musician Prince as told in the film "Purple Rain." But the connections are superficial (both men are of mixed parentage, each struggled with his identity before finding his voice), and although Asim clearly doesn't intend to insult either one, the comparison to an artist infamous for his eccentricity, emotional volatility and narcissism trivializes Obama.

What Obama Means makes a compelling case for optimism about Obama's presidency and the coming changes in U.S. race relations. But Asim lacks critical distance, a quality that, perhaps, can come only with greater historical distance. Obama is a walking Rorschach test, a reflection of our racial aspirations and anxieties. Steele thought Obama was bound by the politics of racial grievance because Steele believes that that is the defining weakness of modern racial politics. West and Smiley worry that Obama will sell out the black poor because they think the black elite is riddled with sellouts. Similarly, Asim sees Obama as the harbinger of the type of racial politics that Asim himself thinks we need. Such reactions, whether critical or adulatory, don't do justice to Obama because they treat him as an avatar of his race, rather than as an individual with his own character and ideas.

Seeing Obama as a symbol, not a man, makes it easy to criticize him for imagined or projected defects; it can also make it easy to celebrate him for virtues he has to yet to exhibit. Much about him remains unknown. It is unclear, for instance, how much emphasis Obama will place on past discrimination. While his background as a community organizer suggests he has a deep commitment to racial justice, there's little doubt that some of his supporters think their willingness to back a black candidate for president relieves them (and perhaps the nation as a whole) of responsibility to redress the many persistent effects of America's history of racism.

Asim makes a plausible case that Obama's inauguration will usher in a renewed commitment to social justice tempered by a cool-headed pragmatism -- an end to the divisive and counterproductive racial politics that has come to dominate civil rights activism since the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. But we may be too close to the Obama phenomenon, both psychologically and historically, to get a good read on what Obama means. ยท

Richard Thompson Ford is a professor at Stanford Law School and author of "The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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