President-Elect Sees His Race as An Opportunity
Monday, January 19, 2009
Throughout his barrier-breaking presidential campaign, Barack Obama avoided calling direct attention to race, long a divisive force in electoral politics. But now, as he stands on the verge of becoming the nation's first African American president, Obama is talking more about how his racial identity can unify and transform the country.
"There is an entire generation that will grow up taking for granted that the highest office in the land is filled by an African American," Obama said in an interview last week with The Washington Post. "I mean, that's a radical thing. It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn't underestimate the force of that."
Beyond the symbolism of his historic achievement, Obama said, he hopes to use his presidency as an example of how people can bridge differences -- racial and otherwise. "What I hope to model is a way of interacting with people who aren't like you and don't agree with you that changes the temper of our politics," he said. "And then part of that changes how we think about moving forward on race relations. Race relations becomes a subset of a larger problem in our society, which is we have a diverse, complicated society where people have a lot of different viewpoints."
When Obama is sworn in tomorrow, many Americans will celebrate a once-unthinkable milestone achieved by a politician whose own mixed racial heritage -- he is the product of a black Kenyan father and a white American mother -- raised piercing questions of identity as he began his quest for the presidency. Is he black enough? some asked in his campaign's early days. Did his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia make him too different to fully appreciate America's painful struggle for civil rights and racial progress that laid the foundation for his ascendancy?
Obama has confronted questions about his racial identity since his earliest days in politics. And now he is confronting new questions, as Americans of differing backgrounds are eager to claim him. Is he the first black president or the first biracial president? Why should the white part of his lineage give way to the black part?
"We did not elect our first African American president. Rather, we elected our first biracial president," Douglas Snyder of Bowie wrote in a letter published Saturday in The Post.
For his part, Obama is unambiguous in calling himself an African American, the identity he embraced early on.
Though he has always honored his white mother and grandparents, the young Obama read African American writers and studied the mien of the black guys he encountered on the basketball court. He was intrigued by the older African American men who played cards with his grandfather. He imitated the dance moves he saw on the television show "Soul Train," and he tried to curse like the late comedian Richard Pryor.
Obama's style, his habits, his sensibilities, some scholars say, will create a new White House iconography.
"The very fact that he is black means that we're going to be transforming the aesthetic of the American democracy," said Peniel E. Joseph, a presidential historian and professor of African American studies at Brandeis University. "Virtually every single thing that he will do from this point on is uncharted territory. His choice of a church. The State of the Union. News conferences. Those all become new."
Black-oriented Ebony magazine used a cover photo of Obama emerging from his SUV in a dark suit and black shades to celebrate him as an exemplar of "black cool." His fondness for pickup basketball is well chronicled. And even his friends have commented on how his loping stride gave him a look of confidence as the cameras caught him walking the White House colonnade during his first post-election visit with President Bush.
Many African Americans would find familiar Obama's short exchange during a recent visit with D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to Ben's Chili Bowl, a locally renowned eatery. Obama paid the tab with a $20 bill. When the counter attendant asked if he wanted change, Obama responded: "No, we're straight." We're straight is a colloquialism uttered every day, but not normally by occupants of the Oval Office.