The dream has never died … it lives on in those Americans, young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Asian and Native American, gay and straight, who are tired of a politics that divides us and want to recapture the sense of common purpose that we had when John Kennedy was president of the United States of America – Barack Obama (CNN)
When I look at Barack Obama (through the lens of the British broadcast media and various Internet snippets) I really only see a man in a race with the spectre of his own good looks and charm; epitomised, perhaps, by the I Got a Crush… on Obama viral video, which apparently Obama himself responded to by saying: ‘It’s just one more example of the fertile imagination of the Internet. More stuff like this will be popping up all the time’ (more). Of course it is far more complex, and murky too. A recent article in The Guardian, ‘It’s the most vicious election campaign ever: and here’s why’, amply demonstrates the problem for Democrats trying to stage a political campaign against the ‘force of the mighty Republican propaganda machine’. In the UK it is easy to see only the photo-opportunities (the main speeches and press conferences). What is not witnessed are the endless parade of advertisements and internet videos, some authorised, plenty others not. Still with the polls in Obama’s favour and numerous negative headlines for McCain and Palin appearing on the widely-read syndicated news blog service The Huffington Post (see also plaid lemur), there is quiet optimism for a politics that no longer divides…
But aren’t we forgetting something? Polls show that race remains a negative factor. A poll conducted by Stanford University, for example, suggests that ‘the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points’ (Associated Press). The irony, of course, is that with prospects of America’s first ever Black president, race is strictly off the agenda: ‘The black candidate can’t really talk about race without being accused of race baiting, and the Republican candidate can’t indulge in the typical GOP-style coded race baiting because everyone knows what he’s doing’ (Deggans). The question, then, is whether race is being seen, but not voiced, or whether it is finally becoming a non-issue. Sadly, the latter is unlikely, but equally the former is surely more complex.
In Roland Barthes’ oft cited volume Mythologies (1957), the example of a young black solider is used to help unravel the complexities of semiological ‘myth’. Whilst at the barber’s, Barthes casually notices the cover of Paris-Match, which shows an image of a young black solider who is saluting, ‘his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour [the French flag]’. As a photograph it cannot ‘lie’ – ‘All this is the meaning of the picture’, Barthes notes.
But, whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this [solider] in serving his so-called oppressors (Barthes, Mythologies)
The key lesson of Barthes semiological system is that ‘myth hides nothing: its function is to distort, not to make disappear’. What happens in this case is that the history of the solider (his own personal history and that of colonialism more broadly) is changed into mere gesture. Nothing is removed, or hidden, but everything takes on a different manner.
This is a king of arrest, in both the physical and the legal sense of the term: French imperiality condemns the saluting [solider] to be nothing more than an instrumental signifier, the [solider] suddenly hails me in the name of French imperiality; but at the same moment [his] salute thickens, becomes vitrified, freezes into an eternal reference meant to establish French imperiality. […] myth is speech stolen and restored. Only, speech which is restored is no longer quite that which was stolen: when it was brought back, it was not put exactly in its place.(Barthes, Mythologies)
Have we finally exorcized this myth? For Barthes, there is one ‘language’ that is not mythical. It is language of the producer, of one who ‘speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image … revolutionary language proper cannot be mythical. Revolution is defined as a cathartic act meant to reveal the political load of the world: it makes the world’ (See also: Michael Johnson’s Barthes and the Politics of Electoral Photography which prompts consideration of imagery from the US Election). In 1983 the UK’s Conservative Party issued the following election poster:
As Paul Gilroy explains: ‘The poster was presumably intended to exploit ambiguities between ‘race’ and nation and to salve the sense of exclusion experienced by the blacks who were its target’. The main caption ‘Labour says he’s black. Tories say he’s British’ set against the image of a young black man in smart dress ‘set out to reassure readers that “with Conservatives there are no ‘blacks’, no ‘whites’, just people’. Rhetorically, the attempt was to make nationality colourless, or colour-blind. And of course the suit worn by the man is quite pertient. Obama is well known for his stylish suits (which contrast dramatically with McCain) – is this the manifestation of a revolutionary language? In the 1983 poster, Gilroy sees the suit as a weapon:
…the slightly too large suit worn by the young man, with its unfashionable cut and connotations of a job interview, becomes a key signifier. It conveys what is being asked of the black readers as the price of admission to the colour-blind form of citizenship promised by the text. Blacks are being invited to forsake all that marks them out as culturally distinct before real Britishness can be guaranteed. Isolated and shorn of the mugger’s icons – a tea-cosy hat and the dreadlocks of Rastafari – he is redeemed by his suit, the signifier of British civilization. The image of the black youth as a problem is thus contained and rendered assimilable. The wolf is transformed by his sheep’s clothing (Gilroy, in Images: A Reader, pp.76-78)
Obama carries no such signifier. The language of his suits (to quote Barthes again) ‘speaks in order to transform reality and no longer to preserve it as an image’. The Media Critic of the St. Petersburg Times, Eric Deggans, offers a neat phrase: ‘It’s something people of color face every day: you’re a symbol to the world until you get famous enough that you’re not.’
Obama’s style and affect might better be understood in terms of Celia Lury’s analysis of the advertising of Benetton clothing, which has a purposefully ‘global’ definition of race. The company’s slogan subtly, but significantly changed from ‘All the Colours of the World’ to ‘United Colours of Benetton’. The ir advertising imagery frequently accentuates racial characteristics and national codes. On the one hand:
The overpowering reference point in their imagery is that race is real: racial archetypes provide the vehicle for their message, and racial common sense is overbearingly present in the ‘United Colors’ myth, such that the reality of race is legitimated in Benetton’s discourse (Back and Quaade, in Images: A Reader, p.262)
Yet, there is a more complex and contemporary reading, which Lury explains:
…the novel productivity of these images is missed if it is argued that racial difference is naturalised here, if by that is meant that race is presented as an unchanging and eternal biological essence. ‘Race’, in this imagery, is not a matter of skin colour, of physical characteristics as the expression of a biological or natural essence, but rather of style, of the colour of skin, of colour itself as the medium of what might be called a second nature or, more provocatively, a cultural essentialism (Lury, in Images: A Reader, p.262)
Keeping in mind something of Lury’s logic of race as a style and medium, Eric Deggan’s article, One Reason Race May Not Derail Obama: The ‘Do the Right Thing’ Effect, provides a set of three scenarios that foreground the manner in which Obama’s ‘race’ is not easily understood a simple biological category, but as something far more complex, tactical and arguably with very little to do with Obama himself – but instead the complex history of signification that we are all placed within.
The Do the Right Thing effect – I named this for the moment in Spike Lee’s legendary film where he confronts a racist pizzeria operator with the observation that the guy makes awful comments about black people but loves Prince, Eddie Murphy and Magic Johnson.
“It’s different,” John Turturro’s Pino Frangione insists. “Magic, Eddie, Prince are not niggers…They’re not really black. They’re black but they’re not really black. They’re more than black. To me, it’s different.”
And that’s a dynamic no one can measure. It’s been my experience as the occasional object of racism that there are some folks who feel badly about the idea of black people, but those attitudes can change for specific black people they feel they know.
So there are probably some Democratic voters who don’t see Obama as a typical black person, and don’t transfer those negative, generic feelings onto him – particularly because he doesn’t fit the easy stereotypes, even of black politicians. And as long as Obama has been running for president, there are many voters who didn’t really get to know him until he clinched the Democratic nomination in July.
The Reverse Bradley Effect – Okay, this one is a little less likely, I admit. But the Bradley effect is a dynamic named for Los Angeles mayor Tom Bradley, a black politician who went into a tough election for governor doing well in the polls but lost when the votes were counted.
The lesson some learned: people told pollsters they were voting Bradley just so they wouldn’t look racist.
But as today’s presidential race has taken on a new dynamic, I wonder if a different impulse won’t emerge. We are, after all, in an election season where Republicans and even Democrats like Geraldine Ferraro insist Obama is getting widespread support mostly because of his race.
So maybe there are some folks planning to vote for Obama who don’t want to admit it.
The George Wallace Effect – Like Hillary Clinton before him, Republican John McCain has tried to reference Obama’s difference without mentioning race, emphasizing his loose connections to “domestic terrorist” William Ayers and repeatedly asking “Who is the real Barack Obama?” as if two years on the campaign trail hadn’t provided the public a few answers.
But McCain is discovering what Clinton also learned the hard way – the real point of those kinds of attacks is obvious in the post-Willie Horton-era, and it hurts in two ways. It makes people who are not racist but uneasy about Obama feel as if they are falling in league with racists, and it brings enough racists out of the woodwork that those making the attacks start looking like the famously pro-segregation governor (doubt my words, check the footage of McCain correcting a supporter who worried he was an Arab – the kind of thinking his campaign seemed to be encouraging just days before).
These are odd positions for me to argue, I admit. Back when Obama first announced his candidacy, I along with many other black folks, had a hard time believing a black candidate for president could be much more than a trivia question.
But white friends who were much less cynical about racism argued me down, and seem to be proven right.
Now that the worsening economy is hobbling Republican electoral hopes everywhere, I’m ready to believe that America might be ready to elect its first black president.
The only real question left, is whether enough white folks feel the same.
…in keeping with the ‘Do The Right Thing’ effect, and reminding ourselves of the presence of sports wear and its associated, global slogans which appear as parody in Spike Lee’s film, we might now most usefully take Nike’s mantra – JUST DO IT! – and get on with that dream which never died…