Thursday, November 06, 2008

President Barack Obama Series: The Korean's Thoughts

The Korean is quite happy about this result. When the Korean first saw Barack Obama – at his televised speech at the Democratic National Convention four years ago, the Korean was convinced that Obama was going to be the president someday. He just didn’t think it would happen so soon. Especially as a racial minority, the rise of Barack Obama to the top truly gives the Korean hope.

But beyond the Korean’s personal reaction, what more can be said about the significance about the Obama presidency? That was the question that faced the Korean as he set out to write his reaction piece. The Korean does not believe in wasting in words, and he hates talking about things that had been ably articulated already.

The Korean likes to talk about race relations, and this election obviously presents a lot to talk about. But because of the historic nature of this election, writers with far greater skills and time than the Korean have already explored all kinds of angles. The effect of this election in other country’s race relations? Check. The effect of this election in America’s whites? Yup. What about this election’s effect on fat-thin relations of our nation? To quote Sarah Palin, you betcha.

However, there is one angle that people have not been talking about just yet – perhaps because the question is a little too delicate to be asked. But this is one question that has been nagging the Korean during the entire Obama campaign: doesn’t Obama’s victory eliminate all excuses for black men of America?

One recurring theme in American racial politics is the various explanations for the status of black men in America. The statistics are clear – African American men are more likely to be incarcerated, more likely to be jobless and in poverty, etc. To an uninformed mind, the natural question that follows is: what’s wrong with black men? Why can’t they get a job or stay out of jail?

To this, racial politics provided various reasons, all of them tracing back to racism in mainstream America. The police uses racial profiling; the jury is more likely to convict a black man; the employers are less likely to hire black men, and quicker to fire them, etc. And so far, these explanations have held water.

But now, we have a flippin’ BLACK PRESIDENT. The President! Of the United States! You can’t get higher than that! All the racism in the world didn’t stop him from reaching the highest possible place in the world! The Korean can’t stop using the exclamation marks! It’s unbelievably unbelievable!

To be sure, the Korean is NOT saying that the election of Obama made all racial problems magically disappear. The Korean doubts that anyone in America truly believes that. However, the Korean thinks that a subtle shift in gears is inevitable for mainstream America. By having a black president, an example of personal responsibility against all odds has become very, very available. Now, if anyone tries to explain the unique challenges that black men in America face due to racial discrimination – perhaps in a debate about Affirmative Action? – half the listeners will think to themselves: “that didn’t stop President Obama.”

This shift will be more pronounced because of Barack Obama himself. Obama did not endorse the old-school racial politics, in which black politicians are supposed to embody the interests of the African American subgroup, and fight the systemic bias against racial minorities in the mainstream society. (In fact, if Obama took to this line, it would have been a guaranteed loss for him.) While Obama recognized the larger forces of discrimination, his message for racial minorities never wavered from the idea of personal responsibility.

His most revealing moment was his Father’s Day speech. It’s not just that Obama emphasized that black fathers need to step up and take personal responsibility – it’s that he did that with incredible specificity. The Father’s Day speech literally drew a picture of a lazy black father for the whole world: “don't just sit in the house and watch "SportsCenter" all weekend long.” In another campaign stop, Obama told a mostly African American crowd that they can’t let their children have “eight sodas a day,” “a bag of potato chips for lunch,” or “cold Popeyes for breakfast.”

The Korean’s reaction to this was: is Obama crazy? Does he have a death wish (for his campaign)? Did he decide that he doesn’t need black votes anymore? How is airing out black folks’ dirty laundry going to help him? Of course, it turned out that the Korean was wrong – Obama was just fine getting African American votes. Perhaps African Americans themselves are getting tired of the old racial politics as well.

Nonetheless, the forces of systemic, societal racism are still very real, and they daily affect the lives of racial minorities. The fight against such forces must continue. But -- irony of ironies -- as a black man rises to assume the presidency, the fight against racial discrimination may have gotten more difficult.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. The thing is, Barack Obama has little to nothing in common with greater "black America." He was not raised in a black neighborhood, did not go to predominantly black schools, and was not even raised ion a black family. The societal ills we speak of when discussing "black society" were not ones posing obstacles to Barack Obama.

    The problem with race relations in America today is not the "racism" we think of (Jim Crow laws, the KKK, and bucktoothed rednecks taunting black girls on their way to a desegregated school). The problem is economic, geographical and, oh yes, cultural gaps between Blacks and non-blacks in the US.

    Will BHO be an inspiration to Black Society? Will he be a signal to sit back and take it easy, "'cause hey, one of US made it" and the work is done? Or will scrutiny over his mistakes and scandals (from which no president is immune) be attributed to his Blackness?

    Worst case scenario, he will not be credited with overcoming obstacles, and his faults will be seen as "black" ones, not as his individual ones.

    You get Al Sharpton in the White House (God forbid) for a second term, and then we can say we have overcome racism. Obama is not a representative of the oppressed.

  2. @holterbarbour: The black experience in America isn't confined to being born in a ghetto, raised by a single parent, and having to deal with drugs and gangs throughout childhood. The black experience is the way people look at you. The things people say to you. The way you can't get a cab, or the way people are suspicious. I think having black skin, even as a mixed race person, is enough to have the black experience.

    If you've seen anything in this election, you've seen him inspire millions of people of every race and age.

    In Chris Rock's latest HBO comedy special he says something that still rings true, "The black man has to FLY to get something that the white man can just walk to."

    For Obama to get elected, it took an extraordinary life, a nearly flawless campaign, record amounts of money, a Republican party that was decimated by President Bush, a perfectly timed financial meltdown, and what pundits called "a perfect storm" against Republicans.

  3. I agree with John. Barack Obama had to run a near perfect campaign to do this.

    The Korean, at least one person has pounced on the "hey, this means no excuses for disadvantaged black people" angle: Bill Bennett. I'm certain the right will eat this up.

    I do think it'll lead to less self-pity among minorities, which is gret. However, it's not going to change that the right largely believes that racial discrimination is nothing you can't bootstrap yourself over and that the left believes it's a problem that needs to be actively worked on.

  4. I was not aware that SportsCenter was a black thing.

    The way I like to view the success of black men in America is on a Bell curve, where the status of most black men put them in the middle of that curve. Then there are those once-in-a-blue-moon type of black men, like Obama, who would be considered as outliers on the curve.
    After a few years, due to Obama's (positive) infulence, the entire curve will shift in a positive direction for black men, because society will become more familiar blackness. (As least the type of blackness which Obama represents.)
    Regardless, most black men will still remain in the middle, but society's blocks on black men who may resemble Obama will probably come down. Then question now is, will all black men, in order to be successful, become like Obama in society's view.

  5. I disagree with those,who are questioning Obama's "blackness",because he wasn't raised in a black family,in a ghetto.
    I think,he is being the president is the result of
    a)long process
    b)lucky coincidence
    c)falling into the trap of Babylon

    Long-long time ago there is a tendency,a philosophical trend amongst black artists,especially hip hop artists,which concentrates on positive changes,and dare to draw a picture of a future-I mean really picture a future in details,like how things should be.And Obama echoes their voice.So for those,who are raised on,or just knows these artists,there is no question about Obama's blackness.So it can be coincidence,or his presidency can be some kind of manifestation of this progress.
    But there are people,who think,maybe this is just a secret attack,to make black people patriotic,and on this way,at the end,they will loose all the power they have right now.

  6. The issue of Obama's blackness has two facets: one is that of typical "black" cultural influences during his upbringing and the other is that of other's perceptions (racism and stereotyping). In America right now, neither one seems to be conducive to success. (As the Korean points out, black people like Obama and Bill Cosby themselves criticize parts of that culture.) Obama has faced the latter but not the former. My black friend who I went to nerd college with calls Obama "African-American" but not "black." That seems about right.

    (Honestly, he's also faced other challenges in his upbringing- being raised by a single mother, moving a lot, and then living half the world away from his mom, but there's no simple name for those things.)

    Will Obama be an inspiration to black society? That depends on whether black people think he's black. Throughout this campaign, people are projecting themselves onto his image. Liberals are claiming him, moderates are claiming him, multiracial people are claiming him, black people are claiming him, and now I guess white people are claiming him. How long can this last?

  7. This blog is quite interesting, after all we are talking about African American experience in America.

    I have a question: are any of the posters black here? If not, what gives us the experience and knowledge to ascertain African
    American experience in America? Although this is a blog, I am going to plead "5th Amendment" on this one. And, FWIW, I did work at a ghetto for five years with nothing but black people.

    Obama is clearly doesn't fit that prototypical African American male that the media portrays. He was born in Hawaii, raised by Whites, and attended Ivy league colleges -- which no one can argue the majority of student are Whites.

    However, he is very much Afrocentric. I read his book a few year back, and he gets deep into his experience of visiting Kenya, his involvement with black fraternities in college, etc...

    I really think Obama is a special individual who can reposition America as the leader of the free world -- he certainly can talk a good game!

  8. mc,

    quite a few of the commenters are indeed African American. But the Korean was careful not to venture into the "black experience" -- that is unknowable to the Korean. But what is knowable is the outside forces that affect the black folks of America.

  9. I agree with most of the comments saying that Barack Obama's upbringing is not representative of those of many black Americans and thus he was not placed at the apparent disadvantages that the average black person in America is subject to having been brought up in such environments. So it doesn't seem right for people to say that black America no longer has an excuse to "underachieve." Regardless, though, I'm sure Bill O'Reilly will have a field day with this.

    But then again, Barack Obama is an extraordinary person. And who's to say that he, even if he were subjected to such circumstances, would not have been able to rise above the norm. There are notable examples of such success within the black community, although most are regrettably tied to the sports or entertainment industries. And let's not forget that comparatively speaking, his life was not at all "easy" either. So all these other suggestions downplaying Obama's achievements don't fly either.

    I think the greatest monumental shift in the status quo arising from Obama's election is that black America gets a surge of much needed hope and confidence. These are exactly the things that are needed to get yourself out of a significant disadvantage, which black America has been in since the days of slavery. I don't know how much I agree with the statement that blacks no longer have an excuse and so they can't "underachieve" any longer. It's more that they now have a tangible example of hope and potentially have the all the tools needed to overcome "underachievement" in the future. Notably, this type of rhetoric changes the game by saying that black America has a chance for something positive, rather than saying that black America can finally stop being subpar. It's a "glass half full" kinda deal rather than the alternative. Let's be positive people. That's what everyone, not just black America, needs.

  10. I absolutely agree with Eugene

  11. The one thing about Korean treatment of (some) blacks is this: the association of anyone who seems to look 'black' or is 'black' with Obama naturally, as if they are all related in the family. Ironically enough, Obama is biracial, born of an African American father and a Caucasian mother. I have heard of accounts from Canadian teachers of English in South Korea, and American teachers alike, about how their students automatically revert to this expression or declaration of "Obama!" once they see pictures of mixed heritage children(with African heritage) and even boyfriends of their teachers(who are Caucasian), and ask their black teachers whether the blackness comes off like dirt when they enter a swimming pool!


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