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 firstname.lastname@example.org