Monday, January 28, 2008

Obama and the Educated Elite

I tend not to engage in political debates with my colleagues because I find them to be unfruitful. Have you noticed that you can't tell a Ph.D. anything because they know everything; or so they believe. But I felt compelled to respond to the ongoing debate amongst my colleagues about Obama's blackness, on a listserv for African American studies. One colleague went so far as to insinuate that having Obama as president will be no different than having Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court or Condoleeza Rice as Secretary of State. Below is my post. It's a long one, sorry.


I will reply in order to combat the perception of a lack of interest and a preoccupation regarding tenure and publication.

One thing that I want to suggest is that we not engage in essentialized notions of who "we" and "our" black people are. This is a throw back to the 1960s and reminds me of how detrimental this period was to Blacks who did not tow the line, whose perspectives were not particularly nationalist, and who engaged in their own methods of subversion that created broader points of entry for the generations that came after them; and these Blacks who engaged in such subversion were not necessarily considered progressive or leftist.

While "our" people may need certain services, far too many blacks, who qualify for this nomenclature by virtue of skin tone, do not need these services, and are not seeking to improve the lives of other black people who are economically, socially, or educationally deprived. I am a supporter of Barack Obama, but for other reasons than the color of his skin. Of all the candidates, he is the most intelligent one; and I strongly believe that he will be as honest as he possibly can be about the State of this Union when he wins the election. I am also troubled by the continuous reference to his Kenyan father as having only provided the melanin in Obama's skin. Even if this is all that Obama's Kenyan father provided, Obama's personal, political, and professional careers signal a commitment not only to communities of Black people who are disenfranchised, but also to communities of people who are more likely not to have a voice in their communities and this country. He has been committed to grassroots organizing and political change and enfranchisement for all of his professional career. It is important that we pay attention to this level of government that he is seeking, the highest office; and we can control the outcome.

Finally, please do not lump Colin Powell in the same category with Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas. While Powell was hood-winged with the Weapons of Mass Destruction debacle, please revisit and take note of his concerted effort to diversify the State Department. Review his record, and look at the changes that he made within the State Department to restructure its hiring practices, giving access to foreign service jobs to the average American and not simply graduates of Georgetown or the Ivy Leagues, or the children of Washington insiders. This average American to which I am referring also includes African Americans who did not graduate from elite universities and who do not hold degrees in foreign affairs, foreign policy, international affairs, etc. Powell's goal was to make the State Department live up to its creed of being a civil service job potentially achievable to anyone with the desire and commitment to serve in the foreign service. These foreign officers serve on the political and cultural front lines just like members of the Armed forces often being a conduit between the administration's policy and their desire to achieve concrete goals within a foreign country that can often be at odds with official policy. More and more minorities, particularly Blacks, are achieving quiet and positive change throughout the world on behalf of this country, and we can thank Colin Powell for subversively creating this opportunity while some of us were debating his commitment to Black communities,or rather, asking aloud, "is he Black enough?"Goo.

I wish that there would be a serious engagement around the fact that it's not that Obama may be representative of "mainstream politics," but that some people, particularly Blacks, are truly troubled by his elitist educational background and his choices to be what Gramsci has called "an organic intellectual." Obama had choices when he graduated Harvard Law. Most of us can imagine what those choices were. He chose to give back to Black communities in a way that too many of us on this listserv have not, particularly those of us who have spent most of our lives as academics and inside classrooms and lecture halls engaging in practice but not praxis. He can walk the walk. His career has proven that. I don't believe that he is going to do an about face and reinvent his politics simply because he becomes president. Colin Powell resigned rather than compromise his integrity. Obama's integrity is just as intact as Powell's.

Michele L. Simms-Burton, Ph.D.
An Obama Supporter


ssascms said...

I also tend not to engage in political (and religious) debates for the same reason. However, I find a dire need to offer my comment. First and foremost, how can anyone, via the widest stretch of one's imagination, ever insinuate that Obama as president will be no different than Clarence Thomas or Condoleeza Rice? Having posed this question, I now have a strong tendency to terminate my comment right here, for I'm afraid that it still will not bare any fruit. However, I will continue, struggling to keep it as concise as possible. Up to a few days ago, I toiled between supporting Clinton or Obama. My primary reason, among others, for not being totally committed to Obama was simply I felt that somewhere in the future, "History" will be re-written in a manner that will place much of the blame for the current unbelievably egregious conditions on Obama; yes, a black man should he became president. So, I continued to asked myself did I want to contribute to placing him in such a situation!However, Bill Clinton solved that problem for me a few days when he openly "played" the race card. He brought me around to a full support of Obama. Why? How? Well, consider these Richard Dyer's details in "White", his most detailed research of whiteness in Western culture: ".....The equation of being white with being human secures a position of power. White people have power and believe that they think, feel and act like and for all people....White people, unable to see their particularity ...create the dominant images of the world and (they) don't quite see that they thus construct the world in their own image...White people set standards of humanity by which they are bound to succeed and others (are) bound to fail." Simply put, Bill showed his true color when the chips were down, when a choice had to be made, when he realized, consciously or subconsciously, that his set "standards of humanity" were being seriously threatened by, yes, a black man. And, he still supports his actions/words! It obviously appears that he actually sees nothing wrong with what he said. His "silence" is now prevalent only because of the "fallout" received. Therefore, I cannot support Hillary and thus my support in total goes with Barack. Bill did a great job for this nation as president inspite of his stupid personal problems. However, he now has convinced me that his time is over. And don't be so naive to not know that a vote for Hillary is a vote for Bill. I could go on but I promised to be as concise as possible.

M. L. Simms said...

Dad, there's nothing too terse about your comment. In fact, it is on point. I've seen Hilary Clinton up close in public forums, specifically at lectures hosted by the Center for American Progress, and I noted how she did not interact with any of the other congress women; however, she was all smiles and handshakes with the men. This reminded me that far too many white women align themselves with powerful men to the detriment of other women, particularly minority women. I don't view Hilary Clinton as a feminist who will act on behalf of women to improve our lives. I see her as a man in drag; that is, her aesthetics and perceptions are very much male oriented. I wonder if she gets along with Nancy Pelosi. Finally, I can't dismiss the way that the Clintons left Lani Guiner out to dry when they attempted to appoint her to a position. I can't recall the position, but when I finally realized that Lani Gunier was in the Clintons' wedding, I was certain that the Clintons' agenda is all about them and their own advancement.

E. said...


Yeah, I remember when Hillary came to Ann Arbor a few years back. I felt the exact same way.

Something heartless about her....and not much female energy.

The more I hear Obama talk.....politics aside....
the more I like him.