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October 23, 2008

Obama, Race, And Moving Beyond The Webb

ObamawebbillustrationThe caption to this illustration in The New Yorker back on the 12th (accompanying the article, “The Appalachian Problem,”) read:  Will Jim Webb’s Scots-Irish populism work for Obama in the hill country?

In spite of the latent racism and the dripping sarcasm about subterfuge, you can sense the answer in a single line in yesterday morning’s piece in the NYT by Obama critic, Michael Powell.  Writing from Roanoke, Powell choked out:

The Obama of the campaign trail is at once more prosaic and perhaps more proficient.

If you sidestep Mr. Powell’s racist allusions to Obama as a black charmer, a political Miles Davis playing through a mute to effect just the right strains for his white rural audience, and you can get beyond the harsh description of Obama “backstroking in the regional accent pool,” what emerges is the answer to the question.

Obama, in committing the time to Virginia (up and downstate) and lending himself to a real conversation about economic realities, has indeed drawn himself in, sidestepped formality and achieved a more direct communication over economic realities with the guy in the overalls.

… Still though, there is a perception burned into this illustration that says that even if Obama bridges the gap, it will have been because of Webb — more than any inherent adjustment or growth in either Obama or those four guys to the left.  That same knee-jerk attitude is paraded around by Mr. Powell this way:

As Mr. Obama roams the whiter hinterlands of Missouri, Virginia, Ohio and North Carolina, he as often travels with a white companion — particularly those popular among the white working class — Governors Ted Strickland of Ohio and Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jim Webb of Virginia.

He is just like you, they tell audiences. He grew up middle class. He is a father and a husband. Their talks can be quite frank. From time to time, though, words strain at the bounds of what the eye can see. So Mr. Webb, a red-haired, proudly Scots-Irish pol with a John Wayne cadence, introduced Mr. Obama in Roanoke and began: He’s one of you.

Mr. Webb offered a complicated formula that involved putting to the side Mr. Obama’s Kenyan father, then tracing the lineage of Mr. Obama’s white mother, who was born in Kansas to parents whose grandparents came from Kentucky and whose ancestors somewhere in their wanderings from Ireland and Scotland presumably settled for a spell in southwestern Virginia.

Mr. Webb finished with a broad smile. He has divined the backwoods white bonafides of an urbane, mixed-race Chicagoan.

Well, I think the idea it’s the white conduit that effects the connection is incomplete at best, and falls short of acknowledging the slow, but steady shift in consciousness taking place in America.  On the contrary, I think it’s the historic experience and lesson of this campaign that people are inching that much closer to the understanding we are all “one of us.”

Besides, if the bridging and representing implied in this image was all Webb’s doing, the same “coming around” wouldn’t be happening now across rural America.

(illustration: John Cuneo for The New Yorker)

  • Esoth

    I’ll grant that Obama’s genealogy is unusual and unprecedented for someone seriously challenging for the Presidency, it is not at all a stretch, for Obama, or a Webb, to say to a typical crowd, that he is one of us, provided, of course, that you don’t view his Kenyan ancestry as totally alien. Many African-Americans have some measure of Kenyan connection, but more importantly, the old notions of America as much a WASP as an eagle, in it’s self-definition as a White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant nation. Many of us Americans have recent ancestors coming from Ireland, Germany, Holland, etc., etc. and whose grandparents aren’t a little alien, in terms of who we are today, and the way we look and speak today?
    The Powell piece is sickeningly snide and smug, and seems to have missed the point and fact that Obama’s opponents have been spewing such toxic trash about him that he has to cover ground carefully, that no candidate for this high office ever had to before. In a better campaign, with a better John McCain, this sort of thing wouldn’t be necessary, and Obama could dive right in and address the issues, an approach that illuminates more fully and reveals more deeply than this McCain-driven aspect of contest.

  • Books Alive

    The thought that kept running through my mind while I read Powell’s piece was “what impact did it have that his father had just endorsed Obama so publically?”

  • ratfood

    From the outset I expected Obama’s candidacy to bring racists crawling out of the woodwork. What I failed to foresee was that so much of that woodwork was the MSM.

  • Texrednface

    Esoth said:”Many African-Americans have some measure of Kenyan connection”
    Slaves came to America from the West coast of Africa. Slaves from east Africa usually were traded to Arab countries. There would be very few if any American descendants of African slaves coming from the area that would be present day Kenya. I don’t believe that Barack Obama shares the same legacy as most African-Americans who are descendants of slaves.

  • yesterdaygone

    have you seen this? via politico: photo of a lawn jockey sitting alongside an obama supporter sign.
    ben smith has been collecting anecdotal evidence of racists who support obama.
    cafferty posed the question if murtha’s comment about racists and rednecks would hurt obama in pa. a resident of state, whose supporting obama, wrote back “i maybe a redneck but i’m not stupid.”

  • Megan

    The most charitable reading I can give this picture is that there is another American giant who roams the hinterlands: Paul Bunyan. But I don’t really think that the illustrator was referencing Paul Bunyan.

  • Stephen Judd

    “the idea it’s the white conduit that effects the connection is incomplete at best”
    Sure. But people who believe in the notion of kin might well be swayed by a recital of lineage.

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