October 23, 2008

Obama, Race, And Moving Beyond The Webb


Obama Webb illustration. illustration: John Cuneo for The New Yorker)

The 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)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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