All About Race

by Guest Contributor Jenn Fang, originally published at Reappropriate

This past Sunday, former Secretary of State Colin Powell broke with the GOP ranks to endorse Senator Barack Obama for president. Citing in part McCain’s negative campaigning as part of his decision, Powell said of Obama:

Sen. Obama has demonstrated the kind of calm, patient, intellectual, steady approach to problem-solving that I think we need in this country.

As political analysts posted wave upon wave of comments on this latest development in the ‘08 presidential election, Politico posted an email from Rush Limbaugh saying that Powell’s endorsement had nothing to do with Obama’s qualities as a candidate and everything to do with race.

“Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race,” Limbaugh wrote in an e-mail. “OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I’ll let you know what I come up with.”

How racist of Limbaugh to see a Black man showing support for another Black man and to automatically assume it’s all about skin colour. Forget that Powell spoke at length about Obama’s qualifications as president: Limbaugh can’t fathom that Obama could be endorsed for any reason other than race.

This morning, Limbaugh defended his comment, saying that because Democrats are remarking on Obama’s race as reason for his candidacy’s historic nature, that Limbaugh is in the clear.

“I thought it should be about race,” he said. “I thought you liberals thought this was a historic candidacy because finally we are going to elect a black guy…why hide behind this, why act like it’s not about race?”

“This was all about Powell and race, nothing about the nation and its welfare,” Limbaugh added. The talk radio host also criticized members of the media for not addressing his claim that Powell likely hasn’t endorsed white candidates who, according to Limbaugh, have similar political leanings and experience as Obama.

It’s ironic that Limbaugh is making this argument; just last Thursday, I got into a discussion/heated exchange with some local Democrats over Obama and race. They were making the argument that Obama should be praised for not making an issue of the race and racism he has experienced on the campaign trail — like Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player to play for the then all-White Major Leagues, Obama was to be credited for not “turning it into a race issue”.

I find here a consistent perspective from some White Democrats to misconstrue why this election is all about race. Rather, like Limbaugh, many seem to equate discussions of race this year with accusations of racism; an uncomfortable, touchy subject that they would rather avoid. Limbaugh mocks Obama’s candidacy (comparing it to affirmative action) while leftists tout Obama’s “post-racial” candidacy — but in both cases, there is a determined effort to avoid a real discussion about race and what it means.

To say Powell’s decision has nothing to do with race is to argue that somehow we can wash away the effects of race from Obama’s candidacy. Of course, colour doesn’t wash off; similarly, it would be ludicrous to say that Powell’s endorsement had nothing to do with race, and liberals who would deny race’s impact in Obama’s candidacy would rather pretend Obama really is campaigning in the meritocratous America of their fantasy. But Limbaugh takes the other extreme, assuming that Obama is nothing more than the colour of his skin – a two-dimensional cardboard-cutout Black man.

Why is there such resistance to seeing people of colour as both “people” and “of colour”. From both sides of the aisle, we see pressure to simplify racial minorities into either racist or post-racial caricatures, but at no time are we allowed to be three-dimensional, complicated people who have a race.

I don’t think we should celebrate Obama as a post-racial candidate; that is no better than arguing that Obama has nothing to offer but his melanin — we are defining for a bi-racial, African American man whom he should be based on what we are comfortable with about him. And, for the record, I wish Obama were able to discuss more freely the racism and lynch mob-esque furor at McCain/Palin rallies, so intent is he on getting elected that he is missing the opportunity to initiate real, three-dimensional race dialogue in this country.

Not to say he shouldn’t try to win, but I think one of the tragedies of racism in America is that you can’t be a person of colour and do both.