There's something pathetic and embarrassing about our obsession with Barack Obama's race.
To put it squarely and bluntly, is it because he is or is it because he isn't? To phrase it another way, is it because of what he says or what he doesn't say? Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is the current beneficiary of a tsunami of drool. He sometimes claims credit on behalf of all Americans regardless of race, color, creed, blah blah blah, though his recent speeches appear also to claim a victory for blackness while his supporters—most especially the white ones—sob happily that at last we can have an African-American chief executive. Off to the side, snarling with barely concealed rage, are the Clinton machine-minders, who, having failed to ignite the same kind of identity excitement with an aging and resentful female, are perhaps wishing that they had made more of her errant husband having already been "our first black president."
Or perhaps not. Isn't there something pathetic and embarrassing about this emphasis on shade? And why is a man with a white mother considered to be "black," anyway? Is it for this that we fought so hard to get over Plessy v. Ferguson? Would we accept, if Obama's mother had also been Jewish, that he would therefore be the first Jewish president? The more that people claim Obama's mere identity to be a "breakthrough," the more they demonstrate that they have failed to emancipate themselves from the original categories of identity that acted as a fetter upon clear thought.
One can't exactly say that Sen. Obama himself panders to questions of skin color. One of the best chapters of his charming autobiography describes the moment when his black Republican opponent in the Illinois Senate race—Alan Keyes—accused him of possessing insufficient negritude because he wasn't the descendant of slaves! Obama's decision to be light-hearted—and perhaps light-skinned—about this was a milestone in itself. But are we not in danger of emulating Keyes' insane mistake every time we bang on about the senator's pigmentation? If you wanted a "black" president or vice president so much, you could long ago have turned out en masse for Angela Davis—also the first woman to be on a national ticket—or for Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. So, why didn't you? Could it have been the politics?
Last week happened to be the week that the nation of Kenya—birthplace of Obama's father—was convulsed by a political war that contained ghastly overtones of violent and sadistic tribalism. It would sound as absurd to a Kenyan to hear praise for a black candidate as it would sound to most of my European readers to hear a recommendation of a "great white hope." A white visitor to Kenya might not be able to tell a Kikuyu from a Luo at a glance, but a Kenyan would have no such difficulty. The time is pretty much past, in our country, when a Polish-American would not vote for a candidate with a German name or when Sharks and Jets were at daggers drawn, but this is all because (to borrow from Ernest Renan's definition of a nation) people agreed to forget a lot of things as well as to remember a number of things. So, which are we doing presently?
Sen. Obama is a congregant of a church in Chicago called Trinity United Church of Christ. I recommend that you take a brisk tour of its Web site. Run by the sort of character that the press often guardedly describes as "flamboyant"—a man calling himself the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.—this bizarre outfit describes itself as "Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian" and speaks of "a chosen people" whose nature we are allowed to assume is "Afrocentric." Trinity United sells creationist books and its home page includes a graphic link to a thing called Goodsearch—the name is surmounted with a halo in its logo—which announces cheerily that "Every time you search or shop online! Our Church earns money." Much or most of what Trinity United says is harmless and boring, rather like Gov. Mike Huckabee's idiotic belief that his own success in Iowa is comparable to the "miracle" of the loaves and fishes, and the site offers a volume called Bad Girls of the Bible: Exploring Women of Questionable Virtue, which I have added to my cart, but nobody who wants to be taken seriously can possibly be associated with such a substandard and shade-oriented place.
All this easy talk about being a "uniter" and not a "divider" is piffle if people are talking out of both sides of their mouths. I have been droning on for months about how Mitt Romney needs to answer questions about the flat-out racist background of his own church, and about how Huckabee has shown in public that he does not even understand the first thing about a theory—the crucial theory of evolution by natural selection—in which he claims not to believe. Many Democrats are with me on this, but they go completely quiet when Sen. Obama chooses to give his allegiance to a crackpot church with a decidedly ethnic character.
Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) was a columnist for Vanity Fair and the author, most recently, of Arguably, a collection of essays.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.