12 March 2009

President Obama, a new kind of black man?

Although the occasion of President Obama's inauguration is past, his journey to the presidential post is a remarkable one. In many ways, he seems to have transcended his race, and the media reports on the first few few weeks of his presidency have highlighted his family's rather typical upper middle class sensibilities. His children reportedly have to make their own beds and set their own alarms, and his wife shops at J. Crew and feeds her family healthy, unprocessed food.

In a piece by Elijah Anderson called The Melting Pot Reconsidered (2000) that I assigned for the last week of my course on social stratification, Anderson seems to have predicted the arrival of Barack Obama. In this article, Anderson offers an update to the argument made in the 1960's by Glazer and Moynihan who asserted that the U.S. was on the cusp of being a true melting pot, with ethnic identities finally weakening in relevance and assimilation being the order of the day. Anderson suggested that Glazer and Moynihan were in fact unrealistic, that ethnic and racial identities in fact remain quite important markers of distinction, both for the minorities themselves and for society at large. Instead of a melting pot, in the 2000's, we have a salad bowl.

Anderson notes the special case of African Americans for whom the path to assimilation to the American common identity has been especially difficult; for them, race remains a master status. Given this, black men, Anderson suggests, have generally either aggressively embraced their 'other' status as 'Race Men', or have rejected their racial roots, 'selling out'. More recently, a new alternative has emerged, that of a 'new type of black professional', whose race and roots are acknowledged, but whose professional or occupational status are more important to him or her. This has of course created reactions from within the African American community, that this too represents a rejection of African American identity.

I proposed to my students that perhaps President Obama represents the apex of the new type of black professional, whose racial background is an element of his identity, but is not as central to him as his professional experiences and position are. My students were not so sure. Some suggested that his multiracial background, orc his African roots (as compared to African-American ones) set him apart from the start, not really making him comparable to African-Americans in general. For others, he is maybe more identifiable as just another member of the small black middle class, (which itself may in fact be primarily composed of these new types of black professionals). Others noted that his wife may be the better example of the new type of black professional.

For now, Obama's path remains atypical of the African American experience in the U.S. But, does he represent hope for African Americans and their futures? For Americans with multiple origins? For all Americans? Anderson suggests that for each black man who makes it, there is a certain alienation from the group out of which he has ascended, as well as a failure to win true acceptance from the masses. The prize comes with some drawbacks, in other words. What about for Obama? He has 'made it', his election suggests that he is widely and truly accepted, but does his victory alienate those who may share similar racial and/or ethnic roots, but whose life experiences and attainments are very different?

Anderson, Elijah. 2000. "Beyond the Melting Pot Reconsidered." in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States. 3rd edition, ed. by Thomas M. Shapiro (2005). Boston: McGraw Hill, p. 264-270.

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