Barack Obama’s presidential campaign has been historic from the start. Building on the candidacies of Jesse Jackson and other African American candidates, he has gone further than any previous non-white campaigner.
As someone who has been involved in both political campaigns and Asian American studies for many years, I had always believed that an Asian Pacific American would be the first minority to win the White House. The black-white polarization that has damaged racial discourse in this country cannot be easily debunked, unless someone has standing to speak with knowledge and compassion about both the white and black positions on race.
APAs, who benefit from a “model minority” stereotype and labor under a “perpetual foreigner” stereotype, occupy that middle space between back and white. As a multiracial person, however, Sen. Obama also occupies that middle space, and is able to reflect upon his life in the white, black and APA communities as well (he grew up in Asia and Hawai‘i).
Because of his multiracial and multicultural background, the media does a disservice to Obama and to our racial discourse by referring to him as a “black candidate.” While anyone with one drop of non-European blood was historically categorized as “non-white” in this country, I can attest that the world of the multiracial is very different from the world of someone whose parents are both from one racial background.
For example, I have fond memories of growing up with Nash relatives who have blue eyes and reddish-blond hair. I also have fond memories of growing up with Tajitsu relatives who looked Japanese American.
When I helped to organize the first Third World Law Student conference at Columbia Law School in 1981, I was called aside by two African American students who wondered why a middle-aged white man in a business suit was sitting in the front row as the opening plenary session was about to begin. Was he a troublemaker?
No, I said, it was my dad, who had marched with Dr. King and who had been a big supporter of civil rights all his life.
Whether or not we support Sen. Obama in his bid for the White House, all APAs owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for his courageous decision to go beyond salvaging his own candidacy and raising issues of race that have plagued our nation since its founding. Instead of distancing himself from his pastor and the black community, he courageously fought back against a corporate media that demands that minorities denounce other minorities for racist statements, while never attacking the unfair white privilege that continues to pervade this society.
Even when, as in this case, the statements made by Obama’s pastor did, indeed, deserve to be denounced, Obama denounced the statements, but then made it clear that both whites and blacks have grievances that deserve to be aired.
The unanimous verdict of all of the APA law professors and historians I queried was that Sen. Obama, himself a former professor of race and the law at the University of Chicago Law School, had brought a more nuanced history and context to our national discourse on race than any speaker in recent memory. Indeed, Obama’s speech on March 18 (the full text and video are on the Obama site: my.barackobama.com/page/content/hisownwords) brought comparisons to speeches by Dr. King, Lincoln and other historic figures.
Sen. Obama’s speech was unique for its willingness to show that each of us is struggling with racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of prejudice that shaped our lives in this imperfect culture. Each of us has gotten wet swimming in this ocean of –isms, but each of us is deserving of compassion as we struggle to reduce the fear and hatred that infects each of us and the world that surrounds us.
Our union is not perfect, but can be perfected. Obama reminded us that his world had been shaped as much by the segregation suffered by his pastor in the 1950s, as the fear of black men felt by Obama’s own beloved white grandmother.
Sen. Obama has stated repeatedly throughout the campaign that electing one person will not change things, but encouraging people all across the country to stand up and take charge of their own lives will, indeed, make a substantive change.
While Dr. King inspired us in 1963 by saying, “I have a dream,” Barack Obama has taken us to the next mountaintop by promoting a new, shared vision: We all have a dream.