Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for February 2nd, 2007

Obama and the language of race

Posted by metaphorical on 2 February 2007

When black Americans refer to Obama as ‘one of us,’ I do not know what they are talking about. —Stanley Crouch

The Obama story just keeps getting better and better, at least for anyone interested in the intersection of language and politics.

The NY Times has a story today with the headline, “So far, Obama can’t take black vote for granted.”

The black author and essayist Debra J. Dickerson recently declared that “Obama isn’t black” in an American racial context. Some polls suggest that Mr. Obama trails one of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in the battle for African-American support.

The phrase ” ‘Obama isn’t black’ in an American racial context” is cryptic at best. What the Times has in mind is better expressed by another person interviewed.

“When you think of a president, you think of an American,” said Mr. Lanier, a 58-year-old barber who is still considering whether to support Mr. Obama. “We’ve been taught that a president should come from right here, born, raised, bred, fed in America. To go outside and bring somebody in from another nationality, now that doesn’t feel right to some people.”

It’s hard not to see this as a rather complete breakdown of the inadequate language we use to enforce rather meaningless distinctions. The term “African-American” is a made-up term of recent coinage, intended to be on a par with “Italian-American” and “Irish-American.” But Africa isn’t the same sort of place as Italy or Ireland, and one of the reasons the African diaspora experience is different from that of European immigrants and their descendents is that they are usually cut off from even the most basic details of their ancestry. Certainly the term ‘black’ is problematic, but if ‘African-American’ is supposed to be a synonym for it, it’s a poor one given that it on the face of it includes white supremacists from South Africa.

Obama’s father was born in Kenya; of what used to be called the Negro race. His mother, who surely checks off the box ‘Caucasian’ on the census, was born in the American “heartland” state of Kansas. If anyone can claim to be African-American, this is the man. And yet, he’s not African-American in the way that the people for whom the term was invented are.

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