Politics, Technology, and Language

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

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.

“I’ve got nothing but love for the brother, but we don’t have anything in common,” said Ms. Dickerson, who wrote recently about Mr. Obama in Salon, the online magazine. “His father was African. His mother was a white woman. He grew up with white grandparents.

“Now, I’m willing to adopt him,” Ms. Dickerson continued. “He married black. He acts black. But there’s a lot of distance between black Africans and African-Americans.”

The term ‘black’ is an overloaded one, used, variously and incompatibly to encompass genetic markers, the vagaries of genealogy and immigration, various sorts of inferiority, legal rights, privileges, and limitations, and a unique cultural heritage that Obama, apparently, stands outside of.

To paraphrase Yeats, himself a member of a “race” that’s no stranger to prejudice and discrimination, words fall apart; the centre cannot hold; linguistic anarchy is loosed upon the world. It’s time to give up on “African-Americans’ if we can’t use it for a guy who should be the paradigm of one. The NY Times, until yesterday at least, still uses the term, though it opts for ‘black’ here to avoid the hilarity that would ensue in a story that demonstrates the problematic nature of ‘African-American.’ Still, the word ‘black’ is a bugbear all its own.

Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and non-German Jews, among others, weren’t considered “white” when they first arrived here (recall that “guinea” was still a popular pejorative for those of Italian ancestry when I was growing up, and maybe still is in some quarters). They’re considered whites nowadays, and I imagine aren’t discriminated against any more than others believed to take their marching orders from the Pope. But it will be nigh on impossible to ever consider blacks to be white; the words, and therefore the ideas, are just too antonymic.

“If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought,” Orwell wrote. When it comes to race, our thoughts are so malformed that the language of race, patched and repatched with terms like “Negro,” “black,” and “African-American” has been punctured once again and is riding on its rims.

[This post is a continuation of sorts to this one.]

4 Responses to “Obama and the language of race”

  1. “be the paradigm of one”? Shouldn’t that be “be the paragon of one”?

  2. Well, the words are nominally synonyms; I was using paradigm in the sense of “model” or “exemplar.” What I had in mind was that his heritage is directly African+American. Paragon has a connotation of “excellence” which isn’t really relevant here, making it a less than perfect choice of words. But maybe you’re not making a linguistic point at all?

  3. Maybe it’s a US/Canadian usage thing. I would never use “paradigm” that way (transitive?).

  4. The phrase “paradigm of” get about 1.1 million hits, including “Paradigm of Christ,” but they also include “Sexual identity is part of the paradigm of narrativity,” so maybe you Canadians have the right idea.

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