Obama Deception?: Empire, ‘Postracism’ and Hegemonic White Supremacy in the Campaign and Election of Barack Obama

Obama Deception?: Empire, ‘Postracism’ and Hegemonic White Supremacy in the Campaign and Election of Barack Obama

Critical Race Inquiry
Volume 1, Number 2 (May 2011)
ISSN: 1925-3850

Tamari Kitossa, Assistant Professor of Sociology
Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada

The essay provides a socio-historical account of the role that hegemonic white supremacy played in the Presidential ascendancy of Barack Obama. I suggest that Obama crafted his political ontology to articulate a discourse of post-racism. Deploying a postmodern amorphous blackness he assuaged White anxiety about whether a Black president will seek to call in the lien African Americans have on the state and White US society for a more just society. By trading on the racial ambiguity of his biography in a country that demands certainty of racial lineage, his personage was made to affirm both the end of racism and the redundancy of anti-racist action. The result was a presidential campaign that traded on the hopes of African Americans and assuaged the anxieties of European Americans and others while propagating the interests of the ruling class and the military industrial complex.


Written a month and a half into Barack Obama’s first term, the core elements of this paper were delivered as a lecture for African Heritage Month to a third year class on racism and anti-racism. My giving the lecture itself was unintended. It was a replacement for an invited colleague who had to cancel his appearance. In the months leading up to the election my colleague and I discussed, quite frequently, the policy implications of an Obama Presidency on US foreign policy and domestic relations. I expressed my concern and fascination during these conversations about the cult-like charisma driven preoccupation with Obama as the “new Black”. I was fascinated by many of my family and friends who seemed to bestow mystical significance to Obama’s biography/blackness as signs for/of change. Relatives, especially those in the US were caught up in the post-civil rights-ism euphoria. But I did not share this cheery view of Obama as a political actor. Not because I didn’t like him as a person, but rather because politics from the citizen’s perspective is not an appropriate forum for sentiments such as “like” and “dislike”.

Indeed, for the months leading up to the election I had numerous conversations with my colleague about the near unanimous suspension of critical judgment about Obama’s locus in the machinery of the US’s political and economic elite. With rare exception, I noticed Left blogs and news sites consistently took a wait and see attitude about whether Obama would rule differently than his predecessors. Whatever the case, race was explicit in ways it was not in previous presidential elections. African Heritage Month, too often given to romanticism, struck me as the most opportune moment to disrupt this uncritical celebration of how Obama’s blackness was being articulated.

My colleague and I agreed that what was needed was a critical but not cynical analysis of Obama’s platform and ways he deployed race and just equally how race was invested in the meanings imputed to his ostensibly progressive politics. After all, an aspirant for the most powerful political office of the most powerful country should not be regarded through a sentimental lens. Rather, the question of how sentiment played into the aspirations of those who favoured and disfavoured his candidacy and the extent to which Obama himself articulated a platform to suit these opposing forces were crucial for lucid and complex analysis that steered away from the facile. For us then, blackness and the discourse of “hope” were not grounds to grant Obama the benefit of doubt as to the possibility of economic and political reform and racial healing in the US. Maybe as Canadian men of African descent of a radical Left persuasion we felt little compunction that we were conceding to racism by virtue of a relentless critique of the first serious Black presidential contender. Indeed, based on the historical record, we knew both intuitively and concretely that Black people do not rise to positions of power and influence in the White world without conceding the necessity of sustaining hegemonic white supremacy. If Obama became president of an imperially dominant USA, he too would be bound by the inertia of this historical fact. This fact, in the lead-up to the election seemed lost on many commentators and those in civil society who favoured his candidacy. Interestingly, those on the right saw clearly the issue of empire and presumed the essentialism that blackness equaled radicality feared the worst because of an Obama Presidency. Events since his inauguration have shown the fears of the latter unfounded…

…I will argue in this essay that, as in Dave Chappelle’s hilarious skit about a blind Black man who is a white supremacist, the possibility of a Black American sustaining hegemonic white supremacy is a canard that overturns standard definitions of who can support hegemonic white supremacy. Chappelle’s character gives us choices. We can “re-fence” the apparent anomaly, holding it in abeyance because it does not accord with established patterns of thought and practice (Allport, 1954, p. 23). We can reject the apparent anomaly, since it may be presumed blackness disqualifies a person from sustaining hegemonic white supremacy. Or we can develop a critique equal to the conditions it attempts to explain (see Smith citing Lenin, 2003, p. 314); which is to say that given systemic White racism, the “order of things” makes racism an equal opportunity employer, with or without intent.  This critique suggests that Barack Obama’s presidential campaign depended on deploying colour blindness through blind faith in formal (but not substantive) equality. It suggests further that Barack Obama deployed the ambivalent blackness of his body and his personal biography to reorganize the terrain on which race-talk would occur during his campaign. Indeed, a central observation here is that Obama selectively and strategically appropriated the radical enterprise of anti-racism by deploying a postmodern amorphous blackness that undermined the need for anti-racism. On one hand he assuaged White anxiety about whether a Black president will seek to call in the lien African Americans have on the state and White US society. On the other hand, he propagated the belief that where Whites voted for him, this confirmed the triumphal defeat of hegemonic white supremacy.

In either case, by trading on his blackness his personage was made to affirm both the end of racism and the redundancy of anti-racist action (both of which, ironically, are belied by everyday white supremacist invective leveled against him). Through select and strategic claims of Black fraternity, Obama surreptitiously deployed anti-African American tropes that were passed off as pastoral concern for “his” people. In some ways, he extended a similar paternalistic narrative to the reproach of African leaders in his speech given in West African when he became President (Obama, 2009). The arguments are to be taken as a whole, aimed at unpacking Mr. Obama’s white supremacist presidential campaign and to suggest its effects are more than symbolic. Mr. Obama’s discourse on race, and his persistent “colour blindness” even into his presidency, negates the oppression of African Americans while deepening their exploitation. To a significant extent, Obama deceived no one even if he intended. The deceit that blackness equals progressive change is built into the normative structure of how race is understood in the US.

…Mongrel in the White House: The Post-Racial President

In so highly race conscious a society as the US, who would not find it disarming that its first recognized Black President should share publicly, in a jocular manner, that he prefers to adopt a dog for his daughters who, like himself, is a mongrel or a mutt (Gardner, 2008). Of course, for those whose social history is one in which the “one drop” rule prevailed to determine social caste and reflected abject sexual domination of Black women by White men and the lynching of Black men who married or cavorted with White women, the humour may be lost on them. Indeed, to make light of his “mongrelization” and to ignore its differential historical facticity, is, in view of white supremacy in the US, to attribute transcendence and maturity on the part of the White public and, of course, forbearance on the part of African Americans.

It is consequentially important, that there is little outcry today about the perpetuation of this eugenics impulse in the contemporary US relative to poor African American, and to a lesser extent Latina, Native American, and even poor White women (Roberts, 1992, p. 1961). So, far from a passing moment of humour, Obama used his own biography, not in a revolutionary way but as an ideological sociology of the self to demonstrate the choice of narrative of the nation he would align himself with. This narrative, a hegemonic narration of the (White) nation, is one in which radical stories are structurally excluded from consciousness and false ethical stances on racism are interpolated. I suggest that in crafting himself as the quintessential post-modern US subject, Barack Obama is able to deflect White criticisms that would otherwise doom an African American politician committed to revolutionary politics. I will now critically elaborate the false ethical complementarity Barack Obama drew between racism and anti-racism with an examination of his Philadelphia speech on race (and class) in the US…

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