July 20, 2009

Obama:  Blacks are more American?

Indian Country Today writer Rob Capriccioso and correspondent DMarks both brought this Obama quote to my attention. DMarks shares his thoughts:Divisive Rhetoric from Obama?

I read about this little speech he gave recently:

"That’s part of the African American experience. You are, in some ways, connected to this distant land, but on the other end, you’re about as American as it gets in some ways. African Americans are more fundamentally rooted in the American experience because they don’t have a recent immigrant experience to draw on. It’s that unique African American culture that has existed in North America for hundreds of years long before we actually founded the nation."

I never thought that I would hear Obama echo Pat Buchanan, but here it is. Buchanan will readily argue that he and his white ancestors are more American because they have been on the continent longer.

Italian-Americans are among those who come out on the wrong side of Obama's line. Sonia Sotomayor and Obama's Hispanic constituents are probably safe and on the correct side of the dividing line: Hispanic culture has been in North America as long as African American culture has, if not a little longer.

Oddly enough, Obama forgets his own background: he is an African American who is of recent immigrant experience.

Not mentioned, of course, are the Native Americans who are even more American than the African-American culture: they have been here longer.

Not sure I would argue with that, though: to me, Native American culture is as American as it gets.

Comment:  First of all, let's note the quote's context. I believe Obama was in Ghana with Anderson Cooper, touring the slave-trade headquarters. He was trying to educate people about the African American experience--explain it to a wider audience.

A key point is that his delivery was very casual, with no emphasis on key words. He didn't say "African Americans are more fundamentally rooted in the American experience" as if he were comparing blacks to someone else. His intent was positive, I'd say, not negative.

What Obama meant

If I were to guess Obama's thinking, it might go something like this: America was built by succeeding waves of immigration. Some people have a tendency to think whites were here first and did all the heavy lifting. They discount the later waves of immigration as somehow being less "American."

In particular, some people think that because Africans were brought over on slave ships, they aren't truly American. We need to remember that African Americans have been here almost since the beginning, when they arrived on the first Spanish ships. They're a fundamental part of the American fabric, not some Johnny-come-latelys.

If Obama had said that, DMarks, would you feel any better? I admit his comments are open to misinterpretation. And if you read the comments on the YouTube video, that's what people are saying. How dare Obama claim that blacks were here first! We're all Americans! (As if one comment negates the other.)

Some of the comments are pretty hypocritical. Are these commenters also saying that recent Latino immigrants are as American as they are? I doubt it. These people aren't embracing recent immigrants as equals; they're trying to marginalize or expel them.

As for Obama's own background...I don't think so, DMarks. His black roots are Kenyan. I think his father only visited the US; he didn't emigrate here.

So Obama doesn't have any personal "immigrant" experience to draw on. Unless you count his youth as an American immigrant in Indonesia, that is. He probably knew a lot of immigrants in Hawaii and Chicago, but he didn't count himself among them.

As for his white roots, they're in Kansas and go back several generations, at least. I've never heard anyone refer to his white ancestors as recent immigrants. They've probably been here a long time.

The Native aspect

I think I understand Obama's impulse. He was trying to provide a quick analysis for the camera. He didn't have time to go into a lengthy history lesson.

But as DMarks noted, you could draw the wrong inferences from Obama's quote. If blacks are more rooted in the American experience, then some whites (especially those of Spanish descent) are more rooted in the American experience than blacks. Does Obama really want to go there?

And as DMarks noted, Native Americans are more rooted in the American experience than anyone. Obama didn't make this point, so we'll make it for him.

It's too bad Obama couldn't have added a couple of lines of context. Something like:What Americans should remember, Anderson, is that Native Americans were here first. Then came the Spanish with their African slaves, and then others from England, France, and elsewhere. So America has been a multicultural place, with people of color prominent, since the beginning. African Americans are a fundamental part of that.Again, I don't know if something like this was on Obama's mind. If it was, he probably couldn't have said it without inflaming white Americans. Because many of these Americans can't tolerate anything that contradicts their founding myth.

But Natives may not have been on Obama's mind. Seems to me that omitting them is part of a pattern in his thinking. He often doesn't include Natives in his speeches.

Sure, his Native appointments have been decent, and his appropriation bills are heading in the right direction. But his staff may have made these choices and he merely signed off on them. It's not clear his heart is in them.

Obama campaigned on the rez and was made an honorary Native, but he doesn't seem to incorporate Natives into his thinking. He doesn't seem to have an indigenous worldview. He buys into the standard black-and-white paradigm of American history: whites founded nation, then enslaved blacks.

Since he knows better, I'm sure, it's a shame he doesn't use his position to say more. People need to hear that America isn't primarily or fundamentally a white nation. That Indians, blacks, and other minorities have been here a long time.

For more on the subject, see A Shining City on a Hill:  What Americans Believe.


dmarks said...

Glad I did not say anything to imply that Obama was an immigrant himself, which would key into the pernicious fiction that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.

dmarks said...

And what I meant about Barack Obama and the "immigrant experience" is that his foreign father and close relatives who are immigrants give him something that is close to the immigrant experience. Or at least that of the 1st generation children of immigrants.

Not to mention his having lived in multiple countries, something else he has in common with actual immigrants, who might have (much of) their childhood in another country and adulthood in the U.S.

Stephen said...

Oh well at least Obama isn't comparing homosexuals to people who rape children so I guess this is a step up for him.