Obama Phenomena: Changing Ideas of Race in America

Barack Obama's electoral success is enormously significant, but does not mean that Americans are shifting away from the conventional identity politics that have dominated public life for decades.

That was one of the conclusions reached by members of a panel of Brandeis professors who analyzed Obama's political appeal and racial persona for an overflow crowd in Rapaporte Treasure Hall on March 3.

"A year ago there were a lot of commentators, both African-American and non-African-American, questioning his racial identity," said Ibrahim Sundiata, the Samuel and Augusta Spector Professor of History. The commentators, he said, were suggesting "he isn’t the genuine article."

But, Sundiata said, "Obama is behaving exactly as Americans have been told to behave, as African-Americans have been told to behave…. He is simply following the playbook…"

Jackie Jones, the Truman Professor of American Civilization, reviewed historic tensions between advocates of civil rights for blacks and for women.

She challenged listeners to think about why people who would be offended if hecklers yelled "Shine my shoes!" at Obama accepted as a joke the hecklers who yelled "Iron my shirts!" at Hilary Clinton earlier this year.

Mingus Mapps, assistant professor of politics, introduced an analyzed extensive data showing that racial and gender affinities remain very strong among voters, with Obama dominating among black voters and Clinton running strongly among women.

"The only swing voters in this election appear to be white men," Mapps said.  "Have Democrats moved beyond identity politics?... No. We see that gender continues to play a significant role in this election, as does race."

Peniel Joseph, associate professor of African and Afro-American studies, said Obama has held himself aloof from the culture wars which date to the tumult of the 1960s, but that he owes much to both the black-power militants and the moderate civil-rights leaders of that time.

"In Obama we see a candidate who has created a new synergy between two polls of black politics," Joseph said.

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