The Obama Problem Of The 21st Century

The press conference of the American Muslim Democratic Caucus was instructive of some of the inherent problems in Barack Obama’s candidacy for White House. As The Democratic Convention is called the Anxiety Convention, what was expressed here by the American Muslims in front of reporters told volumes.

Their anxiety is this: They feel a sense of empathy for Obama. They believe this is a historic opportunity for American Muslims as well as African Americans to have one of “their own,” in the White House after this historic election. However, Obama has distanced himself from his “Muslim” heritage and hidden his racial identity to usher this politics into a post-racial, conciliatory era. That is his appeal and his charm to the majority White population, or what some call, the mainstream.

American Muslims feel a sense of excitement about all of this but also a sense of dismay that Obama has kept his distance from them. African Americans, as we know, are similarly ambivalent, feeling part excitement and part anxiety that “one of their own” does not speak their language and does not speak of their issues and when he does, he only chastises them for their social ills.

One would think this Convention would be brimming with excitement.  One of the worst occupants in the White House, disasters abroad and home, with impending doom around the corner on one side and a young, photogenic, mix-race Democrat who can woo crowds of thousands on the other and we have an ingredients for one of the most exciting gatherings of the faithful.

People are weary that Obama was once a Muslim and does not want to walk with them now. He is partly African American, but does not want to jive with them now and yet, he is asking for their help, relying on the identity they share with him to propel him to office.

Let us call this the Obama problem of the 21st Century. With increasing diversity and mixed relationships across race and religion, we have fluid, mixed and dynamic identities. This is defining this world, flat or not. And the first proponent of this phenomenon, the first test of this new age, is presenting himself with the posture that he does not want to wear his identity on his sleeve (except when politically expedient), but believes that he can hide it and speak the language of the club he wants to join.

Do we prefer this backdoor identity that puts a veil on what we are or do we force the world to accept us as who we are, mixed and diverse and of course, with a language that includes our identity as well as yours. Obama has offered one solution, the former one. This Convention, like the campaign that preceded it, shows that this is a formidable task, an yet an uncharted territory, and full of anxiety.

If he succeeds, we will have ushered in a new age. Perhaps one that will re-write the identities of immigrants, mixed race people and people of race for years to come. If he fails, we will have retreated to a place that would be much worse than what it was 40 years ago, when Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his vision for the world.

August 27, 2008

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