The Washington Post informs us of the presidential visit to Latin American with a headline “Race a Dominant Theme at Summit.” It then goes on to describe how Obama resonates with those leaders of “indigenous” heritage in Latin America.
Something here is not quite right. Our president ran on a platform of racial transcendence, but he now heads south to talk race (“’The president put it [race] on the table very explicitly’ at the opening ceremony, said a senior Obama administration official who participates in closed-door meetings with the president.”) with some leaders who have explicitly employed racially charged stereotypes, such as Chavez’s use of “Go to Hell, Gringos,” or Brazil’s president Lula’s reference to “white blue-eyed” bankers who caused the financial meltdown.
Yet rather than discouraging such racial polarization, the president of a racially diverse, melting-pot America, finds the emphasis on racial identification useful for his global transnational agenda (or as the Post put it more mildly, “Obama has mentioned his race as part of a Latin America agenda broader than the Bush administration’s, which focused primarily on promoting an economic policy of free trade, government privatizations and lower public debt. The mix became known as the Washington Consensus, a term used as an epithet in much of Latin America.”)
What does “broader” mean? Many of us do not see the likes of Chavez, Ortega, Morales, et al. as victims of much of anything, but rather savvy autocratic would-be dictators bent on using stale tropes like colonization and racism to explain away their own miserable failures as leaders, and to advance their own agendas of personal aggrandizement. The more they see an American president apologize abroad, the more they rant about the U.S. past in search of more apologies.
A common denominator with Obama’s easy emphasis on racial divides — when juxtaposed to past evocation abroad of his Muslim sensitivities and middle name, serial apologies about American sins and pathologies, and constant denunciation of his predecessor — is a sense that the past tradition of America is culpable and therefore not his own—made explicit in his response to Daniel Ortega’s diatribe that he was just three months old during the Bay of Pigs troubles, and by extension not responsible for American transgressions. Again, separately all these new approaches are in themselves understandable, but in the aggregate they form a disturbing pattern seen earlier with the off-handed remarks about “typical white person,” the stereotyping of rural Pennsylvanians along lines of class and race, and the 20-year long patronage of a clearly racist preacher.
At some point, Obama needs to take a hiatus from this racialist identification, and, like a Sec. Condoleezza Rice, transcend race, let achievements and policies speak for themselves, and thus rise or fall on the content of his own character.