Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Obama's Jockey Syndrome

Adan Serwer has an interesting article posed Monday in the American Prospect on "Obama's Racial Catch-22." He makes the case that instead of emphasizing the juxtaposition of young white women and a black male candidate in the latest McCain attack ad, we should be focused on how the ads prime the "jockey syndrome" New York Times journalism William Rhoden wrote about in his book 40 million dollar slaves. Serwer explains:

He defines Jockey Syndrome, as what occurs when "the establishment attempts to change the rules when the competition begins to gain ground." It refers specifically to the phenomenon of changing the rules in certain sports to end black American dominance, which began with the expulsion of black jockeys from equestrian sports at the turn of the century. Once white athletic dominance was re-established through changing the rules of the game, declining black prowess was held up as proof of black inferiority.

He pretty effectively applies this phenomenon to the presidential race where he claims Obama is subject to multiple tests (is he presidential? is he "too presidential"? Is he a light weight? Is he too cerebreal?) Some of these tests are the natural result of his newness on the political scene. But undoubtedly this "newness" would be less of an issue if he wasn't a racial "other."

The "jockey syndrome" analogy doesn't entirely apply. No one is "expelling" Obama from the presidential race. Indeed he won a major party's nomination. And as many conservatives are ready to point out, there may be a percentage of Americans that are bullish on Obama because of what his candidacy might mean for race relations.

But thinking about the campaign in these terms does shed light on a recurring problem in Black-White relations, the idea that Black success must come at the expense of whites. As Serwer explains:

By comparing Obama to Paris and Britney, McCain's latest ad implies that the attention given to Obama is undeserved, the result of "natural" assets rather than hard work, much like these "spoiled" athletes who "get paid too much."

This is a dangerous meme for Obama and it poses siginficant challenges for him, as the article suggests. How do you reinforce the notion that you've earned your position when there are a majority of people who have a "possessive investment" in believing that you haven't earned your place at the table?

Two things might work against him. First, being a bi-racial candidate might buffer him from this framing. Although history would suggest that you don't get to choose your racial designation if you are bi-racial. The other is that the grueling fight with Hillary Clinton allows him to pretty effectively argue that he's earned his way to the table.

Whatever the outcome, this discoure is far from the halcyon days of Spring when we were going to have a long awaited "conversation" about race.


Black Political Analysis said...

When you say "light weight," I don't know if you realize how literally people take that criticism. The Wall Street Journal published an article questioning if Obama's slender build might work against him. The paper theorized that fat Americans might resent him. Talk about petty.

Jose Marichal said...

Didn't think about that...I think it all part of the "you think you're better than me" aspect of politics in Democratic societies. I think race adds an extra dimension, but I'm sure thinness is part of the equation. Of course, hefty candidates don't do so well either. Possible paper topic :-)