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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

March 16, 2009

Written by C.N.

The Language of Obama and Black Politics

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to recognize that Barack Obama is not like most of his predecessors. This can be applied not just to the obvious fact that he’s our nation’s first African American President, but also in regard to his “style” or more specifically, the way he expresses himself, verbally and non-verbally.

Politico.com recently had an interesting article that explores Barack Obama’s sense of demeanor, presentation, and language, how it has different effects on Whites and Blacks, and how it compares to George W. Bush’s style of expression:

On his pre-inaugural visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark for Washington’s African-American community, President Barack Obama was asked by a cashier if he wanted his change back. “Nah, we straight,” Obama replied. The phrase was so subtle some listeners missed it. The reporter on pool duty quoted Obama as saying, “No, we’re straight.”

But many other listeners did not miss it. A video of the exchange became an Internet hit, and there was a clear moment of recognition among many blacks, who got a kick out of their Harvard-educated president sounding, as one commenter wrote on a hip-hop site, “mad cool.”

On matters of racial identity, many observers in the African-American community say he benefits from what’s known as “dog-whistle politics.” His language, mannerisms and symbols resonate deeply with his black supporters, even as the references largely sail over the heads of white audiences. . . .

“The code words matter, how you dress matters, how you speak matters; it’s all subliminal messaging, and all politicians use it,” said Michael Fauntroy, professor at George Mason University. “Ronald Reagan used to talk about making America the shining city on a hill, which is about America as divinely inspired, and it has a deep vein in the evangelical conservative movement.” . . .

[George W.] Bush used phrases lifted from church hymns and the Bible to signal an affinity for like-minded Christians. The phrase “culture of life,” became part of the political lexicon when Bush used it weeks before the 2000 election — it was a less political, more evangelical version of “pro-life.” . . .

Beyond speech, blacks have picked up certain of Obama’s mannerisms, particularly his walk, that signal authenticity. Bush had his cowboy strut, and Obama has a swagger — a rhythmic lope that says cool and confident and undeniably black.

The article basically notes that virtually all Presidents have their own unique “style” of verbal and non-verbal expression and they use subtle words, phrases, or mannerisms that reflect and appeal to a particular group of constituents to let them know that he’s “one of them,” but without making it so obvious that it turns off more mainstream Americans.

What makes Barack Obama’s style different of course, is that it’s a “Black” style, something Americans have never seen before from our President (Bill Clinton came as close as any previous President could, but obviously he had his limitations).

So what should we make of Obama’s unique style, or should it even matter? As a fervent fan and supporter, I personally love his style and find it to be a welcome change and a breath of fresh air for Washington DC and our country as a whole. But does it risk alienating White Americans who aren’t used to it?

That’s a hard question to answer. On the one hand, we’ve already seen and I’ve written before about the ways in which some Whites are reacting negatively to his victory and the growing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversification of American society in general. So it’s possible that these particular White Americans will use such examples of Obama’s “blackness” to reinforce their extremist and racist views of him and non-Whites like him.

But on the other hand, I’m confident that most others will recognize that different doesn’t have to mean bad or inferior. That is, I hope that the vast majority of Whites in this country will understand that America is inevitably changing — politically, economically, and culturally. With that in mind, there is now more room for different forms of an American identity to emerge, one that expands on the “traditional” image of American as being White, middle class, and Protestant.

Rather than denying or resisting such an evolution of American society and our national identity, my hope is that we can embrace them and use them as a source of strength and unity to create an inclusive collective identity as Americans in the 21st century. Sure, we’ll still have our differences, but my point is that such differences are good for America and will make our society stronger, not weaker.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "The Language of Obama and Black Politics" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2009/03/language-obama-black-politics/> ().

Short URL: http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/?p=1098