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Elephant in the Room

The elephant in the room in the campaign for the US presidential elections remains the "race" factor which no one wishes to acknowledge. Barack Obama, as an Afro-American, has to perform according to far higher standards than a candidate from the mainstream. Obama has to come across as calm, rational and anything but angry as that would be disastrous for a black candidate. Many sections in the US still see a black man asserting himself as "uppity".

LETTER FROM AMERICAoctober 11, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly10Elephant in the Room Sankaran KrishnaThe elephant in the room in the campaign for the US presidential elections remains the “race” factor which no one wishes to acknowledge. Barack Obama, as an Afro-American, has to perform according to far higher standards than a candidate from the mainstream. Obama has to come across as calm, rational and anything but angry as that would be disastrous for a black candidate. Many sections in the US still see a black man asserting himself as “uppity”.Sankaran Krishna (krishna@hawaii.edu) teaches political science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in Honolulu.Watching Barack Obama debate John McCain on television dur-ing their first interaction on September 26 was a tense and stressful experience. I felt the way I used to when India played Pakistan at cricket – a sense of foreboding, of something about to go wrong, of that one inevitable error which would send us careening towards defeat. Iwatched a slow, cautious and tightly-wound Obama pick his way carefully through words, phrases and expressions, all calibrated to convey a set of emotions: calmness, serenity, and solidity. When McCain disdained Obama’s lack of experience in foreign affairs, I would have loved for the latter to snap back with: “Listen, with all your experience you voted to go to war against Iraq which had noth-ing to do with the events of 9/11, whileI opposed that war – so don’t patronise me with your much-vaunted experience. See where it’s gotten us.” Or when McCain bragged about his two decades long stint as aUS senator and his familiarity with bi-partisan compromise, I hoped Obama would puncture his pompousness by saying “You’re no maverick, you are a part of the problem here”. His usual flowing sentences, sharp wit and instinct for exactly the right word were nowhere to be seen. Walking a Knife EdgeThe care, flat delivery and dispassionate persona were that of a man walking a nar-row line. On the one hand, he had to come across as calm, rational and anything but angry as that would be disastrous for a black candidate. So he went out of his way to be friendly towards McCain, saying repeatedly “Senator McCain is right” or “I agree with Senator McCain”. On the other, if he appeared too cool and detached, he would be described as elitist, over-intellectual and out of touch with the lives of ordinaryAmericans(something thathehas been charged with already). That McCain, who owns seven homes, is married to a multi-millionaire, and is him-self the son and grandson of admirals in the Navy, isassumed to be a salt-of-the-earthAmerican is deeply ironic. Yet, this is thelinethatObama has to walk for the restofhispolitical career, and the debates are occasions where he could publicly slip up. The tension of his performance comes from a sense that the tightrope walk is one misstep away from disaster. While I sighed with relief that he came through the first debate intact, a sense of incredible unfair-ness lingers. He was like a man fighting with one hand tied behind his back, una-ble to unleash his verbal weapons for fear the audience would turn against him. Race is of course the elephant-in-the-room that everyone pretends is not there. In a society whose public speech has been bowdlerised by political correctness, it is not hard to discern the codes by which it continues to be deployed. When Repre-sentative Lynn Westmoreland (Republican – Georgia) described Barack and Michelle Obama as “uppity”, he was using a word with strong racial overtones. It is com-monly used in the American South where a black man could be lynched not too long ago for having the temerity to meet the gaze of a white man, or to walk erect, or display signs of intelligence or wealth. The “proper” demeanour expected of them was a mixture of servility and gratitude. While McCain could be condescending and never once make eye-contact with his opponent during the debate, Obama had to be calm and work overtime to come across as affable. Racial coding was also evident when Representative Geoff Davis (Republican – Kentucky) opined “That boy’s finger does not need to be on the [nuclear] button.” The disparaging word “boy”, of course has a long history as an insulting epithet directed at grown African-American men, a way of putting them in their place, as it were. And when a comment about pigs-and-lipstick made by Obama was deliberately taken out of context by Republican spin-meisters and twisted as an insult to Sarah Palin, they were re-enacting a familiar move – charging the uppity black man with besmirching the honour of a white woman as prelude to an attack.
LETTER FROM AMERICAEconomic & Political Weekly EPW october 11, 200811Shia-Sunni divide, and suggested Al Qaida militants were receiving training in Iran and being sent back to the war in Iraq. None of these gaffes has led to questions about his readiness to lead the United States. Yet, Obama’s clear and wide grasp ofinter-national affairs, his command over the legal system of the US (he taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago besides topping Harvard Law School), and his ease in discussing economic matters are often seen as evidence of a bookish intellect. The fact that Obama has worked for nearly two decades in a black community in Chicago – when he could have been raking in millions as a legal eagle given his credentials – does not count for much by way of expe-rienceor commitment to the nation, while McCain’s 90 per cent voting convergence with Bush’s failed policies still allow him to remain the maverick, and his record as a prisoner of war means his patriotism is beyond question. Obama is not the first minority candi-date to be subject to a higher and different set of standards from those of the main-stream majority. He would probably like to respond to the innuendo that he is a Muslim by saying “So what if I were a follower of one of the world’s great reli-gions? Don’t we have freedom of religion in this country? Why is that germane to this election?”. He has instead to carefully detail his Christian credentials all over again. Ironically, it is the McCain-Palin ticket that embodies many of the usual stereo-types about the American underclass: the former finished 894th out of 899 candidates at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, left his first wife after she was badly injured and disfigured in an accident, and is known to have an explosive temper; the latter’s daughter is an unmarried teenager who is pregnant by a boyfriend given to making bigoted comments about immigrants and minorities; herself went through five schools in an undistinguished academic career; and has vapid and superficial answers to the most elementary questions about politics or international affairs. The one silver lining amidst all this is that as long as the economy keeps tanking as it is currently doing, even the most obtuse voters can see that Obama’s grip on reality is vastly better than that of his opponent. Whether that is sufficient for many of them to do the right thing on November 4 remains to be seen. The University of California, Berkeley invites applications for the2009-2010 S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellowshipsin Natural Resource Economics and Political EconomyThe S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Postdoctoral Fellowships in Natural Resource Economics and Political Economy will be awarded for the 2009-2010 academic year to support advanced research at the University of California, Berkeley.For the purposes of this fellowship, natural resources are defined broadly to include environmental resources. The fellowship encourages, but is not limited to, policy-oriented research. Applications are open to scholars from any social science discipline and related professional fields such as law and planning, who will make significant contributions to research on natural resource economics broadly defined. Preference will be given to proposals whose orientation is broadly institutional and/or historical, and which are conceptually and theoretically innovative. Proposals with a primarily statistical or econometric purpose are not eligible for consideration.Application deadline is December 8, 2008.For more information, please visit:http://research.chance.berkeley.edu/ciriacy/So much has been made of Obama’s ex-pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for suggesting US foreign policy in the west Asia may have had something to do withthe attacks of 9/11. McCain has regu-larly attended churches where pastors have proclaimed those who vote for Kerry or oppose Bush would rot in hell, and that the United States is a Christian country whose government should be run on Christian principles; and that Islam was a false reli-gion that ought to be destroyed. Yethis views are never conflated with that of his pastor (whom he has called his spiritual guide) nor is he asked to disown the latter.McCain’s Weaknesses McCain’s grasp of economics is weak, and he recently suggested that on becoming president he would fire the Securities and Exchange Commissioner – which, in fact, the president does not have the authority to do. On the day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and investments houses like Morgan Stanley were reeling, he proclaimed the economy to be structurally sound. On the stump he has confused Somalia for Sudan, has referred to an imaginary Iraq-Pakistan border, was unable to keep straight the

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