David Sears and Michael Tesler start an important chapter of their book Obama’s Race with a quote from Hillary Clinton’s chief campaign strategist, Mark Penn, written in a 2007 memo. The chapter headlined by the quote is titled, “Beyond Black and White” with a subtitle, “Obama as “Other”.” The quote is important because the thoughts and sentiments are still affecting our political system and lives today. Our current president, President Trump, first made a name for himself as a thorn in the side of President Obama by insisting that President Obama was not born in the United States and that he somehow did not belong and should be thought of as “other”. President Trump’s most clear objective was (and still is) to demonstrate that America is for white people who look like him and achieve material success. He vies the rest of the global population, Obama included, as simply “other”.
The quote to lead off the chapter in Sears and Tesler’s book reads, “All of those articles about his boyhood in Indonesia and his life in Hawaii are geared toward showing his background is diverse, multicultural … it also exposes a very strong weakness for him—his roots to basic American values and culture are at best limited.”
What this quote reveals is a very strong tendency in the United States to think of multiculturalism and multicultural people as somehow not American. For the eight years that President Obama directed the nation, a group of people simply did not believe that he was fundamentally American at his core, and this shaped perceptions and thoughts about who our leaders were, about the direction they pointed the country, and about what people thought was good for society. I remember coming across a statistic that indicated that most black people did not think that President Obama had done enough to help black people, in terms of policy, but that most white people felt that President Obama had done too much to help black people. At a fundamental level I don’t think people were responding to a question about policy, even though the question specifically asked about policy. I believe that people were actually answering a question about whether President Obama matched their ideal vision of an American and was signaling that he was part of their American culture.
People have a tribal nature baked into them that shapes who is viewed as being like them and who is viewed as being the other. In his book The Most Good You Can Do, Peter Singer quotes Elliott Sober and David Sloan Wilson in writing, “Group selection favors within-group niceness and between-group nastiness.” If we continue to think in ways that push people who are not like us or who have deep multicultural roots away from us, then we will risk driving to a place where we are harming others for our own gain and delegitimizing the humanity of people that are different. Our current president has shown a basic tendency toward this type of behavior, but as our country becomes more diverse we will need to shift course and shift what we think of others and what we think of Americans. Without reconciling those two distinctions, we will never be able to embrace democracy in a functional manner.