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Gary Younge
Melanin and mammaries - have centuries of struggle come to this?

"What America thinks of as freedom and what I think of as freedom are two different things," Goodwin told me at the time. "I want to get a house, day care and go to college. My freedoms are small. But I can't give up ... The ideals of this country are that anybody could come back to America and make a better life ... It's a land of opportunity. In this country alone, if you put forth the effort, you can bear fruit."

At its heart the American dream has always been the triumph of possibility over probability - the idea that anyone could do anything trumps the reality that the overwhelming majority have only limited choices. Hope defeating cynicism and often masquerading as delusion.

That contradiction seems most stark when displayed on the chests of young black boys with T-shirts announcing: "Future President of America." In a country where every president has been a white man and, at current rates, one in three black male babies born in 2001 are destined to go to prison, a more realistic T-shirt would read: "Future inmate of Riker's Island." But who would want to dress their child in that? When the probabilities are so bleak and the possibilities so remote, hope and delusion can start to look like two sides of the same coin.

But if the polls are anything to go by, then those T-shirts may finally come into their own next year. Hillary Clinton leads the Democratic field with the black Illinois senator, Barack Obama, mounting an impressive challenge in second place. The most recent surveys show that if you pit either one against any of the Republican candidates, Clinton or Obama would win.

The symbolic importance of such a victory should not be denigrated. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the US stands 67th in the world league tables for political representation of women. Less than half a century ago, black Americans endured certain humiliation and risked death just so they could vote. Both Clinton and Obama stand on the shoulders of giants. Their personal achievements are their own. But without the collective struggles of civil-rights activists and feminists, their talents could never have taken them this far - a fact they both recognised in Selma, Alabama, in March.

But it should not be overestimated either. What they are should not be mistaken for what they might do. It's neither their race nor gender that makes them progressive - it's their agenda. There is no suggestion that either of their platforms will benefit the lives of black people or women any more than those of some of their Democratic counterparts.

Their victory would give them the keys to the White House. But there is little evidence to suggest that other women and black Americans would be following them in, for the same reason that Tiger Wood's ascent has not produced more black golfers. The symbolic achievement is the proof that such things are now possible; the substantive fact is that, for the time being, they remain improbable. This is not an argument against supporting either candidate; it's a case against supporting them for the wrong reasons. Symbols are important, but they should not be mistaken for substance.

The viability of both candidates at this time is no coincidence. The optimism that drives the American dream has stalled and needs a jump start. Just a third of people believe the country's best days are yet to come - the most pessimistic results yet, according to pollsters at Rasmussen. The number of those who believe the US is viewed unfavourably in the rest of the world has more than doubled since 2000, and now stands at 54%. More than two-thirds think the country is on the wrong track. And when it comes to setting it right, they have little confidence in the nation's political class. George Bush struggles to keep his approval ratings above 30%; support for the Democratic-led Congress is not even that high.

The more elusive substantial change appears, the more attractive symbolic advances become. Having a woman and a black man in the running helps restore the nation's self-image as the home of opportunity and unstoppable progress. "It's the old idea that anyone can grow up to be president," wrote Michael Kinsley in Time recently. "Not just that, but that even at age 230, we are still young enough and flexible enough to be expanding our notion of who we mean by 'anyone'." That notion now includes "anyone", of any race and either gender, with access to tens of millions of dollars. "Anyone", in other words, still refers to a tiny minority.

That doesn't stop the commentariat going into overdrive. They gush about Obama's "post-racial candidacy" as though Hurricane Katrina never happened, and question whether Clinton can balance "tough" and "tender" as though feminism never happened.

Earlier this year, a CBS interviewer asked Obama, who was raised by his white mother and grandparents: "At some point, you decided you were black?" They compliment him on being "articulate" and profess amazement that she has breasts. "The neckline sat low on her chest and had a subtle V-shape," wrote the Washington Post last week. "There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable." Melanin and mammaries: centuries of struggle have come to this.

But then, such crude emphasis on identity was always a dead end to a dangerous place. If the advancement of black people and women is all you're after, why not go for the double whammy and start a write-in campaign for Condoleezza Rice?

For all its fulminations about affirmative action, the right can play this game just as well - if not better - than the left. In January 2005, a Texas Republican senator, John Cornyn, introduced "a man from Humble, Texas". "The son of migrant workers, his childhood home was built by his father and uncle," crooned Cornyn. "As a child, he sold soft drinks at Rice University football games - where he dreamed of one day going to school. [He] is the first person in his family to go to college."

Cornyn was introducing Alberto Gonzales at his confirmation hearings to be the first Hispanic attorney general. By then Gonzales had already referred to the Geneva conventions as "quaint" and "obsolete". He is currently embroiled in a scandal after firing a number of district attorneys, some of whom were shown the door because they would not tighten voter registration laws that would exclude more Hispanics. With enough cynicism, even torture and disenfranchisement can be coated in the American dream.

But to gain a true sense of what is possible in America, one should look no further than Gonzales's boss. The C-student, former alcoholic and failed businessman who displays not a scintilla of charm, charisma or oratorical flair. The man whose big idea for fundraising when he started out in politics was: "Have your mother send a letter to your family's Christmas-card list! I just did, and I got $350,000." If Bush can be president, then surely "anyone" can.

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