For South Asians in the U.S., Obama’s presidency poses an array of questions that are significant for what they ask about our own political futures in this country, as well as the alliances and fissures that unite and divide us.
The fact that Obama is the first African American president of the U.S. is a reminder to immigrants, such as those from India, that most of us are relatively recent newcomers to a long, ongoing struggle over inclusion and exclusion from belonging and citizenship in the United States, and Obama’s invocations of the American Dream resonate powerfully with those who see this country as a mythologized land of freedom and democracy, and of achievement, mobility, and success.
For many African Americans, Obama represents the symbolic achievement of the first Black president in U.S. history. But they are also aware that he is not a Black American who traces his genealogy to the slaves who helped build this country’s economy, but rather to the narrative of immigration and “multicultural” America. Obama’s multiracial identity speaks to a long tradition of mixed-race Americans, particularly mixed Black/White Americans, serving as the bridge between the black/white polarity of U.S. race politics, but also assuaging the anxieties of white Americans about the specter of losing white privilege.
Obama’s “Post-racial” America?
Obama’s skillful oratory was also strategic in evoking the notion of a “post-racial America,” in which race does not matter because racism no longer exists. While Obama acknowledged the challenges facing those who are marginalized and impoverished, he did so not by challenging the basic premise of the American Dream, but rather by promising to reform the United States. It is very apparent that his political vision departs from the critiques of earlier generations of Black activists, who rejected the myths of U.S. freedom and democracy and challenged the foundational narratives of a nation built solely by immigrants. Those activists revealed that this country was built through slave labor and the dispossession of native peoples, as well as through a series of exclusions of immigrants through discriminatory immigration and citizenship legislation since the 19th century, including (South) Asians.
Obama distanced himself from these histories, in many ways, and most clearly from the specter of Black nationalism and militant civil rights leaders; he disowned his own pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who represented a more uncompromising but also threatening critique of U.S. nationalism and a discourse of spiritual and political resistance to the ravages of racism for which African Americans find succor in the Black church. As Jonathan Farley succinctly pointed out in an article on the “The New Black Politics” (Black Agenda Report, originally published in the Harvard Crimson), “Just because you are a first for blacks, doesn’t mean that blacks are first for you.”
Farley and other Black commentators have observed that Obama was appealing to such a broad spectrum of Americans because he was not confrontational, and was strategically compared by the U.S. media to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—though only to the early Dr. King, Jr., not the radical anti-war critic who marched with janitors and denounced U.S. imperialism in Vietnam toward the end of his life. In fact, the power of Obama’s appeal, in addition to his charisma and eloquence (not to mention his ability to speak grammatical English, after eight years of Bush-isms!), was underscored in a conversation between a Puerto Rican and an African American airline steward. The Latina woman spoke about how her mother voted for the first time in many years, suggesting that because Obama was mixed-race, Puerto Ricans could relate to him because he was mulatto. The African American woman did not respond, but her friend went on, “You know, he’s a universal man.”
That simple statement helps shed light on the ways in which Obama has been produced and packaged like a cipher, or as Norman Solomon, author and media critic observes, a Rorschach test onto which a range of Americans, as well as others, project their own hopes, fantasies, and desires for the future.
Obama’s Foreign Policy: Whose Lives Matter?
The hopes that people have of Obama and the desires for a change from the neoconservative regime of anti-democratic and militaristic programs are real. The trouble is that Obama’s actual policy positions, not his rhetoric, do not represent a real departure from the project of U.S. military, economic, and political domination. His Cabinet choices make this only too apparent, from the selection of Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel—formerly a member of the Israeli military—to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Larry Summers, Robert Gates, and others who represent continuity with, rather than change from, previous Democrat and Republican regimes.
Although Obama has called for a withdrawal of troops in Iraq (still ambiguously defined in negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement), he has also expressed desire for a continued military and economic presence in the region, effectively continuing intrusions that began with the sanctions and flexing of military might under Presidents George H. Bush and Bill Clinton. Obama has not been willing to reduce the Pentagon’s budget, and more immediately, he has announced that he will shift the major theater of war from Iraq to Afghanistan, and also Pakistan. In fact, Obama was the only Presidential candidate who declared that he would wage a unilateral war against Pakistan, under the guise of “rooting out terrorists.”
This is the very same logic that Bush used to wage war against Iraq and Afghanistan, where civil society has been destroyed and the Taliban has re-emerged. How a continuation of the same policy of military force, with even less investment in rebuilding the shattered infrastructure of a country destroyed by 25 years of war and violence, is going to bring peace and democracy to Afghanistan should be lost on anyone who genuinely opposes war. Furthermore, one of the first attacks that the U.S. military launched immediately after Obama came into office was a missile strike on northwest Pakistan, where the U.S. has been engaged in direct as well as indirect attacks that have killed innocent civilians, further enraging local populations.
Although Obama was widely applauded for ordering the closure of Guantanamo during his first few days in office—not surprising, since the prison has brought provoked such serious negative publicity and condemnation of the U.S. around the world as well as increasing domestic criticism—he has yet to reflect on what he plans to do with the detainees. Many commentators and D.C. pundits have suggested that he may opt to bring Guantanamo onto U.S. soil by setting up administrative courts that do not operate with the same criminal protections as other criminal courts. Thus, the detainees would receive the same inhumane treatment they have received in the infamous detention center, just under the guise of (unfair and racist) U.S. laws to guard against “terrorism.”
Furthermore, the new President has no plans to shut down Baghram prison in Afghanistan, where illegal torture is practiced outside of the media’s attention, and which is sure to see much more of this if the War on Terror is revived in Afghanistan, let alone to close Abu Ghraib (now under a new name). Another less discussed fact is that Obama and his administration have recently backed the Bush administration’s policies on “extraordinary rendition”—the process of seizing “terror” suspects and sending them to a third country (where U.S. laws on torture may not apply) for questioning. In fact, much of the opposition to General Musharraf in Pakistan led by the lawyer’s movement was sparked by outrage over the illegal detention of Pakistanis who have disappeared under the U.S.-backed War on Terror.
Just a year ago, Obama spoke of strengthening the military and protecting “national interests,” using the phrase in order to move ambiguously between the interest of stopping terrorism against U.S. citizens and the interests of big capital. He, like candidates before him, bowed to the power of the Israel lobby and AIPAC (American Israel Political Action Committee) instead of taking a firm stance against settler colonial policies, occupation, sanctions, and genocidal violence in Palestine which has been denounced by the world community and by almost every member of the United Nations (including India) except the U.S. and Israel.
Given this loyalty, it was disappointing, but not surprising, to watch as Obama remained silent when 1,300 Palestinians were massacred in unprecedented violence in Gaza, including the slaughter of 400 children, in Israel’s war on the imprisoned civilian population who are held hostage by Israel’s blockade. This refusal to condemn the assaults was supposedly because he was still President-Elect, yet this circumstance did not prevent him from issuing a statement of sympathy and condemnation of the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, as he should have. Do Palestinian lives not matter to the President, too?
Obama, South Asian Americans, and the Meaning of Change
What was clear in the Obamania that swept the country is that many progressives and even leftists were willing to sacrifice concerns about Obama’s foreign policy, in effect sacrificing the lives of innocent Pakistanis, Afghans, and Palestinians. As South Asians, this is an inconsistency that is troubling, but one that was evident among even Indian progressives, which is even more disturbing. If we oppose war, on principle, we need to oppose it against all peoples, and even when it is couched in the pretext of a “just” or “humanitarian” war, exposing the hypocrisies and contradictions of such rhetoric that is, after all, just a continuation of the logic of the War on Terror of the previous regime. Now it is South Asian terror we must root out, not just Arab terror, but the rhetorical justification and cover-up of U.S. strategic interests is just the same.
Some will argue that Obama has had to take these positions, particularly during his Presidential campaign, because he needed to get elected, and there was no way that he could express the politics of a progressive community organizer, especially since he is of African descent, if he wished to get elected. However, this rationalization of what was essentially an increasingly centrist platform (note that the center in the U.S. has increasingly shifted to the right anyway) also reveals the limited political horizon of electoral politics, where electability is allowed to supersede political vision and a corporate-lobby sponsored campaign appears to be outside the “system.” In any case, Obama’s cabinet selections since his election have made it only too clear that this regime does not represent the significant shift that many had hoped for, leading to some disappointment and disillusionment.
Many supporters of Obama understandably longed for a change in U.S. policies because they were opposed to the unilateralist policies of the neocons and the contempt of the Bush administration for constitutional rights and true democracy. We share this desire, but we also want to raise the question: “change” for whom? Is this a real shift to a more democratic order, or a change only for (certain) people who live inside the U.S., but not those outside its borders, including in South Asia?
It is apparent that eight years of the Bush administration have made many feel that any change is the dawning of a completely new era, but we must not delude ourselves and allow euphoria to blind us to the facts on the ground. As Indian Americans, we want real change, not just symbolic shifts, and not just for us or for our fellow Indians, but also for all South Asians and for others around the world.
Sunaina Maira is Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis. Veena B. Dubal is an attorney and Berkeley Law Foundation Fellow at the Asian Law Caucus.