Why Barack Obama Must Overcome His 'Oppositional Identity'

It’s hard for people to pinpoint exactly what it is they don’t like about President Barack Obama, but I think I can easily sum it up: his thinly veiled contempt for America, and his transparent resentment for the country he was elected to lead.

You’ll often hear people say, “He just hates America.”

But try this on for size: Barack Obama may just be our first “oppositional identity” president. What’s that mean?

I’d never heard the phrase oppositional identity before, because I don’t subscribe to collectivist identity theories. I believe–much like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–that people should be recognized by their own individual actions, not those of their ancestors.

But when I recently met a special education graduate student from Antioch University in Los Angeles and she told me about oppositional identity, I wondered whether it could help explain why President Obama harbors such apparent animosity toward his own country–and why he’s said some of the things he has in the past.

So, she loaned me her textbook to write this article.


The textbook, Literacy with an Attitude, by SUNY professor Patrick J. Finn, proposes a collectivist theory that there’s a difference between ‘immigrant minorities’ and ‘involuntary minorities’ in how they approach education in school.

Immigrant minorities are generally here by choice, and so they can always return to their homeland. They are often the dominant culture in their homeland country, and so they identify with the dominant culture in the United States, Finn argues.

“Involuntary minorities are people who became Americans through slavery, conquest or colonization and who were relegated to an inferior position and denied assimilation,” writes Finn. “Involuntary minorities experience discrimination that is permanent. They have no “homeland” to return to.”

According to Finn, whereas immigrant minorities have parents that will encourage them to blend in with the dominant culture, involuntary minorities and oppressed groups “come to regard certain beliefs, skills, tastes, values, attitudes, and behaviors as not appropriate for them because they are associated with the dominant culture. Adopting these is seen as surrendering to the enemy.”

Oppositional identity is a theory that is applied to classroom situations, but let’s replace the words “school,” and “education,” with “country,” and “America.”

The question I’m getting at is this: does Barack Obama believe that adopting the fundamental values of America would be seen as surrendering to the “enemy”?

Barack Obama is the President of the United States but may identify himself as a member of an involuntarily minority that was forced to come to this country as slaves.

Looking through the lens of oppositional identity theory, does Obama believe that aligning himself with the American mainstream would make him a traitor–or at least that he would be perceived as one?

In 2008 when Obama delivered his famous race speech from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Obama said that the original U.S Constitution was “stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery.” He added:

As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

When explaining his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he said:

For the men and women of Reverend Wright’s generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.

To test this theory, I tried to put myself in Obama’s position the best way that I could. I am Jewish. I love America with all my heart, and to me the United States is a heroic, liberating force that saved my people from extermination during the Holocaust in WWII.

Let’s assume however, that I was born in Germany, and somehow I became Chancellor of that country. Would I identify more with my country, which at one time systematically murdered six million of my own people–or my group–which in post-Holocaust Europe could (by Finn’s definition) be considered an “involuntary minority?”

That’s a difficult question to answer, but another way of asking this question is: would I still harbor suspicion about the country I now led despite the majority electing me?

Yes–I would.

After what happened in during the Holocaust, I would still feel somewhat separated from the non-Jewish, ‘dominant’ German majority there.

Some African-Americans, understandably, feel that way about America.

That is unfortunate, however, because as Dr. Martin Luther King so wisely knew, holding on to slavery is not going to advance our nation–just as my holding on to the Holocaust will not advance my own life success or help move Germany past that terrible tragedy. We can never forget, but we cannot live as perpetual victims.

I disagree with William Faulkner. I believe the past can be dead and buried, but to do that we’ve all got to play our part.

Throughout my life I’ve heard my countrymen admit that slavery was wrong, but defend America by saying  “that was a different time” and that “people didn’t understand” how wrong it was back then.

That’s not true.

Human suffering is always recognizable, and the best way to bury the institution of slavery is to admit that it was a part of our history, but that there was no excuse. It was beneath America–because the true spirit of America is, always was, and always will be better than that.

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