Barack Obama appeared to many Americans as the black presidential candidate with the foreign name. Not much can be done with the name, but much could have been done to neutralize the public’s perception of Obama’s “blackness.”
No less than one half of his heritage is white, and much of it is Southern white. He should have played the Bradley Bunch Card.
Bradley Bunch, a leading politician of 19th-century Arkansas, was Obama’s 4th great-granduncle. He served both before and after the Civil War in the Arkansas House of Representatives, twice as speaker. He then moved over to the state Senate where he presided as president pro tem. He is perhaps most famous for not having being killed by an errant cannon ball that incorrectly was reported to have been fired from the cannon (still in place) in front of the Arkansas State House. Several of his family fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
There are other notable Bunches. Col. Samuel Bunch led a Tennessee regiment in the War of 1812 and later served two terms in Congress. Another Samuel Bunch was a Virginia slave-owner who freed his slaves after his death and ordered his executor to locate them in Liberia or someplace they could enjoy their freedom.
What does all this add up to? Bill Clinton, on his way to becoming president, started as the boy from Hope, using his personal biography as a political tool. Obama, who ran poorly in Arkansas and other Deep South states, should have embraced his white ancestors. The campaign should have run an advertisement showing Nephew Obama standing next to Uncle Bradley. The resemblance is uncanny. He could have joined the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, which already has two African-American Confederate descendants in the Pine Bluff, Arkansas chapter. He could have attended a Civil War re-enactment, giving a speech that emphasized that this war belongs to all our people, white and black, and those, like himself, of mixed ancestry. That he has both Union and Confederate ancestry puts him foursquare in family history of almost everyone in the Upper South.
Other options existed. His daughters are probably eligible for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution and he should join the Society of the War of 1812. A campaign swing that took him to Liberty Church and cemetery in Newton County, as well as the other former homes of his family members, could have gone far to Americanize Obama. The point would have been that his roots lay in the American heartland.
The more Obama is seen in the mainstream, on issues and in his personal life, the more he neutralizes racism. The full extent of racism in Arkansas today is underestimated. The once-common expletives now mostly surface among friends and family, and people hide their racism even from pollsters. Still, state Rep. Joan Cash advised Craighead County Obama partisans not to put bumper stickers on their vehicles. Obama took no strong steps here to neutralize this racism. It showed up in voting booths.
What Obama didn’t do then he should do now. This self-described mutt needs to point out to America’s racists that perhaps a third of them have Indian ancestry, making them mutts, too. Mutts, rather than aristocracy, are what America is really all about.
Michael Dougan, a retired history professor at Arkansas State University, wrote this article before the election, but it was adapted for use afterward.