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Commentary: Why should Malcolm X and Barack Obama be similar?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 21, 2008 - The recent criticism by Ayman al-Zawahiri of Obama as the anti-Malcolm X illustrates the tendency to homogenize racial groups. This Al-Qaeda leader suggested that Obama, along with Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, were "house slaves." This term refers to Blacks who are deferential to Whites. He also called out Obama as a betrayer to his Muslim heritage. Talk followed about the differences and/or similarities between Obama and Malcolm X.

The comments are problematic on a couple of levels. Looking at what al-Zawahiri said, Obama is not the opposite of Malcolm X. Only if we are limited to a surface analysis do these men appear to contradict each other: Malcolm X the militant hater of the blue-eyed devil and Obama the peace-loving, bridge-maker. Of course these are gross over-generalization. When you dig deeper and acknowledge the full breadth of Malcolm X's life, you understand that after his pilgrimage to Mecca, he no longer espoused anti-White views. His desire for connectedness and freedom for all people is far from opposite of Obama. Al-Qaeda conveniently chose one sliver of Malcolm X and Obama in attempt to draw a contrast.

More generally, the comments highlight the assumption that all members within a racial group are and should be the same. First, the premise is false. Biological research has confirmed that there is more within group variance compared to across group variance. People in one racial group are far from monolithic.

Second, these comments mask the real issue: that we use the category of "race" to lump together a wide variety of different cultures and ethnicities. Take the term "Asian American," for example. What does it really mean? Nothing much given that it is merely an umbrella term for a group, which includes a host of languages, nationalities and world views. Yet surely we could name the "Asian stereotype." These assumptions - that Asians are quiet, good at math and science and so forth - fail to capture the complexities and realities of all those identified as "Asian American."

Finally, these assumptions perpetuate the problem. The narrow expectations that we create for racial categories limit our understanding of individuals who make up the group. It then seems discongruent if Obama, Malcolm X, Rice and Powell have different perspectives. They are all Black, right? So, they should all be the same.

Judging group members harshly when they don't conform to the over-aching stereotypes merely perpetuates the limited perceptions.

To the final point, who gets to decide what is the norm against which all other group members are compared? Who does it benefit to have such a narrow view of racial groups? That issue is worth contemplating in detail. However, generally, whoever is in power gets to shape the definitions and it is done to benefit the status quo. However, once these limitations are set in motion, we all become complicit in the insidious way in which they take the place of true connection and understanding.

Failing to see the dissimilarity in people from similar racial groups simply supports the boundaries we have created. So, rather than spending time entertaining whether Obama is or is not the opposite of Malcolm X, I think it would behoove us to question why similarities are expected simply due to racial membership.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon. 

Kira Hudson Banks