The Post-Handed Presidency
I have always wanted to be left handed. As a teenager, I actually tried an experiment that lasted only one day, of using my left hand for as many mundane tasks as possible. Stabbing my gums while brushing my teeth, I managed to confirm first-hand (no pun intended) that these tendencies appear to be more or less hardwired.
I thought of that juvenile research project recently, after moderating a discussion among civil rights leaders about race. Like so many commentators following the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States, this little group had gathered to consider whether we are living in an era that is “post-racial.” For them, the inquiry is more than an intellectual exercise; it affects their life’s work, which is premised on the notion that race matters.
The reason I thought about left-handedness is, of course, President Obama belongs to that minority group. His defeated opponent, Senator John McCain, does as well. Indeed, a disproportionate number of our leaders — five of the last seven occupants of the White House – have been southpaws.
Yet a comparison of our shared understandings of left-handedness and our various understandings of race reveals meaningful differences. Neither President Obama nor Senator McCain, I would wager, perceives of himself as a member of a minority group on the basis of how they hold a pen or throw a baseball. Nor does anyone else assign them to such a social category. Left-handedness simply does not constitute the basis for marking out a distinct population with its own cultural traditions and political concerns.
The parallels between handedness and race are even more precise in this particular case. President Obama reportedly uses his right hand, too. So his handedness is ambiguous as his racial identity is mixed.
Nonetheless, lefties and the ambidextrous, did not take any great pride in President Obama’s swearing in. The event would not have been interpreted as an historic occasion even were he the first among them to have attained such status.
Left handedness, however, does have many features in common with traits such as race. It is biological and difficult — but not impossible — to change. It has been stigmatized in the past (and still within some families), taken as a symbol of the devil’s work (hence the association of the Latin “sinister” with evil and the left, among other words). It affects life prospects in a material sense, correlating to higher risks and shorter life spans.
Perhaps the failure of the analogy between handedness and race gives us the answer to the question of whether race is relevant. A few persons have pointed out President Obama’s preference for his left hand. But he is not defined by his behavior, and, to the contrary, it is a rather trivial aspect of who he is. Virtually all people are aware of President Obama’s skin color. He certainly has not defined himself by it, but everyone else has deemed it at least worth remarking upon whether favorably or not.
Left handedness is a reality, but other than the annoyance of scissors that work right rather than properly it is insignificant. Race may be a social construct, but like many other myths it is powerful.