Obama and Race

Welcome to Livid1’s blog, an effort to initiate and provoke meaningful discussions in the movement for social justice. I hope my once or twice a week postings will provoke needed conversations from a left/progressive perspective. Today we begin with my response to the historic inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States.

Like many others in the progressive movement I have been struggling to wrap my mind around the significance of Obama’s inauguration. It may require the emotional and intellectual skills of a Zen master to hold in one’s head, at the same time, both the enormity of the moment (perhaps a right brain function – and its political limitations (in the analytic left side).

At the Peace Ball on Inauguration night, Bernice Reagan, accompanied by her daughter Toshi, pointedly sang: “I feel better, so much better, since I lay my burden down,” noting that there are many more burdens which need to be laid down, it was important to recognize this meaningful step along the way to full equality and freedom. I’ve always loved this song’s moving fusion of the sad and triumphal, but in this moment it encapsulated my mixed, but hopeful, emotions.

Also at the Peace Ball, Dick Gregory related that he wished he could go down to Mississippi or Alabama and let the Klan know that they had been right — when it had not occurred to the civil rights or peace movement — that the Black vote meant that there would be a Black President. A Black President is not merely a symbol, although it is a powerful symbol – expanding the sense of possibility for people of color everywhere. It also represents a meaningful shift in white racial consciousness, though certainly not the end of white racism or the end of white supremacy.

At the same moment, I also recalled attending the play version of Tim Tyson’s Blood Done Sign My Name (starring Mike Wiley in a one-man show). Blood Done Sign My Name is the powerful story of a lynching in Oxford, NC in 1970. In the discussion after the performance, I asked “There’s a lot of righteous anti-racist anger in this play. What is now the place of righteous anger in the current discussion of race?”

So the question before us is what has and hasn’t changed in our understanding of race and racism.One place to begin is Obama’s speech about race; “A More Perfect Union” (Mar. 8, 2008), which was delivered in response to the furor over the replay of the remarks of Obama’s former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. . Despite his general avoidance of explicitly racial issues (except for remembrances of the civil rights movement) in his campaign, Obama asserted that “race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now.” Slavery was not only the “nation’s original sin”; race represented the ultimate challenge to American unity of purpose, “a more perfect union,” and Americans have” never really worked through” “the complexities ofhat anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our owrace.” All this anti-racist activists might agree with, but Obama in his quest for unity goes on to equate the experience of Blacks and Whites, citing Black and White anger, as equivalent obstacles to moving forward.

That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.

In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time…
Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding.

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years.”

The only path out of this stalemate, for Obama, is first of all:

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.” The Black community must move beyond grievance to responsibility.

To the angry perorations of Reverend Wright, Obama finally counter-poses an anonymous elderly Black man who is capable of a “moment of recognition” of the difficult plight of a 23-year old white woman, who is named (Ashley Baia), and explains his interest in the Obama campaign with “I’m here because of Ashley.”

Obama sees himself as a grand unifier across racial as well as ideological lines. His line is reminiscent of the old Communist Party (CP) line “Black and White Unite and fight” which the movements of the 1960s did their best to dismantle. In both progressive and academic circles, talk of race (as well as sex) is dominated by talk of privilege. From their perspective, the impact of the CP line and other “class-based” perspectives was to play down race and equate Black Nationalism with white supremacy, with both being equally divisive. The right to Black self-determination and to bold assertion of Black pride, independent of White reaction, became a core principle for many of us in the movement.

It seems obvious that Whites as a group have certain advantages or privileges: they do not have the burden of racism, did not experience slavery and Jim Crow and as Obama aptly points out: “legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.” These systemic inequalities live on today.

The problem with the “white privilege” line, Obama emphasizes, is its lack of appeal to Whites who find themselves in difficult straits, and its tendency to isolate Blacks and inure them to victimhood and hopelessness. It has also been argued by some Obama supporters that Black pride has succeeded to the point that it is now less necessary to be so bold in assertion and can now give way to Obama’s race-transcendent line; that his generation had moved beyond the bitterness of the past and its racial polarities; allowing Blacks to safely empathize across racial lines without betraying the Black community.

The problem with Obama’s line is: if white privilege remains in place, but is implicitly denied in the name of unity, how can it be adequately addressed? If many Whites are only capable of a still race-based distinction between “good N…’s” like Obama from presumably bad “N’…s” like urban youth, what chance do we have to overcome the racist practices common in our school discipline and the criminal justice systems? And so on…

The denial of white privilege can lead to statements like that of Representative James Clyburn of South Carolina, the majority whip in the House, who proclaimed at the BET Honors awards in Washington, that “Every child has lost every excuse.”  Are challenges to racial inequality now deemed to be “excuses” and not just by the right wingers on FOX News?

It would be wrong to miss the opportunities of the current racial moment, to not pause “to feel better, so much better”, but it is also prudent to closely scrutinize its meaning. The time is ripe for fresh thinking about race and racism; thinking that takes into account the centrality of race to American culture and is open to the opportunities of the Obama era.. I invite your contributions.

Incidentally, for an eloquent raising of questions about other aspects of Obama’s politics, see Jonathan Schell’s “Obama and the Reform of the Real” in the latest The Nation.

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8 Responses to “Obama and Race”

  1. Tim Says:

    Hey, saw your blog linked on freedarko and just wanted to say I enjoyed your perspective on race at this point in our history. Best of luck and I’ll try to follow the blog.

  2. Chris Says:

    “The Black community must move beyond grievance to responsibility.” – Barack Obama (or Jon Favreau, if you want to get specific).

    Obama as Bill Cosby? Fine by me, but for years the argument has been grievance for the leadership of organizations that “spoke for the people” like the NAACP and PUSH. Can the black community simultaneously celebrate the election of its own (snicker – BO is West African and half white) while trying to also cry, “Shame?” when for months we have seen every black dude in an Obama stocking hat, and every black kid in an BO t-shirt? No doubt he is one of you, dude from SE DC (or Bedford Stuy or West Milwaukee). Maybe you can meet at Charlie Palmer Steak House and share a White Zinfandel with him and Michelle. Yes you COULD!

    The race is over. Post-racialism has won. There is nothing further to discuss here. Your question, “What chance do we have to overcome the racist practices common in our school discipline and the criminal justice systems?” is irrelevant. With the election of the BO, the outsiders have become insiders, right? CHANGE. “The Man” is now led by The Man. Responsibility can now be attributed to the people who lead organizations and the managers they have executing their policy. There is no “institutional racism” when those claiming it now run the organization.

    Thanks for playing.

  3. Jean Tepperman Says:

    Three weeks before Obama was inaugurated a 22-year-old black grocery store worker and father was shot to death by a cop as he lay face down with his hands behind his back on a rapid transit platform in Oakland, CA.
    A black president and black middle class don’t mean “there is no institutional racism,” just that it’s extremely complicated.

  4. Tema Says:

    My comment is this: I don’t agree that white people are incapable of acknowledging and addressing white privilege. In other words, I don’t think that unification requires denial of white privilege, just the opposite. The people I know, including myself, who’ve been able to move through denial about white privilege, usually come out much stronger on the other side recognizing the complexity of the unification idea and also often (not always) willing to take more responsibility for their own role in perpetuating the vicious race construct. And this includes white people like the ones Obama references — poor, working class; I’ve seen white people of all classes and other identities take on their own white privilege. I think it’s underestimating white people to assume we can’t understand white privilege. I do think it requires some skill, but that’s another story.

  5. Roger Lippman Says:

    I didn’t miss Obama’s Khe Sanh comment. In his otherwise perfectly-crafted inauguration speech, the remark stuck out like a moldy piece of sandwich bread. Surely he knows that US troops in Vietnam were not fighting for us. Generally he has taken positions that speak to an inclusiveness broad enough to allow him to govern effectively. But this gambit sacrifices (to Pat Buchanan, for god’s sake) an opportunity for a consolidation in the culture war – to stop, at least, allowing the Vietnam war to be considered honorable. Moving beyond the culture war is not the same as conceding defeat.

    You write:
    > It is a humane instinct to honor the dead who were willing to sacrifice their lives …

    Perhaps, but most of the US dead in Vietnam were not there out of willingness to sacrifice, but because they were drafted, or for lack of economic alternatives.

    For an elegantly concise, non-American perspective on Obama’s position, I recommend the observations at
    http://www.david-campbell.org/2009/01/25/obama-week-1/ .

  6. Eric Says:

    Thanks for starting this excellent blog. I look forward to reading your future posts.

    Barack Obama is, above all, a masterful politician. So I think that anything he says has to be first examined from the perspective of how it furthers his pursuit of power. In that light, his call to move beyond the antagonisms of racism that have plagued this country was a brilliant response to the Reverend Wright scandal. It not only saved his candidacy but also positioned him as the ultimate post-racial candidate (half-black, half-white, conciliatory not aggressive) that skeptical voters, especially white voters, could endorse.

    That said, I think his comments were also sincere and thoughtful. Victimhood and resentment are powerful emotions, and we often underestimate their destructive consequences. Perhaps they are unavoidable emotions for any group that collectively struggles against prejudice and racial bias. But the costs can outweigh the gains. For example, I think of Israeli injustices against Palestinians, which have so often and so unfortunately been justified by the ultimate example of collective victimization – the Holocaust. In my mind, the Rovian politics of the Bush era – the relentless mobilization of “the base,” the us versus them mentality – are a classic example of politics driven by resentment. Perhaps we can make more progress examining the problems of racism and white privilege through the lens of other, more constructive, emotive forces.

  7. Karen Says:

    I think that most white folks don’t understand white privilege because they don’t really have any close friends who are Black or brown. We live in a society where we may meet people of other races in school and on the job but we don’t become personal friends. So us white folks don’t know that the Black kids get questioned by the police just for walking down the street. We don’t know that the Black mother is followed around the store as a suspected shoplifter. We don’t experience the hundreds of moments of random racial discrimination that Black and brown people must deal with. So the average middle class or working class white person doesn’t see how much more difficult their life would be if they were a person of color. Most of us have worked hard for everything we have and we don’t feel like we have received any great breaks for being white. White privilege just seems too abstract until you really know and care about a person who isn’t white and can imagine yourself in their shoes.

  8. Sherryl Says:

    This sentence from your blog post is key:

    The problem with Obama’s line is: if white privilege remains in place, but is implicitly denied in the name of unity, how can it be adequately addressed?

    Well, it can’t (as you’re implying). That’s why I have a problem with “diversity workshops” and the concept of “diversity.” It’s usually a way for white people not to have to deal with systemic–and related–oppression and privilege. At UNC, Chapel Hill, there’s a “cultural diversity” requirement, not a “privilege and oppression” requirement. The label reduces inequality to “lifestyle” and might even suggest to students that people in oppressed categories just need to work on changing their culture (e.g., culture of poverty). Perhaps the cultural diversity requirement enhances the cultural capital of white students; they can say to future employers that they are familiar with “different cultures,” or studied abroad, and thus have worldly experience.

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