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.