Thursday, March 20, 2008

Just the Right Amount of Black

ver the course of the week we’ve had Obama’s speech on race, and the reaction to the speech and the reaction to the reaction to the speech, and now we are starting to boil down to some meta-points. My first blush reaction was that the speech was so on target, so uplifting, that any attempt to denigrate it would be simple-minded partisan hackery. I blush to admit my naiveté, but I was genuinely shocked at the level derision directed at Obama, post-speech.

While there has been plenty of reaction that is mere hackery1, the near broadly negative reaction on the right can’t simply be dismissed out of hand. Rather, reaction to Obama’s speech on some level is something of a Rorschach for how people view race and racism, which follows something of a left-right divide.

People who felt the speech fell short tend to believe that a white expression of racism toward blacks is exactly the same in all respects as black expression of racism toward whites. A lot of comments fall along the lines of “what if a white candidate had attended a church where the preacher preached segregation . . .?”2 Obama’s speech begins with an assumption black racism3 is not the same as White racism, and appeals more to those of us who take a more nuanced view.

Under the latter view, racism expressed by blacks is wrong, but of carries less moral and practical consequence than white racism. black racism, as explained by Obama arises from the long history of racial oppression – three centuries during which people were kidnapped from Africa to be sold as chattel, followed by another century during which their decedents were assigned to the bottom rung of a racial cast system.

White racism on the other hand perpetuates a legacy of hatred in service to centuries of oppression, oppression that for most of those centuries materially and psychically benefited the oppressors. One is a form of human weakness, meriting approbation but nonetheless understandable. The other is a legacy of, and perpetuates, a great evil.

The practical consequences of black vs. white racism are also different. Make no mistake, black racism has dire consequences. One of my classes will soon be reading Wisconsin v. Mitchell in which the state applies a hate crimes statute to black defendants who assault a white man simply because he is white. But those consequences are several orders of magnitude lower than the consequences of white racism which, again, seeks on some level to perpetuate the oppression of black Americans.

Both the black racism expressed by Rev. Wright and the racism-as-equivalent model embraced by much of white America offer facile sound bites for discussing race. In truth, the question of race in America is far more complex, historical, layered and nuanced than the bumper-sticker level discussions too prevalent among both blacks and whites. Obama’s speech was special because, in the context of a political campaign – a context in which nuance is generally considered a deadly sin – he embraced all that complexity and spoke about it with heartbreaking eloquence.

It’s less of a surprise then that the speech failed to touch people, especially on the right, who believe that racism is racism. If that is your model – if Rev. Wright and Bull Connor are equivalents – the only solution for Obama is to cut him loose. And in fact, Obama probably can’t redeem himself even with that extreme move because he already tolerated the intolerable for too long. If a listener is unwilling to acknowledge the complexity of race in America, exploring that complexity seems like so much artifice.

A few weeks ago NPR reported about how Second City is satirizing the primary. In one skit a white man explains his attraction to Obama with the line I’ve appropriated for this post4. Like all great political satire, the line works both as a funny-as-hell punchline and a profound truth. Personally, it doesn’t bother me that Obama is just the right amount of black. It doesn’t mean he’s inauthentic. It means he’s more authentic – embracing what is good about his community, but refusing to fall into the easy radicalism that afflicts so much of that community.

Among the most appalling things Rev. Wright said were the accusations that the government developed AIDS to kill blacks and that the government is behind the traffic of drugs into black communities. As appalling as those views are to middle class white folks like myself, the fact is, a large percentage of the Black community holds those views to one degree or another. No black politician could be a part of the community and not have close associates who share similar views.

Simply saying “That’s wrong” isn’t enough to move people off of ultimately such self-destructive dogmas. Simply deriding such ideas as the lies they are is not enough. It will take leaders who are willing to both understand the history and pain in which they are rooted, then offer alternatives. What alternatives? Some might call it hope.

The Rev. Wright controversy has hurt Obama terribly. As of now, it’s not clear that the speech helped enough. Obama may be just the right amount of Black for me; time will tell if he’s too much black for America.

1One oft-made point that should be dismissed as hackery is the allegation that Obama joined Trinity in the first place for black street cred. For example a comment to LisaRenee runs it here and Blumer approvingly sites a righty making that point here. And it’s crap. In the first place, it is always a dicey proposition questioning the sincerity of another person’s faith. Generally it’s an accusation anyone can level and no one can disprove. But in this case, we have evidence that points to the opposite conclusion. Obama wrote of his conversion experience in his first book, long before he sought elected office. And lest anyone argue that he had long term plans to do so, remember what else is in that book and what he was doing at the time. Working as an inner city community organizer and simultaneously writing a memoir admitting adolescent drug use is not part of anyone’s long term plan for political success.

2 Which would make this whole discussion very interesting indeed if either Romney or Huckabee were still in the race, given the racist pasts of their respective churches.

3I’m using the term “black racism” to describe racial animus expressed by blacks toward whites generally. Black animus toward other racial groups or Jews or gays or women adds yet another dimension to the whole discussion.

4Incidentally, the report noted that Mr. and Mrs. Obama saw the show and liked it.


Ben said...

To me the speech didnt matter. The damage was done. he chose to associate with Wright in the first place. Obama didnt give the speech because he felt it was the right thing to do, he did it because he felt in necessary to do it for his campaign,

Anonymous said...

If you take the view that black racism is a lesser evil than white racism, doesn't it follow that female sexism is a lesser evil than male sexism, gay "heterophobia" is a lesser evil than straight homophobia, religious bigotry by Muslims is a lesser evil than religious bigotry by Christians, etc.?

How is denying men entry into your country club any less evil than men denying women entry? Neither the men or the women had anything to do with what their ancestors experienced.

How is a gay person screaming [insert you favorite epithet] at a straight person any less evil than a straight person screaming [insert...] at a gay person? Neither the gay or the straight had anything to do with what their ancestors experienced.

How is a bomb in a church less evil than a bomb in a mosque? No one alive today had anything to do with the Crusades.

If these "-isms" are not equal, then at what point do they become equal or even spillover to the opposite side and how will we know? At what point do the oppressed become the oppressors?

Eric said...

"So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town ... resentment builds over time. ... if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like ... education"

What's up with Democrats undermining Dr. Zelman, especially given the Leadership Coalition for Civil Rights' recognition of Ohio's efforts?

If Ohio's educators aren't committed to Dr. Zelman's plan to address the school-to-prison pipeline, what, exactly is their plan for addressing the education under CERD? Vote for a President likely to nominate Supreme Court Justices willing to "review the definition of racial discrimination used in the federal and state legislation and in court practice?"