Saturday, March 22, 2008

An Inconvenient Truth

On Tuesday, I spent a portion of my evening yelling at my mother over the phone, expressing my annoyance at Senator Barack Obama's much ballyhooed speech.

Here is the speech: Obama Race Speech: Read The Full Text, from The Huffington Post.

Here is what caused the speech: Controversial comments made by Rev Jeremiah Wright, by Daniel Nasaw at The Guardian.

Here is the problem with the speech: The Great Conciliator, by manish at Ultrabrown.

Barack Obama’s Great Race Speech yesterday drew plenty of frothy praise and historians’ plaudits. But it was a disappointingly limited speech, projecting a static, black-and-white image of America which has little to do with its real racial makeup today.

Keep in mind that all Obama had to do was walk in, denounce Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s views without sounding like an angry black man, and not drool on himself, and the chattering classes would be rapturous. We’re at a time in political history when a politician who speaks like an adult startles us . . .

. . . there’s some truth to the Saturday Night Live portrayal of a press which fawns over Obama. The pundits are primed. The mere appearance of an adult at the table can send them into orbit. What Obama did not address in any detail: Latinos, who outnumber blacks in America. Asians. The multiracial. How multiculti the music industry and sports teams and many big city neighborhoods already are. America is not just black and white and has not been for a long time . . .

America has never been "just black and white", despite what my history text books insisted throughout my middle and upper school years. Racism didn't begin with slavery and end with the Civil Rights movement. There are countless peoples and events that came before, between and after 1492 and 1960.

Let's take Senator Obama's speech paragraph by paragraph, and ignore the passages that don't my points of view. My comments are in the brackets.

"We the people, in order to form a more perfect union."

Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men [Yes, men. White, landowning men in specific] gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution ["patriots" who then chose to exact the same tyranny and persecution on the native people already living on this continent] finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.

The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery [and by the mass genocide of the Indians], a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.

Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution - a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law [except for women, nonwhite people, and non-landowning males]; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time. [Or, the founders could have chosen not to demean, enslave, and murder their fellow human beings. Either, or.]

And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part - through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time. [No, what we needed was for our country not to be founded by successive groups of hypocritical, self-entitled, homicidal maniacs. Who in their right mind thinks to themselves, "you know what would be a great idea? Let's import some people from Africa, not pay them, and then kill off all these other brown folks squatting on our land." Was there no one to tap Thomas Jefferson on the shoulder and say, "How about you take some time away from impregnating your wife's half-sister, whom you own, and get a clue?]

The fun doesn't stop here, people. Keep reading!

I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton's Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I've gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world's poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners - an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. [Really? No other country on Earth? Not even Canada?]

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic [It's not endemic; it's institutionalized.], and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

That last phrase is both inaccurate and inflammatory. I agree that the conflicts in the Middle Ease are not rooted primarily in the actions of the people of Israel. However, the conflicts in the Middle East should not be blamed on "radical Islam" either. That was an irresponsible characterization. I have never heard such phrases as "radical Christianity", "radical Hinduism" or "radical Buddhism" ever uttered in American media. But I can't swing a dead cat without hitting a political pundit shouting the phrase "radical Islam" or "Islamofascist". The situations in the Middle East are very complicated. It is not fair to label Israelis or Palestinians or Jews or Muslims or Arabs or Americans, or any combination of the above as the sole cause of centuries of tension and instability.


As such, Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.

These problems do confront us all. However, economic inequality and the chronic health care crisis have disproportionately affected the black and brown communities for years, decades even. Yet now that these issues are affecting more white people, suddenly they are newsworthy problems to be addressed by Presidential candidates?

Given my background, my politics, and my professed values and ideals, there will no doubt be those for whom my statements of condemnation are not enough. Why associate myself with Reverend Wright in the first place, they may ask? Why not join another church? And I confess that if all that I knew of Reverend Wright were the snippets of those sermons that have run in an endless loop on the television and You Tube, or if Trinity United Church of Christ conformed to the caricatures being peddled by some commentators, there is no doubt that I would react in much the same way.

Why didn't you address this sooner, before it became the major news story of the month? You've only known the man twenty years. One of your aides could have told you, "this guy is going to present a problem."

That has been my experience at Trinity. Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety - the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger. Like other black churches, Trinity's services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear. The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.

Did you really need to cite "the welfare mom" and "the former gang-banger"? Was that necessary? FYI, welfare moms and gang bangers are prevalent in every other community as well. Don't you watch Law & Order?

But race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. [I agree.] We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America - to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.

A lack of economic opportunity among black men, [but not among black women?] and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement - all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning. 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 [Complicity? I didn't do anything wrong!], 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. [That's right!]

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. [Ha! They are so wrong.] Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. [Yes, "as far as they are concerned".] 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. [I feel that way, and I'm not white.] 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.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism. [Where would Stephen Colbert be without them?]

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. [That's what I'm saying!] 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. [But some white (and nonwhite) Americans' resentments are misguided and racist. Didn't you see the Goobacks episode of South Park?]

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. [But black people have always dealt with those things, too, often at the same time.] And it means taking full responsibility for own lives - by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, [My father died, and I don't have any children. Therefore, I will continue not to take any responsibility for my own life.] 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.

This time we want to talk about the shuttered mills that once provided a decent life for men and women of every race, and the homes for sale that once belonged to Americans from every religion, every region, every walk of life. [Except that many of those homes belonged to blacks and Latinos, including the rich ones.] This time we want to talk about the fact that the real problem is not that someone who doesn't look like you might take your job; it's that the corporation you work for will ship it overseas for nothing more than a profit. [That's right!]

That's all of the nit-picky snarkiness I can muster for now.



angryyoungwoman said...

I understand where you're coming from in your comments, but I think in this speech he had to take race down to a very basic level--because to a lot of people, race is very basic: it means us and them (not black and white and hispanic and asian, etc; just white and everything else). Coming from a white, middle-class, extremely conservative family (I swear my Mom is in love with Rush Limbaugh conservative), I know to my parents it breaks down to white and non-white. They are so behind the times on race (they're pretty old/pre-civil rights), it wouldn't occur to them to think of every different category. So I think the simplistic way he broke it down (without being patronizing) was good for a lot of conservative white folks, and the way he explained about affirmative action not being the enemy, but corrupt politicians, business owners, and banks being the enemy--hearing something like that so aptly put would be really good for my Mom.

I know it would have been better if he could have addressed every sector of society more thoroughly, but the speech was already pretty blasted long and you can't put in too much detail without losing the main point.

Either way, he's addressed my concern (he has a great plan for disabled people). It may be selfish just to go off that, but a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do.

Look, my comment's as long as his speech! Hooray!

Bianca Reagan said...

Long comments are welcome!

One of the problems with the speech is that race isn't basic, and Senator Obama should not perpetuate the myth that it is. Race is a social construct. The divisions of race vary regionally, and they are created by the dominant group. Most black Americans--the ones whose ancestors didn't come to the US voluntarily--have white people far back in their family tree. Also, according to Frangela (a reputable news source since they are on the radio), 80% of white Americans have black ancestors. And of course there are always the (often white) people who claim their great-great grandmother was a Cherokee princess.

Just because some people don't understand that race is a multifaceted issue doesn't mean that Senator Obama should keep pretending that racial problems stem solely from slavery and only involve black people and white people. He should present a more accurate version of the truth.

Pizza Diavola said...

Props for reading the whole speech; I still haven't mustered the stomach to do so, so can't speak to the greater issues. Also, seeing red whenever I run across snippets of it gets in the way.

Just because some people don't understand that race is a multifaceted issue doesn't mean that Senator Obama should keep pretending that racial problems stem solely from slavery and only involve black people and white people. He should present a more accurate version of the truth.

Exactly. He's running for the most important elected position in the entire world. He shouldn't be addressing the lowest common denominator level of thought, he should be challenging us to raise our level of thinking. Life (and more relevantly here, race) is hard and complicated, and if he can't acknowledge that rather than spoon feed the USA pablum, how's he going to muster the will to take stands on similarly hard, complicated issues?

Bianca Reagan said...

Thanks, pd! From what I can gather, Senator Obama plans to tackle the tough issues with hope and change. Unfortunately neither my landlord nor my health care providers accept hope or change as payment.

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