Wednesday, March 19, 2008

An Obama Critique

marjorie says...

Part of me doesn't want to post this, because I honor the sentiments made here yesterday (I was still entertaining folks from out of town so wasn't able to weigh in). And, in general I really loved the core of Obama's speech, which exhorted the white American public to open their hearts and really see the root of racism (which he primarily presents in black and white terms).

Having said this, there are some glaring omissions, and significant points of disagreement I have with what he said:

  • The original sin of this country was not slavery, it was the genocide of the native people. To hear him speak, this was an empty place when Europeans arrived. This is an example of what is easy for a politician to gloss over, but in fact it's profoundly important that we find a way as a nation to truly acknowledge our history in this regard, rather than perpetuate the myth we currently learn in elementary school.
  • Obama toes the Middle East geo-political line, and this disappoints me greatly. The issues in the Middle East are much deeper and broader than radical Islam. What he says in his speech is scape-goating of the highest order that leaves the United States and Israel, not to mention the entire Western colonial past, off the hook.
  • Following on these two points, there is a strong current of American exceptionalism present in his speech. I understand “love of country” but this tendency parallels in a disturbing way the white exceptionalism that is at the root of racism in the first place.
  • Where in his comments regarding Wright does he acknowledge that while Hillary Clinton may not know what it is to be called the N-word (as Wright said), she certainly knows what it’s like to be called a Bitch, along with numerous other, much worse gender specific words?
  • Obama situates the black men and women in prison as examples of people who lack opportunity due to race. In this respect, he places the blame for the monstrosity we have constructed on them. This is a tricky area to wade into because in our efforts to achieve just social change there is a balance we have to find between individual action and social responsibility. But in this country, the prison system is a monstrosity and it is irresponsible to mention it in the way that he did.
  • His final story is about the elderly black man recognizing his commonalities with Ashley, the young white woman. He says that is where the new beginning starts. While I admire and respect the sentiment, and feel that in many respects its quite true, I do believe it’s twisted backwards. The overwhelming need is for white people to recognize the young black woman or man. Black folks recognize us just fine and have done so for many generations.

These are points that have to be made, and frankly, I could probably make more. But the greater significance of his speech transcends the many points of disagreement I (clearly) have with Barack Obama. A lot of people have been debating whether or not he should have made a speech about race at all. And let me point out here that I would have preferred to have first heard Clinton address race given the comments of Steinem and Ferraro in the past couple of months. But, perhaps in the end Clinton simply isn't capable of making a speech of this nature.

That Obama had to give the speech in the first place to counter what his Pastor said in youtube clips making the rounds shows the entrenched racism that exists here. He could have taken the safe route and disowned Wright entirely, but instead he demonstrated very clearly that he has quite a lot of integrity, and is quite loyal to his community. And, by the way, while I might not have made the comments using the same manner or words of Pastor Wright, for the most part I agree with his sentiments.

I love that Obama described the complexity and lack of homogeneity that exists within the African American world (situated in this case within the church):

“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.”

It’s an acknowledgment of nuance seldom heard from politicians, or for that matter within our own microcosms of the world. No, Obama can’t forsake his Reverend, a man full of contradictions. I’m sure many of you understand the feelings of love you can have for people who at times do or say things you vehemently disagree with. What he described above is certainly true within the white community. The world is indeed full of contradictions and we can’t sweep them under the rug. I appreciate that he didn't disavow his minister or his church, both of which are entirely admirable, while reaching out to white America.

I greatly respect Obama's effort in his speech to situate working class white folks within the struggle. This is one of the central factors that makes him appealing to so many, and we can see why here. As we know, one of the hallmarks of our racist past was the elevation of the white working class above people of color as a way to sow disunity, ultimately leading to the horrendously racist structure of our country. In his speech, Obama recognizes the history while acknowledging the current reality of the white working class. He makes a clear and strong distinction between those in power and all the rest of us. In this regard he strays into radical territory, at the same time he says racism isn't endemic. This is akin to saying that cancer can actually be cured in our lifetime. And you know what? We want to believe it can even if time and again we tell ourselves it's impossible. I appreciate greatly his desire to forge reconciliation in this way without silencing the anger that legitimately exists, and for this he deserves major brownie points. Let's hope the media and the pundits lead the way toward a thoughtful discussion of what Obama had to say, rather than a sensationalistic and/or reactionary one.