Race And The Campaign

by dday

I want to discuss Barack Obama's speech on race and politics, but first I want to say that I have a problem with these expected blog posts on expected speeches that the dynamics of 21st-century campaigns demand. This election has turned into some kind of bizarre series of rituals, like an season of Greek theater where everybody knows the plot and the audience is left to judge the work on the presentation. The parade of comment, counter-comment, conference call about comment, distancing from comment, and major speech incorporating remarks about comment is the real distraction in this campaign, diverting from a looming economic recession (a recession at BEST) and a tragic stalemate in Iraq. Rarely does anything good for the country come out of this exchange.

Furthermore, I'm sick and tired of this "action figure" conservatism where a bunch of stay-at-home bloggers decide for others what they should do in particular situations. "If I were Obama, I would have stood up during the sermon and fired a poison dart at Rev. Wright and talked about the need to cut the capital gains tax!" The imagined fantasies of these clowns resemble a Chuck Norris movie, when the realities involve far more Cheetos and nasal spray.

That out of the way, this speech by Obama, and I might as well embed the YouTube...

...does have value and merit, and actually stands alone as a beginning point, not an end to a controversy.

In answering the question "why didn't you leave the church, Sen. Obama?" he offers a different question. "Why are you looking at one speech and one church and one moment when the issue, what we've been facing for 230 years, is race in America?" The distraction that I mentioned at the top is what takes these questions about race off into cul-de-sacs, detours, and blind alleys. This speech is actually the first true conversation about race in America in this campaign. It's one that makes people uncomfortable and uneasy and hedging. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood; have seen up-close bias in particularly the older generations of my family; have lived in Chicago, where you can be in the Loop and see all the African-Americans on one side of the subway headed south and all the white people headed north; and have engaged with the issue of race from at best a detached viewpoint. What I do believe, and what Sen. Obama remarked upon today, is this issue of distraction, which feeds biases on all sides and disables us from working together to come to terms with race and solve the problems people of all races share. I thought this was an important moment. Obama talks about white resentment and anger, which play on racial fears, and how these have been skillfully used to "forge the Reagan coalition," which is a pretty big admission for a political candidate.

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.

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 [...] But I have asserted a firm conviction – a conviction rooted in my faith in God and my faith in the American people – that working together we can move beyond some of our old racial wounds, and that in fact we have no choice is we are to continue on the path of a more perfect union [...]

For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina - or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That's a progressive critique of the class-based economy, wrapped in a larger critique of these ritualized resentments that keep everyone apart. I don't know or really care if it will work electorally; but it was vital that it is said on a big stage out loud. The "bring us together instead of drive us apart" thematic of the Obama campaign has been viewed by some as a kind of high Broderism, as a false sense that through bipartisanship people with different ideologies and beliefs can work in harmony and peace. That misunderstands things a bit, in my view. Obama is talking about bringing together those Americans who already share the same beliefs but have had wedges driven between them. There's nothing particularly novel about this concept but we've been so rightly skeptical of messages of unity that I think it's gotten muddled.

Conservatives are already firing up the wedges again in reaction to this speech. I heard Rush say that Obama has "now become a racial candidate," I guess because he said the word race. Their true nature is going to be coming out in this reaction; the fear, the anger, the desperation, the racism. Obama's speech is large and has a lot of nuance that won't play in soundbites. I don't really care to get into the politics of it, but I think we'll see in the ultimate result whether we're a nation that still pays attention to these petty concerns and wedges, or whether we can judge a man on the content of his character.

(no pie fights if you can help it, please, I'm speaking generally about conservative divisiveness and how it's played out in the context of race.)