Sunday, March 23, 2008

"Obama breaks the secret code"

Christopher Caldwell (Financial Times-UK):
Towards the end of his speech about race on Tuesday, Barack Obama made an observation that was raw enough to knock any attentive American listener out of his chair.
Mr Obama was talking about one of his campaign volunteers, a white woman in her 20s, who as a girl had proclaimed that her favourite food was mustard sandwiches, in the hope of making her single mother feel less bad about being poor. This girl had kept her faith in other people, Mr Obama said, even though “perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work”.

All Americans have heard such talk; no recent politician has ever been remotely brave enough to allude to it, even when quoting a hypothetical third party. It is not clear whether Mr Obama’s 37-minute address will help or hinder him on his road to the White House. But it is potentially a great service to his country. For one morning at least, Mr Obama left off trying to inspire and chose instead to explain.

Sceptics would say that this is because Mr Obama had a lot of explaining to do. The pastor of the church he has attended for 20 years, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, has been captured on video preaching angry sermons, some of them true but impolitic (the US was built on ideas of “white supremacy and black inferiority”), some anti-American (the attacks of September 11 2001 were America’s “chickens coming home to roost”) and some nutty (the US developed the Aids virus as a means of curbing the black population).

No one has demonstrated any political affinity between the two men. Rev Wright described himself to the Christian Science Monitor last year as more a sparring partner than a mentor. Mr Obama has dropped Rev Wright from his campaign. Yet voters, with good reason, remain worried.

Mr Obama has chosen to reassure them not by minimising the meaning of Rev Wright’s anger but by maximising it, showing it to be part of a widespread subterranean current. “That anger,” Mr Obama says, “may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.”

While attacking Rev Wright’s harsher sermons, Mr Obama defended him as a man, described him as “like family” and portrayed his views as the by-product of a broader social failure in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, one that afflicts both blacks and whites.

“I can no more disown him,” Mr Obama said, “than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”

This use of his own grandmother as a prop in a wider argument has led many to attack Mr Obama as simplistic and cynical. What is the equivalence between a grandmother’s fear of black crime, for which statistics give some grounds, and a preacher’s free-floating ideas that the US government is engaged in germ warfare against its own citizens?

But this is actually where the subtlety of Mr Obama’s argument lies. It explains why he chose to strip his speech of customary euphemisms. The cornerstone of all his policies on race has been that black progress, as he said on Tuesday, “means binding our particular grievances – for better healthcare, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans”.

Obviously, this means that blacks need to know what the aspirations of other Americans are.

Under the present system of race relations, that cannot happen. A very interesting book published this week shows why. In Racial Paranoia (Basic Books, $26/£15.99), the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist John L. Jackson Jr suggests that extravagant theories of white racism – from the widespread Aids rumour to Louis Farrakhan’s allegation that the US actually blew up the levees to cause the deadly New Orleans floods during Hurricane Katrina – have their roots in the decorous language that mostly white leaders have invented for talking about race.

The US has not managed to eliminate racism, Mr Jackson thinks, but it has succeeded in eliminating racist talk. Remarks the slightest bit “insensitive” draw draconian punishment. White people, because they feel thoroughly oppressed by this regime, assume that it must be some kind of “gift” to minorities, especially blacks.

It is not. It is more like a torment. It renders the power structure more opaque to blacks than it has ever been, leaving what Mr Jackson calls a “scary disconnect between the specifics of what gets said and the hazy possibilities of what kinds of things are truly meant”. If the historic enemies of your people suddenly began talking about you in what can fairly be called a secret code, how inclined would you be to trust in their protestations of generosity?

This is the core of the problem Mr Obama aims to address. Bringing subterranean racial narratives into the light of day, where they can be debated openly, is a risk. Although the early news coverage of his speech has been positive, polls appear show that what Americans most want from Mr Obama is a simple demonstration that he is not like Rev Wright.

That is not exactly what they got. But they did get something better: the offer of a more intimate relationship among the races, a less instrumental use of them by US politicians and a breaking of the monopoly on interracial dialogue that has until now been held by elite censors. Americans ought to take him up on it.
Howie P.S.: The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.



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