Wednesday, April 02, 2008

"Obama’s balancing act"

The Times (South Africa):
Black hopeful has to allay white fears while confronting racism, says Andrew P Jones--Think of your average black manager who works in corporate America. As a high-level executive in the company, he enjoys a good salary, perks and lives a nice life.

The problem is that in the workplace no high fives among blacks are allowed, no black jokes, no banter with the black male and female colleagues he is close to in church or elsewhere outside the work environment are tolerated.
Ironically, though, among whites he is free to intermingle as he pleases and, among his white colleagues, relationships that extend outside the workplace carry on into the job environment. However, any commensurate level of camaraderie among black executives is frowned upon.

On one hand, institutional racism demands that he associate mainly with whites to get to where he wants to go. On the other, it is his blackness and his associations with black people that make him feel good about himself .

Now overlay this scenario on black and white America and you can begin to understand how and why Barack Obama is bound to get into trouble. He has to tell white America what it wants to hear to get its votes, while the authenticity of his message rests in a tone of voice that can only be masked for so long.

Obama received his political acculturation in the heart of black America, the south side of Chicago — Harold Washington, Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan country — a place so segregated that whites and blacks have long since accepted it as the status quo. Black politicians in Chicago have known for decades that if they are to get elected, black people are going to vote for them and vice versa for whites.

In black communities, the pulpit of the church has traditionally been a place where black ministers could speak their minds freely.

And in the old days, when black men worked for the post office and talented black businesswomen had to settle for running hair-dressing shops, the church was a sanctuary where black professionals could congregate and commune.

In the same way that during the period preceding the June 1976 uprising many young people here in South Africa were taught and inspired by teachers in black schools, black professionals were nurtured politically by radical reverends in cities like Atlanta and Chicago .

Obama was among a generation of young black professionals, many of whom attended black churches and in doing so found mentorship and a spiritual home. By his own admission, Reverend Wright, who seven years ago uttered the words “God damn America” was Obama’s spiritual and political mentor. He married Obama and his wife, Michelle, and introduced them both to black political religious thought. My guess is that Wright opened political doors for Obama to be accepted by the black people of Illinois .

A further truth and perhaps the most profound one is that, given the tradition of the church, Wright was not preaching hate when he condemned Bill Clinton over his affair with Monica and reminded America of Nagasaki and Hiroshima just after 9/11. Black people in black churches are not counselled by black ministers to hate white people. What they are told, though, is that white ain’t automatically right because it’s white and black is not always wrong for the same reason.

In the context of that message, the more politically aware ministers like Wright have been known to remind black parishioners of the importance of dealing with their own self hate as opposed to preaching hate for whites. And that has to do with a legacy of slavery and racism that has split most black people in two.

On the one hand we love our country and see ourselves as an integral part of it. On the other, much of what the US stands for has to do with our oppression and increasingly a kind of imperial oppression over the entire world, something many black people find worrying.

Obama knows this. His problem, though, like that of the black average manager, is the extent to which he can utter the truth in public and still have white America accept him as their leader. If he chooses to develop his political and spiritual association with black America to the extent that he prioritises our concerns, then white America could turn on him and there goes his dream. Maybe.

Yet black leaders have no choice but to condemn racism because not to do so would mean perpetuating those systems that are the causes of slavery and oppression.

This is a fine line to draw at a time when the US stands closer than ever to having a person of colour as Commander-in-Chief .

# Jones is an African-American man who has lived in South Africa for 13 years and is a TV producer and violinist.



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