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No Country for Old (Black) Men

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2008/09/obamastanding1.jpgSen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) (WDCpix)

Until his pastor’s most incendiary sound bites re-circulated on the web, Sen. Barack Obama had managed to be the “post-racial,” “post-partisan” candidate to all America — an unimposing black buddy some white men never had, an attraction to women across racial and ethnic lines. But Rev. Jeremiah A Wright Jr.’s selected sermons suddenly threatened all that, just as racial divisiveness emanated from his Democratic rival’s camp. Tuesday, Obama decided to respond by addressing race in America head on.

The question is whether this master orator and personification of racial unity could show a cynical nation how to talk to about race amid a battle of metaphors about Wright.

The tightrope cliché doesn’t begin to describe the challenge Obama faced. It is not just blue-collar white men in Pennsylvania whom Obama had to reassure, but a significant number of educated white liberals there and elsewhere concerned, for example, about Wright’s statements about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. The endless replaying of four or five Wright snippets is often characterized as racist and hateful, but their actual content suggests a deeper fear that could join many white constituencies: radical anti-Americanism.

Obama-column2.jpg
Obama-column2.jpg

Wright’s references to “Goddamn America,” “government lies” about 9/11, complicity in South African apartheid and “state-sponsored terrorism against Palestinians” are probably more troublesome to many than his comments about how the presidency has been “controlled by rich white people” (it has, hasn’t it?). For maximum effect, the foreign-policy linkages end with a statement once attributable to Malcolm X —“America’s chickens have come home to roost.”

That these remarks occurred in the setting of all-black churches apparently compounds the outrage, converting any loyalty to these words into an act of treason. The most virulent comments I saw repeated on websites usually invited Wright to “get the f*** out of this country.” That sentiment is probably only an extreme version of other suspicions.

Despite the social and religious segregation that must be the precondition to such revelations about how black folks talk, many white voters seemed appalled that over in black churches “they” are not thinking the same American thoughts that I am.

This is the angry metaphor of Wright that Obama took on in his speech — after assiduously avoiding race for so long. What Obama did was to stand in the gap with humble magnificence. The speech was often brilliant. Politically, however, it remains to be seen if this is how to talk to white people about race — giving a long, complex speech that few will hear in its entirety. And teaching, even from the middle, is not done in presidential campaigns.

But teach he did, because the dare that Obama accepted was to believe himself so capable a unifier that he could explain vast oceans of difference primarily to white people so that he could then do the work of unifying all.

Remember that the United States is still secretly a segregated country. Obama reminded us that older black men — whom Chris Rock called the most racist people in the world — grew up with legal segregation. So did Obama. It’s just that, since the 1970s, most segregation comes about through racially neutral laws. Also the fiscal rules demanded of towns and small cities create incentives to exclude the minority poor at all cost. This is the main reason why Sunday morning, as Obama also mentioned, is the most segregated time of the week. (Saturday is pretty segregated, too, if you think about it.)

At some essential level of cultural abstraction, what it means to be black in this country is to manage the anger of a persistent past, to understand the power of humiliation as a daily depressant and to overcome it anyway with love, laughter and growth.

Then stop and consider what we really mean by racial identity, at least between “black” and “white.” At some essential level of cultural abstraction, what it means to be black in this country is to manage the anger of a persistent past, to understand the power of humiliation as a daily depressant and to overcome it anyway with love, laughter and growth. That identification has lots of material expressions, but for many it is spiritually known. And for a lot of American blacks, underlying that spiritual connection is a notion of Christianity rooted in service, redemption and liberation. The boundaries of racial and religious identity aren’t so clear when they rely on similar constructions.

However, the nature of white identity in this context is fundamentally different. It does not follow racialized traditions as readily. Sure, 25 percent of white men polled in Ohio may have said that race mattered to their votes, and at least as many in Pennsylvania may agree. But racial identity is rarely an article of faith—-an aspect of one’s religious identity–when you see yourself as merely normal. One’s “whiteness” often matters only when another’s “blackness” enters the room. It is not a salient feature of identity until provoked, so to speak, and then it can often be very defensive about the relationship. A colorblind or “post-racial” society implies an end to these discomforts. Obama’s candidacy appeared to oblige.

Along came Wright’s greatest hits and, for those who looked, his motto: Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian. This is another reason Sundays are so segregated. Audaciously, Obama was trying to show why they should not be, while he walked yet another tightrope. In the same speech in which he set forth the idea of a progressively evolving society (“perfecting a union” that once legalized slavery), he attempted to use rather than reject the metaphor of the Wright he knows. With that metaphor of the man, people are not “disowned” because they are angry. Reconciliation does not often occur through repudiation. For that matter, disposability may be a consumer trait, but not a Christian one, Obama seemed to argue. It was a gesture not lost on many blacks.

How often does heavy stuff work anywhere, let alone a presidential campaign?

But why would he do all this in one speech? This is heavy stuff. How often does heavy stuff work anywhere, let alone a presidential campaign? When’s the last time you succeeded by explaining the source and substance of someone’s anger?

First of all, in the other metaphor, Wright, it turns out, is no foolish old man. He holds a doctorate and is considered one of the finest black ministers in the nation. A thorough review of his sermons reveals a deeply thoughtful man, committed to assisting the weak, the poor and the vulnerable. Though his prophetic tradition is by no means the only one in the black church today, it has variations as old as slavery and as familiar as Martin Luther King Jr. It espouses a model of Jesus as a liberator of the poor against the powerful, which fits not only the lives of many blacks but of whites, Latinos, Asians and Native Americans in this country. In Wright’s prophetic stream of oratory, anger is neither hatred nor racism — just a reasonable reaction to oppression.

In the sermon that inspired Obama to call his second book “The Audacity of Hope,” Wright describes in a warm and almost professorial tone how the biblical Hannah’s audacity was to sit in her rags atop a war-torn world, holding a harp with but one string left, and play for hope.

Obama could not, and would not, jettison such thinking, unusual though it might be. It is also why his speech includes a careful recital of the structure of racism—the lasting wealth effects of housing discrimination, generations of marginalized black workers, the anguish and anger of drugs, crime and incarceration—the things a significant number of black people struggle with but can overcome with shared resources.

It would have been nice if Obama had reached further beyond the black-white binary to remind a nation of immigrants unfamiliar with our early racial history how crippling racial myths can be. This is perhaps the third Wright metaphor—his perspective on the difficulties many people of color face while seeking inclusion in the benefits of a productive society.

This is the point — assuming it can be heard. Most people can appreciate this message of personal struggle in their lives, especially as recession sets in. The prospect for unification is obvious except for the face and intonations of the speaker.

What may be most radical about Obama’s approach is that he believes he can somehow reveal to a divided electorate the falsity of their standard fault lines and lead them to a unity of interests. (Jesse Jackson dared the same thing in 1984.) It is audacious to think that what is good for the poorest among us can benefit the middle, too, but it may be true.

Until last week, this was presumably the Obama “movement”—Obamamania. With this speech, the real costs of unification are clearer. What was seductive rhetoric is now racial and economic realism. The results may be the same, but the country’s path to it looks rockier and more challenging, informed by—but not littered with—old black men. Yet they too, Obama admonished, must acknowledge that change is possible.

Now comes the fear and what we do about it.

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