Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Running a losing race.

Just a few thoughts, at the end of a vexing day, about Barack Obama's much-ballyhooed speech, this morning, on race. Actually, it is in part because of Sen. Obama's speech that I feel as vexed as I do. Unlike other members of media and most casual observers, who spent the afternoon figuring out how to out-fawn each other in lauding Obama's rhetoric, I was gravely disappointed in what the man had to say. (And remember, I say that as someone who has admitted, in recent posts and comments, that I'm learning towards voting for him.) If ever there were a golden opportunity—the perfect time and place—for someone to lift us above the whole racial melee that has stymied American culture for centuries, this was that time and place. Further, Obama was that perfect someone. He's the product of the union between a black father and a white mother.* Later, he had a Hawaiian stepfather. So he's not only "panracial," if you will, but he's also as close to being a voice for true unity as we've had in American politics in a long, long time.

Though I'll concede that I didn't really expect it, I had hoped that candidate Obama would use this opportunity, in the wake of the firestorm over the provocative statements made by his pastor, to simply disavow race. To say no mas. I had hoped that he would say something along the lines of: "OK. This stops here and now. Henceforth, I am not black. I am not white. I am not multiracial. I am nothing except Barack. Henceforth, I will not trade in race. Nor will I respond to issues framed in racial terms. Similarly, I exhort all of you who are listening to me, henceforth, to regard yourself as individuals and individuals only. You are not black people, you are not white people; you are people, period. And, you know, it doesn't matter if your stupid and/or bigoted neighbors continue to treat you like you're black or white or whatever. Don't respond to it. Don't rise to the challenge. Now, if that is the world you envision, and that is what you want for your children and grandchildren, then I invite you to follow me on this groundbreaking journey. Starting tomorrow. Let us work together to bring about real change.** Because in this case, the more we remember the past, the more we're condemned to repeat it."

Would that have been political suicide for Obama? Would it have cost him the support of, say, the 90 percent of black Democrats who support him in Southern states like Mississippi? I don't know. Maybe it would. But maybe it would've been worth the risk. Maybe there are millions upon millions of everyday Americans of all "races," who are as fed up as I am, and just waiting for someone to give them a voice.

And, folks, you know what? Sometimes you just do something because it's the right thing to do.

Mark my words: In the ensuing weeks and months, all we're going to hear from media is an ever-more-intense, endlessly minute dissection of the things that divide us. That, in the end, is what Sen. Obama will have wrought.

* Again, using the standard definitions of "black" and "white" that I resist, and have repeatedly attacked on this blog for both philosophical and biological reasons.
** i.e., as opposed to the phony, superficial kind bandied about in this campaign season.


Anonymous said...

Your comments on Obama's speech reminded me of the criticism Abraham Lincoln received from the abolitionists about slavery. They felt he was not doing enough to abolish slavery. The North thought the South should just go and be done with the war. Lincoln could please no one either. When he delivered the Gettysburg address, the reviews were just as mixed as Obama’s have been. Time will be the final judge for Obama’s speech too.

I think Obama did a brave thing by addressing how race still divides this nation. I agree with you about getting beyond race and gender, but not everyone is on that page yet. We cannot heal until we deal with that pain does exist and Obama addressed these feelings. I cannot imagine what it must be like to be of mixed race and Obama gave me a view into his world. I think his speech will go down in history as one of the best.

Steve Salerno said...

I don't agree with you, Anon, and I'll tell you why. The more I think about it, the more Obama's speech smacks of a political gesture. If you actually analyze what he said, it comes down to this:

1. We should not have racism in America.
2. The reasons why we have racism in America are valid.

2 totally undercuts 1.

So what he's doing is saying, "In theory I agree that we want a perfect world, but I don't want to lose my black constituency by implying that they need to get past their racial anger."

It's simply time for all of it to stop. I heard him again on Nightline last night and it was more of the same. He even took a step further, implying that his pastor has a right to feel that way, because of what's gone on in America through the years. I don't see it that way. Reverse-racism is still racism. Now, did whites begin this, and are they primarily responsible for extending the olive branch? Of course! But it doesn't matter anymore. Again, it's simply time for all of it to stop.

Anonymous said...

"1. We should not have racism in America.
2. The reasons why we have racism in America are valid.

2 totally undercuts 1."

Not quite, Steve. No. 1 is more of a wish, a moral postulate, if you will; while no. 2 is an acknowledgment of reality. They are not mutually exclusive.

Wishing does not change reality (and you, as the expert on SHAM should know it better than anyone else! :)

Between the reality (no. 2) and the wish to change it (no. 1) is the third step, which involves all that unpleasant and cumbersome work (that SHAMsters like to avoid), which, in the case of racial wounds (yes) inflicted by centuries of oppression, violence and degradation has to involve an honest acknowledgment of the pain and responsibility for it. And yes, some form of retribution. (This, btw, is one of those human emotional universals that we sometimes do not like to admit in our own hubris and/or discomfort.)
American society has not made that third step yet, but without it, a jump from no. 2 to no. 1 is impossible, no matter how hard we may wish it to be so.

Actually, the more we insist on sweeping the injustices of the past under the rug of our wishful thinking, the more we invite a vehement and opposing reaction, in this case in the form of what you call the "reverse racism." If continued "as is," this dynamic will result in deepening of mutual animosities, and increased conflict and resentment. (Here is another of those human emotional universals.)

The burden of stopping/changing the dynamic is primarily on the whites (and yes, CMC, I know you'll disagree). So where is that olive branch? It does matter, Steve, despite our wish to the contrary.

Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth, I am saying that 2 undercuts 1 in the sense of giving blacks "permission" to continue to feel aggrieved about the "centuries of oppression" you reference in your answer. (And--in a very real sense--it gives angry whites permission to continue the oppression!) But let's look at that for a moment, because I consider it highly germane and symptomatic of the problem. The human life span being what it is, none of us can be said to have experienced "centuries" of oppression. In fact, no one alive today experienced slavery. That legacy is kept alive in memory and in the so-called "collective experience" of a people--which is how racism is kept alive. The New Jersey legislature's recent formal apology for slavery (on the part of men and women who had never been party to that horrific practice) was, to me, nonsensical and counterproductive. I was reminded of the way in which affirmative-action policies often forced today's young people--many of whom don't have a single racist bone in their body--to nonetheless suffer for the sins of their forebears.

"Race memory" indeed!

Elizabeth, I have never owned a slave, and I refuse to have my life, conduct and work evaluated through that lens. That is what I mean about how--at a certain point--it becomes more important to forget history than to remember it. Otherwise it never goes away.

Obama's speech was a shrewd and calculated political act: He was treading an ingenious and expedient line, deploring racism in concept but nonetheless expressing solidarity with those who, like Rev. Wright, display an almost-virulent hatred for, and suspicion of, "white society." It's a strategy designed to placate (superficially thinking) whites while also sending reassurance to those in Obama's (supposed) "own community" that he feels their pain and won't abandon them.

Anonymous said...

I don't know Steve. Somehow, this discourse feels like your comment on skeptic.com about the limited truth found in any reporter's story. Your example included a reporter talking about the activity in the immediate vicinity - purporting to describe all of Iraq based on the activities in one town on one night. Or a reporter talking about the incessant rain to someone who is in the midst of a drought elsewhere.
It almost also feels like that anecdotal Pauline Kael (or whoever really said it) comment about not understanding how Nixon won since she didn't know anyone who voted for him.
In other words, "I don't consider race - when it comes to myself or anyone else! Doesn't everyone do that??"
No, clearly they don't. But don't misunderstand. I agree with you. Racism is alive and thriving in this country because we refuse to move past it as a nation. Why we refuse to move is another question entirely.
But the truth is, there are people who simply have their own frame of references about race and equality and prejudice that are the opposite of yours (and mine) and believe in their convictions just as strongly.
Saying why can't we all just get along is not helpful. And I know you've made much more cogent arguements about this than that - but it feels like it comes down to this from time to time.
Having Obama make the kind of statement you wish he had may have moved the needle just a bit closer to parity. He didn't - maybe for the reasons you speculated about. But maybe that's all the rest of us can do; inch that needle day by day, year by year.
Maybe we already are. Despite the hand-wringing going on about the electability of either democratic candidate, I look at them and I'm gratified to see that seven years after the twin towers, we have opened our collective minds enough to hear the message of a candidate named Barack Hussein Obama. Who could have predicted that would be the case on September 12, 2001? Or that we've moved past the idea that a woman can't run a viable campaign for the presidency? She is and she could very well become the nominee.
Maybe we're closer to gender-free, race-free dialogue than you think. And the media - our old friends - are keeping it alive to fan flames, sell newspapers and earn ratings. Maybe the rest of us are moving on - or are trying to.

Anonymous said...

I hear you, Steve, I do. And yes, again, from the logical POV, your arguments make sense. But when you enter the emotional dimensions (those universals, you know), pure logic does not apply. And let's just step away for a moment from Obama's speech and his possible motivations (btw, I do not like the guy).

There is such a thing as intergenerational trauma -- and it's a real thing, not a fancy term used by overzealous therapists. Collective memory is what it is and it does include suffering and pain, which affect generations to come. Look at the history of Jewish people, or look at the history of any peoples whose past was marred by conflict and violence. Or look at personal histories of individuals who experienced trauma, neglect and abuse (and look no further than your own SHAMblog). You can see how the pain of the past still shapes their perceptions and thoughts. And it cannot be otherwise, given our human physiology and psychology -- i.e. it can, but not without serious work/change. You cannot break the cycle of perpetuating pain and resentment, individually and collectively, without doing the work of acknowledgment and reparation. You simply cannot do it (as in, it is not possible). This is one of those universals that cut across culture lines. And it is as solid as the laws of gravity (I know, I know). So you can argue with it and rebel against it, but your anger and impatience won't change a thing. It takes time, Steve. And not 5 or 10 years. The longer the history of oppression (trauma), the longer the healing process.

The NJ apology strikes you as contrived and ridiculous, and in some ways it is, because it's just a formal pat on the back (sorta political "there, there, sorry for your pain, whatever, let's move on already"). It is disingenuous, though well-intentioned.

But you also observe that the young(er) generations are less racist (or not at all), so the change is already taking place. It'll come, with time. However, fighting "what is" won't speed up the process (imo and experience).

I have more to say on the subject, actually, but not sure if I find the time. Specifically, on "giving blacks "permission" to continue to feel aggrieved about the "centuries of oppression"".

OK, you (I, we) have no power to give anyone "permission" to feel anything. People feel what they feel, without waiting for anyone's permission. Our task is to understand what those feelings are and what they mean. If we want to start emotional healing, whether in individual lives or larger group interactions, we *must* acknowledge that emotional reality of our feelings, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. Again, this is one of the gravity-like laws of human behavior. And so is its flip-side, which tells us that whenever we deny the reality of anyone's feelings, we are setting ourselves up for misunderstanding, conflict, and continuing resentment and power struggle. It is what it is. And, btw, history does not go away just because we wish so.

You'll correct me if I'm wrong, but there appears to be a logical inconsistency in your thinking, Steve. Remember how in your post on Tolle's "now-ism" you so eloquently criticized his outlandish insistence that we abandon our past experience and deny its influences on the formation of our self, in the name of living totally in the present. You rightly pointed out that, on the individual scale, this is not quite possible and/or desirable. But here you seem to say (wish) that the same be done with our collective memory, since just because we did not experience history personally (a strange phrase, but you know what I mean), we should not let it influence our present existence. But to use your own arguments from the Tolle's discussion, it does not work this way, no matter how much we wish it did.

MC Cracker said...

The reality is that there is no such thing as "race" scientifically.

But its also reality that probably 98% of the US does not think that way.

Obama wants to get elected, so he is going to use every trick in the book.

Personally, I am against all the Race-Baiting.
But I also think Obama and his people made a brilliant political move to try and keep votes and stay in the race...(pun).

They've got no choice, you want to get elected in the USA, you gots to have your...

God, Guns, Race-baiting, Mexican-chasing, drug wars, terrorist killing, etc.

Steve, I think you are "ahead by a century" as they say...America is close to race-wars, people are pretty primitive out there...

I think the US racism is revolting, but its also Reality.

The politicos know that they have to appeal to various interest groups, so they throw ALL of them a bone to chew on, and thus their statements contradict themselves.

There is no other way to get elected.

Steve Salerno said...

I think, Anon, you raise what is the strongest objection to my way of thinking, and it's the one that my long-suffering wife throws at me all the time: "human nature." I agree with you in that the Rodney King Theorem--just saying "why can't we all get along?"--isn't going to cut it with some people, probably even most people. (And I also find some merit in the essence of a rather nasty, unrepeatable comment that someone sent to me this morning off-blog: that it's relatively easy for me, as a white male, to agree to shrug this stuff off.)

But Obama isn't "most people"; he's running for the presidency, for God's sake. I feel that he has a responsibility to rise above what is considered "human nature" and give us more of a clear sense of The Possible--especially since he's keyed his entire campaign to that ideal!

Human nature is not a static, eternal thing. It is malleable. We need to be doing a better job of...malle-ing.

Anonymous said...

That's my point.
I think we are malle-ing better. We just won't hear about it from people who need to sell us the "news."

Anonymous said...

Malle-ing! Love it! (The meds are not working, as you can probably tell ;).

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz, I could expand on how my views about Tolle and institutionalized racism are apples and oranges, but I frankly don't have the luxury of investing that much time this morning--I've already diverted too much time from projects that are going to pay me a very nice wage. And besides, again, I'm really more interested in what others have to say. I promise to get back to this for you, if you still want/require such a response, after others weigh in (which I sincerely hope they will). I suspect that the response from our West Coast contingent may be especially interesting.

Anonymous said...

I would be interested in your thoughts on it, Steve, whenever you have time. (I don't require them, however :).

Speaking of strange (non)apologies that fall into the "too little, too late" and "so what?" categories, I'm reminded of the Catholic Church's, specifically John Paul II's, "apologies," issued in 2000, to women in general and to Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600 for proclaiming that the Earth revolved around the Sun. (Mind you, despite the official "apology," Bruno was not "rehabilitated" in the eyes of the Church, since the Catholic powers-that-be decided that his teachings were still "incompatible" with Christian doctrine. In 2000, no less.)

As to women, well... The (non)apology was coached in the "we ask your forgiveness and at the same time we forgive you" language. (One feels tempted to ask, WT...? But one won't.)

If you want to perfect the art of non-apology, see this for examples:

But I digress.

The Crack Emcee said...

Sorry, guys/gals, but I can't read all this today - but I read Steve's post - and agree with it 100%. And have this one thought about it right now:

As the president used to repeat, leaders are supposed to "lead", and Obama didn't.

There may be a lot of (political) reasons why that is so - somebody may not like it being #1 - but it still means he failed at the most aspect of the position he's running for.

I wasn't going to vote for the guy, but he had a shot at getting me, and he blew it.

MC Cracker said...

I think its all just a chess-game to try and get elected.

Getting elected means getting that few % of votes that shift, just a few percent shift.

So its not about anything else than trying to get those few % of votes.

melissa said...

I would completely agree with you, Steve, if this had been a speech given by anyone other than someone running for political office.
This man is running in a tightly contested race to be president of the US. He does not have the luxury of giving the (better) speech you suggest. That is why politics sucks, of course, and also why we should listen to Noam Chomsky when he says to never EVER trust anyone who says "I want to be president". (I always think of that with the emphasis on WANT, but I also don't think I'd trust anyone who says "OK, fine, I'll be president if I have to.")
So, given that it was what it was, I was pretty happy with the speech. Whenever someone says something to me about how much racism (still) exists in America, I like to point out that it's important to recognize how far we've come in 150 years. A culture can't go from racial slavery to perfect racial harmony immediately (nor, apparently, in a couple of centuries). I believe this is one general point Obama was making - he was identifying the source of anger for some (especially older) blacks as real and valid, but at the same time saying that racism is less prevalent every day - so much so that a racism-free culture is foreseeable. (Now, he didn't say this, but the logical implication of this claim is also something I believe: that with each generation the "anger" becomes LESS valid.) Here's a quote from the speech that is especially relevant (emphasis added): "This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted." Please ponder that if you're under 50 (like me): segregation was the law 50 years ago. In terms of cultural evolution that is but the blink of an eye.

This is related to your point, Steve:

1. We should not have racism in America.
2. The reasons why we have racism in America are valid.
2 totally undercuts 1.

and yours, Elizabeth:

No. 1 is more of a wish, a moral postulate, if you will; while no. 2 is an acknowledgment of reality. They are not mutually exclusive.

I agree with Elizabeth, and I'll add (in the context of what I said above) that I see (1) as the long term goal and (2) as the reasons why we haven't gotten to (1) yet: it's not just that there's racism, it's that some of the emotions that contribute to racism are valid. I think this is an important distinction: the emotions (such as anger and fear due to mistreatment, which I'd argue are valid) and their manifestation as racism (which I'd argue is not valid in the same way that any stereotyping is not a valid way to judge individuals).

On a final note, I appreciated this jab at the (mainstream) media:
"The press has scoured every exit poll for the latest evidence of racial polarization..."
I wonder: how many people in this country would be thinking in terms of race/gender if their nightly news wasn't cramming down their throats every day? (Yes, it's everyone's responsibility to investigate further than the local news - I'm just asking the question.)

Steve Salerno said...

I don't get it. I swear, I just don't get it. So now we have this, from the paper just down the pike from me, the Philly Inquirer. Obama's speech was "brilliant"? (That is, in a sociological rather than political sense; I agree that it was brilliant politically.) This is "masterful" in helping America "overcom[e] racial divisions?" I say again: I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the "Philly Inquirer" wants to get Bush out, and get Obama in!

Call me a cynic, but I don't really believe anything I read in the paper about politics in an election year!

Its pretty amusing how they are trying to turn a Preacher screaming "God Damn America", into healing the Nation.

Maybe its all a satire, like Stephen Colbert.
I can't tell the difference anymore between media satire and media reality. If anything, the false-media satire, is more accurate than the media-falsehoods presented as true.

It all seems to make perfect sense to this old brain, for some reason.

The Crack Emcee said...


First, I wouldn't believe Noam Chomsky if he said it was raining and we were both drenched. Lying seems to come so easily for him it's scary. (And he's got Hugo Chavez's endorsement, so, so what?) Check out "Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles In Liberal Hypocrisy" for more. He's bad news.

Second, I snooped around in "black" neighborhoods after Obama's speech, and, nope, no major changes there. None in my "black" life either, and I was raised by two former sharecroppers. (My foster father, wearing coveralls, went out into the yard and, bawling, cried into a bucket all day when MLK died: I'll never forget that image for the rest of my life.) None of my "white" friends are different either. No one I know - not one person - has even mentioned it.

Maybe I'm expecting too much but I thought a "major" speech on race, that people are calling "brilliant", should have made us think differently on the subject - didn't happen. Should have caused us to be nicer to one another - didn't happen. Should have gotten us to talking about race (not the fact Obama made a speech) - didn't happen. Obama just shifted the focus from his long association with, the very-wrong, Wright to America's long association with blacks. (As far as I can tell, that's what brought Obama to where he is.) I wouldn't let him get away with it: If he can't even stand up to his own pastor, for the country he claims he'll take an oath to defend, then there's no way he can stand up to foreign dictators. It's that simple.

John McCain did it.


No, man, you got it. You got it. You really did get it. There's just nothing there.


Your brain is fine: It's the media that's the joke now.

Anonymous said...

I have not heard the speech and I have avoided reading it. I'm a Nader man so Obama really doesn't count to me (nor does Hillary nor McCain). But since he is unique in recent history, from time to time he pings on my peripheral radar.

Interesting your reaction to his speech, Steve. I heard one liberal radio host say he "addressed up like adults." Hm!

Are any of you aware of this video?

"He Was Born Trash," Pastor Says Of Obama

And because I want the guy to have a fair(er) hearing, I posted this too:

Follow-Up To That Obama Video Post

I also invited him to post:

Invitation To Pastor Manning

I also think Manning has a vlid point:

Pastor Manning Asks A Valid Obama Question

And on the general subject of race, this blog is hot:

How Hot Can A Blog Get?

Anonymous said...

Crack, see this on McCain (a lighter note):

And then this (not so light):