Sunday, March 23, 2008

Rant: He Tried, He Really, Really Tried (Part 1)

I admire Barack Obama's earnest, articulate and well-thought-out discourse on race in the U.S.. He really tried, and I thought did a fairly decent job (as good as anyone could do in his position, and in this moment in U.S. history) to explain and enlighten White and other non-Black Americans about the 'roots' of Black anger, and the cultural and historical context of his pastor, Reverend Wright's, 'incendiary' comments about White people, the American government and imperialism. Although I don't agree with Obama's analysis of race as he presented it in his speech, I appreciate the impossible position he was trying to maneuver out of on this issue. And ultimately, he showed that he was up to the task of talking about race in America while running for President as a Black man, which is no small thing. He executed brilliantly.

Of course, there was going to be backlash. Just some examples, from both white and non-white commentators, here, here, and here.

There was also praise, from many important 'opinion' papers across the country, and from activists supportive of Obama's campaign, and even from New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, a former Democratic Presidential hopeful who's now said he'll endorse Obama. As to be expected, the Republicans are trying to say that only the 'elite' are praising Obama's now-famous 'race speech'. (Funny how rich white Republicans can claim that only Democrats and other left-leaning folks are 'elite', isn't it?). And according to several sources, some Democrats are planning to vote for--holy crap--McCain if Clinton's not the nominee.

An African-American man, talking about race and Black people's anger in a way that wasn't condemning or distancing himself from the man who was the source of these 'angry, hateful' comments? No way was Obama going to get away with that. The majority of people in this country (and I include non-Black people of color in this statement, yet) cannot deal with Black anger. Plain and simple. Even when it's framed in such palatable, striving-for-understanding-and-unity, tolerant terms. It's not to be tolerated. Period.

But it makes me wonder, and not in a vindictive way, but in the spirit of true objectivity, how many White pastors in the country routinely make 'hate-filled', xenophobic, and outright racist comments in their sermons every week? Don't the MinuteMen patrol the U.S. border with Mexico as pseudo-Christian (because surely Jesus Christ would never have patrolled a border with a rifle on his shoulder) militia warriors in an effort to keep out the barbarian, Catholic Latino hordes? I wonder what some White pastors out there say about Arab 'heathen' terrorists. How much media time on Fox was spent on Mike Huckabee's white supremacist connections?. Do we not see any of this stuff as racist because these folks have gotten so good at 'coding' their language--e.g. 'inner city' = Black, 'greedy' = Jew, 'illegals' = Latino undocumented immigrants? Aren't all these attitudes and words racist too?

Of course not! Because if a White person generalizes in a negative (or positive, for that matter) way about a group of people of color, it must mean it's true, and not just a reflection of their own fear or ignorance of people that don't look or sound or think like them.

But if you're Black, and you criticize White people--even though as a pastor you may often use exaggerated, Biblical, fire-and-brimstone language to talk about other things, like adultery and sin and damnation that non-White people may commit and be punished for--you better watch out, because then you're a racist.

To me, the so-called 'dialogue' on race in this country, if you can call it that, largely consists of people of color trying to justify our emotions, our frustrations with the still-prevalent institutional racism that exists on all levels of society, and trying to assuage White people's fears that we're not going to take over, or that we really want to live peacefully with them, or that we want 'fairness' too. But the reason why we do this, why we bend over backwards to make White people feel better about not being racist or about having their own anger about things like affirmative action, Barack Obama, etc., is because we have bought into their beliefs too.

You see, all of this race stuff is based on the idea that this country is, at its core, a meritocracy. That if you work hard enough, sacrifice enough, that if you do what you're supposed to do to get ahead, then you will. And that is true for some people in this country. The American Dream has become reality for many people, especially recent immigrants. But it's not true for for most people. And for them, the people that stay stuck in poverty, or that end up in prison, or that don't manage to 'rise above', we tell them that it's just their own fault. They didn't try hard enough, they didn't do their best. Basically, they suck.

In reality, this country is no pure meritocracy. Success in this country depends on who you know as much as it does on your education/intelligence, skill or courage. It's a proven fact that most people get jobs based on their personal networks, and those in power are more likely to hire people that they know. So much for meritocracy. For example, if you happen to be born into an oil-baron family in Texas but can barely manage to spell or pass military tests, it doesn't matter--because you can STILL become the President of the United States for two full terms! (Sound familiar?)

Part two to follow soon....

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