Thursday, August 29, 2013

Obama and white racism in America

The symbolism of Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, who is preparing to blow up a bunch of Syrians to demonstrates his macho Credibility, celebrating the anti-militarist protester and Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech yesterday was jarring enough.

He added to the incongruity by saying this:

And then, if we're honest with ourselves, we'll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support -- as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.
I apparently wasn't the only who for whom that passage sounded like Obama throwing something is as a sop to the people who hate his guts and always will. He just can't seem to help himself.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, who's generally an Obama loyalist, writes in On the Death of Dreams Atlantic Online 08/29/2013:

Barack Obama has taken the stage at a moment when it is popular to assert that black people are the agents of their own doom. The response to Trayvon Martin, indeed the response to Barack Obama himself, has been to attack black morality, to highlight black criminality and thus change the conversation from what the American state has done to black people, to what black people have done to themselves. ... Barack Obama believes that these people have a point. [my emphasis]
Coates is actually going beyond seeing it as a sop to white racists. He thinks Obama actually believes in this posture.

Chauncey DeVega in Why? Barack Obama Decides to Publicly Scold Black Americans (Again) During His March on Washington Anniversary Speech WARN 08/29/2013 makes a similar point, "Barack Obama is in his second and final term. He does not need to worry about being reelected."

In other words, he doesn't have any particular reason to be saying stuff like this, and on an occasion like yesterday's, if he doesn't actually believe it. DeVega:

History is his most important audience now.

Will President Obama be remembered as the country’s first Black President? Or alternatively, will Obama be remembered as a President who happened to be black? This is a subtle distinction; it is also very important as we attempt to locate Barack Obama relative to the long Black Freedom Struggle and the Civil Rights Movement.

Barack Obama's speech on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s "I have a Dream Speech" would seem to suggest that he is more comfortable with the second title. Ultimately, Barack Obama's public scolding of Black Americans is not being done for some short-term political goal, i.e. to win a presidential election by having an obligatory for Democratic candidates "Sister Souljah" moment. Given his habit of publicly calling out black folks' perceived and imagined cultural and moral failings, on some level, Obama must believe such things to be true. [my emphasis]

The long-deceased Nobel Peace Prize winner King, on the other hand, was willing to challenge white racism directly. From his speech that has been idolized and trivialized as the "I Have A Dream Speech," he said:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This; is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality - 1963 is not an end but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.
Even in a short excerpt like this, the radical - and radical is the right word - difference between Obama's and MLK's perspective is evident. Obama often used the phrase "the fierce urgency of now" in his 2008 campaign for the Presidency. But it didn't seem to have much more content for him than voting for his election.

And think of the people to whom Obama was conceding by throwing in his churlish, scolding paragraph against black people yesterday, the FOX News addicts and the Rush Limbaugh fans. How did they or their equivalents at the time react in 1963 to a line like, "Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual"?

Easy to answer: the same way they react to Obama today, no matter how mildly and "bipartisan" the way he expresses things. But King was willing to get in their face and call them on their nonsense. Obama is more inclined to conciliate them by repeating it.

Also from King's 1963 speech:

There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of onr nation until the bright days of justice emerge.
There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression ...
I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification ...
By contrast, Obama speaks in the way Chauncey DeVega describes:

... while Obama wants action on the part of black folks to improve themselves, there is no equivalent demand that white people take responsibility for white racism.

The President's March on Washington anniversary speech is a crystallization of the price of admission Barack Obama paid in order to become the country’s first black Chief Executive.

For example, Obama talks in broad and inclusive ways about the racial progress made in America, while continuing to remind the public of the work that remains — all the while not proposing any race specific solutions to these problems.

Obama avoids talking about the particular struggles and concerns of the African-American community because in his own words, he is "the president of all Americans."

And the country’s first black president publicly scolds African-Americans, with the sum effect being to legitimate a narrative and logic that black and brown folks somehow share in the responsibility for how white racism, both structural and inter-personal, has negatively impacted people of color's life chances.
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