Sunday, March 23, 2008

On Race and Power in America

Digby writes the most astute post I've seen in the aftermath of Obama's race speech. She gives voice to many of the themes I've seen crop up in conversations I've had since the speech--ones I frankly haven't had the courage to voice.
Perhaps I have a different sense about this than others, but I personally didn't find what he said to be all that shocking. Many of his comments on racial issues were as true as they were discomfiting and his views on American error weren't illogical or unprecedented. Like virtually everyone else, I understood immediately upon hearing them that they were going to be a political problem but on the substance (except for the HIV stuff, which is rank conspiracy theorizing) they weren't indefensible. Indeed, they speak to the essence of what separates us from the lockstep, chauvinistic , American exceptionalism of the right. No, we aren't "blame America first" fifth columnists. But neither are we "blame America never" which means that we have a much clearer eye about our government's sometimes irrational and immoral actions than conservatives do.
You should go read the whole, long thing. It's worth the nine minutes. She essentially fleshes out the "more perfect union" idea Obama introduced, spicing it with unflinching liberalism he can't touch. She spoke some truths that, for the sake of political viability, no Democratic politician can ever make, like this:
The subjects of race and religion make people uncomfortable and challenge their own view of themselves creating all kinds of emotional dissonance. We saw that with Katrina, when even the most committed liberals didn't want to admit that race played a part in the response to the tragedy or the conditions that led to it. Time and again I was challenged on the subject by those who insisted it wasn't about race, it was about class, and by discussing it racial terms I was perpetuating the myth. I disagree. It is no myth. Progress has been made, but as I wrote at the time, the single most powerful lingering vestige of racism is an irrational fear of an angry black mob --- led by an angry black man. That informs the perpetual fear among whites that Obama mentions in his speech and that's the political minefield Obama and Reverend Wright walked into when those tapes surfaced.
and this:
And sadly, those who do that fighting are often considered to be "unamerican" and "unpatriotic" because by demanding that America change, they are making a case that America is not perfect. For the chauvinist, nationalist, exceptionalist right, (and the mindbogglingly provincial thinkers in the village) that is something you are not allowed to admit.
(Imagine a graceful segue here as I move on to a thought I've been mulling.) In an email discussion I had with a black woman over the Obama speech, we discussed what people say behind closed doors. What has mainly said among the non-blacks I know as a result of this speech is pretty much what Digby wrote in her post. But here's a key point: the people I know are statistical outliers. They're pacificists and Buddhists and vegetarians. They don't understand why Kucinich isn't mainstream.

And this is the point: there are many conversations among whites behind closed doors. Whites are not a demographic--especially in a country where they comprise 80% of the population. Some of them, like this guy who's making waves today, have evolved past eighteenth-century racism to mid-20th century racism. (Call it Dixiecrat racism: it's okay that whites don't own blacks, but for God's sake, don't let them use our toilets.) Others are outright racists. Others are not racist, but know that they can't comprehend what it looks like to live black in America and would rather not try. Others, like Obama pointed out, already feel kicked around and feel that it sucks that their status is not privileged, as they think blacks are. (A mindbender to be sure, but there you have it.)

If the speech did anything, it allowed us to start talking. Digby notes that it's going to be a hard road a'hoe for Obama to get elected in a country that has such a charged relationship to race. It's going to be tough, but whoever thought it wouldn't be? Progress is tough. Well, anyway.

Happy Easter, all--

1 comment:

A little bird said...

Wow, you know a black person in Portland? Cool! I know people complain all the time about Portland being so white, but it's true. I feel far more disconnected from minorities here than I did when I lived in Seattle. I chatted with a black bartender last week and it was a noteworthy event for me. This was not always the case.

I don't have much of a point here, except to say that my lack of contact with ethnic minorities leaves me feeling unqualified to discuss their experiences. I certainly don't see how one can discuss class in this country without also discussing race or ethnicity since they're so intertwined. For my part, I don't care what color or gender my next President is, I would just like to be able to respect them. So far, I have a lot of respect for Obama and actually feel hopeful for the first time since election day 2004. Here end my rambling thoughts for the day. Great post!