The new debate about racism

March 28, 2008

ANYONE WHO considers the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright inflammatory is bound to be outraged by these words from the pulpit from another African American preacher:

They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees...

So far we may have killed a million of them--mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children, degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe?...

I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in [war]. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken.

I speak as an American to the leaders of my own nation. The great initiative in this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.

The words, of course, are those of Martin Luther King Jr., in his famous speech against the Vietnam War in April 4, 1967, in which he charged the U.S. with being the "greatest purveyor of violence" on Earth. King's antiwar broadside shocked public opinion far more than the Internet videos of Rev. Wright's sermons have today.

Now Barack Obama has been forced to contend with this tradition of truth-telling in the Black church. In so doing, he has put the issue of racism squarely at the center of the U.S. political debate in way that was unexpected, and pretty much without precedent in the last several decades.

OBAMA'S CAMPAIGN has famously avoided the old-school language of Black protest--his advisers float the claim that his is a "post-racial" candidacy. Behind the rhetoric, Obama's policy positions are no more radical than Hillary Clinton's, which they resemble closely, except when Obama stakes out positions to Clinton's right, for example, in refusing to call for a moratorium on home foreclosures.

But the issue of race couldn't be avoided. Bill Clinton notoriously dismissed the significance of Obama's primary victory in South Carolina, where Democratic voters are disproportionately Black.

Then there's Geraldine Ferraro, a former Democratic vice presidential candidate and current Clinton adviser, who said that Obama's success was due to his race. When a range of people took exception to that statement, Ferraro raved, "I will not be discriminated against because I'm white." She was forced out of the Clinton campaign, but not before articulating backward racist ideas that the campaign hopes will appeal to conservative white Democrats in Pennsylvania, where the next primary will be held.

As the race-baiting continued, the Wright controversy made it impossible for Obama to stay above the fray.

In his March 18 speech on race, Obama bowed to the conventions of presidential politics. He criticized Wright for using "incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and Black alike." He said that Wright's "offending sermons about America" had managed to "simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality."

Then there was the double-barreled blast at Wright for bashing both the U.S. and Israel. Obama chastised his former pastor for voicing "a profoundly distorted view of this country--a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

Yet Obama proceeded to do what no "electable" presidential candidate has ever done--speak explicitly about the reality of racism in America.

"We do need to remind ourselves," Obama said, "that so many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow."

Obama's list of "disparities" included segregated schools, legalized discrimination in jobs and housing, a lack of economic opportunity among Black men, the lack of services in urban Black neighborhoods. He spoke of the "young men and increasingly young women who we see standing on street corners or languishing in our prisons, without hope or prospects for the future. Even for those Blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their world view in fundamental ways."

Obama did qualify his remarks with concessions to Clintonite New Democrat nostrums (welfare policies "worsened" the erosion of the Black family) as well as Bill Cosby's conservative personal responsibility mantra (Black anger "keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition").

It's a sad statement, but a true one: Obama's speech was a dramatic departure from the presidential politics of the last several decades. Twenty-eight years after Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign in the Ku Klux Klan stronghold of Philadelphia, Miss., and 16 years after Bill Clinton presided over the execution of a mentally disabled Black man and humiliated Jesse Jackson to score points with conservative voters, the frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination--an African American--was shining a light on the ugliest truth in U.S. society.

And Obama went on to address the anxieties of white workers who are "anxious about their futures and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero-sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense."

He added: "Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism, while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism."

The thrust of the argument is that white and Black workers--the "middle class," as Obama termed it, in a bow to the accepted vocabulary of U.S. political debate--have more in common than not.

THE OBAMA speech has put the issue of racism back in the center of mainstream U.S. politics for the first time in decades. It opens the possibility for a real discussion of race and class in the U.S.--one vastly more meaningful than Bill Clinton's bogus "conversation on race" a decade ago.

The pressure will be on Obama to back away from further such statements and not risk offending donors from Corporate America, now that they have shifted decisively away from the Republicans.

Still, the speech stands as another marker of the profound shift taking place in U.S. politics. The crackup of the Bush administration's neoconservative project, the outpouring of enthusiasm for Obama's calls for "change," and an unraveling economy are transforming the terrain of mainstream politics. All this created the political space for Obama to take up the issue of racism.

Yet it's one thing to denounce racism and another to propose measures that would overcome its effects--rebuilding and integrating the country's crumbling public schools, a jobs program targeted at urban Black youth, a vast expansion of affordable higher education, and a national, single-payer health insurance plan, to name a few.

Ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan immediately and taxing the rich could free up the funds for such initiatives and much more besides.

Obama, of course, has made no such proposals. He hasn't deviated from the corporate-friendly mainstream Democratic Party policies that have left racism as entrenched in the U.S. as some 40 years ago, when Martin Luther King was assassinated.

What's needed is a movement for racial justice that builds on the best traditions of the civil rights and Black Power movements. The political pressure that produced a new debate on race in the U.S. has to become powerful enough to compel a shift in policy as well.

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