Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama, at last

Well, you Obama fans everywhere -- Clumber, Dennis, and johnieb (the wannabe fan) -- I surrender. As much as I hate risking disappointment, after yesterday's speech ("A More Perfect Union"), I cannot escape the fact the Barack Obama offers something much more than any candidate we've seen in a very long time, something that the U.S. cannot afford to pass up.

I realize there are a whole lot of people in the press, on t.v., and all over the internet talking about it and spinning it in at least a dozen different reactions. Oh well. It should be talked about. I just despair of remarks like this:
"Today, Barack Obama gave a brilliant, inspiring, intellectually supple speech--but one that may have done little to solve his festering problem with working class white Americans."
from Michael Crowley at The New Republic. Talk about elitism (wondering if our paper editions of The New Republic should start hitting the dustbin early with The Living (so to speak) Church -- neither of which I choose to subscribe to).

Anyway, in honor of my belated endorsement of Obama's candidacy (and despite my trying to come to terms with my Crusader Rabbit dark side), I'm going to be especially lazy and post below some comments I made at Mad Priest's, off the top of my head, prompted by his comments about how what Obama said should mean that people should stop talking about him as possibly the first Black President of the U.S. rather than as non-race-identified person. I don't contend that they were really responsive to MP's point, but for whatever they're worth, here were my thoughts:


[The speech] was very much about race in the United States, which has a much different context than the mixed cultures and races of peoples found in parts of some European countries. There no doubt will always be a black America because the history and culture of the U.S. is inextricably tied to that of the Africans who, however involuntarily, "settled" the country along with the European whites. Those slaves were infamously part of our Constitution as a fraction of being human and were at the heart of the conflict that erupted as the Civil War, which left us with deep divisions in terms of race, region, class, and economics. From the earliest colonial times through the present, white and black America have been intertwined such that America [i.e. the U.S.], almost by definition, is black and white.

Yes, Obama is trying to bridge white and black America, but he has done so by accepting that dichotomy as reality, recognizing that the anger and suspicion on both sides are based as much on real, objective concerns as hateful imaginings, and to get past the latter one must face the former in broad daylight.

The reality in the U.S. is that the "melting" pot does not really exist when it comes to race - not just because of the cultural differences that mark the many discrete groups of people in our society, from older immigrant groups, such as Italians, Portugese, Germans, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Poles, Irish, Chinese, and Mexicans, to more recent groups, such Indians, Pakistani, Vietnamese, and the latest refugees from Russia, Bosnia, Sudan, and Thailand -- but because black and white continue to be something that is something much deeper than culture, why a black person will be stopped for traffic violations or suspected as criminal, why many more blacks are in U.S. prisons and are executed than whites, why so many more blacks are born outside of marriage and raised in single-parent households, why education, employment, and housing are still quite different, despite the great advances since the Civil Rights movement, why the level of poverty in many places -- right here in my own city and my hometown halfway across the country, not just the big urban centers -- is dramatically greater among blacks.

In this context, consciousness of color or race is only part of the problem or its origins and purporting to put that consciousness aside is no longer terribly helpful how that the vast majority of whites have come to believe that blacks are not genetically inferior. What white America needs most is to see and understand that being black in America is NOT simply a cultural choice and that any pretension to colorblindness or hopes of achieving it only adds to the anger and resentment on both sides, because it usually means that whites don't get that race problems did not end with the Civil Rights movement, the end of de jure segregation, and the whites learning politically correct ways of talking about race.

What Obama addressed was the need for white America to acknowledge and accept black America as, yes, a separate America, one with present-day grievances and deep problems, and a real, objective basis for smouldering anger and resentment, and, at the same time, he asked black America to acknowledge and accept how whites perceive black claims and language, and how both sides need to lower the tone of their rhetoric and work together, not as blended, indistinguishable human beings, but as two distinct groups working cooperatively on common problems of poverty, education, civil rights, and justice.

* * * *

I should have added that I loved Obama's speech too (what I meant to say at the beginning, but was not clear).

I still think that for at least the last couple generations, most blacks in America have embraced being black, yes, due to the fact that most cannot escape the distinction from white America, even if they tried, but also because many want to identify first and foremost as being black, whatever that may mean to themselves and others. I think that in part Obama found his black American identity in Rev. Wright's church, perhaps not as a political banner or rallying cry, but as an integral part of who and what he is (along with his other identities from his family and friends). And that aspect of Obama, while not as in your face as someone like Jesse Jackson or even Farakhan, is critical in terms of his candidacy and his potential as a leader in this country. Obama is NOT watering down blackness or asking anyone to put race aside as identity or social reality. And I think that is a good thing -- that he dares to try to do that while, at the same time, speaks clearly and honestly about the harm that some of the rhetoric on both sides can cause. The tremendous thing about the speech is that he did not distance himself from Rev. Wright for the purposes of political expediency. Instead, he embraced the man, understood and acknowledged where the rhetoric came from, and went on to speak of how he, Obama, in his own voice, with his own mind and heart, saw race relations in this country.

It just seems to me that to say that there is no race or that he propounds such a notion is glaringly inaccurate, however well-intentioned -- inaccurate not in terms of biological origins or genetic makeup, but rather in terms of how most people in the U.S. perceive themselves, blacks probably much more so than whites. It is the luxury of whites to imagine the insignificance of color and that, in fact, is one of the things Obama talked about in his speech -- the fact that Caucasian whites generally don't think of themselves in terms of skin color or other physical features traditionally associated with notions of race and do not think of their distinctiveness as conferring any advantages in their lives when, in fact, it does. Every time a white says that race doesn't exist and color doesn't matter, a whole lot of black people get hopping mad because they know better, knowing a reality that has existed for centuries and one that will likely be with us for many more.

In the end, however, it probably does not matter who is right or wrong about what race "really" is or is not, whether and how humans ever can or should ignore cultural differences and personal identities associated with the physical features and family origins that have been classified as race. What I hear Obama saying is that however we conceive of and experience race, "we," as black and white Americans, need to start by working together and even before that imagining being able to work together so "we" can "both" bring about a more Perfect Union -- Union being the key word, two parts working together to better the whole, not dissolution of the parts, just as the Union hard fought in the Civil War was intended to unite states and regions, not obliterate their boundaries or distinctive identities.


o-mom said...

We didn't get to hear it at the time. I started to listen to it on line before we were going to watch a favorite TV show. When it was time for the show to start, I stopped the recording. I was yelled at. So we huddled around the laptop, listening, mesmerized. I thought of those old movies depicting families huddled around their radios listening to Roosevelt or Edward R. Murrow. Hated what the media said about it. Mostly they don't get it.

Listen to Progressive Radio

klady said...

I won't listen to Progressive Radio (unless you mean NPR? I do listen to that, mostly in the car) anymore if it means Thom Hartmann. Long story, which I won't go into. Progressive online news is better, I think. Not enough time to read what I should, but Common Dreams ( is good. What I like about radio, though, is listening to people think out loud and sometimes interact (I like Diane Rehm, for example). You know, I could pick up the phone some day and actually TALK to you! ;) That would be too easy. Someday soon....

Lindy said...

I am still for Senator Clinton. She may not be as pretty as Obama but I think she can get the job done.

klady said...

I think in many ways Hilary can or could get the "job" done better. She's got years of experience, maybe not governing, but studying and seeing how government works (or doesn't) up close. She's more practical -- or at least I hope so, since the health insurance fiasco at the beginning of Bill's administration.

But even long before Obama began to seriously run, I've been fearful that Hilary will either fail to win the election (even assuming she's nominated) or will not be able to effectively govern because the animosity towards her is so strong, way beyond any kind of rational opposition to some of her views and conduct. I live in New York -- the vast NY beyond the City -- and people truly hate her. I imagine it is worse in other places.

What has worried me about Obama was that he was all fluff -- and yes, prettiness, in all sorts of ways. I'm not crazy about everything he has said and done either (or the mud-slinging that has gone on in both campaigns). But the speech makes a huge difference to me because it showed me someone I can respect, someone whom I think can think well and thoughtfully on his own, and who also may actually be able to help heal some divisions in this country while, at the same time, steer us on a better course. As Jon Stewart now famously said on the Daly Show, this speech was that of a politician finally speaking to Americans as adults.

I honestly don't know which of the two candidates (or neither) would make the best President now. I think Obama has a much better chance of winning. But at this point, it really doesn't matter what I think because the nomination process will go on regardless, and if it turns out that Obama is selected (which I think he must since he will most likely have the greatest popular vote -- I think it would hurt the Democratic party terribly to turn against that), I can see some real positives now in his candidacy.