Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart...

I detect a pattern here.

Jeremiah Wright overcame racism in his lifetime (just consider his age, and where and when he grew up. Res ipsa loquitor.). Shirley Sherrod lost her father to murder at the hands of a Klansman, and was still feeling resentment that she should help white farmers, in 1986. She learned from her mistakes, to embrace people as people, not as skin tones. So did Jeremiah Wright, although he preaches the lesson quite differently than Shirley Sherrod does.

And both get hung out to dry by the Obama Administration*, and by society in general. Of course, the gross injustice done to Shirley Sherrod shows signs of reversing already. The exposure may finally ruin Andrew Breitbart's ability to influence the public discourse, though I won't put any money behind that speculation. I'm quite sure it won't end the knee-jerk reaction to video-tape=IRREFUTABLE PROOF! that continues to plague our You-Tubed age (although, as an aside, I have to note a cable channel almost entirely devoted to playing security tapes of robberies, burglaries, etc., in which we all clearly see the suspects are absolutely unidentifiable, and where often the narrator tells us the alleged criminal is still at large. I still remember when security cameras were going to assure us no criminal would ever get away with a crime again....)

But to trace this back to its roots, does this sound familiar?

So in an attempt to turn manufactured right-wing ammo into blanks, Obama has completely separated himself from his minister and his church. What worries me is this: Can we expect a President Obama to cave in to the whims and will of the right on policies and issues he knows are important, if this nation is to move forward in a progressive and compassionate manner? Can we expect him to genuflect to negative reports by an uninformed, misinformed or ill-willed media? Is the candidate of change willing to go-along in a willy-nilly get-along fashion?
Yes, apparently, he is. And it's all about the race question. This race question:

Anyone who does the math knows that America is on track to become a white-minority nation in three to four decades. Yet if there’s any coherent message to be gleaned from the hypocrisy whipped up by Hurricane Jeremiah, it’s that this nation’s perennially promised candid conversation on race has yet to begin.
I should point out, first, those are not my words; the first quote is from Monroe Anderson, someone I've otherwise never heard of. The second is from a column by Frank Rich, a white man; as is Andrew Breitbart. Interestingly, we still allow white people to conduct our national discussion on race. What we really don't like, is when black people do it.

Barack Obama knows this, down to the soles of his shoes. So this embarrassment on his part, the feet of clay he has on this subject, are not entirely unforgivable. Barack Obama never had the experiences of Shirley Sherrod or Jeremiah Wright, so he's never had the reason to say things like this:

MODERATOR: What is your relationship with Louis Farrakhan? Do you agree with and respect his views, including his most racially divisive views?

WRIGHT: As I said on the Bill Moyers’ show, one of our news channels keeps playing a news clip from 20 years ago when Louis said 20 years ago that Zionism, not Judaism, was a gutter religion.

And he was talking about the same thing United Nations resolutions say, the same thing now that President Carter is being vilified for, and Bishop Tutu is being vilified for. And everybody wants to paint me as if I’m anti-Semitic because of what Louis Farrakhan said 20 years ago.

I believe that people of all faiths have to work together in this country if we’re going to build a future for our children, whether those people are — just as Michelle and Barack don’t agree on everything, Raymond (ph) and I don’t agree on everything, Louis and I don’t agree on everything, most of you all don’t agree — you get two people in the same room, you’ve got three opinions.

So what I think about him, as I’ve said on Bill Moyers and it got edited out, how many other African-Americans or European-Americans do you know that can get one million people together on the mall? He is one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century. That’s what I think about him.

I’ve said, as I said on Bill Moyers, when Louis Farrakhan speaks, it’s like E.F. Hutton speaks, all black America listens. Whether they agree with him or not, they listen.

Now, I am not going to put down Louis Farrakhan anymore than Mandela would put down Fidel Castro. Do you remember that Ted Koppel show, where Ted wanted Mandela to put down Castro because Castro was our enemy? And he said, “You don’t tell me who my enemies are. You don’t tell me who my friends are.”

Louis Farrakhan is not my enemy. He did not put me in chains. He did not put me in slavery. And he didn’t make me this color.
Let me first note that at least twice in that interview Rev. Wright mentions comments he made to Bill Moyers that were edited from the broadcast tape. You can but the irony with a knife, because we all know that what's on tape is all we need to know. But it's that last statement, of course, that's the bridge too far for white people; even for white liberals. We have never, in our literature, portrayed slavery as the cruel and inhuman institution it was (it took Toni Morrison to do that, in Beloved. Need I point out Toni Morrison is not white?) We have repudiated the "peculiar institution" of slavery, so why does this black man keep bringing it up? We are supposed to be trying to 'get beyond color,' and here's a black man refusing to let us do that. It's the same reason Andrew Breitbart wanted to highlight the comments of Shirley Sherrod: because in her edited remarks, Ms. Sherrod seemed not to have gotten "beyond color," and we all know that can only mean: "RACISM!" But don't take my word for it:

"I think the video speaks for itself," [Breitbart] said. "The way she's talking about white people ... is conveying a present tense racism in my opinion. But racism is in the eye of the beholder."
Should I mention again that Andrew Breitbart is white? Do I need to? Shouldn't I get beyond color by now?

And so the Obama Administration reacted; as, to be fair, did the NAACP. And I don't recall the NAACP rushing to the defense of Jeremiah Wright, either; but maybe they weren't responsible to. Fair is fair, and let's not invent responsibilities for other people we don't want for ourselves.

But as I noted at the time, there were commenters, black and white, who regarded Wright (and probably still do) as too radical, as a threat to Obama's chance to be the first black President. Whites, you see, are in charge of the discussion; they still get to determine what is "racism," and what is not. I was not, for a long time, a fan of the idea that "racism" is only possible when one is in a position of power, a position to oppress, as a black liberation theologian like Jeremiah Wright might say. Now I've completely changed my mind, because the discussion of racism hasn't changed since my pre-Civil Rights Act childhood. Racism is still an ugly thing bourgeois whites find objectionable and a label they would consider slanderous. But that's because they are still in charge of defining it, and determining how it is used. And we diligently whitewash history to do it:

I was going to start this on a better note, but then I listened to Juan Williams giving us his expertise on the "black church", and if there was any better evidence that the two parties to this national conversation are talking past each other, that "analysis" is surely it. Just listen to him re-write King's history and theology. The person Williams describes doesn't sound at all like the person who wrote these words from jail attacking the "white church." Nor does Williams include room for the vilification of King that followed his speech on Vietnam, a speech that attacked both war as a tool of statecraft, and economic injustice. Williams fails to note that King's stance was considered so radical that even the Washington Post turned against him, as did many of his supporters who thought the fight for civil rights had nothing to do with war or economic policy. And when King died he was in Memphis to support a garbage worker's strike; very likely that is the straw that broke the camel's back, since civil rights and voting rights had been passed into law years earlier. Williams pointedly draws the distinction between King and Wright by saying that King always "preached the gospel," and neglects the fact that the preaching of that gospel led King to promote economic justice, not just civil rights. To hear Williams tell it, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated for being too inspirational and bringing too many people together. Just the kind of plaster saint Jeremiah Wright refuses to be.
This, after all, is what Jeremiah Wright said to the National Press Club:

Maybe now, as an honest dialogue about race in this country begins, a dialogue called for by Senator Obama and a dialogue to begin in the United Church of Christ among 5,700 congregations in just a few weeks, maybe now, as that dialogue begins, the religious tradition that has kept hope alive for people struggling to survive in countless hopeless situation, maybe that religious tradition will be understood, celebrated, and even embraced by a nation that seems not to have noticed why 11 o’clock on Sunday morning has been called the most segregated hour in America.

We have known since 1787 that it is the most segregated hour. Maybe now we can begin to understand why it is the most segregated hour.

And maybe now we can begin to take steps to move the black religious tradition from the status of invisible to the status of invaluable, not just for some black people in this country, but for all the people in this country.
But the narrative was all, and Sen. Obama found Rev. Wright's comments on 9/11 (he was quoting a U.S. Ambassador about the "chickens coming home to roost"), Louis Farrakhan, and Palestine/Israel, "appalling:"

“I’m outraged by the comments that were made and saddened over the spectacle that we saw yesterday,” Mr. Obama said, speaking to reporters here today. He added, “I find these comments appalling. It contradicts everything that I’m about and who I am.”
The message, of course, being: I'm safe for white voters. I'm not a scary angry black man.

Now, nor is he a supporter of angry black women who talk about white men in 1986 acting "superior," or who confess they weren't, at the time, inclined to help them. When she worked for a private organization dedicated to helping black farmers; and from the white farmer she learned that poverty is the enemy, not race. I don't have a lot of confidence that Obama wants to take up the cudgel of that issue either, though. "Class warfare" is as scary as "racism" to white Americans; especially non-poor white Americans.

You know, even Glenn Beck said this Shirley Sherrod business was screwy, and she deserves to get her job back. Glen Beck!

Maybe it's time this Administration grew a backbone about the fact that the President is black. People mostly don't care; and the ones who do, are the ones who should be called out for their racism. They certainly shouldn't be allowed to set the terms of the discussion. For the moment, though, I have to agree with a comment Phila made after the "race speech" which was supposed to transform our national discussion of race (and didn't; not one jot):

Hope for the future is swell, but I get very tired of people either ignoring our victims or paying lip service to them (which amounts to the same thing). As I said over at my place, my worry is that Obama's presidency won't be influenced enough by Wright, so to that extent, his speech wasn't reassuring; we always "getting over it," and finding "closure"'s one of the worst goddamn things about us, and that's what I hate to see Obama (and everyone else) pandering to.
Same as it ever was, in other words. And that may be because we still expect politicians to hold this discussion for us; and don't want to listen to pastors like Jeremiah Wright, who do. Politicians, after all, we can control: we can berate them, castigate them, decry them, and keep them in the public eye dancing like a bug on the hot griddle of our attention. Pastors we ignore, unless they spend lots of time on TV and seem to have large audiences. And those pastors never challenge our opinions about race, or make us feel like we might be racists; so we safely ignore them.

And that conversation on race in America, continues to be postponed....

Hastily attached addendum: 20 minutes after I post this, the beat goes on. That conversation is NEVER going to happen.

*or simply by Obama, to be more accurate


  1. Barack Obama knows this, down to the soles of his shoes. So this embarrassment on his part, the feet of clay he has on this subject, are not entirely unforgivable.

    I know many African-Americans who worried about an Obama presidency for this very reason.


    In re the "gutter religion" comment -- yes, Farakhan clearly was referring to Israel's actions and not to Judaism per se. Of course, his statement itself is very, very wrong-headed (no peace can come from injustice? considering the context of what he means by injustice -- i.e. mass, forcible population transfers -- peace certainly can and does regretably come from injustice ... just look at how Europe finally solved its "German problem"), but that is a whole other conversation ...

  2. I'm not a fan of Farrkhan, by any stretch, and I'd probably disagree with Jeremiah Wright on more than a few points.

    I don't, on the other hand, want to dismiss people out of hand. "Gutter religion" finds no defense for me, no matter what religion it is applied to. But I'd prefer to examine Farrakhan on his entire actions and statements before dismissing him out of hand. Not that I wouldn't dismiss him (perhaps), but I don't do it lightly. Any more than I would dismiss Rev. Wright lightly.

    The issue of displacement of people creating injustice is, sadly, true. And yes, eventually, peace can come from that (the American experience is evidence enough, eh?). Still, as Dr. King said, the arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice. Considering how Dr. King's radical statements about justice and equality are all but ignored today, I sometimes understand how a man like Jeremiah Wright can refuse to throw a man like Louis Farrakhan under the bus.

    On the subject of Obama, I heard an insightful interview with Jonathan Alter on NPR yesterday. He noted that Obama doesn't like to have the discussion of race (especially) forced on him, and to some degree, I understand that. He's the President, not the Black President. But then again, he is the Black President. Tough juggling act, but he needs to stand up to it a bit better than was done this time. Although I think Vilsack overreacted, esp. given the history of racial problems in the Dept. of Ag. Still, sometimes the conversation will be forced on you, like it or not.

    Maybe Obama needs to accept that, eh?

  3. BTW -- when you listen to Juan Williams (and have an intuition that this very germane to your point) you need to consider to what audience he feels he is speaking. What Juan Williams says on NPR in general is very, very different than what he would say on the unfortunately canceled "News and Notes" (which was one of the best news programs on NPR).

    But yes ... part of being the "first [X] person to be [Y]" is being able to accept having certain conversations forced upon you. FWIW, some people actually revel in that. For better or for worse, Obama does not seem to like it -- perhaps, on the other hand, this is part of why Obama was able to break that barrier in the first place.

  4. For better or for worse, Obama does not seem to like it -- perhaps, on the other hand, this is part of why Obama was able to break that barrier in the first place.

    It's a paradox: as Obama "proves" race doesn't matter, he does no such thing, at the same time. He discounts race so much that Shirley Sherrod reportedly said today she'd like to talk to him, because he hasn't been through what a lot of blacks in this country went through. OTOH, as I said, whites control the discussion of race in this country, and almost any discussion from the "black" perspective makes them so uncomfortable they react, well, like Andrew Breitbart. Which means any overt discussion by Obama proves he's a racist.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

    The "liberal" reaction is like that AP article, in the post just above this one.

  5. rmj: yup, a classic double bind, of the sort feminists so tiresomely remarked upon. And, further, the framing that if he made a mistake, he's incompetent, and if he admits to a mistake and tries to correct it, he's a metrosexual girly-man whose weakness threatens our way of life. Another double bind.