Obama’s Latest "Beautiful Speech"
Obama has given a beautiful speech on race and his affiliation with the Trinity Unity Church of Christ
Obama has given a beautiful speech on race and his affiliation with the Trinity Unity Church of Christ
- Barbara Ehrenreich, March 2008 (http://ehrenreich.blogs.com/barbaras_blog/2008/03/hillarys-nasty.html)
It’s hard sometimes for me to understand how Obama is able to milk so much reaction out of speeches that are not only pedestrian, but which contain truly startling statements. The speech he made yesterday, for example: how can he manage to dedicate a whole address to the importance of overcoming racism, and in the middle of that talk not only essentially smear his pastor with the "Angry Black" stereotype, but also endorse the ongoing US policy of racism and injustice towards the Palestinians, and then somehow come out of the whole thing smelling like roses, sending hyperventilating progressives all over the country to their smelling salts, believing that they've heard the "greatest speech' of modern times!”
- “epppie,” an e-mail correspondent, March 19, 2008
I just read Barack Obama’s Latest Greatest Speech – his celebrated address on race, titled “A More Perfect Union” , yesterday (I am writing on the morning of March 19 2008), in Philadelphia. Sparked by recent broadcasts of his longtime pastor Jeremiah Wright’s angry denunciations of U.S. imperialism and racism, the speech changes nothing for me.
Deluded Obamanists can stop sending me e-mails saying (to quote one this morning) “wow he really knocked them dead in Philly telling it like it is on Race. Now will you please finally get on board with the Great Barack?”
As his most recent Grand Oration shows, the Chosen One is not about to sacrifice political ambition for the sake of truth and justice.
Yesterday’s address was all about Obama using his former pastor as a pretext for yet more triangulation . Wright was employed as a foil for Obama to pose as reasonable on race and racism while he continued his project of deepening public confusion on racist and other United States oppression structures at the heart of American society.
And Obama ain’t “telling it like it is.”
FARMERS AND SCHOLARS WHO FLED EUROPE TO MAKE DEMOCRACY
Where to begin? How about the beginning, when he refers to Independence Hall across the street from the site of his address in the following terms:
”Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America's improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787. The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation's original sin of slavery…”
Sorry, but most of the people attending the Constitutional Convention had been born in British Colonial North America and had not “traveled across the ocean.” Some of their English and European ancestors had migrated to “escape tyranny and persecution” but a larger number likely came to advance their fortune or simply to make a living.
Many of the “farmers” at the Constitutional Convention were large-scale planters and slave-owners. They along with many other Founders were architects and beneficiaries of “tyranny and persecution” in the New World, much to the detriment of countless Native Americans, black slaves, indentured servants, landless laborers, and impressed soldiers and sailors.
The Constitution was an experiment in codifying the rule of the propertied elite, richly consistent with leading Founder John Jay’s statement that “the people who own the country ought to run the country.” “Democracy” was the last thing the framers wished to see break out in America; it was their ultimate nightmare, to be perfectly honest.
Accordingly, they built a carefully crafted system of republican rule designed to check and contain genuine popular governance – to keep the people at bay. We are still living with the terrible legacy of their masterful blueprint, which was stained by more than slavery. It was a great Thermidorian restraint on the democratic Hope of the American Revolution.
“IN NO OTHER COUNTRY ON EARTH”
Early in his Philadelphia speech Obama went into his standard soliloquy about how he comes from diverse racial and ethnocultural origins and how he has lived in a rich (the U.S) and a poor (Indonesia) nation and has gone to elite schools and then says, “I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. It's a story that hasn't made me the most conventional candidate.”
Sorry, but there are people with similar stories in other (if less powerful) countries all over the world.
And what’s so damn wonderful about Barack Obama’s biography? It’s a story of kissing and climbing up to power in the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society. He wouldn’t be where he is if wasn’t willing to play along with corporate elite, whose funding and media approval are required to make a “viable” run at the White House.
The only thing truly “unconventional” about his candidacy is his name and skin-color. He’s been tacking very close to the corporate-imperial center, just like JFK, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton, to mention three previous presidential candidates/presidents who spoke the language of “hope,” “change,” and novelty.
REBEL’S CLOTHING AND “RACIAL RECONCILIATION ON THE CHEAP”
Addressing how the “discussion of race in this campaign has taken a particularly divisive turn” in recent weeks, Obama rejected “the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it's based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap.”
Well, Obama’s campaign is based on his desire to be president and on the corporate plutocracy’s judgment that he might be the right man for a key job: safely containing and channeling the demand for progressive change that has been deepened by the reactionary Cheney-Bush regime.
But “the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap” is in fact a critical factor in his coalition. I have had numerous conversations with precisely such white liberals – people who are heavily into Obama’s technical blackness for basically the exact reason Obama mentions.
Affirmative action hysterics and Geraldine Ferraro aside, moreover, Obama’s racial identity and nomenclature is fact a big part of what makes him qualified for his assigned ask of repressively de-sublimating popular sentiments. His skin color helps put deceptive rebel’s clothing around his commitment to dominant domestic and imperial power structures and doctrines.
“A PROFOUNDLY DISTORTED VIEW OF THIS COUNTRY”
Later in his speech, Obama gets into big bad Reverend Wright, who Obama accuses of “express[ing] 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.”
Sorry, but white racism is in fact endemic in the United States, even if the U.S. has stopped being what Wright calls (in one of the clips circulated by presumed Obama enemies) “the US of KKK.” As Obama certainly knows quite well, anti-black racism is deeply rooted in how U.S. real estate and labor markets operate, how the U.S. education system functions, how home mortgages are marketed, how credit is extended, how the U.S. criminal justice system works, how economic development is directed, how health care is structured, and much more. There’s a vast body of research (I have produced some of it) showing persistent systematic anti-black discrimination and bias in the schooling, feeding, training, hiring, promoting/demoting, healing, insuring, serving, reporting, patrolling, monitoring, arresting, sentencing, incarcerating, transporting, empowering, representing, funding, evaluating, assisting, analyzing, judging, televising, praising, punishing, rewarding, shaming. birthing, killing, and burying of the American people. Multidimensional institutional and societal racism remains deeply woven into the fabric of the nation’s institutions and daily life.
What Obama really means to say is that many, maybe most white folks no longer see it as politically correct to be openly race-prejudiced in the U.S. He also means to convey that white America is now much less consciously and intentionally racist than it used to be.
That’s true enough, but he fails to make the important distinction between overt racism (largely defeated) and covert racism (still endemic). He fails to distinguish personal and psychological racism from (endemic) societal and institutional racism. He does not deal with the difference between state-of-mind racism and state-of-being racism. And he fails to acknowledge that white America's’ constant self-congratulation over dropping level-one (overt, deliberate, and conscious) racism --- “look at me, I’m ready to vote for a black man” (yes, but only a particular kind black man...one who won’t press the deeper issues of societal and institutional racism and who doesn’t speak in the “angry” and “divisive” [Obama’s word] language of a Jeremiah Wright) – can actually further entrench the policies, structures, and practices of (often ostensibly color-blind) institutional racism by feeding the false “post-Civil Rights” notion that racism no longer poses significant barriers to black advancement and equality in the U.S..
As for Obama’s Middle East comments, they are disgraceful. No, Obama’s “stalwart ally” is not the sole cause of Middle Eastern conflict. Fine, but U.S. client state Israel’s U.S.-protected apartheid and occupation policies and Israel’s related hyper-militarism – expressed in a terrible bombing of Lebanon that Obama shamefully rushed to defend (just as he immediately supported Israel’s recent blockade of Gaza) – deeply fuel Middle Eastern violence and Islamic fundamentalism. That fundamentalism is also fed by other U.S. policies, including the reckless bombing and invasion of Afghanistan, the remorseless application of mass-murderous “economic sanctions” against Iraq between 1991 and 2003, and the bloody and brazenly imperialist invasion and occupation of Iraq (supposedly launched with what Obama repeatedly and ridiculously calls “the best of [noble democratic] intentions”) – a killer of 1.3 million Iraqis.
The U.S. and its “stalwart ally” have long driven the expansion of the fundamentalist threat Bush II exploited to launch a criminal invasion Obama has given us numerous reasons to expect he will continue for an indefinite period.
“NINETY PERCENT” OF THE WAY
Later in his speech, Obama said that “Reverend Wright's comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems - two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.”
Does Obama really expect black Americans to put aside “racially charged sentiments” and jump on board a big “UNITY” train when the all-too forgotten reality of institutional racism (still going strong beneath the ongoing national celebration about how America is no longer explicitly and openly racist) consigns a grossly disproportionate share of the nation’s black populace to the bottoms of the nation’s steep and interrelated pyramids of class and color?
The disparities are much worse than Obama suggested in yesterday’s speech when he said that “race” is “a part of our union that we have yet to perfect.” Yes, it's still a bit less than perfect, alright.
This sort of understatement is not new in Obama’s discourse on race. In his profoundly conservative book The Audacity of Hope (its title ironically lifted from a fiery Wright sermon), Obama tried to soothe white and black readers by claiming that most black Americans have been “pulled into the economic mainstream.”
During a March 2007 speech marking the anniversary of the Selma, Alabama Voting Rights march, Obama claimed that 1950s and 1960s civil rights activists – who he referred to as “the Moses Generation” – had brought black America “90 percent of the way” to racial equality. It’s up to Obama and his fellow “Joshua Generation” members, Obama said, to get past “that 10 percent in order to cross over to the other side.”
To buttress the notion that blacks have entered the “mainstream” in The Audacity of Hope, Obama cited the example of an extremely wealthy “black friend” who lent him an airplane “one of the first times I needed a corporate jet.” He mentioned a different black “friend who had been the number one bond salesman at Merrill Lynch” and “decided to start his own investment bank." He cited yet another bourgeois African-American who “decided to leave an executive position at General Motors to start his own parking company in partnership with Hyatt” because he wanted “to build something of his own.” .Obama also observed that the first half million dollars he raised for his Senate campaign came from black Chicago professionals and businesses and says that “blacks…occupy some of the highest management positions in Chicago.”
Never mind that blacks are afflicted with a shocking racial wealth gap that keeps their average net worth at one eleventh that of whites and an income structure starkly and persistently tilted towards poverty. Or that whites in the United States, considered separately, enjoy the highest quality of life in the world while black Americans, viewed separately, live at the level of a Third World nation.
And never mind that Obama could have garnered the following facts from a Chicago Urban League study of racial inequality in his own metropolitan back yard – the city whose pronounced and persistent racial disparities have done so much to drive Rev. Wright to make “inexcusable” (by Obama’s description) comments:
* Black median household income was just 58 percent of white median household income in the Chicago metropolitan area, according to the 2000 census.
* Median annual black household income in Chicago in 2000 was more than $6,000 less than the Economic Policy Institute “basic family budget”—the no-frills cost of living (taking into account housing, food, child care, transportation, health care, and other necessities plus taxes)—for even a small family of one parent and two children ($35,307). The median white household income in the city exceeded that basic family budget by more than that $11,300.
* More than a quarter of black households in the Chicago metropolitan area lived on less than $15,000 in 2000, and more than half of metropolitan black households lived on less than $35, 000. By contrast, less than a tenth of the area’s white households lived on less than $15,000, and less than 30 percent of metropolitan white households lived on less than $35,000.
* A fourth of the Chicago metropolitan area’s black households were officially poor, compared to just 5.6 percent white and 16 percent of Latin households. Sixteen percent of Chicago’s blacks lived in what researchers call “deep poverty”—at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously low and inadequate poverty level. More than a third of the metropolitan area’s black children lived in poverty, compared to just 5 percent of the white kids.
* The median income of the average neighborhood inhabited by African Americans in the Chicago metropolitan area ($36,298) was just 59 percent of the median income in the average neighborhood inhabited by whites in the same metropolitan area ($61,952).
* Of the city’s fifteen poorest neighborhoods, with poverty measures ranging from 32 to 56 percent, all but one was disproportionately black and eleven were at least 94 percent black. Of the city’s top fifteen neighborhoods for child poverty, with rates ranging from 55 to 71 percent, ten were disproportionately black and none are disproportionately white, the rest being disproportionately Latino.
* All but one of the fifteen Chicago neighborhoods where more than 25 percent of the kids were growing up in deep poverty had a black population percentage considerably higher than the city average. All but three were at least 94 percent black. There were six predominantly black neighborhoods—Oakland, North Lawndale, Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, Douglas, and Riverdale -- where more than 40 percent of the children are deeply poor and in Riverdale it was actually more than half.
* Just 4.4 percent of officers and directors of large Chicago-area businesses were African American by the late 1990’s.
* Only 0.7 percent of 2,950 partners in Chicago area law firms were African American.
* 93 percent of Chicago area federal campaign contributions come from zip codes that were 50 percent or more white. Just 7.2 percent came from zip codes that were 50 percent or more comprised of people of color (Paul Street, Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy and the State of Black Chicago [Chicago: Chicago Urban League, 2005])
But so what? Obama argued in Audacity that “white guilt has largely exhausted itself in America” as “even the most fair-minded of whites...tend to push back against suggestions of racial victimization and race-based claims based on the history of racial discrimination in this country” – a judgment that Obama repeated in understanding terms in Philadelphia.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Obama’s Latest Greatest Speech was his tendency to see the racism that lurks behind these sorts of statistics (and behind the black anger they generate) as a function mainly of the past. Listen to the following bit of extended hyper-eloquence from The Chosen One:
“As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn't dead and buried. In fact, it isn't even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves 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.”
”….A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one's family, contributed to the erosion of black families - a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods - parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement - all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.”
”This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What's remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.”
“But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn't make it - those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. That legacy of defeat was passed on to future generations - those 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 worldview in fundamental ways. For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years.”
What’s with the past tense? The Faulkner quote is nice (I used it to make a similar point in my book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis) and it is good to see the reparations opponent Obama note the continuing relevance of not-so “past” racism. But there’s plenty of living and active, ongoing racial oppression and discrimination sparking rage today among black Americans of all ages, including a large number of younger black males I have repeatedly heard rip Obama as “bourgeois” and “a white man’s Negro.” The oppression that angers Wright and other black Americans is more than an overhang from the bad old past. The humiliation and hopelessness felt by millions of those Americans are being reinforced, generated, and expanded anew on a daily basis right now... in the 21st century. New “memories” of racial tyranny are being created right now beneath the national self congratulation over loving Obama. Black “anger and bitterness” is being generated within the U.S. by racist policies and practices in these “Joshua Generation” years as well as in “those” (“Moses Generation”) years.
Meanwhile American racial inequality and black poverty are deepened by an imperialist U.S. foreign policy Obama fiercely embraces (just read any of his speeches and essays prepared for such august bodies as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the Wilson Center).
UNITY UNDER CORPORATE IMPERIALISM
Later in his speech, Obama riffed on how we need to put our racial differences aside to rally around common solutions to shared social and economic problems. He was correct to note that an exaggerated concern with racial and religious differences can “distract” us from educational, health care, and jobs issues that matter to people of all colors and creeds. Too bad his policy agenda is militantly centrist and business-friendly and therefore inadequate on all of these critical policy areas,. Too bad it stands well to the corporate right of any self-respecting progressive agenda and even to the GOP side of Hillary Clinton’s domestic policy package (not to mention that of the departed and more genuinely “populist” John Edwards). And too bad he’s signed on so strongly to the domestically regressive American Empire Project.
Obama’s Latest Greatest Oration predictably honored “the men and women of every color and creed who serve together, and fight together, and bleed together under the same proud flag.” Those were terrible words to utter on the fifth anniversary of the shameful occupation of Iraq. American troops are coercively united across race, ethnicity and gender in a monumentally immoral, arch-criminal occupation Obama promises to prolong. The U.S. soldiers’ sacrifices are all too real, of course, but their commanders have shed a vastly larger quantity of Iraqi and Afghan blood.
Obama was right to say yesterday that “America can change.” It can do that. But it cannot change in a desirable and democratic way by sticking its head in the sand about its continuing attachment to what Martin Luther King called “the triple evils that are interrelated:” racism, economic exploitation, and militarism. And it will not move forward in a desirable and progressive way if so many of its “progressives” continue to invest blind faith in a false savior whose increasingly tiresome eloquence masks maddeningly mealy-mouthed deference to the status quo.
Veteran radical historian Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm). His latest book is Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
1. Barack Obama, “ ‘ A More Perfect Union, ‘ ” Philadelphia, PA. March 18, 2008
2. See my earlier articles: “The Obama Illusion: on the ‘Hopes of Slaves’ and the ‘Hamiltonian Ambitions’ of a Corporate-Imperial ‘Player,’ Z Magazine (February 2007); “Sitting Out The Obama Dance in Iowa City,” ZNet Magazine (April 28, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=12687; “Barack Obama’s White Appeal: and the Perverse Racial Politics of the Post-Civil Rights Era,” Black Agenda Report (June 20, 2007), read at http://www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=254&Itemid=34; “Running Dog Obama” ZNet Magazine (July 29, 2007), available online at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13396; “Obama’s Insults,” Empire and Inequality Report No. 25, ZNet Magazine (October 3, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13940; “Leading Democrats: ‘Expropriate the Expropriators’ (A Satire),” ZNet Magazine (November 10, 2007), read at http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=14243; “Obama and Pluralist Illusion,” ZNet Sustainer Commentary (October 31, 2007), read at www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2007-10/31street.cfm