by Bruce S. Thornton
So much for Obama striking a new tone on race.
President Obama’s response during his press conference to the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates — that the Cambridge police officer “acted stupidly,” despite Obama’s confession that he didn’t know what really had happened — should lay to rest the illusion that Obama somehow represents the transcendence of racial politics.
From the moment he first stepped onto the national scene, it was obvious that Obama is not “transracial” but in fact a creature of identity/grievance politics. His whole career has been fueled by the perception that he is “black,” that is, a victim of endemic white racism, and thus deserving of various entitlements designed both to compensate for that victimization and to alleviate the guilt of whites who have bought into a demeaning definition of blackness that reduces blacks to being passive victims in need of special consideration.
In other words, the essence of Obama’s public identity is that he serves as a symbol of black grievance and white guilt. The reality of his life is not really an issue. The facts that he is not “black” by any criterion other than the Jim Crow “one-drop” rule, that his perceived blackness has been an advantage in his career rather than a handicap, that the exaggeration of his talents and achievements reflects the “soft” racism of liberal low expectations — all these mean nothing. What is important is that Obama is just black enough to serve as a racial symbol, but not so black that he frightens white people. This disconnect between reality and symbol is most obvious when Obama speaks to a black audience, as in his recent address to the NAACP, and attempts the rhythms and inflections of black oratory. After five minutes it becomes clear that this is not Obama’s normal speaking style, but rather an affectation redolent of nerdy white women warbling “You go girl!” Just imagine Jesse Jackson making that same speech, or even Jeremiah Wright, and you can see the difference between authentic black oratory and the imitation.
Yet in this regard, Obama continues a pattern established long ago in American history. The light-skinned, articulate, educated black — someone like Henry Louis Gates or Barack Obama — has typically been more vehement about his racial bona fides and more sensitive about asserting his authenticity predicated on being a victim of unjust prejudice. Until the Sixties, this response was understandable given the arbitrary and oppressive barriers erected against people whose talents and abilities far outstripped those of many whites who despite their mediocrity nonetheless possessed more social, economic, and political power. And when these barriers began to fall after the Sixties, these blacks were well placed to take advantage of the new opportunities created by the Civil Rights Act and policies like Affirmative Action.
These opportunities, however, raised troubling questions of identity and authenticity for subsequent generations of blacks who had not lived under Jim Crow or other explicitly racist social structures, particularly since authentic blackness had now became associated with that victimization. A public status predicated on historical grievance and oppression became problematic for those who had instead been given opportunities and consideration based on their blackness, despite their social or economic privilege. Hence the development of open-ended grievance politics: no matter how much improvement in black life, the construct of a collective black identity that disregarded individual circumstances meant that all blacks were still victims and still owed various considerations and entitlements based solely on superficial physical characteristics that are the emblems of that victim status.
Various subtle manifestations of alleged racial animus now become the “evidence” of a persistent racism that cancels out economic and social privilege. “Profiling” by police or storekeepers — usually a rational calculation based on the statistical realities of black over-representation among criminal offenders — instead becomes a form of racist oppression that even a rich black professional can suffer. And this victimhood then becomes a badge of black authenticity. Moreover, assertions of this identity are usually met with concessions from social institutions, whether these are an “apology” or some more tangible good. The net result is the creation of considerable social power potent enough to help get a political tyro like Barack Obama elected president.
This brings us to the Gates episode and Obama’s reaction. Gates’ stupid behavior in berating a police officer and publicly challenging his authority is spun as a justified reaction to racial injustice, which in turn is a sign of a profound racism still lurking in American society and still in need of redress. Hence Obama’s depiction of the police officer’s actions as “stupid”: the officer should have known that the persistence of racism accounted for Gates’ behavior and exculpated it. Obama’s interest in supporting this grievance-narrative, like Gates’, lies in affirming that no amount of education or money or social privilege can trump this racism, that the grievances created by this racism account for behavior that in others would be boorish or even criminal, and that further concessions, whether symbolic or material, are owed to blacks in compensation for this injustice. Remember how during the campaign the Obama camp frequently suggested that criticisms of Obama were “racist”?
Fortunately, Sergeant Crowley has refused to follow this script, which has forced the President to backtrack somewhat from his statement: “Because this has been ratcheting up and I obviously helped to contribute ratcheting it up, I wanted to make clear in my choice of words I think I unfortunately gave an impression that I was maligning the Cambridge Police Department or Sgt. Crowley specifically. And I could have calibrated those words differently.” The sheer badness of this sentence, coming from someone the media has touted as an eloquent orator, matches its craven evasion of the truth: racial grievance is a tool of power for the black elite, a way to proclaim their authentic blackness, camouflage privilege and opportunity, and ensure that more will follow, as guilty whites scramble to compensate for the injustice, assert their own sensitivity to black suffering, and alleviate their guilt.
Obama’s difficulty in this affair is similar to last year’s blow-up over Jeremiah Wright’s racist sermons. Obama has to soothe whites by distancing himself from the wacky, more threatening excesses of black grievance, yet at the same time assert his black authenticity, likewise predicated on grievance, just enough so that he can be accepted by his fellow blacks and can function for whites as a safe embodiment of that same identity. Abetted by a liberal media invested heavily in his success, he has so far managed this trick. We’ll see as the Gates affair plays out whether or not the American people have started to see through the verbal misdirection and rhetorical sleight-of-hand.
©2009 Bruce S. Thornton