Does Obama really think he settles racism with relativism?
by Bruce S. Thornton
Barack Obama’s attempt to defuse the crisis in his presidential campaign caused by videos of his “spiritual mentor’s” bigoted sermons has been spun as “the most significant public discussion of race in decades,” as The New York Times gushed. In fact, Obama merely recycled the tired received wisdom about race in America, the same clichés and nostrums peddled by television, government programs, movies, and just about every classroom in America. That this old racial script is being touted as some sort of fresh and “honest” discussion of race in America proves just the opposite. Liberal Americans, both black and white, apparently prefer gratifying, dishonest, and self-serving racial myths to the hard truth.
To correct the media’s packaging of Obama’s stale received ideas about race as some sort of epochal shift in our public conversation, a close analysis of the speech will be more useful and illuminating than a commentary based on sound-bite-sized quotations. The following is an attempt to provide such an analysis.
Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely — just as I’m sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.
These statements raise a host of issues, not least being that they contradict earlier assertions by Obama that in nearly twenty years he had never heard such criticism personally. But notice how Obama characterizes Wright’s bigoted, paranoid, hate-filled, ignorant rants: remarks that could be considered controversial. The passive voice and the weasel-word “controversial” are of course the rhetorical perfume Obama sprays over Wright’s malodorous comments. The “could be considered” also implies that the remarks should not be judged in terms of their truth or conformity to empirical evidence. Rather, how one reacts to them is what’s important, and that reaction is merely a consequence of personal taste or preference or socio-racial-economic “situation,” a bit of postmodern cant that runs throughout Obama’s speech. Thus when Obama calls the remarks a profoundly distorted view of this country, what he means is not that they are false, but that Obama disagrees with them.
The next rationalization arises in the last sentence, and employs another trick Obama will use throughout the speech: specious moral equivalence served up with a false analogy. To imply that people attending churches and temples in this country regularly hear the sort of lunatic bigotry Wright preaches, is simply dishonest. I grew up in a rural, fundamentalist church whose members were mostly from the Jim Crow South, and I never once heard in church anything about blacks equivalent to the racism Wright indulges. Later I attended for a while a Congregationalist church — after Unitarians, the most wacky liberal denomination in America — and though I heard much political nonsense, nothing came close to Wright’s bile. Obama is trying to avoid the simple fact that Wright’s comments reflect the worst sort of irrational extremism, rather than, as Obama goes on to whitewash them, a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice, as though Wright’s sin was merely one of excessive zeal in a noble cause.
Obama then asks the key question, Why associate myself with Rev. Wright in the first place? Why not join another church? His answer wanders off into the oft-told tale of Obama’s personal development, and a variation of the old “at least the trains run on time” excuse popular with dictators. That is, since Wright has been doing God’s work here on Earth — by housing the homeless, ministering to the needy, providing day care services and scholarships and prison ministries, and reaching out to those suffering from HIV/AID, his bigotry and hatred can be set aside. But this is the rationalization used by every autocrat and tyrant in history, and Wright’s good deeds do not absolve him of his bigotry and ignorance or their pernicious effects.
Obama continues to rationalize his relationship with Wright by quoting from his book about his experience in attending Wright’s church. Again, Obama’s personal fulfillment experienced in that church is irrelevant to the question at issue: that he sat silent, and thus approving, as profoundly ignorant and hateful comments were made. To finesse that fact, however, Obama subtly invokes the tired old riposte always trotted out in response to criticism of black dysfunctional behavior: It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.
Like other black churches, Trinity’s services are full of raucous laughter and sometimes bawdy humor. They are full of dancing, clapping, screaming and shouting that may seem jarring to the untrained ear.
The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.
The subtext here is that uptight white people just don’t get the black church experience, which apparently includes, along with shouting, screaming and bawdy humor, lunatic political rants addressing the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America. (Notice, by the way, how the “black experience” is reduced to victimhood and suffering, the oldest racial cliché around.) Thus you, white pundit or critic, cannot stand in judgment because you have never experienced that “bitterness and bias” that excuses Wright’s sermons as therapeutic balm for the oppressed. To judge the poverty of this argument, just consider how Obama and liberal America would respond to a candidate arguing that the racist comments of a fundamentalist preacher delivered to poor whites was just an expression of their “bias and bitterness.” I don’t think anyone would accept the excuse that “it’s a cracker thing, you wouldn’t understand,” that the unique experience, suffering, and history of poor Southern whites give them a pass on espousing bigotry.
The most honest statement in the whole speech comes next: I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. Obama here inadvertently gives the game away: his thin racial credentials, given that little of his life experience resembles the typical black American’s life, means he has to accept the black identity politics that define the black activists, intellectuals, and politicians without whose support he could not have a political career in the first place, or now pry the black vote away from Hillary Clinton. Thus the Clintonian triangulation that characterizes the whole speech: assure the black voters who have been giving him about 80% of their support that he is sufficiently “black,” but reassure the swing-voters turned off by racialist verbal thuggery that he personally would never indulge in such calumny.
Obama follows this brief bit of honesty with an egregiously false analogy: I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother — a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. Leave aside the public smear of his grandmother. First, you don’t choose your family, but you do choose your pastor. Every family has its cranks and losers, but we’re pretty much stuck with them. But there are lots of churches out there — though perhaps none as politically useful as Wright’s church has been for Obama. Next, there’s an important difference between what families say to each other in private and what a public figure says in a public space. None of Obama’s grandmother’s comments are likely to turn up on YouTube. Most shameless is his criticizing his grandmother’s “fear of black men who passed her on the street,” when Jesse Jackson has famously admitted to the same feeling. The stark fact of black crime that accounts for such rational prejudice is why Obama doesn’t stroll the ghetto late at night and has no intention of living there.
Having danced around the key issue without actually confronting it, Obama goes on to start lecturing us about our need to confront the problem of race: The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. How can anyone take seriously this statement? All we do in this country is obsess over and “work through” race. Our movies, our history books, our television shows, our novels, our school curricula are saturated with the issue of race, racism, and white guilt. Never in history has a minority dominated and fascinated the majority as much as have blacks in America. Indeed, Obama’s whole public existence, from his admission to Harvard to his book contracts, and his current candidacy are a reflection of that obsession. What we don’t have is honesty about race, for a rigid racial orthodoxy is enforced by the Civil Rights Industry, guilty ignorant whites, and most of the black intellectual class. And anyone who does try to speak outside the accepted dogmas of that orthodoxy — Shelby Steele, or Thomas Sowell, for example — is vilified and ostracized by the same people who think Reverend Wright is just “telling it like it is.”
Obama then proceeds to open up this so-called honest discussion of race in America by indulging the biggest, fattest, most empirically unverified cliché around: 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. The “legacy of slavery” argument for explaining the problems afflicting a third of black Americans has been exploded by Thomas Sowell, among others, most recently in his bookEconomic Facts and Fallacies. As Sowell points out, if so many indicators of social well being — intact families, for example, or legitimate births — began declining in the Sixties, how can that be the “legacy of slavery” when blackscloser in time to slavery and Jim Crow were doing better?
Obama is simply rehearsing the same old rationalizations and received truths we’ve all been hearing for fifty years. Slavery and discrimination, the fruits of endemic white racism, account for all the ills in the black community. Through some sort of Lamarckian transmission of acquired characteristics, the experiences of blacks during slavery and Jim Crow have been “passed on” to subsequent generations, trumping improvements in law and opportunity: 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. In this patronizing view, espoused by liberal racists and black opportunists alike, black people are passive playthings of deterministic forces beyond their control, doomed to failure and lacking any agency. Meanwhile 12 million illegal immigrants have braved the deserts of Sonora to come to a land lacking in economic opportunity. Southeast Asians cross the Pacific Ocean unable to speak English, and end up owning every donut shop in town. But to Obama and other race hacks, black people are frozen in the sixty-year-old amber of racism and discrimination.
These chestnuts of received racial wisdom comprise the daring conversation about race? But Obama doesn’t recycle these bromides to start an honest conversation — he wants to let Wright off the hook: For the men and women of Rev. 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.Notice how Wright is reduced to a child so traumatized that he has to “act out” in his sermons. Let’s not blame the victim by holding him accountable for his words. It is in fact our country’s racial sins that are to blame. We can’t hold Wright or any black person up to the same standards we hold others; their trauma has been too severe, too pervasive, too devastating for that. Instead we must “understand” their pain and acknowledge our guilt — and vote Democratic, so that more tax dollars can be funneled into more useless “programs” and “agencies” that kill the patient they’re supposed to cure.
Obama does, briefly, address the issue of black responsibility: That anger is not always productive; indeed, all too often it distracts attention from solving real problems; it keeps us from squarely facing our own complicity in our condition, and prevents the African-American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change. Yet this is just a prelude to another lecture to whites to acknowledge their own complicity in the “roots” that created the anger in the first place: But the anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.In other words, racial harmony will happen only when whites admit that the problems of black America are not black America’s fault. “Understanding” can only take place when that begged question is accepted as fact and we move on from there. But don’t even think of asking for an honest debate about that assumption — all you’ll do is provoke more “anger” of the sort Reverend Wright displays.
Obama finishes by resurrecting the “angry white male” that Bill Clinton pandered to in the ’96 election. Apparently, he thinks that some therapeutic “feeling your pain” will shore up his support among white swing voters who abandoned the Democrats to vote for Reagan: They 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. Frustrated and disappointed, such whites are putty in the hands of unscrupulous politicians and talk-radio dee-jays who manipulate their fears and anxieties and scapegoat black people: Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle-class squeeze — a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.
Thank you John Edwards. Evil corporations are the real villains. When a white man gets angry over the stupid bigotry of Reverend Wright, the poor misguided soul doesn’t realize that it’s really Enron and Halliburton that have riled him up by limiting his economic prospects through corporate skullduggery. The smug, patronizing attitude here is akin to the one that sees blacks as helpless victims of past racism. Here indeed is the Oprah candidate, the true heir of Bill Clinton: it’s not about principle, truth, or public standards that apply to everyone. No, it’s about feelings, the pitiful angst of people buffeted by vast, deterministic forces they are too deluded to recognize. But fear not, Obama and the Democrats know the truth, and they will relieve your anxieties by harnessing the power of the state to steer those forces into the sunny uplands of prosperity and happiness.
So what we end up with is a campaign speech, a brief for electing a Democrat and increasing the power of the state on behalf of the masses too traumatized or manipulated to see their own best interests. But what we don’t get is anything close to an honest conversation about race and the gratifying myths we use to substitute for the truth. The liberal media and the converted of course will swoon over this old racialist wine packaged in new rhetorical bottles, but all those who find truth a greater friend than a gratifying received wisdom need to speak out from now until November.
©2008 Bruce S. Thornton