Sunday, March 23, 2008
A Dream Defeated?
As an urban anthropologist who has spent the last ten years listening to African Americans talk directly and unflinchingly about racism, Wright’s fiery sermon, so critical of contemporary American politics and culture, didn’t seem all that anomalous to me—or anti-American. In many ways, Obama’s current controversy, the one that demanded a truly historical address to defuse, represents something similar to the brouhaha that erupted in 2002 when the Ice Cube film “Barbershop” caused such a stir by scripting the kinds of irreverent conversations that often define informal public discussions in the black community, conversations that are sometimes hyper-critical of black and white Americans alike. The film demonstrated that nothing is sacrosanct and beyond criticism in such contexts—not Martin Luther King, Jr., not Jesse Jackson, not Rosa Parks—no matter how much they might otherwise be cherished.
The real versions of those fictionalized “Barbershop” comments aren’t self-evident examples of racial self-hatred any more than Wright’s homily is an open-and-shut case of anti-patriotism. Instead, both instances provide examples of the complicated and refreshingly self-critical impulse of vernacular African American cultural criticism. Of course, this might not play as well “politically” as Mitt Romney’s head-scratching inability to come up with a single thing wrong with America, but it is decidedly more honest.
Of course, African Americans don’t corner the market on such tough-love self criticism, on the desire for honest public conversations. And they don’t want to be.
In my new book, Racial Paranoia, I argue that it is essential for Americans to strive for honest and open public discussions—especially around questions of race. Anything else just reinforces serious race-based skepticisms. While conducting ethnographic research in Harlem, New York, in the 1990s, I was always struck by how many African Americans expressed (somewhat playfully) a longing for old-fashioned Southern racism. At least, the argument went, racist white southerners traditionally let you know where you stood.
Up to this point, Obama has been trying to avoid any explicit invocation of race in this campaign, even as he gets subjected to ongoing efforts to reduce his candidacy to his racial identity—the definitional epitome of racism (Ferraro’s heart-felt protestations notwithstanding).
In many ways, Barack’s ability to continue listening to conversations that make him uncomfortable or even angry has always been his strength. Whether it’s an iconoclastic overturning of America’s boastful tables in an urban black sanctuary or the more intimate stings of a grandmotherly race-based paranoia, Obama seems to insist on not giving up on America—even at its worst. That isn’t the same thing as pretending not to see what’s wrong—or just accepting it.
Of course, none of this is to say that Obama’s speech will catapult him past the Republican spin-doctors who want to win an election. In fact, he might have to fall on his sword on this one, get us talking about an issue we don’t want to discuss (at least not in mixed company) in spite of the fact that it will cost him the Presidency, an ultimate political sacrifice.
This emphasis on Obama’s guilt-by-association has turned the election season into a referendum on the very possibility of a viable black presidency—ever. Indeed, if the powerful undercurrents of race drag Obama down, there probably hasn’t been a black person born in this country, man or woman, who could swim fast enough to get away. And given their segregated social networks, their self-critical and racially skeptical family members and friends, there probably never will be.