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.


Mark said...

Personally and politically, I had nothing against Barack until after his 'historic' speech. Now I actively despise the man.

And as I dig deeper into his past and his politics, his stands on various issues and ability to reach across the aisle [non-existent] I'm ever more certain he is unfit for office.

We may, as Americans [not racial groups, please] decide to have this 'open, honest conversation on race'] that you ask for. If so, I should hope it begins thus: There are no races. And to what extent there were social constructs we're taught to accept a separable, these same are becoming increasingly irrelevant by the day. To hold onto grievances does little to advance any 'conversation' whatsoever since, by necessity, it will always devolve to mere lecture.

Its possible that some reading this comment would feel as if I'm disregarding their concerns - rightly so. It is precisely those concerns which need to be disposed of.

Anthroman said...

Dear (anonymous) Mark,

I can genuinely appreciate your anger. You should be heartened to know, however, that most Americans probably agree with your conclusion about race and how we should just get over it, even if they don't quite buy the "social constructionist" arguments you use to support it. The only sad thing is that such a dug-in position, I fear, is the worst thing for an American to espouse, even if it might seem like the best.

M. Simon said...

The Jews have the right idea.

Never forget what happened in Germany.

Never hold present day Germans (other than the haters) responsible for the sins of their ancestors.

That is what is so toxic about Wright. Did he thank the dead of Gettysburg for their sacrifice on his behalf?

Did he thank the Jews for their unwavering anti-racism? For their early support of the NAACP?

I drank out of the Colored Only water fountain when I was five (I knew what it meant and it offended me). My best friend in high school (drinking buddy) was black. I could go on. I can honestly say I don't have a racist bone in my body.

So why am I being held responsible for the racists in America? Most of whom are by now gone or out of power any way. BTW I'm a member of the original anti-slavery party. The party that first stood against slavery. A Republican. Why is that a dirty word in most of the black community? After the Civil War most blacks were Republicans. Why can't Wright remember that? There is so much else he has no trouble remembering.

How about the original KKK Party - the Democrats. How about the original surrender to the slave states party? The Democrats?

Does the Rev Wright want to build bridges and make alliances or just spew? What ever fills the collection plate, eh?

Obama will never never ever get my vote. The Jews are deserting the Dems en mass over Obama/Wright.

I just don't get it. Probably because I'm too white and too Jewish.

M. Simon said...

Let me remind you also of the "Battle Hymn of The Republic". Just in case you think anti-slavery did not motivate the Northern troops.

Do you think they might sing that at Wright's church.

It is the closing song at Republican Party conventions.

And yet we are being accused of being the racist party. I don't get it.

Obama/Wright has done a better job of denying the black community of allies than David Duke could ever has done. Is a simple "Thank you for your sacrifice" too much to ask?

Jews are eternally grateful for what America did in WW2 (even though it could have possibly done more). Where is the love that Jesus preached - at least love of black allies, let alone enemies?

I just don't get it.

Mark said...

Like I said, man.


I mean, I don't know. My hope is we begin the talk as Americans and say 'races don't exist', but I understand what you mean when you say not everybody might agree. Its really a shame, too.

Because that means we've only got left what Morgan Freeman was saying: Stop talking about race and racism will be over. I won't look at you as white, and you don't look at me as black, and let's just talk, or not, as we would normally choose to do.

What do we get more out of? What's better for your kids, or mine?

Anonymous said...

Whew the crazies love to congregate don't they?

I thought you were right on. Don't sweat these people man.


AnthroOC and proud of it.

Dre said...

It was important for Obama to stop the spin of attacks that would only focus on Rev. Wright comments that would ultimately end his bid for the White House. The media is in denial that most of what Rev. Wright said has already been heard by most of America and lets face it some of the most outragoues remarks ever made about race comes from Whites. He laid it on the line for some preacher dude who help him along his path. I told my fiance that the political process will do everything but drop the N bomb to derail his bid for candiancy. So far so good.

M. Simon said...

Mr. Obama laid it on the line for a guy he knew in April of 2007 would derail his candidacy.

Honorable of him. Stupid politics.

However the biggest thing hurting Barack is not his color. It is his tight associations with Marxists. Wright. Ayres. and others.

Over 50% of Americans own stock. That Marxism stuff is not going to cut it with so many Americans already owning shares in the means of production.

His plans to punish big business are not going to be popular with the owners.

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