Tag Archives: race

Obama and the Race/Violence Divide

In recent weeks Nancy Pelosi and former President Jimmy Carter made much needed meta-comments about the increasingly violent tenor of the current political discourse in this country.

Pelosi reflected upon the violent language not experienced in this country since the 1960s, and Carter observed the racist motivations behind a lot of the anti Obama attacks. Both Pelosi’s and Carter’s comments were dismissed by a good many in the mainstream press, to my chagrin.

It’s an important discussion to have, particularly since in my opinion both Carter and Pelosi are correct in their observations.  (see Politico)

But let me temper that a bit with the following context. All Obama agonists are not Racist and race is not the root of much of the anti Obama criticism. During the early Clinton years, the right made a similar effort to delegitimize his presidency. These were the days Rush Limbaugh started a count on the number of days left in the new president’s term, and Clinton agonists discredited his health reform efforts by jiggling shiny trinkets in front of the media about alleged mistresses and Whitewater land deals in Arkansas.  Taylor Branch’s new bio of Clinton, the Clinton Tapes reminds us of how the right came quite close to delegitimizing the Clinton presidency.   Clinton’s opponents may have been racist (some of them), but the germane point is that they hated the Clintonian commitment to relying on government to solve complex social problems.

Same thing Obama faces.

Race is being used as a tool to bring Obama down,  but it is not the source of (all) the animosity. I think the more comprehensive source is ideological.  The big divide between red states and blue states, and between people who believe government has a positive role to play and people who would rather rely on unaccountable market forces that  are structured to exclude millions of have nots in society.  To the extent that opponents of a strong federal government historically back to Antibellum days have also been racist is part of the story now playing out.

It’s an ideology  thing about the role government.  Difficult to see how the president’s commitment to post partisanship abides such a tectonic divide.  And race fuels the animosity. It makes for a less communicative divide, and potentially more violent future.

In the meantime, it is time to heed Pelosi’s and Carter’s comments.



Obama Address Raises Two Questions

If Barack Obama had one obstacle to the presidency before the vote in November it was to appear presidential, and pass the commander in chief test. Today he crushed these obstacles. It was that good.  His speech in Berlin could have been given by John Kennedy, and was better than the one that Reagan delivered.

The speech was eloquent and fluid; it commanded respect and drew great favor with the crowd of more than 100 thousand. This is the first time I have seen live television shots of people in Europe waving american flags rather than wearing paper mache masks.

In terms of symbolism, Obama won the day on two counts: 1st, he passed the presidential threshold with aplomb; 2nd, he took substantial strides towards repairing america’s image on the world stage. if only he wins.

The speech leaves two challenges to consider:

1st has to do with the wall metaphor Obama used repeatedly, following Reagan. Reagan said to tear down the physical wall separating west and east; and the metaphorical wall of ideology separating these two hemispheres.

Obama echoed the sentiment that walls should and could come down; sounding a metaphor for race, religion and ethnic divisions around the globe. The challenge for Obama during this campaign is to propose a similar call to Boeing to take down the wall it is constructing along the US-Mexico border, with the ethnic and class divisions that coincide with construction of the virtual and physical fences to our south.

Second, is a challenge to the American people, which I think is an important subtext to the Obama speech.  Since it has become abundantly evident that Obama represents the sort of candidate that Americans say they are ready for, even crave: one who will replace the republican disaster of the past 8 years; one who can string together more than a couple half sentences that McBush passes off as a speech; one that appeals to the hopes and dreams of americans while regaining some respect in the world; one who pledges to end the war in Iraq…..  The challenge here is obvious: would americans elect a man whose father was born Kenyan.

The latest polls just released showing McCain having pulled ahead in Colorado and edging closer in minnesota and Michigan and this despite the horrendous gaffe-filled; competency questioning couple weeks McCain has had, well this speaks the challenge for americans to dig a little deeper here to see the real choices before them.

“Meeting David Wilson” in Baltimore

Last evening, I watched the documentary “Meeting David Wilson,” which was about the film maker David A. Wilson exploring his own ancestry, tracing it back, from Newark New Jersey, to North Carolina, to Ghana. The film’s dramatic tension had to do with David A. Wilson meeting David B. Wilson in North Carolina, where B’s great great grandfather enslaved A’s great great grandfather.  The tenor of the film was reconciliation, and I found it to be quite poignant and as a teacher I think every school should make full use of this documentary and accompanying teaching materials.  If nothing else, David A would like the documentary to be used to start a conversation, and schools, regardless of their racial demographic should create curriculum to facilitate this endeavor.

For me, a NYC born white, jewish academic who does a lot of work in Baltimore communities, the 90 minute discussion after the documentary was as important as the film itself.  It was important for the unspoken tension (even tho it spoke of racial tensions quite a bit). I experienced a divide on the panels, not so much based on race, but on ways of speaking (discourse).

I saw the split in two ways. First, is the divide that David A commented on at the end of the discussion. He said he was bothered by the academese of the discussion and was concerned that most americans who ought to be engaging in this discussion would be put off by the jargon and theories being tossed around by such panelists as Michael Eric Dyson, Tim Wise, and from the audience Greg Carr.

The second divide overlaps the first and has to do with the ways in which the panelists talked passed each other, with some focusing on systems (macro), and others focusing on individuals/people (micro).  In this dialogue, the system’s speakers assume a more critical posture, and the “people” speakers assume a less critical and more conservative stance.  The most famous example of this is the Cosby–Dyson debate about which books (Dyson’s own) literally have been written. 

I happen to think that the term racism is a “systems” concept.  I adhere to the view that systems and institutions are racist not individuals. Individuals  may be bigoted and prejudiced, and can say racists things, but they are not racist, per se.  In Baltimore, it is difficult to talk about race without framing the discussion in the context of quite visible and obvious inner city blight. The blight covers a range of topics and statistics.  Fewer than 40% of Baltimore City HS students graduate; 1 in 3 young black males will be incarcerated; the incarceration rate is 2,420 per 100,000, one of the highest rates of any city in the country.  The city has about 300 murders a year, much of which is black on black, one of the nation’s highest heroin addiction rates which kills about as many Baltimore residents as are murdered each year. In all, Baltimore is the 2nd most dangerous city in the US of any city with a population of at least 500,000 residents.  We are talking about a racist system. 

I have done a great deal of work at the dallas Nicholas Elementary School in the Barclay neighborhood. The school is an almost 100% title one school. Right across the street from the school is the state parole and probation building.  The message for many dallas Nicholas Students when they leave school for home is clear: this is where you might end up. Last summer the neighborhood  experienced the city’s largest percentage of murders of many neighborhood in the city. 

This racist system needs to be overhauled. Period. 

At the same time, the Barclay neighborhood shows several signs of (re)vitalization, which focuses on life within the structures and institutions; it goes to the micro- issue because it is based on community building, individuals principals, teachers and residents who simply refuse to accept the sometimes over-determining feelings of powerlessness associated with how the system constructs and defines this neighborhood. 

I have worked with the “Barclay Boys” summer program, the BOOST after school program, the growing community school headquartered inside the elementary school, and the local neighborhood associations.  These programs and projects would not thrive were it not for the commitments of named individuals.

Still, they would not survive were it not for the threadbare financial support they receive from the city, state and local funders.

The politics of race in Baltimore’s barclay neighborhood integrates the macro and the micro, and concrete next steps have to do with increasing the numbers of committed individuals,  securing the political support of the local city government; going beyond individuals to mobilize political support that is capable of securing city, state and national funds for the schools, after school and community school programs, and so forth.

There is nothing about working on the micro level that excludes thinking and communicating on the macro level. Nothing about personal responsibility on the micro level and critical race theory theory on the macro level.  this leaves David A’s question about too much academese, and the challenge to people who are helping to frame the debate to lessen the jargon; it is quite possible and beneficial to communicate complex ideas, which we all have, in everyday language which makes the dialogue democratically accessible.

In sum, the dialogue needs to find a narrative that is capable of holding macro and micro issues within the same conversation. Only then will conversants really be able to hear and respond to each other.


John McCain’s Tiger Woods Problem

If John McCain were running for president against Tiger Woods, he’d likely get crushed. So when McCain supporter, Former Army Staff Sergeant David Bellavia introduced McCain by misrepresenting his likely opponent, Barack Obama as Tiger Woods, chances are he wasn’t alluding to Woods’ incomparability.

And perhaps, it wouldn’t matter if he were. Here is what Bellavia said,

“Rest assured,” he told the crowd, “that men like Senator McCain will be the goal and the men that my two young boys will emulate and admire. You can have your Tiger Woods, we’ve got Senator McCain.”

Michael Eric Dyson, appearing on Keith Olbermann, suggested, accurately I think, that this kind of comment raises a problem for McCain’s campaign because it represents a habit of racism (as opposed to racist intent,) with McCain chortling in the background, that reduces people of color to interchangeable and inferior parts– Tiger, Barack, no difference– in society. Such demonization and dehumanization is ugly and McCain should be held to account.

In the alternative, suppose Bellavia was actually trying to complement Obama by comparing him to Tiger Woods. No real diference here because the comment still would have reduced men of mixed race to being a Tiger/ Barack/…. Even while elevating Barack to the invincible stature of Tiger– which is unlikely– Bellavia would be guilty of having dehumanized and homogenized the likely democratic nominee. one mixed race celeb= any other. As Edward Said suggested a couple decades ago, romanticizing of the other is just as dehumanizing and demoralizing.

So McCain supporters probably shouldn’t even bother rationalizing this one. it’ll deepen the hole. just fess up. Tell America McCain’s laugh was the same laugh as when he reacted to the comment that Hilary is a b*tch. Tell America that McCain welcomes the support of habitual racists and other fear mongering phobes (his real base); that he thinks he benefits by drawing such race-based and gender based comparisons with his democratic opponents; that he enjoys having supporters make such comments; finds such degrading remarks to be funny, and will continue to laugh at the labeling of others. Pull back the curtain on this old style politics. Let us in on the joke. McCain owes voters as much.

Conservative themes in Obama’s Race Speech

In a recent HuffPo, Rogers Smith, who was interviewed, suggested that as important as Barack Obama’s speech last week might have been, it probably would not help him among conservative voters.

I disagree, and direct your attention to yesterday’s small scale rebellion at FOX Noise where one morning anchor walked off set and conservative commentator Chris Wallace impugned his colleagues for engaging in “Obama bashing.”

Something is afoot with a potential Obama nomination that is both unsettling and fascination to watch unfold.

On a previous post, I remarked that “The Speech” is one of the most optimistic and realistic speeches on race that Americans have heard in a very long time. I’d like to add that the speech was neither a liberal nor a conservative speech. It had elements to appeal to partisans of diverse political persuasions. Of particular interest here are the ideas that appeal to conservatives, who like Chris Wallace, are taking notice.

Consider for a moment a couple things that Obama chose not to dwell on. He spoke little about class and poverty, which as somebody vying for an Edwards endorsement, some must have found disappointing. Further, Obama emphasized the notion of individual responsibility in the African American community, which is an issue that Bill Cosby recently took under tow, much to the chagrin of more progressive voices like Michael Eric Dyson, whose book, Is Bill Cosby Right? was pretty much a broadside attack on Cosby’s remedies of meritocracy and personal responsibility. Then consider Obama’s white and sometimes bigoted grandmother whose comments remind many of some of our own white relatives. And finally are thee themes raised by Reverand Wright, which, according to Frank Schaeffer, when spoken by his rightist white preacher dad (Francis Schaffer), received high praise among white Christian conservatives.

So, plenty for the right to chew on, Rogers Smith’s commentary to the contrary.

It seems Obama landed on some inherently conservative ideas that may broaden Obama’s appeal among Pennsylvania’s rural white voters and those other Reagan Dems who don’t like McCain and just might have been among the 1million+ clicks of “The Speech” on YouTube since Tuesday.

Lessons from Barack Obama’s JFK Moment

Barack Obama’s speech on Race in America finally makes salient the campaign analogy to John Kennedy. There is much from JFK’s speech that resonates today, which Obama picked up on in his speech yesterday. There is also plenty from Obama’s speech that could not have been spoken 48 years ago.

But for this post, I wish to recall Kennedy’s appeal to secularism that would serve Obama (and the press corp covering Obama) well in 2008.

On September 12, 1960, JFK went before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, put his Catholicism on the table and challenged the country to face up to its misperceptions about Catholics and to move beyond them in the general election, which they did.

Obama made a similar appeal today. He put race on the table and challenged the country to have a conversation about racial misperceptions and to move beyond it when considering his candidacy for president.

How the country responds remains a question.

In the meantime, however, the press would be respected for picking up another analogy to the JFK speech. Just as in 1960, the idea of secularism has a potentially relevant role to play in 2008.

The JFK speech spoke of a more secular time in american politics when religious leaders didn’t endorse candidates nor tell their parishioners whom to vote for (think Hagee, Parsley). In addition while the candidate’s political ideas were open for scrutiny personal relationships with clergy were let alone.
Consider the following passage from the Sept. 1960 speech:

So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again–not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me–but what kind of America I believe in.

I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute–where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote–where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference–and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish–where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source–where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials–and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.

The point I wish to emphasize here is that after Kennedy’s speech, the press didn’t pressure JFK to denounce or reject statements previously made by the Church. Kennedy insisted on and the press respected the candidate’s desire to separate public and private opinion.

Lesson? Perhaps the media should recall the attention it once paid to secular ideals, drop the Wright issue and instead pick up on the bigger public issues of the day, such as efforts the heal the racial divide, and the 5th anniversary of a failed war in Iraq.

The Media’s Obama (Black Church)- McCain (White Evangelical Church) Conundrum

I just did a couple quick searches on the NYTimes web site and found the following. 0 results mentioning John McCain and Rod Parsley, 3 results mentioning John McCain and John Hagee, AND, 36 articles mentioning Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright. Then I checked the Washington Post site and found: 17 results for McCain and Hagee; 2 results for Parsley and McCain; AND 59 results for Wright and Obama.

Why the heavier media scrutiny for the candidate-black church relationship than the candidate-white church relationship? Media face less resistance going after black churches.

David Corn describes Rod Parsley, whom John McCain referred to as his “spiritual guide,” as follows:

The leader of a 12,000-member congregation, Parsley has written several books outlining his fundamentalist religious outlook, including the 2005 Silent No More. In this work, Parsley decries the “spiritual desperation” of the United States, and he blasts away at the usual suspects: activist judges, civil libertarians who advocate the separation of church and state, the homosexual “culture” (“homosexuals are anything but happy and carefree”), the “abortion industry,” and the crass and profane entertainment industry.

Further, according to Corn, “Parsley claims that Islam is a “false religion,” and an “anti-Christ religion” predicated on “deception.””

Next is John Hagee, founder of Christians United For Israel, who threw his support behind John McCain, calling him a “man of principle, who does not stand boldly on both sides of any issue.” McCain embraced Hagee, after having courted him for over a year, saying he was honored by the endorsement.

Problem is Hagee has called the Catholic Church, ” the Great Whore,” an “apostate church,” the “anti-Christ” and a “false cult system.”

Back in 2003, Hagee’s television series on Islam was cancelled in Canada for inciting hatred against Muslims. Hagee has also suggested that Hurrcane Katrina was “punishment against gays.”

If you were to watch any number of Hagee speeches on the internet, you see joy on his face as he progosticates war with Iran, and disparages and demonizes Muslims, gays and Catholics.

War and hatred. But say what you will about Parsley and Hagee, these guys love America, and it is this “lapel pin” propagaganda that helps give them a pass from the media. Perhaps also more is that Parsley and Hagee represent a white evangelical constituency, a still potent force in american politics.

Now consider Pastor Wright’s social justice critique of America’s legacy of racism. Wrights message is “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian.” It is an “African centered point of view” that has been heard in Black churches for generations, and thus also remains a marginalized social force in american politics. This constituency has never been a potent force in american politics. Wright’s voice is of a legacy that includes such scorned geniuses as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, as well as including the final economic campaign days of MLK Jr.

It is an angry voice that holds american institutions and elites to account for a legacy that has excluded african americans from the country’s promises of equality and justice for all.

Here is the relevance for the skeletal media content analysis that started the post. This message, if taken seriously would force media moguls to restructure how their reporters cover the news. They would be forced to investigate the claims that Wright and others have made over the years. Such are questions that the media are structured not to ask.

In other words, Wright’s message threatens the media establishment in ways that Hagee’s and Parsley’s message does not, which explains why the NYT and WaPo would rather demonize Wright and Obama’s relationship, than ask fundamentaly important questions about why white evangelical churches and the candidates they support have received a pass for so many years. It would force such questions of folks who continue to take Hagee’s and Parsley’s support for granted, and only then would McCain receive the sort of scrutiny now being leveled at Obama.