Thursday, March 20, 2008

Obama's Speech

Really, I think it was a good speech. But I'm going to nitpick/complicate the uncritical readings of it.

Basically, my PhD is in African American literature, and I specialize in 19th and early 20th AfriAm lit. I went into the study of African American lit somewhat naive but with an overwhelming sense that I needed to make this study about the literature, not about me. I am white, not black. I have spent much of the last 20 years striving not to be a Noble White Liberal. If someone tells me I have said/done something racist, I take that seriously. All I can do is commit to trying to understand and thus to be a better member of my community.

That is my philosophical statement on being white and talking about race.

I don't have any problem with Rev. Wright's statements. Like Obama, I know where they come from:

For the men and women of Reverend 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. ...

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. 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.

But there are a few things Obama said that made me pause. First:

But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren’t simply controversial. They weren’t simply a religious leader’s effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam.

White racism isn't endemic? I think that's naive.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. 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.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.

First, I do love the allusion to "Theme for English B," the black student trying to figure out how to communicate who he is to his white instructor. I like how rhetorically he transforms the black-white difference to the racist-nonracist difference. However, if we pick at that rhetorical move a little, it can't hold up. Blacks and whites will always exist in our country. But let's not hope/accept that racists and non-racists will always exist in our country. The goal is to transform racists into non-racists. We can *accept* that racists co-exist with non-racists *now*, but are we really saying we accept their racism?

Perhaps what Obama is saying is that people are complex, and we need to accept the *people* while trying to change their ideas. But the funny thing is that back in 2004, there was a movie that made this same point, and it was decried by many a liberal as being simplistic and facile. That movie was Crash.

I don't have time right now to look up every review of Crash. (For one thing, the word "crash" would be so difficult to search for within blogs and news sources because it is so common. Couldn't Haggis have called the move UEFGGW? or something like that? ;) Here is a typical criticism of the movie, from Cineaste.

The film tells us that no one is all good or all bad. This is a facile, obvious notion, and ironically, one Crash propounds only by showing human behavior at its polar extremes.

How is that different from what Obama says? Why is it facile when Haggis says it, but transformative when Obama does? It's not that Obama isn't correct; it's that just a few years ago it was "in" to criticize Crash for the very same points that Obama makes.

The other part of the speech that bugged me is the example he gave at the end of the speech about Ashley and the elderly black man at a roundtable:

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they’re supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who’s been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he’s there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, “I am here because of Ashley.”

Obama's example seems heartwarming--the young 19 year old girl and the unnamed (why isn't his name mentioned? Does it not matter?) elderly black man sharing a connection and a commitment to justice.

But you know what? All I can think of is Claudia MacTeer's frustration over Shirley Temple dancing with Bill Robinson, "who ought to have been soft-shoeing it and chuckling with [her]. Instead he was enjoying, sharing, giving a lovely dance thing with one of those little white girls whose socks never slid down under their heels."

Maybe Obama wanted to make a point about the coalition of the powerless coming together to be empowered, but there is something that galls about Obama's pride in the nameless black man's promise to be there for the young privileged named white girl.

I forget what blog post I read that explained the generational differences here. Obama is espousing a social justice vision that distinguishes itself from the identity politics of previous generations of feminists and civil rights activists. Maybe he can make it happen. But I think we still have way too much history to work through, and there is a whole generation right now of men and women just as angry as the people of Rev. Wright's generation. They're not in the churches; they're on the street corners and in the jails and in abandoned houses without electricity trying to survive.

There is a fine line between looking toward the future, and ignoring the past and the present.

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