Past and Present in Obama’s Race Speech

There’s something really wrong with Obama’s instantly hailed March 18th Race/Reverend Wright speech and it isn’t getting enough attention. I’m talking about the way-too easy way he got away with discussing the racism that produces black American anger as something from the past.


Here are some key paragraphs from Obama’s Latest Greatest Oration:


“As William Faulkner once wrote, ‘The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.’ We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. 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.”


….A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.”


”This is the reality in which Reverend Wright and other African-Americans of his generation grew up. They came of age in the late fifties and early sixties, a time when segregation was still the law of the land and opportunity was systematically constricted. What’s remarkable is not how many failed in the face of discrimination, but rather how many men and women overcame the odds; how many were able to make a way out of no way for those like me who would come after them.”


“But for all those who scratched and clawed their way to get a piece of the American Dream, there were many who didn’t make it – those who were ultimately defeated, in one way or another, by discrimination. 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. Even for those blacks who did make it, questions of race, and racism, continue to define their worldview in fundamental ways. 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.”


There’s some useful material there but Obama really overdid the past tense. The Faulkner quote is nice (I used it to make a similar point in my book Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis) and it is good to see the reparations opponent Obama note the continuing relevance of not-so “past” racism. But there’s plenty of fresh, living and active, ongoing racial oppression and discrimination sparking rage today among black Americans of all ages, including a large number of younger black Chicago males I have repeatedly heard rip Obama as “bourgeois” and “a white man’s Negro.”  The oppression that angers Wright and other black Americans is more than an overhang and more even than a legacy from from the bad old past. The humiliation and hopelessness felt by millions of those Americans are being reinforced, generated, and expanded anew on a daily basis right now… in the 21st century.  New “memories” of racial tyranny are being created right now beneath the national self-congratulation over whites being ready to love and vote for Obama (supposed proof that racism no longer exists). 


In my home state of Iowa, untold thousands of white liberals are applauding themselves for having Caucused for Barack Obama while giving not the slightest bit of attention to the fact that their state was recently reported to have the single worst percentage of racially disparate incarceration in the United States! 


There and across the country, black “anger and bitterness” is being generated within the U.S. by racist policies, structures, and practices in the current period as well during the years when Reverend Jeremiah Wright was a young man.  Please buy the book I linked above and read the eighth chapter, titled "What’s Racism Got to Do with It?"


The other day Bill Fletcher wrote the following in Black Commentator: "Obama attributed much of the anger of Rev. Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather than the fact that Rev. Wright’s anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted – and documented – in the current reality of the USA.” 




The other thing is that Obama (predictably) failed to mention the two-sided nature of the change he admonished Wright for (allegedly) failing to see in U.S. race relations since the 1950s and 1960s.  Here’s how Obama put it:


"The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.”


One problem here is that since the Civil Rights era  change has involved not just progress but also steps backward in the realm of race relations.  It’s NOT just a progress narrative.Some of  the steps backward include increasing class polarization (and related spatial distancing between affluent and desparate) within the black community, the emergence of a truly giant and oppressive racist mass incareceration and criminal marking state (intimately related to the racially hyper-disparate War on Drugs, the main culprit behind the fact that 1 in 3 black adult males has a felony record now), the shredding of public assistance, the assault on public housing, the emergence of hyper alienated and often somewhat marooned black suburban ghettos (eg Harvey, IL),  the final total deindustrialization of many black inner-city neighborhoods, and of course the intensified fading of white America’s willingness to acknowledge that racism is a powerful barrier to black advancement and equality. That fading is sadly encouraged by the Obama phenomenon and its mass cultural kissing cousin the Oprah phenomenon and other black victories – a cruel, viciously circular reality that results from America’s failure to confront the deeper societal, institutional and "state-of-being racism" (Joe Feagin’s useful term) I’ve spent a lot of time writing about in recent years.   


And then there’s Obama’s especially inevitable (given his determination to climb the greasy pole to the top of the ruling class) silence on the case for reparations, made in the following quote from the black political scientist Roy Brooks, containing insights that might lead some to question the utility of the common distinction between past and present racism:     


"Two persons – one white and the other black – are playing a game of poker. The game has been in progress for some 300 years. One player – the white one – has been cheating during much of this time, but now announces: "from this day forward, there will be a new game with new players and no more cheating." Hopeful but suspicious, the black player responds, "that’s great. I’ve been waiting to hear you say that for 300 years. Let me ask you, what are you going to do with all those poker chips that you have stacked up on your side of the table all these years?" "Well," said the white player, somewhat bewildered by the question, "they are going to stay right here, of course." "That’s unfair," snaps the black player. "The new white player will benefit from your past cheating. Where’s the equality in that?" "But you can’t realistically expect me to redistribute the poker chips along racial lines when we are trying to move away from considerations of race and when the future offers no guarantees to anyone," insists the white player. "And surely," he continues, "redistributing the poker chips would punish individuals for something they did not do. Punish me, not the innocents!" Emotionally exhausted, the black player answers, "but the innocents will reap a racial windfall" (Roy Brooks, Integration or Separation? [1996], p. ix)


  Seen against the backdrop of Brooks’ living “racial windfall,” there is something significantly racist about the widespread mainstream white assumption that the broader white majority society owes African-Americans nothing in the way of special, ongoing compensation for singular black disadvantages resulting from overt and explicit past racism.


Most white Americans object strenuously to the idea that “past racial discrimination matters in the present.” They are dead wrong, as Obama was trying to suggest in a very careful way and falling far short of calling for reparations of course. As anyone who examines capitalism in an honest way knows, what people get from the present and future so-called “free market” is very much about what and how much they bring to that market from the past. “Long ago” racism continues to exact a major cost on current-day black Americans, raising the question of whether unresolved historical inequity is really “past.”  Slavery and then Jim Crow segregation in the South and for that matter the open racial terrorism, discrimination and apartheid imposed on black northerners in places like Chicago and Detroit “long ago” continue to shape present-day racial inequality. As Michael K. Brown and his colleagues note in their study Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society, racial “inequalities are cumulative, a fact adherents of the new public wisdom on race ignore in their rush to celebrate [racial] progress.” Because the “inequalities accumulate over time,” the authors argue, the distinction frequently made by “racial conservatives” between “past and present racism” is often inadequate and deceptive” (p. 10).  Roy Brooks’ surplus poker chips are not irrelevant hangovers from “days gone by.” They are weapons of racial oppression in the present and future.


The common negative white reaction to the notion that whites should pay through programs like affirmative action or even reparations for slavery and discrimination that took place before they were born is typically accompanied d by the admonition to “let bygones be bygones.”  “The unjust enrichment gained by whites over centuries should be forgotten,” the argument runs, even though, as sociologist Joe Feagin noted in 2000, “some black Americans are [still] only a couple of generations removed from their enslaved ancestors” and “the near slavery of legal segregation only came to an end in the 1960s, well within the lifetimes of many Americans alive today.” In Brooks’ and Feagin’s view, even if the contemporary socioeconomic system had become free of racial discrimination and bias in its current operation, compensatory programs, including reparations, would be required to undo the racially disparate historical “windfall” and thereby generate actual equality of opportunity for African-Americans. Joe Feagin, Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations (New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), p. 261.


Official public “apologies” for slavery, like the one recently issued by the state of Virginia, cannot change this harsh reality.


Given what is well known about the relationship between historically accumulated resources and current and future economic "success," indeed, the very distinction between past and present racism ought perhaps to be considered part of the ideological superstructure of contemporary white supremacy functioning as an ongoing barrier to black advancement and equality. 


It is important to remember that the explicit and overt racism that made it impossible for a black man to seriously consider running for higher office in the not-so distant past was about more than sheer sadism in and of itself.  That racism served and enforced the economic exploitation and material subordination of blacks Americans That long exploitation gave rise to a historically cumulative racial wealth and power gap whereby contemporary disparities are deeply fed by past inequalities.

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