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“No More Excuses”: Putting Obama’s Blackness to Racist Use


It is a sign of a certain sort of very real historical progress that a black person has a real shot at the United States presidency.  Still, Barack Obama’s ascendancy is not as good for American race relations [1] as some progressives and left liberals think.  It is predicated on Obama being an excessively conciliatory, accommodating, conservative, and “not all that” black and on him running a campaign that unduly downplays the still-powerful role of institutional racism and societal white supremacy in America life. 

       

It is also providing a new opportunity for the dominant white culture to sharpen its ugly practice of blaming black Americans for their disproportionate presence on the wrong side of the nation’s stark inequality structures.

       

Rabid white reactionary pundits like George Will, Charles Krauthammer,  and William Bennett have long been applauding the Obama phenomenon for promising to put an end to “obsolete” complaints about the “over” problem of racism.

       

Will has praised Obama for “taking America beyond an utterly exhausted narrative about race relations in the United States” [2] – one that “subscribe[s] to a racial narrative of strife and oppression” and denies “50 years of stunning [racial] progress, of which Obama’s candidacy is powerful evidence.” [3]

       

Krauthammer has applauded Obama for developing a “post-racial” “vision of America” and refusing to “run as a candidate of minority grievance”

       

Bennett has pontificated about how “Obama has taught the black community you don’t have to act like Jesse Jackson, you don’t have to act like Al Sharpton.  You can talk the issues.  Great dignity.  And this is a breakthrough.” Bennett praised Obama because “he never brings race into it. He never plays the race card” [4]. 

       

Note that in Bennett’s language, racism isn’t “an issue” – it’s an opportunist diversion.

       

But it isn’t just white male Republican thugs like Will, Bennett, and Krauthammer who are using Obama to insult black America. Last week on General Electric’s “Conan O’Brien Show,” the white-pleasing black comedienne Wanda Sikes received uproarious laughter and applause from a predominantly white studio audience when she said that Obama being in the White House would mean that black people have no more “excuses” for their inferior status and would now have to take personal responsibility for being disproportionately locked up in the nation’s prisons. No joke.

       

And then there’s the offensive commentary of “liberal” Kansas City Star columnist Mary Sanchez.  She argues that “Obama already aids racial reconciliation” in America simply by being African-American. The mere fact that Obama is technically black, Sanchez argues, would go a long way towards promoting racial harmony.  

       

In particular, Sanchez thinks Obama’s racial identity is thankfully undercutting two dysfunctional inclinations relating to race in American life: (1) the white habit of considering minorities who don’t fit negative racial stereotypes as “exceptions,”  (as in, “I like Oprah Winfrey but she’s not really all that black”); and (2) the black habit of blaming personal “failure” on racism.  According to Sanchez:

        

“A President Obama might help put the ‘exception’ excuse to rest. This is the mental sleight of hand people use to keep a firm grip on their prejudices by simply labeling minorities who challenge those views as ‘the exception.’ ‘You’re not like …’ is usually how these backhanded compliments begin.”

       

“And a black man in the White House would no doubt go a long way toward silencing another kind of excuse: the one preferred by those who blame racism for their own failures. Kind of hard to sound authentic complaining about ‘the man’ keeping you down when the leader of the nation shares your hue” [5].

 

Never mind that Obama is all about “the exception excuse.”  Beyond his promise not to disturb politically correct post-Civil Rights white feathers by raising the still relevant and difficult issue of institutional racism, his core appeal to white America has been the white perception that he’s “not all that black.”  The Obama phenomenon is in fact a Rushmore-level monument to precisely the white notion that a certain “perfect” and “polite” and “articulate” and “clean” and “respectful” and middle-class/bourgeois few black people (think the Sidney Poitier character in the movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” [1967]) are acceptable in the white world.

 

And never mind that institutional racism remains alive and well in every area of American society, providing the essential explanation (the supposed “excuse”) for a savage racial wealth gap that grants the median black household seven cents on the white median household dollar.  More than merely persisting into the “post Civil Rights era,” the deeper structures and practices of institutional white supremacy are cloaked by regular rituals of Caucasian self-congratulations over white America’s increased willingness to embrace “good” and bourgeois, business and power-elite-approved and not all that blacks like the corporate mass-marketing icon Oprah Winfrey and the mendacious imperialists and Iraq War agents Colin Powell, Condi Rice, and Obama. The grip of the deeper racism – the inherited and still operative racial bias that lives on in American real estate, financial, consumer, and labor markets, its medical and insurance systems, it educational and criminal justice systems and the rest – remains more powerful than ever even as one particular white-friendly sort of black individual becomes the symbolic “man” atop the political order of a corporate-plutocratic American System and Empire that continues to be run by and for rich and powerful white males above all. 

       

Under the rule of the white power elite, black households are afflicted with a 7- cents-on-the-white-dollar wealth gap.  One in three adult black males carries the lifelong mark of a felony record and blacks make up nearly half the more than 2 million people behind bars in the world’s leading mass incarceration state – the United States.  Overall black American living standards are close to those of a “Third World” nation within the world’s richest society and black Americans are still very disproportionately consigned to the nation’s worst neighborhoods, schools, occupations, incomes, and services.  The epic and ever-accumulating debts piled up over centuries and of slavery, Jim Crow, ghettoization, redlining, social policy exclusion, school segregation, and the rest continue to go viciously unpaid and recall that the nation’s “first black president” Bill Clinton couldn’t even muster a symbolic apology for two-and-a- half centuries of black bondage because of his calculation that saying “sorry” would open the door to the just demand for reparations

       

“What, America racist?” white America asks, Alfred E. Neumann-like, as the number of black children living below half the federal poverty level rises ever higher and as an increasing number of black children find themselves with not just one but two parents locked up nonviolent offenses used to turn blacks into the vital raw material for the master race’s vast prison industrial complex.

       

Go into one of the nation’s prisons and ask the black inmates if the fact that some of the police, prison guards, and wardens are black means the overall system is not racist.  Ask them if a black president bombing Iraq or Afghanistan would mean that U.S. foreign policy was no longer imperialist and racist.

       

Ms. Sanchez can’t wrap her mind around the possibility that racism might actually still cause significant widespread and legitimate black grievance and anger in a time when an Obama could become “the man.” That’s why she despicably ends her column by slamming Reverend Jeremiah Wright as “a relic of a time when bitterness and angry words on race were the way to court attention.”

       

Besides spitefully discounting the relevance of contemporary black anger about present-day institutional racism, her comment insults the black activists of the 1950s and 1960s. It is sickening beyond words for her to suggest that African Americans and racial justice supporters (of whatever color) were just trying to “COURT ATTENTION” when they rose up against the racist terror and apartheid structures and practices of their time. 

       

The toxic comments of Sanchez, Sikes, Will, Bennett, Krauthhammer and (let’s be honest) many other whites [6] on the meaning of Obama  reflect the continuing intimate, inseparable, and mutually reinforcing relationship between class and race inequality in the U.S.  It’s nothing new.

       

Obama’s white appeal is intimately linked to his bourgeois identity and values.  American racism has never been indifferent to class distinctions.”  As Stephen Steinberg noted in his important 1995 book Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy Steinberg explained:

 

“It may well be that blacks who have acquired the ‘right’ status characteristics are exempted from stereotypes and behaviors that continue to be directed at less privileged blacks.  [But] there is nothing new in this phenomenon.  Even in the worst days of Jim Crow, there were blacks who owned land, received favored treatment from whites and were held forth as ‘success stories’ to prove that lower-class blacks had only themselves to blame for their destitution…The existence of this black elite did not prove that racism was abating (thought illusions to this effect were common even among blacks).  On the contrary, the black elite itself was a vital part of the system of [racial] oppression, serving as a buffer between the [ruling white] oppressor and [most truly black] oppressed and furthering the illusion that blacks could surmount their difficulties if only they had the exemplary qualities of the black elite” [7].

 

The success of racially respectful, bourgeois and non-threatening (to whites) “good”  blacks like Obama Oprah, Condi, and Colin Powell, helps white America believe that most blacks have only themselves to blame for their overall racial group’s persistently separate and unequal status in the U.S. For many whites, loving national media stars like Oprah and Obama is the other side of the coin of fearing inner-city blacks with names like Darnell and Lakisha.

       

Obama knows all about this. He is no fool when it comes to the politics of race and class.  He has certainly known very well why so many Caucasians have approved of him – a critical and defining aspect of “the Obama phenomenon.” Given his primary objective of attaining outward power and the fact that whites continue to hold a large electoral majority in the U.S., he’s been understandably reluctant to endanger that approval by moving to the forefront of contemporary Civil Rights struggles (Jena, for example) or by even addressing the problem of institutional racism.  A dedicated electoral “pragmatic,” Obama has not been eager to complicate his comfortable funding relationships with the likes of Goldman Sachs, Lehman Bros., Morgan Stanley, Henry Crown and Co. and General Dynamics et al. by substantively criticizing empire and/or inequality at home and abroad.  In a similar vein, he hasn’t wished to undermine his favorable post-Civil Rights situation with the white electorate by making public reference to the persistently powerful and pervasive role of anti-black institutional racism in American life.  He’s been trying, rather, to ride white America’s curious and deadly post-Civil Rights mix of racial confusion, guilt, arrogance, prejudice and denial as far as he can – all the way, he hopes, to the White House.

       

It may work and it may not – all bets are off in this great historical experiment called the 2008 presidential elections.

         

 

Paul Street is the author of numerous books and essays, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004) and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).  His next book, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics will be released next August.

 

NOTES

 

1. Or for numerous other and related aspects of U.S. society and policy…For an extended discussion of current and potential reactionary uses of Obama’s technical blackness, see Paul Street, “Seven Reasons Not To Get Overly Excited About the Fact That Obama is Black,” Black Agenda Report (June 11-17, 2008), read at www.blackagendareport.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=658&Itemid=1

 

2. Will is quoted in Gary Younge, “An Obama Victory Would Symbolize A Great Deal and Change Very Little,” The Guardian, 7 January 2008. 

 

3. George Will, “The GOP – Grand Old Pulpit,” Newsweek (January 14, 2008)

http://www.newsweek.com/id/84534

 

4.  Media Matters, “CNN’s Bennett: Barack Hussein Obama Has Taught the Black Community You Don’t Have to Act like Jesse Jackson”

http://mediamatters.org/items/200801040004

 

5. Mary Sanchez, “Obama Already aids Racial Reconciliation,” Kansas City Star, June 9, 2008.

 

6. See my discussion of some especially disturbing racist comments on the part of the white liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter: Paul Street, “Jonathan Alter: Liberal Racist, Obama Fan,” ZNet (April 1, 2008), read at http://www.zmag.org/znet/viewArticle/17023. In a March 31st Newsweek column titled “The Obama Dividend,” Alter went beyond the standard reactionary praise of Obama for putting an end to supposedly obsolete and dysfunctional complaints about racism to argue that an Obama White House could fail to conduct decent and effective foreign policies but still be an important presidency if Obama could just get black people to clean up their act and be less dysfunctional! 

 

7. Stephen Steinberg, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1995), pp. 149-150.

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