Friday, March 21, 2008

Race, Patriotism, and Obama


Dan Larison presents an analysis, inspired in part by a thoughtful bloggingheads piece, on the racial issues implicated by Obama's church, pastor and speech.
Meanwhile, middle- and working-class white (and probably other) audiences heard this, remembered the anti-racist catechisms they had been taught for as long as they could remember and understood that the proper, approved reaction was to shake their heads and boo. McWhorter makes a similar observation. Now that anti-racism has captured the minds of so many of these people, now that the conditioning has had its intended effect, observers sympathetic to Obama are dismayed that Obama’s nuanced effort to explain (or, as the critics have it, explain away) racially-charged and potentially racialist rhetoric fell on deaf ears. Yet this shouldn’t surprise anyone–if the speech fell on deaf ears, it was the elites who deafened them years before with a single, simple imperative: “Don’t pay attention to race, except when we tell you to!”
I believe Larison misses the mark here, not so much because there aren't "elites" of the type he mentions, but because those "elites" don't have the ear of the "middle- and working-class white (and probably other) audiences" he describes. If it did, those audiences would have voted down anti-gay marriage, anti-domestic partnership ballot initiatives. They would have rejected ballot initiatives ending affirmative action. Etc. That audience is responding to other factors, discussed in the bloggingheads piece, not the least of which are their own concerns about job security and the future, and their own experiences with the effects of poverty.

Larison is correct that society has largely learned that it is not acceptable to make public, racist announcements, and that the response that our popular culture now dictates is to boo. He's even correct that this culture change has been a top-down phenomenon, driven by "elites" of various types. But I think that he's overlooking the fundamental reason why Rev. Wright's statements resonate in a bad way - and this is discussed in the bloggingheads piece - it's because people are not willing to accept blame for historic wrongs, nor are they willing to absorb a penalty (real or perceived) to correct those wrongs when they see similar problems within their own communities for which no similar remedy is offered.

Obama could address these issues in a post-racial way, and maybe he still will. If you were to ask them what causes patterns of poverty and crime within their communities, may may demonstrate and external locus of responsibility (i.e., "blame others") similar to that of Rev. Wright. But few are going to go into a diatribe about how they're being held back by their race, or by affirmative action, and even that group (perhaps especially that group) is not receptive to the notion that there is something special about race that necessitates race-based remedies to social ills.

What is perhaps more interesting is that the willing tools of the Republican attack machine aren't focusing on race. They're focusing on patriotism. This isn't a first - recall the earlier attacks to besmirch Obama's patriotism through comments made by his wife. Then it was the false claim that he didn't have his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, and even that he wouldn't say the Pledge. And let's not forget the flag pin smear, which was even propagated by tools who don't even wear flag pins.

Perhaps it remains too hard, as suggested by Peggy Noonan, to attack Obama directly on issues of race? Noonan, as I read the piece, was trying to drive a wedge between the Obama's and working class whites - but she still chose to couch her attack in terms of patriotism ("Some of them were raised by a TV and a microwave and love our country anyway, every day.") In the present context, see, e.g., Gerson ("Obama's excellent and important speech on race in America did little to address his strange tolerance for the anti-Americanism of his spiritual mentor"); Kristol ("This doesn’t mean that Obama agrees with Wright’s thoroughgoing and conspiracy-heavy anti-Americanism"); Chris LaCivita (of Swift Boat fame), ("'You don’t have to say that he’s unpatriotic, you don’t question his patriotism,' he added. 'Because I guaran-damn-tee you that with that footage you don’t have to say it.'")

It's also interesting to me how Wright is deemed unpatriotic ("God damn America"), but a John Hagee ("America is under the curse of God" - i.e., we're damned) is not - they're both arguing that America deserves to be damned by God, but Hagee is adding that we are damned - should Wright have used the passive voice? Or how a conspiracy theory that blames the government for spreading AIDS or drugs is unacceptable, but a conspiracy theory blaming the government for the JFK assassination can be raised in pretty much any context (although you can expect to get disagreement and inspire some eyerolls). Or how other nutty theories about the spread of AIDS (e.g., Falwell's "AIDS is God's punishment", or Hagee's "AIDS began in African prisons, where thousands of men ... turned to perverted sex") do not trigger condemnation, apparently because they omit mention of the U.S. government. Or how conspiracy theories can swirl about the government's role in Waco, Ruby Ridge, and 9/11 even in the same circles that deem Wright's "our policies brought it on us" philosophy to be unacceptable. Or why it is acceptable to blame 9/11 on "the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way", while remaining in the warm embrace of the Republican Party. But sometimes we have to accept the world the way it is.

Perhaps the focus on patriotism over race boils down to this: It's also a hard sell to argue to blue collar America that racism doesn't exist, even if many believe its effects are minor or are more than counter-balanced by "reverse discrimination", because they know better.

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