Barack Obama’s strategy to win the White House was to run a “race-neutral” campaign in a society that is anything but neutral on race. The very premise — that race neutrality is possible in a nation built on white supremacy — demanded the systematic practice of the most profound race-factual denial, which is ultimately indistinguishable from rank dishonesty. From the moment Obama told the 2004 Democratic National Convention that “there is no white America, there is no black America,” it was inevitable that the candidate would one day declare the vast body of black opinion illegitimate.
That day came on Tuesday, April 29, when a battered and truly bitter Barack Obama made his final, irrevocable break with his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose televised Black Liberation Theology tour de force the preceding Friday, Sunday and Monday had laid bare the contradictions of Obama’s hopeless racial “neutrality.” It was the masterful preacher and seasoned political creature Wright – not the racists who had endlessly looped chopped snippets of the reverend’s past sermons together in an attempt to make him appear crazed – who forced Obama to choose in the push and pull of black and white American worldviews. Obama was made to register his preference for the white racist version of truth over Rev. Wright’s, whose rejection of Euro-American mythology reflects prevailing African American perceptions, past and present.
Obama was less than eloquent. “All it was is a bunch of rants that aren’t grounded in truth,” said Sen. Obama, low-rating Rev. Wright’s remarks at the National Press Club, in Washington, the morning before. Rev. Wright had become a “caricature” of himself, said the wounded candidate – another way of calling the minister a clown.
Under questioning from reporters in Winston Salem, North Carolina, Obama swore up and down that he had never before, in 16 years as a member of Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ congregation, observed his pastor behave in such a way. The declaration rang patently false, as even a red-state Republican white evangelical observer would have recognized Wright’s Press Club performance as that of veteran pulpit-master with a vast repertoire of church-pleasing moves and grooves to draw upon, all of them honed over decades for the entertainment of his parishioners – including Obama. But the senator was intent on giving the impression that Rev. Wright was – unbeknownst to Obama – a Jekyll and Hyde character, whose statements “were not only divisive and destructive, but I believe that they end up giving comfort to those who prey on hate.”
An amazingly Bush-like turn of phrase! The man who married Barack and Michelle and baptized their children is now rhetorically linked to Osama bin Laden or the Ku Klux Klan.
Clearly, this is what panic looks and sounds like when Obama’s flimsy tissues of “race neutrality” are stripped away. He berates Rev. Wright and other black voices for self-centeredness in failing to strike a balance between African American grievances and whatever ails white people. “When you start focusing so much on the historically oppressed,” said Obama, “we lose sight of the plight of others.” Obama is desperate to convince these “others” that he rejects anything that smacks of an Afro-centric worldview, as represented by Rev. Wright. “What became clear to me was that he was presenting a world view that contradicts what I am and what I stand for.”
Rev. Wright succeeded in drawing a line in the sand, whether that was his intention or not, daring Obama to take his stand on one side or the other. Race “neutrality” – an impossibility in the actually existing United States – went out the window as Obama in extremis positioned himself at the political/historical fault line alongside the defenders of the Alamo and American Manifest Destiny. As dictated by the logic of power, Obama furiously maneuvered toward “white space,” shamelessly taking cover in a kind of populist white patriotism that has always branded black grievances as selfish, even dangerous distractions from the larger national mission. Rev. Wright’s “rantings” amounted to “a complete disregard for what the American people are going through,” said Obama. “What mattered to him was him commanding center stage.”
Obama had belabored the same theme in his Philadelphia speech on race, a few weeks earlier – a widely applauded piece of oratory that was at root an exercise in moral equivalence that equated white and Black grievances in the U.S., as if history and gross power discrepancies did not exist. Obama is as quick as any smug corporate commentator to dismiss as the ravings of extremists and those who “prey on hate” the very idea that U.S. imperialism is an historical and current fact. Chickens cannot possibly come home to roost in terroristic revenge as a response to American crimes against humanity, since “good” nations by definition are incapable of such crimes. It is beyond the pale to contemplate that the United States has Dr. Deaths on its covert payrolls dealing in ghastly biological warfare – the AIDS genesis theory.
In order for his race-neutral strategy to appear sane, Obama must constantly paint a picture of an America that does not exist. This cannot be accomplished without mangling the truth, assaulting the truth-tellers, and misrepresenting America’s past and present.
Since Obama’s candidacy is predicated on minimizing the pervasiveness of racism in American life, it is necessary that he cast doubt on the legitimacy of those with race-based grievances. Otherwise, he would be morally compelled to abandon his neutrality and side with the oppressed minority. Thus, he announces in Selma, Alabama that Blacks “have already come 90 percent of the way” to equality – a non-truth by virtually any measurement. He says the “incompetence was color-blind” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, thereby deracializing all that occurred in New Orleans from the moment the winds died down to this very second. He claims that 1980s Ronald Reagan voters had understandable grievances due to “the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s,” in the process cleansing the Reagan victory of any racist content.
Race neutrality requires that Barack Obama become a cleanup boy for racists, historically and in the present day. At the same time, Obama is driven to loathe most those people and facts that might lead to divisiveness. America’s worst enemies are not the racists, but those who point out the facts of racism, as Obama explained in mid-March in Philadelphia:
Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems – two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all.
Rev. Wright and his ilk, by this reasoning, are Public Enemy Number One, standing in the way of the racial harmony that is the natural order of things in Obama’s mythical America.
Ironically, in practice, race-neutrality also requires that Obama disarm himself in the face of racist attacks. “If I lose,” he told reporters with a straight face, “it would not be because of race. It would be because of mistakes I made along the campaign trail.”
Perhaps it is fitting that, having absolved American racists of all manner of crimes against others, Obama also holds them blameless for their assaults on himself. That’s his prerogative, as long as he’s the only one being assaulted. But Obama was also trailed over the long weekend by the ghost of Sean Bell, whose death in a 50-shot New York City police fusillade was held blameless by a white judge. Many African Americans anxiously awaited Obama’s reaction to the three police officers’ acquittals on all charges. “We’re a nation of laws, so we respect the verdict that came down,” said Obama, when asked about the case by reporters in Indiana. “Resorting to violence to express displeasure over a verdict is something that is completely unacceptable and is counterproductive.” That was it.
Hillary Clinton, aware that the Sean Bell verdict was an outrage to Black America, issued a prepared statement:
This tragedy has deeply saddened New Yorkers – and all Americans. My thoughts are with Nicole and her children and the rest of Sean’s family during this difficult time. The court has given its verdict, and now we await the conclusion of a Department of Justice civil rights investigation. We must also embrace this opportunity to take steps – in our communities, in our law enforcement agencies, and in our government – to make sure this does not happen again.
It is difficult not to conclude that Obama distanced himself from the facts of the acquittal – except to counsel against violence and urge folks to “respect” the verdict, whatever that means – while Clinton had the sense to prepare a statement that sounded sensitive to black anger and on top of developments in the story. The Sean Bell police and judicial atrocity revealed with horrific clarity that black life continues to be systematically devalued by police in the United States, even when the officers involved are of African descent, as were two of the three shooters in the Bell case. The New York verdict shows that black lives are devalued by all actors in American society, including black actors: the essence of institutional racism.
Institutional racism is alien to Barack Obama’s version of the nation, a fantasy place where racial oppression has never been so endemic to the political culture as to overshadow the “promise” of America. In Obama’s public vision, his Democratic caucus victory in 98 percent white Iowa, which began the cascade of Obama wins, proves that the U.S. is ready for profound racial “change.” Left unnoted is the fact that Iowa incarcerates African Americans at 13 times the frequency that it locks up whites, the worst record in the nation.
For people like Rev. Jeremiah Wright, mass black incarceration and slavery are seamlessly linked, part of the continuity of racial oppression in the U.S. Most African Americans see the world the way Rev. Wright does – that’s why he’s among the five top rated preacher-speakers in black America. This black American world view, excruciatingly aware of the nation’s origins in genocide and slavery, is wholly incompatible with the American mythology championed by Barack Obama. When the two meet, they are mutually repellant.
The relationship between Rev. Wright and Sen. Obama has undergone “great damage,” says Obama, understatedly. But the break was inevitable and is no tragedy, because it reveals the incompatibility of Obama’s adapted world view with the body of knowledge amassed by African Americans since before the landing of the Mayflower. The truth is always a revelation.