I was as offended as a lot of people when Obama tossed his Grandmother under the bus, and I found his later “conciliatory” remarks about her being a “typical white person” equally troubling. I, like a lot of people, noticed that Obama’s refusal to denounce Wright–or leave the church–significantly undercut the strength and force of his repudiation of the Rev’s comments. And I was certainly not the only person to have noticed the essential difference between Wright and Obama’s poor Grandmama: that where Grandma’s racism is instinctive, unreflective, and surely tinged with at least some degree of remorse, Wright’s venom is the product of considered thought and careful deliberation, and more importantly, was delivered for the express purpose of moving his congregation to further hate, and is clearly remorseless.
Obama’s defense of his relationship with Wright came down to this: He’s a good but misguided man; I disagree with him on many things, but the strength of our shared beliefs is strong enough to counter our disagreements. Yes, he may have appalling views, but a lot of good people have appalling beliefs and we can not exclude them from the national conversation. Just as we don’t choose our family, we don’t choose our national polity. That, after all, is the point of a national “conversation on race.” If there is a racial divide and a racial wound that needs healing, then we should come together as a broad national polity. The problem is that Obama doesn’t ask for that.
Where he understands that any meaningful “conversation about race” has to involve the full participation of the black community and a full acknowledgment of that community’s legitimate grievances, he fails to see that a corresponding understanding of the white community’s grievances is equally necessary. To be sure, he pays lip-service to concerns about the fairness of racial preferences and issues of basic justice, but ultimately he ends up rejecting those concerns while ignoring legitimate problems. Now, I know how absurd–and offensive–it is to assume that there is anything like a unified “black” or “white” community, but these are the divisions that Obama referenced in his speech. Obama’s rhetoric plays into the inevitability of the racial divide and he certainly implied that the two communities were largely uniform and separable; in other words, this is his vision.
The failing in that vision, is that regardless of how civil or informative this supposed “conversation about race” could possibly be, he’s already drawn his conclusions–and they’re the same boilerplate progressive conclusions that the have been policy and law for the last forty years; more racial preferences, more set-asides, and more wealth transfer. Nowhere is there any semblance of change or any reason to hope. (They’re also exactly the same conclusions that Hillary Clinton draws, by the way).
He implored the black community to spend more time with children, to read more, and to remain optimistic. He said that the White community must address the legacy of discrimination “not just with words, but with deeds” by investing, providing and enforcing. Essentially, Obama asked the black community to become more responsible and he asked the white community to foot the bill. He also exempted the black community from any requirement to action.
What kind of responsible change is Obama asking of the black community if he continues to associate with and support the kind of considered hate that Rev. Wright trades in? Obama’s refusal to leave Wright’s church and his refusal to disown Wright was a telling symbolic gesture. He showed the black community that no matter how outrageous, provocative, or hateful any of its members become, they will be tolerated, embraced and sheltered.
Obama talked about the anger that roils in the black community. He advised us that, “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.” He’s right. The anger is real and it’s pervasive. Reverend Wright’s sermons are not philosophical outliers in the black community–they’re not the marginal rantings of an obscure minority: they’re mainstream. The anger that drives Wright’s vision of the world is of a piece with the anger that drives the celebration of the gangsta’ lifestyle, it’s the same anger that fuels a crippling anti-intellectualism, and it’s the same anger that drives the deep and virulent misogyny and racism in rap and hip-hop music. The anger that Obama referred to has–unfortunately–become the cultural and political anchor of the black community.
Obama did not, as other prominent black figures have done (Bill Cosby) roundly denounce this ridiculous celebration of anger in black culture, rather he appeared–especially in the context of his association with Wright–to accommodate and validate it. He told us that to turn his back on the source of that anger would be to turn his back on himself. Obama was telling us, in no uncertain terms, that unfocused and hotly passionate anger has become an essential part of the modern black political identity. Far from renouncing the debilitating anger of the black community, Obama embraced that anger and made it a part of himself. This is not a call to responsibility and progress, but is in fact is a refusal to accept responsibility.
In any honest conversation on the state of race relations in America, two things must be openly and honestly discussed: 1) The enduring legacy of slavery and systematic discrimination that polluted centuries of American history, and 2) That black American culture has quickly become the single greatest obstacle to black advancement.
Barack Obama had an opportunity to defy racial categories–the promise of his campaign was largely that; he was a candidate that happened to have dark skin. But no more. He had an opportunity to renounce the corrupt and debilitating prejudices that Rev. Wright embodied, but he did not. He had an opportunity to embrace a real conversation on the merits and dangers of wealth transfers and dependence, but he did not. He had an opportunity to ask everyone to take a principled stand for responsibility and change, but he did not. He had a unique opportunity to transcend race himself, to not phrase the conflict as one between “us” (blacks) and “them” (whites), but he did not.
Instead, he asked Americans to ignore naked racism and hate. Instead, he begged us all to become victims. Instead, he asked that we further define ourselves as pieces of the black community or the white community.
Race is now the issue for Obama, and he ultimately has only himself to blame for that.
Update: Christopher Hitchens has an excellent article up at Slate. His conclusion:
To have accepted Obama’s smooth apologetics is to have lowered one’s own pre-existing standards for what might constitute a post-racial or a post-racist future. It is to have put that quite sober and realistic hope, meanwhile, into untrustworthy and unscrupulous hands. And it is to have done this, furthermore, in the service of blind faith. Mark my words: This disappointment is only the first of many that are still to come.