Obama and Race

I’ve been reading a number of responses to Obama’s Big Speech; in particular, I thought Timothy Sandefur’s comments were excellent. I also liked Jeff Jacoby’s response in the Boston Globe.

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.


Sean Taylor

I came Jason Whitlock’s excellent and controversial article on the Sean Taylor shooting.

It’s absolutely worth reading.

We hear a lot of Soulja Boy in our house. We have two young boys, after all. Thankfully, they still have no idea what they’re actually listening to. But the predominance of hip hop in their music collection bothers me tremendously.

I tell myself that they’re young, that they’ll grow out of it, that somewhere along the line, their tastes and interests will broaden. When I was their age I went through a period where I listened to some rap music, and I think I may even have owned an Andrew Dice Clay album (shudder). I grew out of adolescence, and so will they.

I hope.

Some people don’t grow out of it, and as Whitlock reminds us, that can have dreadful consequences.

It should go without saying, but in case I’m misunderstood, Sean Taylor’s death was a tragedy. A young man, in the prime of his life, was brutally murdered — nothing should minimize or lessen the tragedy of that.

Neither Whitlock’s column, nor my brief comment, make light of the tragedy. Nor does Whitlock blame “hip hop” for Sean Taylor’s death. Nor do I. But Whitlock makes a point about a culture that celebrates violence and ignorance–and it’s that culture that is destroying young black men. And that culture finds its loudest voice in the lyrics and lifestyles of hip hop artists. It’s that culture that angers Whitlock, and it’s that culture that bothers me.

From Durham to Jena

I’d been sort of vaguely following the Jena 6 story, but have resisted writing about it because, as a number of bloggers have pointed out, the reporting has been murky and the facts are a little wriggly. But it does seem to me that there’s an essential issue that’s being lost in the current discussion of the Jena 6. The issue isn’t whether or not there’s racism in America (there is), or even whether there may in fact be pervasive and systemic racism in America (there is). The issue is whether that racism is being addressed and repudiated, or whether it’s being used — and manipulated — for personal glory.

For those who don’t know, the Jena 6 are six young black men from Jena, Louisiana who are awaiting trial on charges of aggravated battery; they allegedly assaulted a white classmate in the High School cafeteria and beat and kicked him till he lost consciousness. The controversy lies is the background.

As I understand the time line, some months before the assault an assembly was held in the High School gymnasium. Apparently Jena, like many high schools nationwide, has defacto, self-imposed racial segregation. There are “Black Bleachers” where only black students sit and there was (it has since been cut down) a “White Tree” under which only white students sat. At this assembly a black student who was new to the school inquired if he was allowed to sit under the “White Tree” in the school yard. The principal told him he could sit wherever he wanted to sit. Following the assembly, he and a few other black students sat in the shade under the white tree.

The next morning, three nooses were found hanging from the tree.

The principal expelled the students responsible, but the school board overturned that punishment and instead suspended them from school for three days.

This set off a series of racially tinged incidents; the details of which are murky. There was a series of school-yard fights. Another assembly was called. The DA spoke to the students, telling them, “[w]ith one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear.” (Referring to his power to prosecute.) The black students claim he was looking directly at them. He claims he was speaking to the entire student body. A school administration building was set on fire. The arsonists have not been found. A white student beat-or-threatened-or-assaulted a black student with a bottle and was charged with simple battery. The assailant received probation. A white student brandished an unloaded shotgun at a group of black students in a convenience store parking lot. He claims self-defense, the black students claim he was threatening them. The black students wrestled the gun away from the white student and ran off. They were charged with stealing the shotgun.

And then came the beating in question. A young white man, who may or who may not have been taunting a black classmate, was allegedly assaulted and beaten until he lost consciousness by six black youths. Those six students were arrested.

They were charged with attempted second-degree murder.

Those charges have since been reduced to aggravated second-degree battery, a crime that requires the use of a “deadly weapon.” The weapons in question are the alleged assailant’s shoes.

See the Wikipedia entry for the full chronology. (And for the details surrounding Mychal Bell, the only one of the six to have been tried.)

So here we are. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (that paragon of integritude) have staged marches. 10,000 people protested in Jena last week, among them several celebrities. Many pundits, Jackson included, are treating this case as the seminal civil rights case of the early 21st century — on a par with the protests and marches in Selma, Alabama in the 1960’s. Jackson went so far as criticize presidential hopeful Barack Obama for failing to give the Jena case enough attention. Jackson purportedly said that Obama was “acting like he’s white.”

OK, deep breath… and, here we go.

Is there racism in Louisiana? Yes.

Is it really still the kind that hangs nooses from a tree? Yes it is. Jena is northern Louisiana, and there are a LOT of stupid crackers in north Louisiana.

Is the kind of self-segregation we see in the Jena High School partly to blame for the heightened racial tensions? Probably. Segregation is almost always stupid. But lest we forget, you can go into any high school anywhere in the country and find evidence of exactly the same kind of self-segregation. The difference is you don’t always see the nooses. Or the arson. Or the prosecutorial misjudgment.

But let’s look at the prosecutorial judgment. By the time of the final incident, the local prosecutors were probably pretty tired of the mess. So they did what prosecutors everywhere do. They threw the book at the students. Essentially, they try to deter future crime by “making an example” of these particular students, and that’s a problem. More on that here.

The problem is that the current protest isn’t so much about demanding that appropriate charges be brought, but about demanding that all charges be dropped. The rallying cry for the protest movement has been “Free the Jena 6!” Richard Thompson Ford, of Slate.com says this might be because, “‘Stop Informal Segregation and Prosecutorial Overzealousness That Disproportionately Affects African-Americans Here and Elsewhere’ won’t fit on T-shirt or a placard.”

And that’s a problem because, as Ford goes on to say, “…the logic that underlies the demand to free the Jena 6 comes down to this: These six young men were justified in kicking their lone victim senseless because other people who shared his race committed offenses against other black students.”

But that’s the logic behind all of current progressive thinking on race. It’s the mistake of stripping individuals of their moral agency and then of treating those same people merely as fungible parts of an arbitrary collection.

It’s what the Nazis did with the Jews, it’s what misogynists do to women, it’s what bigots do to homosexuals, and it’s what those racist kids did when they hung the nooses. But it’s also what everyone in the “Free Jena 6 movement” are doing in Jena, and it’s why they can muster outrage over prosecutorial overzealousness in Louisiana, but not in North Carolina.

By demanding that the charges be dropped, they have declared the moral agency of the accused void. In that, they commit the same kind of shameful wrong that the young would-be-thugs who hung the nooses did; they have reduced the Jena 6 to mere objects.

Hanging the nooses gave voice to an ugly, nasty sentiment. A few kids sat under a tree. They were black, and for that — their crime of being black — these kiddy-klan crackers said they should be punished. They hung the nooses and tried intimidation. Demanding that charges against the Jena 6 be dropped completely is an implicit claim that the beating was justified. Because the student hung the noose? No. Because the student was white.

This kind of thinking is endemic. How else to explain the differences in the treatment of the Jena 6 and the Duke 3? (If you’ve been abroad for the past year, here’s a summary of the Duke case.)

In an interview with the American Journalism Review, Newsweek’s Evan Thomas talked about Newsweek’s coverage:

“It was about race. Nifong’s motivations clearly were rooted in his need to win black votes. There were tensions between town and gown, that part was true. The narrative was properly about race, sex and class… We went a beat too fast in assuming that a rape took place… We just got the facts wrong. The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.”

Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton each weighed in on the Duke rape case. Sharpton staged protests, but none in support of the the three students who were wrongly accused by an overzealous prosecutor. Jesse Jackson offered the accuser a college scholarship, whether or not her allegations were true (reported by the AP, one link here).

The faculty at Duke university who publicly vilified three innocent students, have not repudiated their attack. Sharpton hasn’t apologized, and who knows if Jackson followed through with a check.

Why? Because the narrative was right. Race matters. Facts don’t. People don’t.

In Jena, there’s a lot we’re not sure of. There are a lot of conflicting eyewitness accounts, and almost certainly there’s a lot of lying. And there’s a lot of racist thinking. On both sides.

The problem is that the essential issues in Jena, like the essential issues in Durham, really have nothing to do with race. The essentials are the lives of the young men and women in question. And those lives aren’t “narratives.” These are people, not plot points in a story.

Let’s get the facts right, and then lets root out the racism…. everywhere. That would be a narrative worth listening to.