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Toward a More Perfect Union? (Part Three)

Had Obama not lent so much currency to the notion of a kind of equality of racial bitterness, enacted on a field that everyone thinks favors the other team, the case of Geraldine Ferraro might not have played out as … Read More

By / July 25, 2009

Had Obama not lent so much currency to the notion of a kind of equality of racial bitterness, enacted on a field that everyone thinks favors the other team, the case of Geraldine Ferraro might not have played out as it did: as a spectacular example of racist action forgiven because racist ‘feeling’ is not found, and an abject, to-the-political-death refusal to acknowledge the difference between structural racism and white resentment.

The former Congresswoman and vice-presidential nominee forfeited her place in the Clinton campaign when she told reporters that "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position," just as she would not have been tapped for the vice presidency by Walter Mondale had she not been a woman. The difference between being appointed to a ticket and winning a record number of primary votes across the entire nation seemingly escaped Ferraro, who elaborated on her remarks a few weeks later in a stunning Boston Globe op-ed:

"Since March, when I was accused of being racist for a statement I made about the influence of blacks on Obama’s historic campaign, people have been stopping me to express a common sentiment: If you’re white you can’t open your mouth without being accused of being racist. They see Obama’s playing the race card throughout the campaign and no one calling him for it as frightening. They’re not upset with Obama because he’s black; they’re upset because they don’t expect to be treated fairly because they’re white."

Contrary to Ferraro’s recollection, the most striking aspect of the media’s response to her initial comments was the consistency with which pundits and commentators across the ideological spectrum fell all over themselves to avoid accusing her of racism. Seldom, in political life, has the sinner been granted such immediate distance from her sin.

But this has become the blueprint for public figures who make inflammatory remarks about race ­­- as long as they’re white. First comes the claim that their words do not reflect their hearts. This puts the ball in the commentariat‘s court. The commentariat duly concurs that the figure is not racist, despite all evidence to the contrary. Then, after a probationary period of a few months, the figure quietly resumes his or her role in public life.

"I am not a racist." So said Bill Clinton on ABC News shortly after the conclusion of his wife’s presidential bid, defending himself against accusations of race-baiting.

"I’m not a racist, that’s what’s so insane about this." So said Seinfeld’s Michael Richards in 2006, explaining himself on The David Letterman Show after a video surfaced of him dropping multiple n-bombs on a black heckler at a comedy club. Mel Gibson, who disgraced himself with an anti-Semitic rant the same year, put forth the same argument: I’m not a racist, merely a guy who said something racist. It came out of nowhere, for no reason, and it doesn’t reflect who I am. Ditto Don Imus, after his 2007 "nappy-headed hoes" remark. And Senator Trent Lott, whose pro-segregation comments cost him his role as Majority Leader in 2002, though not his job.

It is a dramatic reversal of the standard criteria for judgment. Usually, we seek to be judged by our actions, not our thoughts, and we accept that the former is a manifestation of the latter. The success of this strategy, it would seem, hinges on the fact that it has become more acceptable to spout racism in the public arena than to accuse someone else of spouting racism.

On to the thesis Ferraro put forth: that whites in America have been rendered voiceless, that to be black is to be ‘lucky’ (to paraphrase another of her comments about Obama), that whites are the new racial underclass, that "they’re attacking me because I’m white." They are notions that rhyme neatly with the identity frustrations of white youth. And Obama’s speech would seem to grant them legitimacy, if we accept the argument that whatever people feel about race must be treated with the same respect as the facts.

I have no problem believing that people have been stopping Ferraro – although I suspect ‘sidling up to’ would be more accurate ­- to voice this ‘common sentiment.’ One might well ask, though, how she has been so unaffected by the racial gag order against which she rails. One might wonder why her silent majority of whites can so readily muster outrage at their own ‘unfair treatment,’ yet remain so blissfully unruffled by anyone else’s. If one is feeling particularly optimistic, one might contemplate how to turn such complaints into what’s known as a "teaching moment." Could white America’s cresting indignation at its own marginalization be the Rosetta stone that allows it to understand how other people in the country feel?

Eh. Probably not.

On the other hand, the pressure on Obama to denounce Minister Farrakhan – which directly preceded the pressure to denounce Reverend Wright – offered the candidate a chance to speak a difficult truth to a valuable constituency and play a role in genuine healing. Certainly, Obama’s rhetoric spoke to such a desire:

"What I want to do is rebuild what I consider to be a historic relationship between the African-American community and the Jewish community. I would not be sitting here were it not for a whole host of Jewish Americans who supported the civil rights movement and helped to ensure that justice was served in the South. And that coalition has frayed over time around a whole host of issues, and part of my task… is making sure that those lines of communication and understanding are reopened.

But rather than turning to that task, Obama proceeded to do precisely what the current, sorry state of black-Jewish relations demands. He iterated his rejection of Farrakhan’s endorsement, citing the Nation of Islam leader’s anti-Semitism, and left it at that.

For twenty-five years now, the specter of black anti-Semitism has been used as the rationale for tremendous Jewish disinvestment -practically, emotionally, financially – from the black community and the legacy of progressive work that blacks and Jews once shared. A handful of comments from civil rights-era black leaders provide most of the evidence. For many in the Jewish community, Jesse Jackson will always be the man who called New York City "Hymietown" in 1984. Al Sharpton will always be the man who inflamed a tense situation in Crown Heights in 1991, and Farrakhan will always be the man who, in 1983, called Judaism a "gutter religion."

The fact that all three have apologized, moved on, and made amends does not seem to matter ­­- that Jackson was instrumental in restoring peace to Crown Heights, that Sharpton’s 2004 presidential run was an exemplar of inclusiveness, that Farrakhan has been meeting regularly with a group of rabbis for more than ten years now, in an effort to mend fences.

Nor does it seem to matter than none of these men speaks for the black community at large, or that Obama’s candidacy and the emergence of hip-hop generation leaders and grassroots political organizations prove that the civil rights generation is no longer in the driver’s seat. They remain central in the Jewish memory of my parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Their comments are frozen in amber, never to be forgotten or forgiven. Thus, denunciations of Farrakhan – despite the declining influence of his organization and his own outreach to the Jewish community – remain red meat for many Jewish voters.

How can this be, when the Ferraros, Imuses and Lotts of the world tiptoe back into the mainstream after a few probationary months, their best intentions unimpugned? Even Gibson, whose anti-Semitic rant was truly epic, had his incoherent, responsibility-dodging apology promptly accepted by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish watchdog group that has never stopped vilifying Farrakhan.

The story behind the story is complex, one of changing identity in a changing country. Perhaps no two groups in America share such an intimate history as Jews and blacks; by turns it has been beautiful and tense, unified and vituperative. Both groups have been shattered and scattered, displaced and enslaved, and both have made outsized contributions to the cultural life of America. Both communities, perhaps by the nature of diaspora, have wide margins, in addition to existing on the margins of American life. By this I mean that the ratio of people who feel ambivalent, ambiguous, full of unresolved questions about their blackness or their Jewishness, is high in relation to the number of people nestled snugly in the bosoms of those communities. The pain and perspective engendered by this double marginality are important ingredients for art, and in the desire for social justice.

Jews and blacks have been united by this shared Otherness, and also pitted against one another because of it. At the root of the Jewish retreat from the coalition of which Obama speaks is the way in which Jewish assimilation has relied on the immutability of black Otherness as a foil. It has been an Other more Other than their own, and sometimes one to measure progress by their distance from.

As the Jews have been accorded more and more of the privileges of whiteness, many have decided, consciously or otherwise, that it behooves them to change their bedfellows. Fifty years ago, it was far more difficult for Jews to be complacent or hypocritical about race: they didn’t have the option to pay mere lip service to the cause because they understood that they were implicated in it, both as potential victims and potential oppressors. The benefits of whiteness were fewer for Jews, and more readily contested. Thus, the morality of allowing them to accrue was easier to address honestly, and find lacking.

There is, of course, much more to the story ­- more than I have the space to go into, and also more than I know. I realize, too, that I have addressed the reasons for Jewish pullback from Obama’s "historic relationship," and said nothing of black actions or motivations. This is not because I wish to cast all the blame on one side, but simply out of a desire to stick to what I know, as someone who has discussed race with Jewish audiences quite a bit lately.

One question I was asked regularly at JCCs, as I proposed that more disturbing than the pickled comments of Farrakhan, Jackson, and Sharpton was the reasons Jews held so dearly to them, was "What about Jeremiah Wright?"

The query was always met by nods and murmurs of agreement from the audience – which, I should add for the sake of context, tended to be made up largely of people born well before the Truman administration.

"What about him?"

"Well, he’s said some things… some anti-Semitic things…"

"Like what?"

Silence. Had my interlocutors responded that Wright’s church had honored Farrakhan as "exemplifying greatness," that would have been something. But it never happened. Rather, the logic at work seemed to be that a black religious leader was in the news for inflammatory statements, and therefore he must be an anti-Semite. Even if no evidence to that effect came to mind.

What will it take, then, to reverse the "fraying?" What more could Obama have said in Ohio about blacks and Jews, or in Pennsylvania about the larger conundrum of race?

Any answer begins with radical honesty of the sort most politicians can ill afford to muster. In Ohio, Obama could have risked declaring himself committed to moving beyond the old politics of suspicion and condemnation, detailed the reasons for the splintering of the black-Jewish alliance, and laid out a plan for reestablishing trust and a commonality of purpose. In Pennsylvania, he could have framed the road to racial reconciliation in the same terms he has been brave enough to apply to climate control: as a journey that will require real sacrifice, profound reevaluation of our lifestyles and the unsustainable practices on which they’re built. He could have looked into the living rooms of white America and declared that institutional racism is alive and well – that it benefits all those considered white, and also exacts from them a high moral toll.

But the political costs of such statements would have overwhelmed Obama’s campaign. And while the senator’s commitment to presiding over a sea change in America’s racial climate appears to be perfectly sincere, it is the level of commitment for which he is willing to call that matters. Soft-peddling the reality of white privilege might help bring people to the table, but if they come under false pretenses, they won’t stay.

All of this points up the fallacy of a national conversation on race led by a president, no matter how thoughtful or inspiring. Not just because political constraints prevent him from addressing the issue with the candor we need, but because a chief executive’s role in moving the country toward a state of post-racism should be to address structural discrimination on the level of policy. Dismantling the system of racist policing and biased judiciary that has lead to the epidemic incarceration of black men will do more to heal the nation’s racial wounds than even the most compassionate and sustained dialogue. So will revamping a dysfunctional educational system that reinforces racial and economic disparities.

If President Obama wants to attack the issue on all fronts – as he must – then he should use his healing hands to sign over funding for a national program of community forums, to take place in town halls and high school gyms, JCCs and YMCAs, mosques and movie theaters. The structure and facilitation of these events would be delegated to people like Vijay Prashad, Tim Wise, Tricia Rose, Robin Kelley, bell hooks, Van Jones, Rosa Clemente, and hundreds of others who have made drawing people into compassionate dialogue on race their life’s work.

There would be incentives for attendance: whatever it took to get people in the door, from parking-ticket forgiveness to free-cable vouchers. The conversations would need not tackle race head-on; the issue’s pervasiveness is such that almost any topic of universal concern raised in a multi-ethnic setting will intersect with it, from law enforcement to primary school education to jobs. The appetite for dialogue is there, as surely as the bitterness; what we lack is the language and the context to engage. And nothing can tap the veins of goodwill running through the body politic quite like genuine interaction, particularly in this age of technological mediation and shrinking public space.

What’s fascinating is how quickly the imagination falters in anticipating the direction these conversations might take. What happens, for instance, after a young black man in need of employment testifies about the difficulty of overcoming the perception that he’s a thug, and a white soccer mom raises her hand to asks "well then, why do you dress like that, with your pants so low and your T-shirt so big?" Who speaks next? Does the black man’s grandfather concur with the soccer mom? Does the woman’s fourteen-year-old son – attired just like the job-seeker ­- realize, at this moment, that black people don’t have it as easy as he thought? What do the local business owner, the high school guidance counselor, the policewoman have to say?

Our access to one another is so limited, so constrained, that the journey into uncharted territory is a swift one. It is a journey on which Obama’s "Toward A More Perfect Union" is an important stop, but the road stretches well beyond it – toward racial critiques more daring, policies more radical, and healing more profound.

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