Monday, March 17, 2008

Barack Obama and Rev. Wright: Greta Van Susteren is Shocked and Offended

Are you fucking kidding me?

Right around the time the mainstream news started wetting themselves with excitement about Hilary Clinton's primary victories in Texas and Ohio (despite the fact that it changed nothing, despite the fact that Obama continues to maintain a near insurmountable lead in delegates, despite the fact that Americans of all stripes, regardless of how you break them down demographically clearly prefer Obama to Clinton) and Clinton egged them on by condescendingly graciously extending the office of the vice presidency to Obama, I went on a news black out. There are people out there who can live and breathe political news 24/7 and maintain enough emotional distance to write about it with clarity and wit and intelligence. I can't. So I try not to.

But tonight I'm flipping through the channels and all the talk is about Obama and the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ. Lou Dobbs is taking a break from talking about immigration to predict the demise of Obama's campaign. Greta Van Susteren is talking to some poor, deluded, black man, forcing him to agree with her when she says, "We're as close as brother and sister" and feigns shock at the "offensive" statements of Rev. Wright. And what offensive statements you ask?

Web sites and television news shows recalled Wright's praise of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and played a greatest-hits compilation of Wright's most incendiary comments: that Sept. 11, 2001, meant "America's chickens are coming home to roost." That former president Bill Clinton "did the same thing to us that he did to Monica Lewinsky." That "racism is how this country was founded and how this country is still run."

Wright's statements, along with Michelle Obama's assertion that she is proud of her country for the first time, are being taken as signs that Barack Obama can't in fact bring us together, that he won't be the racially transcendent candidate that so many want him to be.

But let's call a spade a spade, shall we? Nobody gives a fuck that George W. Bush is not a racially transcendent candidate and never pretended to be. His administration is attentive and responsible to white male monied interests, and barely apologizes for that. When we say "racially transcendent" we mean "a black man that white people can like." That so many black people seem to like Obama (he got 91% of the black vote in Mississippi, as Pat Buchanan kept insisting, just before he told a black woman to shut up), that he goes to a decidedly black church, that his wife seems to be exactly the kind of black woman that makes white people nervous, that he is running his campaign with funds drawn from black wealth and the hard-earned dimes of working class black folk--all this makes white people nervous. Obama is fine as long as white people can chant "Yes We Can" at rallies and forward the video to everybody in their address book. But point out America's racist past and present, suggest that the same American flag that you want me to get teary eyed over is the exact same one that my ancestors were slaves under, the same one that my grandparents were denied the right to vote under, the same one under which my mother attended segregated schools, the same one under which I didn't go to integrated schools until 1982, and watch all the warm, fuzzy, feeling fade away. Suddenly we are the racists and Greta Van Susteren is deeply hurt (you see, she's never heard a black person talk this way).

People believe hanging nooses from trees and professors' doors is funny. People see nothing wrong with displaying the confederate flag. John fucking Calhoun stands atop a giant fucking pedestal less than a mile from my office. Robert Downey, Jr. will perform in blackface in an upcoming movie. This is the country I live in. Maybe it's not the country Greta Van Susteren lives in. Maybe she's never been asked to be proud of a country that is more than happy to give her syphilis and then lie about it, or sterilize her without her consent, or leave her stranded for days as a city floods around her. I'm asked to be proud of that country every goddamned day. You'll have to forgive me if there are days that I can't quite muster the energy.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. Barack Obama is not a special black man, a superhuman racially transcendent black man. He is, simply, a black man, like lots of black men trying to negotiate a black identity and an American one, two warring souls in one dark body, as Dubois said. Any black man running for president of the United States clearly has a deeply felt patriotism. Otherwise, why subject yourself to this? At the same time, any black man running for president is still a black man and always feels his two-ness (to borrow another phrase from Dubois), always recognizing how all the contradictions of this country are embodied in him. As Melissa Harris-Lacewell writes,

Let's be clear. American democracy has always coexisted with vicious,state-sponsored racism. The nation's first presidents worked to establish aninnovative, flexible, radical democratic republic while simultaneouslycodifying enslaved blacks as a fraction human and relegating them tointergenerational chattel bondage.

After emancipation, as blacks helped make America the greatest industrialand military power on earth, the country stripped blacks of the right tovote, segregated public accommodations, provided inferior education to blackchildren, and allowed and promoted the terrorist rule of lynch-mob violence. This week Barack Obama was pressured to denounce Jeremiah Wright. But in the hundred years following the end of the Civil War more than five thousand African Americans were lynched and not a single president denounced the atrocities. Because of this history, black patriotism is complicated.

Black patriots love our country, even though it has often hated us. We love our country, even while we hold it accountable for its faults.


Syd said...

And my feelings about patriotism are complicated for me as a Caucasian. I'm not proud of what we have done to Native Americans or to black Americans. And in more recent times to all poor Americans regardless of color. It is hard for me to be proud consistently of the US when we fight a war based on mythic weapons of mass destruction and oil interests. I see the US as stumbling. I hope that Mr. Obama can do something to unite us to feel proud again. But there are some days when it seems like an impossible task for anyone.

Matthew Foley said...

Dr. Francis,

All I can say is: THANK YOU! Thank you for speaking some TRUTH!

It’s funny, I was actually debating whether or not to call you or come by your office to discuss this whole Rev. Wright “controversy” and Obama’s speech. I’ve been in the same place I think you’ve been of feeling angry and confounded at the mainstream media’s (and even the alternative media’s) reaction to this whole debacle. But then I thought, “Well, I’m sure Conseula’s pretty busy these days… maybe I’ll just check her blog first and see if she’s written about it.” Then BAM!, your post basically laid out all the things I’ve been thinking and feeling.

Basically, I just needed to hear that I was not alone. When media spectacles like this go down, I’m always caught wondering why my perspectives & opinions are never represented in the media or in popular perceptions. For not only was I not offended whatsoever by the so-called controversial statements made by Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, I was highly disappointed with Barack Obama’s handling of this situation and the speech he gave on American race relations, “A More Perfect Union.” Everyone in the news is acting like Obama’s speech was the greatest pronouncement on American race relations since “I Have a Dream.” Beyond the media, I have a friend whose Facebook status says that he “cried tears of hope” while listening to Obama speech. All the articles I’ve been reading seem to have nothing but praise for Obama rightfully distancing himself from the supposedly hateful, anti-American, Black supremacist words of his former pastor. And I start thinking, “Damn, am I just too cynical? Have I read way too many Malcolm X speeches? Have I listened to too many Chuck D raps? Everyone seems to be falling over themselves with joy at this grand moment of racial transcendence… so why do I feel so troubled and disillusioned? Is there something wrong with me?”

So, it was relieving to hear someone saying some of the exact things I was thinking.

When I first saw the headlines that Obama was coming under fire for comments that his pastor had made, I was very curious. Before I even heard the actual statements, I was hearing pundits talk about the terrible utterances that this Rev. Wright had made, that small children and those with heart conditions needed to be protected from. I was like, “What the hell did this guy say? That he sexually abused little kids? That he idolized Adolf Hitler? That he enjoys kicking puppies?”

No, it turns out that what he said is that the United States is a nation that was founded upon and still operates under the politics of white supremacy and that the attacks of 9/11 have partly to do with a backlash against imperialistic U.S. foreign policy actions like supporting oppressive regimes like South Africa and Israel.

Please tell me I’m not alone in thinking: what exactly is so controversial about that? Actually, I know I’m not alone. I know that there are millions of Black Americans, progressive young people, the members of the Hip Hop generation, and plenty of other Americans that aren’t politically sleepwalking who are thinking the same thing: that Rev. Wright was simply speaking some truth that mainstream America doesn’t want to hear. On top of that, it’s not a perspective that’s unique to some lone, crazy preacher in the South Side of Chicago. It’s the perspective you can hear in many Black churches, in many Hip Hop CDs, in many political groups on college campuses, in barbershops, and in communities all over this country.

It’s from the perspective of people who have personally experienced or are aware of the underside of the American “democratic experiment.” Go to any Native American reservation today and ask how the American Dream has been treating them lately. Go to the Lower 9th Ward in New Orleans, go to the South Bronx, Bed Stuy, or Queensbridge, go to the West Side of Detriot or the South Side of Chicago, or the islands of South Carolina and ask them how much they feel indebted to the genius of the Founding Fathers.

It’s the perspective that I genuinely believed, after reading his memoir Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama understood and would articulate during his campaign. That’s why I voted for him in the S.C. primary. And by asking him to articulate that perspective, I’m not asking him to be pigeon-holed as “the Black candidate” or any kind of candidate. All I would ask of him is to be true to his experience, to speak of the destruction reaped in American inner-city ghettoes by U.S. domestic policies that he witnessed during his time as a community organizer in Chicago. And at the same time, yes, to speak about hope, to speak about change, to come proudly out of the traditions of Douglas and DuBois, Martin and Malcolm, which say that if there is something wrong or unjust going on in America, let’s unite and not give up until we change it.

But what makes me downright ill is seeing Barack Obama wrap this sense of “hope” and “change” within the flag of American patriotism and an attempt to silence the voices of legitimate dissent and criticism against the actions of the U.S. government.

There are some of Obama’s words from his “A More Perfect Union” speech:

"We've heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike.

"I have already condemned, in unequivocal terms, the statements of Reverend Wright that have caused such controversy. For some, nagging questions remain. Did I know him to be an occasionally fierce critic of American domestic and foreign policy? Of course. Did I ever hear him make remarks that could be considered controversial while I sat in church? Yes. Did I strongly disagree with many of his political views? Absolutely - just as I'm sure many of you have heard remarks from your pastors, priests, or rabbis with which you strongly disagreed.

"But the remarks that have caused this recent firestorm weren't simply controversial. They weren't simply a religious leader's effort to speak out against perceived injustice. Instead, they expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country - a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

Now, I might actually believe Barack Obama if he hadn’t been an active member of Rev. Wright’s church for 20 years. From everything I’ve read, including Obama’s own memoir, it seems like Rev. Wright and Trinity United Church of Christ was very upfront about articulating a theology of Black liberation, which explicitly weds the spiritual and political into one united social gospel. For Obama to say that Wright was a purely spiritual advisor and that Obama “strongly disagreed with many of his political views” – when the politics of Black liberation were at the center of Wright’s ministry – feels to me like very calculated political maneuvering.

What it comes down to is something I predicted during the summer at a stand-up comedy performance I gave at Porgy’s Other Place in downtown Charleston: that when the media discovered that Obama belonged to a church which advocated Black liberation theology, mainstream white America was going to FREAK THE FUCK OUT. The fallout has unfortunately been the Obama campaign taking the safest possible course in reassuring his frightened white suburban voters that these angry Black people are on the fringe of the black community, that they are “cranks and demagogues” who are an embarrassment to all God-loving American patriots.

While Obama on the one hand says there are many issues of race and racism that American has to deal with, he also dismisses as “inexcusable” feelings that some of the closest people in his life, including Rev. Wright and his wife Michelle often articulate: that many of those left out of the “American Dream” – people of color, low-income families, inner-city youth, the unemployed, the uninsured, and on and on – are PISSED OFF and have every right to not feel like proud Americans on some days, have every right to criticize the ways in which the U.S. power structure has blatantly failed generation after generation to live up to its supposed creed of liberty and justice for all. Yes, we believe in UNITY, but unity is not synonymous with labeling as illegitimate opinions that others might construe as supposedly “divisive” or “racially-charged.” Yes, we believe in HOPE, but that is not synonymous with wrapping ourselves in the American flag and repeating Republican lies about this being the greatest nation the Earth has ever seen, the beacon of liberty and equality to all the unwashed and uncivilized countries we’ve bombed over the last several decades.

Now, I write all of this out of a sense of disappointment in how Obama has handled this, but of course one can’t be disappointed in something or someone unless one has some basic belief in them in the first place. I believe that Obama’s basic message is essentially sound: the legacy and present-day realities of American racism have divided us and kept us from solving some of our common problems. One of the points in his speech that I would have actually applauded was the ways in which the genuine economic frustrations of working class white Americans get manipulated into racial animosities. Instead of blaming corporations who are taking American jobs overseas so that they can exploit a worker in another country through inhumanly low wages, many white Americans get suckered into blaming Latino immigrants. And if they are having legitimate trouble paying for their children’s college education, instead of asking deeper questions like “Why are colleges so damn expensive in the first place, when many European countries have free higher education?,” they blame it on affirmative action “quotas” for minority students. In these cases, I think Obama is correct in pointing out that the legacy of white supremacy has kept average Americans from uniting to solve common problems. That in a nutshell is the history of working-class white America: getting bamboozled into hating people of color (or people of different faiths, or gays & lesbians, or feminists, or whoever it is this week) instead of saying “You know what, I actually have more in common with a black person who is broke like me than a white millionaire who just laid off a hundred factory workers.”

BUT, in order to achieve this awakening of the American people, including white Americans, African Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans, gay and straight Americans, male and female Americans, Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, Christian Americans, and ALL Americans we need to stop pretending like everything’s OK and that people who feel wronged, who feel like a second class citizens in the nation that is supposedly the Leader of the Free World are a fringe, radical minority. We are college professors, we are socially-conscious young people, we are hip hop fans, we are high school dropouts, we are factory workers, we are church-goers, we are those who take the bus and pray we don’t get sick because we can’t afford it, we are EVERYDAY AMERICANS. And we need to be HEARD, not told that our anger is what is responsible for keeping our country from realizing the glorious dream of the Founding Slave Owners… oops, I mean, Founding Fathers.

Matthew said...

As a multiracial female in SC who has watched the good ole boy tell me as a child that women ask to be raped/hit (police words)....I found better company in a jail or or in a poorer section of town than I ever did with the KKK christian neighbors I used to be surrounded by.

Our own veterns are homeless while Bush and his friends avoided war and fight a war now b/c they have stock in the oil and machinery companies

Carleen Brice said...

Amen! My grandfather fought in WWII. To his dying day he insisted that this was the greatest country on earth. Even after all it denied him.

Remember when the pundits kept putting out that "is he black enough" bs? Which had to come straight from the Clinton campaign. Just knew that pendulum was gonna swing around!