politics is to want something

onsdag, mars 19, 2008

your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams

“Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze - a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.”

- Barack Obama

Yesterday, Barack Obama gave one of the most important speeches in recent American political history. In a different climate, with a different media and surrounded by a different presidential race, Obama’s speech would be seen as what it was: a paradigm-shifting argument about the nature of America, her many ills and their possible solutions. Instead, like a Beatles song used to sell sneakers, his words have been analyzed, cut and repackaged as nothing more than a response to an immediate threat to his position in the electoral horse-race. It was, after all, a response to yet another in a series of campaign-associate-says-something-stupid “scandals”.

Of course, there was a lot of beauty, art and thoughtfulness in yesterday’s watershed speech. His personal reflections and honesty about his family were incredibly touching. Even though few can directly relate to being a person of color who has to grapple with racist comments from their white family members (such a joy), Obama’s characteristic rhetorical genius was to tell such stories in such a way that it felt universal. His willingness to be nuanced and brazenly intellectual was amazing. His analysis of racial discourse, taking the media to task for their dumbing down of all talk of racism in America was masterful. I was especially energized to hear him call out conservative iterators’ cynical entries into the conversation. That was all great. But the big news is that Obama finally made an argument about what his movement really is.

As I’ve said before, the Reverend Wright-inspired attacks on Obama will continue to plague him should he win the Democratic nomination. White America has discovered, almost at once, that Obama is, indeed, a black person, and like most black folks, has been in rooms full of other black people who will articulate an embittered account of racial injustice in America. For many, many white voters, that’s scary and off-putting. White people, we all know, tend to be somewhat touchy on the subject, which is why the national memory has cleansed even hard-fought struggles like the Civil Rights movement of anything remotely threatening.

And so, as a response, Obama could have taken the easy way out. Say what you will about the mean-spirited will behind Geraldine Ferraro’s comments, but she’s not wrong that loads of white folks were willing (and some excited) to vote for Obama because he seemed to absolve them of having to face the reality of black anger. Obama could have tried to sprint back into that cozy space, thrown his Pastor under the bus and moved on. He could have tried to stiff-arm a part of his constituency in that patently Democratic way that Party leaders have done to labor, African Americans and others for decades. He could have taken a cue from Colin Powell. He could have continued to quote Martin Luther King, Jr. as if King were a religious Bill Cosby. His speech could have called upon America to simply “transcend” race, as many of the headlines today misreport.

Instead, Barack Obama did something remarkable. He explained black anger. Then he did something even more remarkable. He explained white anger. And then he did something I haven’t heard him do in a long time. Instead of simply stating that anger is bad and unity is good, he explained why such anger, while understandable, is a mistake. He did that by talking about class.

Why shouldn’t black people pull away from the political process and be cynical about working together with whites? Because to do so is both pessimistic and unrealistic. Progress comes from coalition-building and struggle. Why shouldn’t white working-class people believe the racist scapegoating of the Right? Because it isn’t poor communities of color who deny their health care, destroy their schools and ship their jobs away. In a way, with this speech, Barack Obama wholly adopted the John Edwards narrative, and then radically improved on it. Finally, he named an enemy, however carefully: a “corporate culture” of greed and inequality, backed by a political opposition that deliberately sows disunity in order to protect that culture. He named this enemy, however, in the context of directly addressing the salient and tangible realities of race. It was a class appeal, albeit a very American one. And that’s a good thing. Nothing else would make any sense

This is a shift in Obama’s narrative. He has always called for, and certainly embodied a notion of reconciliation along racial lines, and, at his most distressing, he has spoken much about coming together across party lines to “deal” with challenges and problems facing the nation. That has always disturbed me, as I find such attempts to depoliticize politics to be dangerous and demobilizing. I must confess that while many of my friends swooned over his entreaties to “come together” and “move beyond the divisions of the past”, it has sounded to me like a song about triangulation sung to the tune of kumbaya. He’s always said that we are our “sister’s keeper”, but now he’s translated that familiar Christian notion into a political argument. We should come together because there are opponents whose pursuit of their own narrow interests poses a real and common threat. That’s an important caveat to the call for unity. In religious terms, it’s the difference between the Opus Dei and Liberation Theology, between throwing charity at people and throwing the money changers out of the temple.

This shift may not be enough to push through to beating John McCain. However, it was more than enough to make me very glad indeed that I voted for Barack Obama. I pray that Senator Clinton will be smart enough not to take any of this as bait.


Anonymous Anonym said...

Yes! That speech made me cry, in that happy, moved, damn-we-have-so-much-work-to-do kind of way. Here's hoping.

- susie

onsdag, mars 19, 2008 4:19:00 p.m.

Anonymous Hal said...

I agree. The speech was beautiful and brilliant.

fredag, april 04, 2008 1:56:00 a.m.

Blogger David Grenier said...


mandag, juni 16, 2008 2:36:00 p.m.

Blogger Sam said...

Ha! Daraka, I remember in '98, I think, you said Barack Obama would be the first Black president. I said, "yeah, whatever, dude" or something. It turns out that on Tuesday, he made you right. I thought of you that night and, if my computer hadn't been down, I would have looked for you then. Hope you're doing well man, this is Sam from UofC/Norway.

fredag, november 07, 2008 4:00:00 p.m.


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