So what are Senator Obama’s views on race? And, why has he avoided talking about it till now? Well, the short answer is because it is never a good thing to discuss the subject that nobody else wants to “touch with a long stick”, as we say in Jamaica. Because, even while you give voice to what most people are thinking and trying to be very diplomatic about, yours becomes the lone voice of dissent. The one which “bite and tear out di excitement!”, which is never a good thing, as I said before.
But, alas, the good Senator – and the lone black candidate in ongoing elections in America, at that, has gone and done it! That very thing no one else wanted to discuss – the unpleasantness of race and its significance to and in America, specifically to the elections. How will that play out after the “Race in America” (my unofficial title!) speech on Tuesday, March 18, 2008? Well, CNN says that it has improved Senator Obama’s stocks. According to them, based on a recent CBS/Gallup poll, he has rebounded after falling almost five percentage points to Senator Clinton since the infamous Pastor Wright tapes surfaced. (Makes you wonder about some other tapes we have heard about, right?)
However, if you are like me, after his Tuesday speech you are especially convinced that Obama is more than just another sentimental favourite, or the proverbial ‘great black hope’, in other words! This is not just because he plans to end the war in Iraq – a dream which most Democrats, we are told, holds dear. But, in reality, Senator Obama represents a meaningful difference and possibly change in the winds, if not the foundations of American politics, especially its foreign policy. This is something to be looked forward to, specifically in terms of Senator Obama’s very crucially posed question of whether the war in Iraq has caused Americans to be any safer than they were before the tragedy of 9-11 stalked its land. (And, I would also add: is the rest of the world any safer, too?)
Recall if you might that the global ‘War on Terror’ has even come to the otherwise ‘peaceful’ (well, you know what I mean!) shores of the Caribbean. Some of our own nationals were said to be linked to plans to blow up planes in at least one American airport in New York City. Before that, there was the concern that countries like Trinidad and to a lesser extent Guyana and others have housed persons linked to military Islam and, quite possibly, Al Qaeda. That is certainly something to think about, specifically in the aftermath of the American media coverage of Senator Obama and his associations with the pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Jeremiah Wright.
I have resisted commenting on this topic, for as much as I could, though the temptation has been great. In the last couple of days the ‘controversy’ about race in America has certainly heated up and looks likely to impact Senator Obama’s chances of earning the Democratic nomination and, ultimately, the job of President. It is like owning Obama’s difference, in terms of his physical blackness (even), somehow qualifies me to be considered a bad person according to the current tone of the discussion. Indeed, acknowledging race in today’s society is, many respects, definitely not politically correct. This is especially the case in the aftermath of criticisms of American super power imperialism, colonialism and slavery. It is almost equivalent to suggesting that the Holocaust never existed or that man did not walk on the moon. Both of which, as you are aware, remain contentious issues for many in terms of their critique of American media and their capacity to define our realities.
More significantly, the question of race in America has once again reared its ugly head and, of all places in an election campaign and courtesy of the only black candidate in the fray, at least through his associations with his minister of religion. In reality though, Senator Clinton also had earlier intimated her own dis-ease about race by appearing to question the legitimacy of the history of black Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and others. Senator Clinton’s suggested that President Lyndon B. Johnson actually provided the grist for the achievements of the Civil Rights Movement and not the prominent African-Americans leaders amongst who King Jr. is to be counted. Naturally, the former First Lady was roundly criticized, both in the media and elsewhere, especially within the black community for such radical comments.
However, what is significant about Senator Clinton’s remarks vis-à-vis those made by Pastor Jeremiah Wright, Senator Obama’s spiritual guide, is that they are perhaps not as contentious and as “fiery/ incendiary” as the, mostly white, American media have characterized them. While, there can be no doubt that Pastor Wright’s comments are, indeed, flammable, especially in the context of the racial tensions which swim below the surface of American society, there can be little doubt that part of the response of the media is, itself, implicated in the discussion on race in that society.
American media outrage is to be viewed, I believe, in the wider context of whether there is justification for the fears about race (ism) that would, ultimately, lead an American like Pastor Wright to invoke the unforgivable charge – “God damn America!” Among others, this seems to be the piece which has caused the most consternation and has lead to the near two weeks of media efforts at “digging deeper” and the critical review of Senator Obama’s relationship with Pastor Wright. Which it is felt impacts his own vision of America and the American people and, ultimately, whether he is capable of the job of being Commander-In-Chief. Indeed, Senator Obama’s wife Michelle had also earlier said that now that her husband is running for President she is (finally) proud to be an American. That too drew the ire of Senators Clinton and McCain, at the time, and required immediate damage control in terms of clarification.
Most recently, President Bill Clinton’s remarks to the effect that Senators Clinton and McCain love America, (perhaps unlike other unnamed Senators, whose issues have intruded on the real concerns in the campaign?) have turned up the heat on the discussion. More than a jab as it has been called by some in the media, in terms of President Clinton’s ‘subtle’ rebuke of Senator Obama and his eloquent, presidential-like speech on race in America, this comment opens up a potential can of worms. It is somewhat reminiscent of the invocation of the Patriots Act during the post 9-11 period – the reality being that, ‘true patriots’ do not criticize America, especially during times of terrorism and war. Indeed, the witch hunts of Americans said to be linked to Communism in the 1950’s are somewhat echoed in these comments.
What is notable also is whether the efforts to criticize the unseemly parts of the discussion about race, especially from the campaign platforms, is not itself another of the efforts by the media to gag those who would otherwise have something meaningful to say on the subject? I am almost of the view that the white American media, regarded as a liberal in many respects, reserves the right to be able to set the tone of the discussion on this very emotive and potentially flammable debate. Of course, it does not help matters that most of the presenters are not black and that their positions seem fairly insensitive, if not intolerant, towards minority concerns in this discussion.
In fact, CNN journalist Lou Dobbs has criticized Senator Obama for not having what he regards as, “fully formed views” on a range of subjects, including race and immigration. Indeed, Mr. Dobb’s comments come in the aftermath of Senator Obama’s earlier criticisms of statements made by Dobbs approximately two weeks ago regarding Senator Obama’s vision of immigration. Among others, Senator Obama criticized Mr. Dobbs for “fear mongering” and, in the words of the CNN newsman, “made all kinds of charges”. In a way, this is also reminiscent of Senator Clinton’s campaign’s claim that she would “throw the kitchen sink at Senator Obama” just before the Ohio and Texas Primaries and Caucus. Needless to say Senator Clinton won the Primaries in Ohio and Texas, but lost the Caucus (in Texas) to Senator Obama.
Which makes me wonder whether this is not another of the Clinton campaign’s strategy to bog Senator Obama down in aside issues which she herself had started much earlier? It also makes me wonder whether the claims of some of the guests who have given their views on Senator Obama’s relationship with Pastor Wright should not be viewed with suspicion by these very media? That they are given a platform such as CNN and others on which to air, in some instances, some questionable views may well prove worrisome for the Obama campaign leading into Pennsylvania, in particular, where he is trying to woo blue-collar, white American voters.
In at least one instance, one of Lou Dobbs’ commentator said that there are (basically) two types of black people – those like Pastor Wright (who express the fire and brimstone approach to race) and those like Senator Obama who are, effectively, ‘bargainers’. In the case of the latter, ‘bargainers’ are those African-Americans who ‘bargain’ with white America as a means of achieving acceptability. In effect, there would be no other basis on which white Americans could accept blacks in the same society than through a process of ‘bargaining’.
The speciousness of this comment, of course, needs not be said as it also implies that it is blacks who need the acceptance of white and not everyone in the interests of living in peace. It further underlines that the sentiments expressed by Pastor Wright are, somehow, typical (that word again!) and that, therefore, all blacks are effectively not to be trusted if even because they hold, or share in such views.
The reverberation, however, is that the comments made in reference to blacks and Pastor Wright also indict whites for believing this to be the norm amongst blacks in America. To which end, I must agree with Lou about the potentially offensive remarks made by Senator Obama about his grandmother being a “typical white” American “of her generation” as regards her fears of young black men and the types of comments she would make about them in private.
By all appearances, neither Obama nor Dobbs seems to have gotten it that both remarks – whether said directly or facilitated in the context of an interview that is not challenged, is just as dangerous. The effect of which is that they serve to reinforce negative attitudes towards and about each other without seriously critiquing such views as a means of finding common ground. Senator Obama, of course, stands to loose much more in the short term in terms of his own political future.
Which begs the question of what is the real state of the union regarding race in America? And, why is it that beyond the ‘incendiary’ remarks made by Pastor Wright can there not be an understanding in and by the American media that part of the difficulty with reporting race in America is precisely that – reporting race in America? By giving this subject as much play as it has received in the almost two weeks of its existence has served to resurrect unpleasant memories, for many, about its turbulent history in that society, and how both sides were implicated in the discussion as well as the reality of racial politics in America.
By not accepting that there are flammable views on either sides, notwithstanding the importance of the elections and the fact that Senator Obama is, himself, a black man who must have been impacted in some ways by these views is to miss the larger opportunity for a meaningful resolution of this subject. Surely, Senator Obama alone cannot make that change. However, a vote for him must, by necessity, be a step in the right direction to help address this scourge in American history.
Hopefully, the American media as well as the American people will not loose sight of this vision and make meaningful decisions in terms of how they report on and, ultimately, choose the next President – be it Senators Obama, Clinton or McCain.