Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Persistent Inconvenience of Black Rage

Barack Obama Tries to Navigate the Slippery Slope of Racism

From the Desk of Ibrahim Abdil-Mu'id Ramey
MAS Freedom Civil and Human Rights Director

WASHINGTON, D.C. (MASNET) March 20, 2008 — The 800 pound 'animal' in the world of political discourse has once again made its entrance—center stage in the 2008 electoral contest. The 'animal' being the issue of 'race', or more precisely, the reality (or perception) of racism in the context of America.

Racism is, to be sure, a loaded subject, both profound and deceptively simplistic, and one that many people in America—both white and people of color—would prefer to ignore, or at least marginalize. But when the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Senator Obama's longtime pastor and spiritual mentor, raised the ante by speaking about racism in a provocative and bold way, the "race" thing became, once again, an inevitable part of the national conversation, and ultimately, in the contest for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency.

What did Reverend Wright proclaim? Nothing, substantively, that most intelligent people would disagree with. Namely, he said that that Mr. Obama knows what it means to be Black in America while Senator Clinton does not. That is true enough, as I think even Senator Clinton (and her husband) would have to agree.

But Reverend Wright also said—in effect—that the violence of September 11th, 2001 had it's genesis in the misdeeds and oppressive measures of the U.S. government.

If anything, violence is both cyclical and dialectical. No matter who perpetrates violence, or for whatever false "ideals" it is committed, violence comes back to afflict the purveyor. This is a position that aligns with the truth articulated by both Malcolm X (the "chickens coming home to roost" statement after the 1963 Kennedy assassination), and the pronouncement by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1967, that America (in the time of the Vietnam war). was "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world."

It's one thing to discuss race in the context of old grievances and the deep wounds inflicted by historical white supremacy, both at the end of nooses and the more subtle variety—at the end of the employment line—but the grave offense of Reverend Wright was that he reminded us that this great nation is still at the epicenter of a system of global domination. And some people, despite relative position and material comfort, have not forgotten this.

September 11 and the Iraq destruction are elements of a much larger phenomenon, and an immense challenge for Senator/candidate Obama and the rest of us. Namely, how do we address the issue of racism in the framework of the much larger discussion about systemic oppression, and the crisis of the global capitalist system that, despite it's allure, continues to marginalize billions of the poorest (and disproportionately darkest) people on our planet?

What makes Obama skittish about this issue is not the vehement, fiery sermonizing of his mentor, but the fact that racial discontent and rage are not convenient issues for his large base of white supporters to really deal with. White privilege isn't a popular dinnertime conversation topic in Boise or Allentown (or, I imagine, most of America). And his call for trans-racial "unity", while emotionally appealing to many folks, is not underpinned by an analysis of what the people of America should, in the global sense, truly be uniting for, or against.

Yes, we can be civil and courteous and respectful, across the color line, but a Democratic Party leader—of even the most liberal stripe—would be hard-pressed to articulate the true depth of the structural reasons for the rage: diminishing environmental protection, persistent and growing poverty, failed life support systems, internecine violence, and a host of other ills that are disproportionately inflicted not only on Black people in America, but by-and-large, on people of color throughout the world.

Mr. Obama's repudiation of his pastor was simply an unfortunate example of a gifted (and agile) politician attempting to save his base of White support in the face of an inconvenient Black challenge to racism.

It's true that Reverend Wright's language was not the most polite and conciliatory speech imaginable. But his anger is authentic, and his words ring true. A genuine anti-racist conversation (and movement) in America is needed, and needed badly. But the conversation must not tiptoe around the inconvenience of a deep structural analysis of racism, or the persistent alienation and real suffering of people like Reverend Wright who march at the forefront of anti-racist and anti-oppression activism.

There is certainly a great deal of good in America that must not be ignored in this issue. And Senator Obama is right in his assertion that progress has been made, and that the nation is not static and unchanged in racial matters.

Black rage is always an inconvenient truth to White folks, as well as those who need, for various reasons, to appease them.

But rather than back-peddling away from the issue, or trying to shift it into some fluffy, innocuous race-speak that offends no one, Mr. Obama should continue to face the issue of race head on, and use his powerful charisma and popular appeal to help America navigate the deep and turbulent waters of a real, and long overdue, national discourse on both racism and poverty.

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