Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Unspoken race privilege

Barack Obama's speech yesterday in Philadelphia was the most honest, heartfelt and extraordinary public effort by a political figure of stature in my adult lifetime to address the complexities of race in America. Obama's decision to give a public address on race in America stemmed, of course, from the inflammatory statements of his pastor, Rev. Jerimiah Wright of Chicago, last week. Wright went from obscurity to fame after sound and video clips of his sermons and public speeches condemning white America specifically for everything from the spread of the HIV virus among blacks to provoking the September 11th attacks hit You Tube and the public airwaves. Since Obama has known Wright for years and referred to him as his "spiritual mentor," the onus fell to him, first, to "repudiate" Wright's comments, just as he was asked to "repudiate" the crackpot Minister Louis Farrakhan's unsolicited "support" for his candidacy back in February. And, of course, between the cracks came a request to "repudiate" campaign advisor Sandra Powers's description of Hillary Clinton as a "monster."

For the record, Obama is 3-0. He repudiated Wright and Farrakhan, and fired Power. For the establishment media monitoring the repudiation sweepstakes, Obama handled Power quickly and correctly, but was slow to the draw on Wright and Farrakhan. Yesterday's speech, however, should put all those issues to rest. If anything, Obama's forceful, nuanced and mature speech, in a just world, will enhance his standing and leave behind such important questions for America's future, such as whether Geraldine Ferraro is senile, stupid or just insensitive, and whether she could kick Jerimiah Wright's ass in a caged, knock-down closed circuit television match-up between these remarkably unimportant people.

My purpose here, and now I need to tread carefully, is raise a couple of questions about the controversy surrounding the Wright-Obama "relationship," his speech yesterday and the establishment press's reaction to it. And here they are: Is there a better example out there of the racial double standard on black politicians running national campaigns than this one? And how does the reaction of many establishment commentators to yesterday's speech and Obama's campaign more generally offer a subtle but prime example of white privilege in America?

After Geraldine Ferraro let loose last week with her comments on Barack Obama's candidacy, saying, in a nutshell, that he is where is because he's black, there was no demand on Hillary Clinton, for whom Ferraro worked in a volunteer capacity as a finance chairman in New York, to give a major address on the racial resentment of white working class Northerners to a group of white working class Northern racists, repudiate Ferraro's career (including her affirmative action candidacy in 1984 as Walter Mondale's vice-presidential running mate), severe any and all ties with Ferraro immediately or question why Hillary had chosen to walk arm-in-arm (and employ) a figure of hate. After Hillary Clinton told a "60 Minutes" interviewer just before the Ohio primary that Barack Obama was not, "as far as I know," a Muslim, no one demanded a public apology or a speech before a Muslim congregation simultaneously retracting and explaining her comments. Hillary was responding to a comment made by an Ohio voter earlier in the week that he had heard that Obama was a Muslim and did not know the words to the national anthem. The right answer was this: "Steve, I don't think questions like that have any place in a presidential campaign." Not this: there's nothing to base [the "accusation" that Obama is a Muslim] on, "as far as I know."

Imagine had Obama had answered the following question this way: "Do you think that Hillary Clinton is a lesbian, as so many right-wing talk show hosts have insisted?" Obama: "As far as I know she's not a lesbian, and I take her at her word."

Imagine. Imagine. Imagine.

Imagine is all you can do. Because it would never, ever happen.

* * * * * * * * * *

In this morning's Washington Post, Michael Gerson, a former speechwriter for President Bush, complimented Obama's "political performance," but concluded that his speech fell short because he did not sufficiently distance himself from the "anti-Americanism" of Wright. He listed all the terrible things Wright has said, and concluded that Obama has chosen to travel with a minister of hate.

Gerson fails to note, however, that his former employer, who embraces the Stone Age regimes of the Middle East that formally subjugate women, promote state-sponsored anti-Semitism and make homosexuality a crime, has a complicated record of his own to defend. Bush has accepted the support of Rush Limbaugh and others in the right-wing media complex who openly and unapologetically espouse racist, sexist and homophobic views. Okay, okay . . . so Bush is an easy target. And he's just about to leave town, so let's just let his historically abysmal record speak for itself . . . and ask some questions about the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, and his "welcome" endorsement from Rev. John Hagee of San Antonio, Texas. Hagee has a long record of anti-Catholicism, comparing it to a "cult," and less than flattering statements about women, gays, Jews . . . pretty much everyone who is not a born-again, fundamentalist Chrisitan.

No demands from the establishment press for McCain to give a speech before Hagee or an audience of similar clergy "repudiating" and "denouncing" his views and formally requesting that he stay as far away as possible from his campaign. You'd think that McCain's largely illusionary reputation as a "straight talker" would lead the media to jump at the chance to demand of him what they've demanded of Obama. But they won't, for the simple reason that a white politician as skilled at massaging the establishment press as McCain will always be one of the boys, whereas a black politician will never be. Neither McCain nor Hillary will ever asked to "repudiate" the views of "white leaders" or explain how their views are not threatening to white people. John McCain, like every Republican politician of the past 45 years, will concede the black vote to the Democrats and work to maximize turnout among white constituencies that continue to harbor racist views about blacks. He won't be asked to explain that strategy. On the odd chance that he is asked, he'll offer an answer like this one: "We welcome Americans of all creeds and colors to join the Republican Party as we work to rebuild our country and keep us safe from terrorists."

And no one will blink an eye.

On the other hand, neither Hillary Clinton or John McCain -- the real "dream ticket" if you're a Republican strategist -- will ever give a speech like the one Obama gave yesterday. The reason is simple: neither has the life-experience, sophistication or courage to say what came so naturally to Obama.

* * * * * * * * * *

In 1995, Major League Baseball introduced the "wild card" format for the playoffs, amending the rule in place since 1969 that sent only the winners of each division in the National and American Leagues to play for the league title and a shot at the World Series. Now, the winners of each league's three divisions and the team with the best regular season record compete for their respective titles. "Purists" initially complained that it would diminish the teams who won their divisions. Advocates of the new system said it would stimulate interest among fans whose teams might normally have no chance to win a division. I was initially skeptical; but, over time, I've come to accept the "wild card" as good for baseball.

Ruth Marcus, a columnist for the Washington Post, apparently believes that the presidential primary system should adopt the "wild card" rule for the 2008 nominating contest in the Democratic party. She suggests a three-way debate between Hillary, Obama and McCain so that Democratic voters (and presumably all those mysterious Independents that pollsters and politicos drool over) can decide who would make a stronger candidate in the general election.

Unless I missed something, Democratic voters have already made that choice, and it is Barack Obama. Obama has won almost twice as many states as Hillary, leads in the popular vote, and leads in pledged delegates. He trails only in one category: "superdelegates" who are not bound by a state's popular vote or caucus results. For Hillary to finish the primaries with more delegates than Obama, she must win every remaining state by 28 percentage points or better. That is simply not going to happen.

If the roles were reversed and Barack Obama had been all but mathematically eliminated from the Democratic primary, you would not be seeing calls in the establishment press to give him another chance, or alter the rules to allow him to bring in delegates from primaries that were disqualified, or insisting on a three-way debate so that voters could have one more chance to weigh his merits against the front runner. Leading the charge to have Obama leave the race would be the Clintons, who would have demanded his exit after losing 12 consecutive primaries in late January and February.

I find it remarkable that anyone believes the protracted street fight the Clintons are waging against Obama is a good thing. It's not. Hillary should pack up and go, and simply accept that, once voters were given the chance to vote, they chose someone else. But no . . . as long as there are columnists like Ruth Marcus around to enable this destructive process, Hillary will hang on until she and/or the party self-destructs. Race is not on the surface of the Hillary "wild card" effort, but it lies just underneath it, like an undertow that will sooner or later reveal its true power by devouring the unsuspecting.

Put another way: If Barack Obama were John Edwards, Joe Biden or any other establishment white male political figure, Hillary would have been sent along her way or, in the best case, mentioned as the possible vice-presidential nominee as the second-place finisher. Instead, Hillary, who will finish second, remains "open" to Obama as her vice-presidential running mate, and the establishment press floats this scenario as if it should be taken seriously. Reverse positions, and Obama would have been ridiculed to no end. He would have lost all credibility as a "serious black candidate" and lumped into the Sharpton-Jackson scrap heap. And the white commentators who dominate the airwaves and op-ed pages of the nation's most elite media would have beat that drum until there was a hole the size of the Grand Canyon in it.

Does gender matter in American politics? Of course. Does race matter more? Absolutely. If you doubt that, you're not watching this campaign carefully enough.

ADDED: I'm in the Boston area today (Thursday, March 20th) . . . and came across this column in the Boston Globe this morning by Dan Payne, "The race card is the wild card," who sees some of the same things as I do, and points to even more examples of the "unintended" racial slights of the Clintons. The metaphor of Barack Obama as "Driving Miss Hillary" is particularly clever . . . and dead-on accurate.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

You know Geraldine Ferraro is speaking on campus on Monday, right? I'm sure it's been in the works for awhile, but still, some timing.