The Internal Black Debate over Obama

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Glenn Loury posted on TPM this week an amazing response to the challenge leveled in Obama’s “Black, But More Than Black” speech. All I can say is—Wow.

Coming from someone like Glenn, who is a friend (I kept my list of wedding invitees brutally short. He and his lovely, accomplished wife were on it), this is utterly unexpected and a welcome relief! He completely disagrees with me on the import of the speech, but he does so in such a worthy, worldview-tilting way, I’m still rereading it, trying to make sense of a rebellion so cogently, unapologetically worded. Now, it’s on! This, as opposed to the kneejerk “how dare white people tell us what to do?” reflexive response of the stick-it-the-man crowd, we can work with.

In short, Loury demands to know where Obama, who inherited but played no part in earning freedom, gets off telling him he’s a neurotic, tragic figure for still being angry. More, he argues that elder-generation black anger is not a pathetic symptom of PTSD, but a legitimate reflection of how far blacks’ limited freedom falls short of true equality. Just as young women refuse to accept that we old school feminists are right that they don’t yet know how un-liberated they still are—that they’re living in a post-feminist fool’s paradise that will dissolve before their eyes when the boss suddenly demands sex in exchange for a promotion that will otherwise go to his mistress—older, Talented Tenth blacks furiously reject the notion that past racism has made them incapable of noticing that Jim Crow is dead and that being black is just a state of mind.

Loury argues that black anger, as funneled through the black prophetic tradition that runs from (at least) Frederick Douglass through MLK and onto Wright, is all that stands between America and kinder, gentler apartheid (I exaggerate, but see his post to get my drift). Its counterintuitiveness was bracing for those, like me, who want us to pragmatically stifle our anger in exchange for something like separate but truly equal (again with the oversimplifying exaggeration).

Finally, a real debate with unexpected twists and turns that can’t be dismissed as mere defiance! I’m all tingly! Sometimes, not often when a dance floor remains uninvolved, it’s a hoot to be black. Whatever else you think of Obama, he is engendering the kind of dialogue and debate which alone can move America forward on race. That an intracommunal fracas is raging among blacks is the surest sign of that; we have to gain ground in-house before we can gain ground with outsiders. Offerings like this will do exactly that.

You simply have to read the post in its entirety, but here’s a slice of the frontal assault Loury flings right back in “his son’s” face:

…Wright’s error, Obama tells us, is that Wright’s view of America is static, ignoring how things have changed—so much so that one of his own parishioners now stands on the threshold of being elected to the highest office in the land. As a (more or less) angry black man of Jeremiah Wright’s approximate generation…and while offering no brief for Wright himself and no defense of the remarks that have created this firestorm, I nevertheless find that argument very patronizing. I know, just as Wright surely knows, that things have changed a great deal. I also know that, as I write this, one million young black men are under the physical control of the state; a third of black children live in poverty, and, the Southside of Chicago, with more than one-half million black residents, is one of the most massive, racially segregated urban enclaves ever to have been created in the history of the modern world…These things are a reflection of social, cultural, economic and political forces deeply enmeshed in the structure of American society. They are not merely the consequence of attitudes embraced by some more or less well-meaning but benighted black and white persons—attitudes which can be thrown off if only we were to become determined, under the inspiring and inspired leadership of the junior senator from Illinois, to work together to solve our common problems, etc.

I can’t get past the fact that Obama was negotiating with the American public on behalf of MY people in Philadelphia last week. In the process, he presumed to instruct a generation of angry black men as to how they ought to construe their lives. I am not really sure that Barack Obama has earned the right to do either of those things. How the Senator’s negotiations will ultimately shake out—in terms of American attitudes about the nation’s responsibility to act so as to reduce racial inequality—is something I’m not very confident that anyone can predict. Advocates of the interest of black people have to consider what hand we’ll be left to play, should he be defeated in November. The narrative-defining moves that Obama is making now, in the heat of a political campaign and in the service of his own ambitions, must be critically examined as to what impact they will have on the deep structures of American civic obligation, for generations to come.

At bottom, what is at stake here is a fight over the American historical narrative. Obama, a self-identifying black man running for the most powerful office on earth, does threaten some aspects of the conventional ‘white’ narrative. But, he also threatens the ‘black’ narrative—and powerfully so. In effect, he wants to put an end to (transcend, move beyond, overcome…) the anger, the disappointment and the subversive critique of America that arises from the painful experience of black people in this country. Yet, the forces behind his rise are NOT grassroots-black-American in origin; they are elite-white-liberal-academic in origin. If he succeeds, there will be far fewer public megaphones for the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons and Cornel Wests of this world, for sure. Many will see that as a good thing. But a great deal more may also be lost including, just to take one example, the notion that the moral legacy for today’s America of the black freedom struggle that played-out in this country during the century after emancipation from slavery—I speak here of Martin Luther King’s (and Fannie Lou Hamer’s, and W.E.B. DuBois’s, and Ida B. Wells’s and Frederick Douglass’s …) moral legacy—should find present-day expression in, among other ways, agitation on behalf of and public expression of sympathy for the dispossessed Palestinians—who are, arguably, among the ‘niggers’ of today’s world, if ever there were any….”

Speaking for myself, and as a black American man, if forced to choose, I’d rather be “on the right side of history” about such matters, melding the historical narratives of my people with those of the ‘niggers’ in today’s world, than to make solidarity with elites who, for the sake of political expediency, would sweep such matters under the rug (or, worse.) My fear is that, should Obama succeed with his effort to renegotiate the implicit American racial contract, then the prophetic African American voice—which is occasionally strident and necessarily a dissident, outsider’s voice—could be lost to us forever.

Intrigued? I hope so. Read the piece in its entirety and come loaded with the same quality ammo if you truly want to improve race relations.


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