Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Reverend Wright & White Amnesia About Race

If there is one big indicator that Americans are not willing to deal with the issue of race in this country, it is not the words of Reverend Wright. It is the manner in which white America obliges its few black candidates, who wish for our votes, into walking and talking like us, which means when it comes to issues of race you are not to emphasize maladies like racism, slavery, segregation, least people become uncomfortable or take offense at being reminded that we are not the most pristine democracy on earth.

What is it about Wright's words that offends people? Well, let us summarize some of major points in his speech the other day.

1. The US has an imperialist foreign policy, which encourages a blowback against it by the peoples who are negatively impacted by its actions.

This is beyond doubt, and if one does not believe the US is an empire in any way then they have to try to explain why the US (with a quarter of the world's economy and less than 5% of the population) retains nearly half of the world's military spending, has hundreds of military bases abroad (indeed, more troops stationed outside of the US, on foreign soil, than inside of the country), have been constantly fighting in wars since the early part of the 20th century, and currently occupy a not insignificant Middle Eastern country. Even our friends at the Weekly Standard admits to this much, and proudly so, to the point that some of its armchair generals would prefer to see the US become more imperialistic, like the British.

Moreover, the "chickens coming home to roost" is, whether we like to admit it, a part of American foreign policy and life. Whether or not we want to face this, Islamic terrorists could care less about our Bill of Rights, anymore than they did for Das Kapital back when they were fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s. They are fighting for what they believe in, and they do not commit acts of terrorism for the sheer joy of it. They did not hijack planes and wreck them into Geneva. They wrecked them into our buildings because of their dislike for US policy in their countries. You can think them crazy, foolish, or mass murderers (all of which they are, at least to me [being the life-affirming person that I am]), but their political motivations are quite obvious.

2. The US has a long history of racism against peoples of African descent and have used this to justify slavery, segregation, and even current economic arrangements.

Again, this is not much of an issue to dispute. It is sadly the history of this country, although to be honest if you were to look at almost any country they would have their own historical skeletons. Race is ours, or to be more exact the use of race to rationalize these abuses. Of course, this is not something you are supposed to talk about today. According to the Hannitys and O'Reillys of this world, we are in a post-racist panacea in America, which has nothing to do with what happened in the past, but Wright's comments address this issue by talking about how economic injustice still persists to this day, injustices reinforced partially along racially lines, because of our history (injustices that Fox "news" anchors do not see because they live among fellow Republicans in wealthy communities of this country).

3. Posited the theory from another author (
"Emerging Viruses: AIDS and Ebola" by Leonard Horowitz) that the CIA deployed the AIDS virus in Central Africa at the height of the Cold War to reinforce its activities in the region. Furthermore, this theory was at least obliquely supported because of what happened during the Tuskegee Experiment.

For those white people who watch Fox, and think Tuskegee is just a place in Alabama, starting in the 1930s (and through the 1970s) the US government knowingly gave false treatment to hundreds of infected black people (mostly illiterate, poor workers from around the Tuskegee area) who were suffering from syphilis. Instead of being given real medical care they were given a placebo treatment, falsely informed that they were being taken care of, and while they suffered, before ultimately dying, were observed by doctors to see the effects of such non-treatment on their unfortunate subjects. Some of the patients literally died in the arms of the nurses that "treated" them, after years of being lied to. It is one of those incidents in this country's history that has done much to reify in the minds of many African Americans a healthy paranoia about the US government.

As for the theory itself, medically, even by Horowitz's admission, we do not know exactly when and where AIDS became what it did. We know it started somewhere in Africa, became an epidemic first in the central and then southern parts of Africa, but that is about it. This is not to excuse the conspiracy theory, as I am not a conspiracy theorist and generally do not agree with them, but it is impossible to be a black person in the US, considering previous cases like Tuskegee, and not at the very least wonder why certain misfortunes befall your community more than others. Sometimes, conspiracies help give an explanation for such concerns. Wrong, maybe, but then I can at least understand why someone from the effected community would be inclined to feel that way.

4. These realities of racism in American life are known to everyone, particularly every black person, including African American politicians like Senator Obama who, because he is a politician in our current environment, cannot openly talk about these issues.

Not being of African descent, it is not my place to judge or verify any claims about what an entire community knows, although I think it is safe to assume that the reverend is probably correct. Not surprisingly, Senator Obama took great exception to that part of the speech. In fact, in Senator Obama's denunciation of Wright, his most strident objection seemed to be reserved for that part of his speech, even more than the comments about AIDS or the Nation of Islam. Why? Well, if blacks secretly all know what it is like to experience racism, and you admit it aloud to a white audience that a black candidate is trying to placate, it plants the seed of doubt in the mind of the white voter that, God forbid, their beloved candidate of choice might really know what it is like to be black. It compels the white voter, as well as the black candidate, to address the issue, which in this election neither apparently seems willing to do.

In the larger sense, what Wright's speech does is force white people, and it is a speech directed at us (considering the venue and the fact I am a white man), to confront these issues. From the responses, it is pretty obvious that most whites in America want nothing of it. This is why Wright is denounced as an extremist, anti-American, anti-everything in the white "mainstream" media. Even if he is not right on some or much of what he says, the historical analysis of racism is a fact, not a matter of mere opinion, and yet it says much about the electorate of this country, because it coerces what few black candidates that exist at the national level to cater to our preferences (preferences predicated on the view that this country is a democratic utopia with no race problems whatsoever).

It is the lack of a discourse on the issue of race in America that is the most worrying in this campaign. It was also predictable because I have no illusions about how most white people in this country feel about race. When Senator Hillary Clinton talks about not having someone like Jeremiah Wright as her pastor, just like Ferraro's statements about Obama receiving special treatment because he is black, every white person knows what is being said. It is the same message talk show radio hosts make when stressing Senator Obama's middle name. He is black (i.e., a threat), so vote for me. Of course, we cannot say that openly anymore. You use coded language, just as Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy employed. The principle of that coded language, however, remains the same.

This is the political market that Senator Obama operates in. This is why he does not deal with these issues, explaining in part why he seemingly spends so much of his time trying to diffuse these so-called controversies and isolate them to momentary outbursts of some mad preacher. And that is the saddest part of all. Maybe we are ready to elect a black man President of the United States, but only on white peoples' terms.

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