Wimping Out: Obama's Squandered Chance at Post-Racialism

Mary Katharine Ham

3/19/2008 4:30:50 PM - Mary Katharine Ham

There are things I like about Barack Obama. Until the most vitriolic of the Jeremiah Wright sermons surfaced, Obama's post-racial rhetoric was appealing to me. I believed that he believed it, and that his candidacy really did have the power to lift the nation and the Democratic Party, which has trafficked shamelessly in racial demagoguery for decades, above the "racial stalemate" he speaks of.

The new revelations of Rev. Wright and the fact that Obama chose him as a close spiritual adviser for 20 years makes it nearly impossible for me to buy what the Messiah is selling.

His distancing speech was more a justification speech than anything else. Rev. Wright and other, older black citizens are understandably still angry about discrimination they experienced, he said, and those frustrations are given voice at dinner tables and in fiery sermons. This is all right, Barack posits, because white people are angry, too, for much less justified reasons, like affirmative action.

Barack Obama is uniquely positioned to talk about race in America in a new way. It would have served his post-racial aspirations to do so today. He did not take that opportunity.

He was more eloquent than most, and less overtly divisive than other black leaders would have been, but the message was the same. Black people are angry because they were mistreated, and hateful people like Rev. Wright are only guilty of not understanding that the country can change, and has changed. Obama gives Wright a pass on perpetuating the pernicious notion that the Man is keeping his parishioners down, despite the fact that one of those parishioners is quite conspicuously running for President of the United States of America and winning.

The truth is that the firm belief of preachers and leaders like Wright in the perpetual victimhood of the black community, the sheer audacity of their hopelessness, has arguably done more to injure the black community over the past 20 years than many other things, including white racism. How many young black men, pray tell, has the good Reverend convinced that the American dream is irredeemably corrupted by white racism, and therefore not worth pursuing?

The ability to rise above all that racial resentment cannot be achieved by one politician taking the high road and covering over the sins of those who divided before him. If Obama were serious about post-racialism, he would have spent many of his words today castigating men like Wright, who preach the very division he wishes to rise above.

But what does he ask in this speech and of whom does he ask it? How will we form a "more perfect union," according to Obama, and who needs to do the forming?

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs - to the larger aspirations of all Americans -- the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

I appreciate the nod to personal responsibility in the black community at the end of that paragraph, but it's overshadowed by the fact that Obama refuses to condemn those who have risen to power preaching the systematic abdication of exactly that responsibility. Note that while Obama conceded that not all of whites' race issues are entirely unjustified ("And yet, to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns – this too widens the racial divide, and blocks the path to understanding."), he did not ask the black community to try to understand them.

But he did ask that of white Americans. In fact, that should be the white community's first priority:

In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds – by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.

In short: Black people, continue to ask more of this oppressive society in which you live without becoming victims of that oppression. White people, try to learn not to be so darn oppressive, huh?

The white "resentment" that Obama speaks of does not primarily come from direct effects of affirmative action or the welfare state. It comes from the societal message that the majority of white people, who have had no part in oppressing anyone, are asked again and again and again to take responsibility for ills they did not cause (and, in many cases have been caused by earlier attempts at assuaging white guilt, like paternalistic welfare). They are lectured about creating a healing "dialogue" in which they don't feel free to speak, lest they employ the wrong politically correct buzz word and confirm their "inherent prejudice." They must feel guilt for "institutional racism" when many of them have never been a part of any racist institution. They're flagellated for benefiting from "white privilege" when many of them don't feel terribly privileged at all.

And, despite engaging in this years-long culturally honored guilt-fest to atone for sins they did not commit, they know that they'd instantly become trogolodytic racists in the eyes of the world for one wrong word, while Jeremiah Wright is excused and even applauded in some quarters for a 20-year stream of hate.

As Shelby Steele explains it
:

I call this white guilt not because it is a guilt of conscience but because people stigmatized with moral crimes--here racism and imperialism--lack moral authority and so act guiltily whether they feel guilt or not.

They struggle, above all else, to dissociate themselves from the past sins they are stigmatized with. When they behave in ways that invoke the memory of those sins, they must labor to prove that they have not relapsed into their group's former sinfulness.


Obama asks white people to perform the same rites every leader before him has, atoning for the country's historic racism by understanding more fully and funding more heavily, and doing it without question. He asks little to nothing of anyone else.

Politically, it will likely work, because white guilt is a powerful thing indeed. Practically, it achieves none of the ascendancy Obama has promised. Philosophically, it's a cop out.

More than anything, Obama's promise of post-racialism depended on a popular, charismatic, biracial man, uniquely positioned to do so, taking the lead in a national conversation on race, inviting white people to participate in it, and taking demagoguery to task no matter what color its face. If Obama had had the courage to do that, his candidacy might indeed have yielded results as lofty as his rhetoric.

So much for that.