Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Has Obama Changed the Politics of Race?

According to a recent "News Analysis" piece in the L.A. Times by Peter Wallsten, Obama's election is "changing the politics of race." Wallsten contends: "Many black leaders are rejecting the old tactics of protest and the rhetoric of inequality. 'You can't use 50-year-old ideas in a new political era,' one pastor says."

I am ambivelent about these kinds of arguments. On one hand, it is true that 2008 is not 1958 or 1968, so we need to craft a political vision and political rhetoric that speaks to our own historical reality. No doubt about that. Yet, I'm not as comfortable "rejecting the rhetoric of inequality," when racial inequality is so readily apparent and persistent throughout American society. Heck, in my own city - Omaha - 60% of all African American children live in poverty. 60%!! If 60% of all white kids lived in poverty, the city and state would literally stop and make herculean efforts to deal with it, including pouring zillions of dollars into various programs to help white kids and their families out. Or, recently the Omaha World Herald ran two articles in the same week, one on an affluent white school in West Omaha where the public school is buying each kid a laptop (talk about the rich getting richer!) and the other on a school in the poorer and blacker North Side where parents are being charged an extra $5 just to provide basic materials to their kids, like paper. The inequalities are glaring and shameful. And we just went through an election, right? So surely the various political candidates all blustered on about the massive inequality in North Omaha (the third poorest black community in the United States)? Wrong. Not one candidate said a peep about black children or North Omaha, or economic or racial inequality. Nothing. Nada.

In a way, this effort to move away from the politics of grievance seems, in part, to reflect the class position of some leaders who themselves have made it to the middle-class or above, but more significantly, it appears to me to be an accommodation to the fact that most Americans are clueless about the reality not only of our racial past, but also of our racial present. Most have no clue what race is, how it works and persists, what is different from the civil rights era and what remains to be done. And, I fear this kind of political positioning, while strategically smart on some levels, might also reinforce the idea among many white folks that we are "beyond race" and that black people and other aggrieved groups simply play the "victim card" all the time in some unjustified way. A HUGE part of the remaining solution to racial inequality is a new consciousness among enough white people, a consciousness that is not mired in white guilt, but looks honestly at racial inequality in America, that places that inequality in its proper historical context and which owns up to the fact that we ALL are responsible for this mess and for cleaning it up!

What do you think?

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