Sunday, July 28, 2013

President Obama's long-term strategy on racism (updated)

One of the things that many people noted about President Obama speech on racism back in 2008 is that he not only addressed the anger of African Americans at the legacy of racism in this country, he addressed the anger/fear of white people that produced it.
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience — as far as they're concerned, no one handed them anything. They built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pensions dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and they feel their dreams slipping away. And in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.

Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.

Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze — a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many. 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.
 That's the same history Tim Wise recounts in this video clip on "the creation of whiteness."

The President returned to this theme in an interview this week with the New York Times.
And that’s what people sense. That's why people are anxious. That's why people are frustrated. That's what they talk to me about and that's what they write to me about: “I'm doing okay right now, but what I've seen over the last 20 years and what I learned profoundly during this crisis is that the ground under my feet just isn't as secure, and that the work I'm doing may not be rewarded.” And everything that I am proposing and everything I will be proposing over the next three years goes right at that issue. And if that’s not what Washington’s talking about, then we will be missing the boat.

And racial tensions won’t get better; they may get worse, because people will feel as if they’ve got to compete with some other group to get scraps from a shrinking pot. If the economy is growing, everybody feels invested. Everybody feels as if we're rolling in the same direction.
So while President Obama's African American critics are wrong - his administration is tackling some of the most insidious civil rights issues of our time - his vision is (once again) much bigger than that. He doesn't just want to ameliorate the affects of racism on black people. He wants to tackle the roots of white people.

The truth is that all "isms" stem from fear and insecurity. As the President said, we've had a political and economic system that has exploited those fears for decades now. And we're seeing a conservative movement attempt to ramp up those fears to paranoia levels lately.

The President is suggesting an antidote to those fears.

Some might call that crazy. But I'd say its good crazy.

Ta-Nehisi Coates commented on that:
Here is where Barack Obama and the civil rights leaders of old are joined -- in a shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity, something that subsequent generations lost. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. may have led African Americans out of segregation, and he may have cured incalculable numbers of white racists, but more than all that, he believed that the lion's share of the population of this country would not support the rights of thugs to pummel people who just wanted to cross a bridge. King believed in white people, and when I was a younger, more callow man, that belief made me suck my teeth. I saw it as weakness and cowardice, a lack of faith in his own. But it was the opposite. King's belief in white people was the ultimate show of strength: He was willing to give his life on a bet that they were no different from the people who lived next door.
That's the same bet President Obama is making today.

UPDATE: Go read this article about Rev. William Barber - President of the NC NAACP and founder of the Moral Mondays movement. He's enacting this very vision on the ground in North Carolina.
"We have a new demographic emerging that is changing the South. The one thing they don't want to see is us crossing over racial lines and class lines and gender lines and labor lines. When this coalition comes together, you're going to see a New South."

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for re-visiting the 2008 speech......certainly seen in a different light today.

    Damn good post.