Unfinished Business: Will Not Talking about Race Undermine Racism?

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When Obama’s primary campaign seemed to be heading
for victory in early March 2008, he came under sharp
attack from conservatives in the media and from the
Hillary Clinton campaign for his relationship with Reverend
Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor of the church
Obama attended. Influenced by black liberation theology,
Wright’s jeremiads indicted American racism in ways
reminiscent of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. After
two weeks of calls to “denounce” Wright, Obama delivered
a Philadelphia speech in which he sharply separated
himself from the minister’s message, but did not abandon
the man. The “Cradle of Liberty” setting of the speech—
one quickly heralded as the most honest and perhaps
important on race by a viable presidential candidate—
evoked the “stain” of race on the founding of the US.
However, Obama found that an end to that stain was
somehow “already embedded within” the Constitution, so
that, in his view, long struggles for equality were bound to
win and in many ways already had.
Wright’s “offending sermons” were therefore not
“simply controversial” but deeply “wrong” and “divisive”
by virtue of their “profoundly distorted view of this
country—a view that sees white racism as endemic.”
Whatever sympathy Obama professed for Wright
stemmed from the latter’s specific experience with the
frustrations of Jim Crow, which left many in Wright’s
generation refusing to see that the nation had changed,
and apt “to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative
to the point that it distorts reality” where white
American practices are concerned.
While Obama did call for expanded discussion of race
and vigorous civil rights enforcement, the speech lacked
concrete proposals for producing equality. It managed to be
vague to the point of indecipherability on affirmative action,
broached as a source of understandable “white resentment”
rather than as a policy worth defending. By April 2008,
Obama denounced Wright more stridently, reckoning his
former pastor as the polar opposite of the unifying figure
that Obama himself worked to be. He attributed his angry
opposition to Wright’s divisiveness to something written in
his own “DNA,” presumably as a mixed-race person, in a
perfect illustration of how biology-based conceptions of
race persist in the allegedly post-racial US.
The point here is not to expect that Obama or any
mainstream politician will take risks to defend aggressively
the last fragments of affirmative action still permitted by
the courts and not yet outlawed by state referenda. His reticence
on the issue is widely shared. Indeed, many
activists are tempted to give up the affirmative action
ghost, as even Reverend Wright himself has perhaps signaled
in advocating more far-reaching measures like reparations
for slavery and for racism. But it is nonetheless
worth stressing that Obama does not represent the triumph
of an advancing anti-racist movement but rather the
necessity, at the level of electoral politics, of abandoning
old agendas, largely by not
mentioning them.
Adroitly responsive to
polling data as they are,
Obama’s positions potentially
distort how we conceptualize
and address white
supremacy—and therefore
much else—past and present.
He moves from the
casting of race as “divisive,”
to terming it a diversion
from “real” issues affecting
all Americans—the environment,
war, housing, jobs,
and healthcare. However,
the problem with settling for
that partial truth is that racial inequality itself remains a fundamental
and deadly “real” problem, both in coalitionbuilding
and in everyday life. Such a departure is not new.
Indeed ironically it was a staple of Bill Clinton’s strategies to
appeal to win back conservative white “Reagan Democrats.”
Such a framing of issues may be understandable as the
two major parties fight out an election. But the way that
Obama portrays today’s issues as typically cutting across
racial lines cannot guide our campaigns as activists.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the subprime mortgage
crisis, the seriousness of which became clear as the
election progressed. The wholesale foreclosures accompanying
that crisis fall in distinct racial patterns. These patterns
reflect an 80-year history, beginning in the New
Deal, of the overwhelming channeling of federal subsidies
to home loans for white families, and to the construction
of infrastructure for segregated suburbs. Such Affirmative
action for white homeowners served decisively to shape
the tremendous racial gaps in wealth that exist in the contemporary
The lack of resources black and Latino homebuyers
bring to the market because of past discrimination, and
the ways that they are still steered and preyed upon by
lenders, ensured that they would disproportionately be
victims of subprime loans and foreclosures. As the
National Association for the Advancement of Colored
People (NAACP) entered a lawsuit against the lenders’
role in the subprime crisis, the grassroots United for a
Fair Economy group titled its 2008 State of the Dream
report as Foreclosed. The
report warns that the loss
of as much as $200 billion
in wealth for people of
color arising from the last
eight years of subprime
loans would be the greatest
such loss in modern US
history. Federal data shows
people of color to be over
three times more likely to
have subprime loans, with
a substantial majority of
African American borrowers
in that category as
against one white loan
recipient in six.
The lack of an aggressive response by Obama to the subprime
crisis through much of the campaign led some critics
to propose that this issue best marks the limit of his economic
populism, reflecting instead his close ties to banking
and investment capital. But race has also mattered in the
evasion of the full gravity of the crisis in home mortgages.
The absence of any racial and historical framing of the
subprime issue, a deficiency shared by Obama with Clinton
and McCain, strengthens the tendency to rely for a
cure on the very banks and investment firms that caused the problem. The subprime catastrophe
was poised to serve either as a perfect vehicle
to show how issues capable of dragging
down much of the whole economy are
about both race and class, or as occasion
for generalities, pro-mortgage industry
policy changes, and wishful thinking. The
latter road has been the one taken by
Obama and all of his major competitors.
To complete the sad picture, in the weeks
before the election, right-wing commentators
blamed the worsening economic crisis
on poor people of color—the horrific
Michael Savage imagined that favoritism
went mainly to “illegal aliens”—getting
loans they “did not deserve.” Race found
its way into the discussion purely on terms
set by conservatives.
To expect more that is concrete, forthright,
and policy-oriented regarding race
from Obama in the context of a presidential
campaign was fruitless. Eloquently
summing up the ways in which the idea of
race has and has not changed, the most
important aspect of his campaign has been
to show how much and how many people
desire peace, and want to find a way to
move beyond race. But to make real the
latter desire requires going through the
question of white supremacy, as South
African writers have emphasized, not
around it.

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