Sunday, May 4, 2008

Sinister Minister? Race, Wright and Obama

Many liberal pundits have begun to analyze the racial issues involved in Wright-Gate. Frank Rich of the N.Y. Times has a very extensive analysis that represents the general racial critique among mainstream liberals. Here's my take......

Rich, I agree that race has shaped the public's response to Wright, but I have a few comments on your essay. First, you dismiss the 20-year association, but it matters. And it's more than a mere association. He performed the Obamas' wedding, baptized the kids, was a spiritual advisor, etc. That makes a huge difference (but race still matters).

Second, Obama has subtly manipulated race himself, which makes the Wright situation more explosive for him. Obama has run as a "post-racial" candidate (i.e., not Sharpton or Jackson). He has distanced himself from blacks in terms of politics and policy; he is a "safe" black. At the same time, Obama has "dabbled" in blackness to win black support. According to many accounts, he attended Wright's church in order to establish black, upper-class liberal credentials. With respect to his campaign, he describes it as "historic" (translation: I am black). In black churches he speaks in a folksy diction in order to appear "authentic" (a very problematic concept). His surrogates prepare "racism" talking points to agitate black and white-progressive opposition to the Clintons and to shut down any critique of him. But to remain "balanced," he peppers his speeches in front of black audiences with "personal responsibility" statements.

Given Obama's own manipulation of race, Wright presents a bigger problem for him than we have seen with other ministers. Wright proves that the post-racial, "I don't think of you as black," candidate associates with the "stuck in the past" black "racial victim" minister. He has congregated with Jesse and Sharpton's "brother." Whites are now questioning and reconsidering their support for him. Although the need to run as a post-racial black derives from racism, Obama has to stick with it or risk coming across as a "typical" politician.

Finally, Republican ministers are not political liabilities to Republicans because the party caters to racists, sexists, and homophobes. Its members do not disagree in spirit with the wild comments of neocon ministers. Although most elite Republican would never speak in crude language as Hagee, they are united in their social conservatism. They differ only in degree and rhetoric. Democrats, however, are not really committed to leftwing race politics. The difference is not simply one of degree and rhetoric. Obama's recently declining support means that white Democrats are equally as responsible as white Republicans for the existence of his racial bind. Because virtually all of Obama's white support was educated and upper-class, participants in this "white flight" are not necessarily poor and rural. Instead, they are likely include members of Obama's core base of middle-to-upper-class white liberals. Although upper-class whites have accused poor whites of opposing Obama due to racism, it is clear that white Democrats, regardless of class, want a safe post-racial candidate and are concerned about Obama's connection to Wright. So, even though the Wright "problem" stems from racism, white Democratic elites helped create it, not just rabidly racist Republicans and Reagan Democrats.

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