Thinking While Black: Barack Obama, Race and the Politics of Conservative Smears

Forget Barack Obama’s praise for legal scholar Derrick Bell.

Never mind his decades-long association with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

Neither of these connections will matter once you get a load of what I’ve uncovered: a linkage between the president and someone at least as radical if not more so than either of those. A man whom President Obama has openly praised, and not just twenty-two years ago at some fairly innocuous law school protest, but regularly, in his books, in his speeches, repeatedly, over the course of his political career. Someone whom he has still never repudiated, as he did with Wright, no matter the many statements this individual is on record as making, and which line up rather nicely with many of Wright’s views.

What does this radical for whom Obama has shown so much gushing and uncritical praise, say about economic issues? Only that capitalism is a system “permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give luxuries to the few,” and that, “Something is wrong with capitalism…Maybe America must move towards democratic socialism.”

What does this militant, for whom the president shows so much love, say about white folks and race in America? Only that “Racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle — the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic,” and that whites largely refuse to acknowledge “the debt that they owe a people who were kept in slavery,” for hundreds of years.

What is the position of this dangerous subversive to whom Barack Obama is clearly tethered, when it comes to the role of the United States in the world? Only that, “We’ve committed more war crimes almost than any nation in the world, and I’m going to continue to say it. And we won’t stop it because of our pride and our arrogance as a nation.”

There is more, much more in fact: pointed condemnations of white racism and arrogance, trenchant critiques of American nationalism and patriotism, and withering bromides against the wealthy, all from a man whom Barack Obama praises often, and apparently regards as something of a national role model.

Indeed, he said as much a few months ago, when he dedicated a monument to this man on the Mall in Washington — the recently unveiled statue for Martin Luther King Jr.

One can only wonder how Andrew Breitbart would have spun this, or how Sean Hannity might still. But then again, we do know how the right would handle such material. We know that they won’t touch it at all. Despite King’s radicalism — a radicalism about which most Americans remain unaware thanks to our four-decades long sanitizing of his work and message — the right will and must remain silent on this score, lest they bump up against the obvious: namely, that King is iconic (as well he should be), and as close to a secular Saint as one can get.

But while the right will no doubt avoid smearing King, they have no trouble condemning others whose views, about U.S. foreign policy, racism and economic justice largely mirror his own. It is as if they believe anyone who dares note the ongoing reality of racism (as Bell did until his death), or the role the United States has played in propping up dictatorships and collaborating with human rights abuses abroad (as Wright did in the various sermons that brought down nationalistic jeremiads upon his head back in 2008), is ipso facto a racist and a traitor. To mention racism makes one racist. To speak of injustice in your own nation makes you un-American.

It is a position ultimately requiring the right to believe that most all black people in the country are racist against white people and fundamentally treasonous, since most African Americans do indeed believe racism to be a real and persistent problem and since most continue to insist that there are various injustices afoot in the nation’s economic and justice systems. If believing these things makes one racist, then most all people of color would have to be written off as such. Likewise, the entire civil rights movement would have to be considered racist, for daring to criticize the United States and its white population for its foot-dragging lethargy with regard to ending segregation.

Let’s remember, just as whites today largely deny that racism is an obstacle for people of color — and thus, consider it anti-white bigotry to tell them otherwise — so too, when the movement of which Dr. King was such a central part was forcing America to look at itself and the evil it perpetrated daily, most whites didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Polls in the early ’60s, before the passage of various civil rights laws, found that most whites (between 63 and 85 percent depending on the wording of the question) thought blacks were treated equally in their communities with regard to housing, jobs and education. So if condemning racism makes one racist, just because white folks disagree with the assessment of social reality being put forward by black people, we would have to conclude that the movement led by King was racist too, just as we are presumably to conclude about the positions of people like Derrick Bell, Jeremiah Wright and most all African Americans today.

If the right wants to argue the points made by persons like Bell, Wright, most all folks of color or those of us in the white community who echo their concerns, so be it. They are free to do so. Decent people can disagree about the extent and force of racial discrimination in the modern era. But to suggest that it is by definition racist against white people to believe in the persistence of racism against persons of color is intellectually obscene. It is an argument intended to shut down debate, to cow people of color into remaining silent about their own lived experiences, to make whites into victims of black and brown reality — in other words, it is an attempt to invert the structure of oppression, by suggesting that whites are more victimized by the feelings of people of color than people of color are victimized by the actions of white people and the institutions within which we exercise so much disproportionate control. It is an attempt to make it, in effect, an inexcusable moral crime to merely engage in thinking while black.

That conservatives condemn Bell, Wright, and others for speaking forcefully about racism in America, while ignoring the equally strident positions of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement itself, proves beyond question that the right lacks anything remotely approaching a consistent ethical core. If their positions were principled, rather than the stuff of crass and opportunistic politics, they would stand up and condemn Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who praise him. That’s what conservatives used to do, after all, when King was still alive: every one of them, without a single solitary exception. All the conservative press, their foot-soliders at the grass-roots level, their national standard bearer in the form of Barry Goldwater, all of them opposed the movement. If they were still operating from a position of principle (albeit a ghastly one to behold), they would have opposed the statue for King on the Mall. They would condemn Representative John Lewis for having been a part of the movement and for his own personal associations with King. They would bash Obama for daring to praise King.

At least back in the day the right was consistent. They reviled the civil rights struggle. They stood with the segregationists, openly. Today, the right plays games with race: using coded language to smear a black president, playing upon racial anxieties about immigration, welfare spending, ethnic studies programs, affirmative action, and textbooks that dare to tell the truth about racism in American history. They prevaricate as if racial dishonesty were tantamount to a religious sacrament.

And still, they can produce no one as towering in their greatness or as capable of moving Americans as a Dr. King.

That must hurt. To know that while we on the left have heroes like that, they must make do with John Wayne, Jerry Falwell, James O’Keefe and the recently departed Andrew Breitbart.

As the saying goes, haters gonna hate. But at least they could do us all a favor and apply their hate consistently.

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