‘Race to the Bottom’: Barack Obama, the Reverend Wright and the 2008 US Elections: Part I

August 15, 2008 at 9:54 am (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)

 

 

The spectacle of the Democratic Party primaries nomination for the US Presidential elections has occupied media space since January 2008 when Barack Obama created a sensation by winning Iowa. Media reports have dwelt on the epic and interminable contest between the first African-American and first woman candidate for President in United States, emphasising in turn the inspirational, the banal, the personal, the gimmicky, and occasionally, the political aspects of this race. Inevitably race and gender have figured in the debates and commentaries and while the intersection between the two is important – and analysed in at least one media outlet – it is the issue of race that this piece will focus on. This is not to privilege race over gender but to see the ways in which media debates on Obama are refracted through the history and contexts of race relations in the US as well as the conception of America itself.

 

A quantitative analysis of reportage reveals an enormous amount of column space as well as air time spent on the relationship between Obama and his former pastor for twenty years, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright. A LexisNexis search indicates that there were more than 3000 entries in US news outlets from 20 February to 20 May 2008 with articles or mentions of Obama and the Wright controversy. When the search is narrowed to headlines over the same three month period the incidence comes down to 322.[1] The print media along with television as well as the internet and World Wide Web coverage are indicative of the obsessive nature of media focus. A qualitative analysis reveals some of the underlying issues inherent in the reportage as well as in the ways in which Obama’s bid for the Presidency brings to the fore overt and latent anxieties and prejudices in the US polity and the imagining of the nation.

 

A significant part of Obama’s appeal seems to lie in his apparent transcendence of race, a ‘post-racial’ paradise where race does not matter. This was, from the beginning, a fiction sustained by Obama himself and by his younger supporters as well as sections of the media. The fictional nature of a colour blind campaign and candidacy was revealed not only in the Wright controversy or in earlier attempts by Bill Clinton to pigeon hole Obama as a black candidate, but also in rare media reports of racism on the ground.

 

Kevin Merida’s ‘Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause’ outlined the extent of the problem. ‘For all the hope and excitement Obama’s candidacy is generating, some of his field workers, phone-bank volunteers and campaign surrogates are encountering a raw racism and hostility that have gone largely unnoticed – and unreported – this election season. Doors have been slammed in their faces. They’ve been called racially derogatory names (including the white volunteers). And they’ve endured malicious rants and ugly stereotyping from people who can’t fathom that the senator from Illinois could become the first African American president.’[2]

While Merida’s is a mainstream media awakening, racial profiling of Obama has been active in the blogosphere for a while. One set of family photographs emphasises Obama’s alien background highlighting his Muslim identity and apparent links to Luo opposition leader in Kenya, RaRaila Odinga ‘(who signed a Shariah pact with Muslims and claims to be Obama’s cousin)’. A photo of Barack’s father is captioned ‘Muslim, hard-drinker, was married three times, attended Harvard and returned to Kenya.’ A Kenyan family shot focuses on Obama’s brother ‘Abongo “Roy” Obama who is a Luo activist and a militant Muslim who argues that the black man must “liberate himself from the poisoning influences of European culture.”’[3] The photo montage and captions position Obama as a Muslim with dubious family and political connections and place him outside the pale of American identity and patriotism. The notion of ‘Americanness’ harks back to the founding of the country and finds repeated resonance in the American imagination as well as in politics. Hector St John de Crevecoeur travelling in and writing about the United States in the eighteenth century famously asked the question ‘What is an American?’ in his Letters from an American Farmer, and went on to answer it in archetypal terms of plurality, democracy, and hope. More recently Harold Meyerson in the Washington Post analysed the implications of being American in the context of the 2008 elections. Meyerson claims that ‘Obama’s story […] represents a triumph of specifically American identity over racial and religious identity. It was the lure of America, the shining city on a hill, that brought his black Kenyan father here, where he met Obama’s white Kansan mother. It is because America is uniquely the land of immigrants and has moved beyond a racial caste system that Obama exists, has thrived and stands a good chance of being our next president.’[4] This is the idea of the transcendent melting pot, the land where individual self-fashioning opens the way to success and communal acceptance. It is, however, a partial vision and Meyerson characterizes another notion of Americanness, one that is predicated on being white and Christian, a homogenous core that perceives ethnic ‘others’ as outsiders and aliens. In West Virginia, a state that is 95 percent white and recently voted for Hillary Clinton ‘a disproportionate number of people write “American” when answering the census question on ethnic origin. For some, “American” is a race — white — no less than a nationality, and it’s on this equation that Republican prospects depend.’[5] What is at stake in the 2008 elections is not merely the choice of a successor to George W. Bush but the ways in which America and Americans define themselves within the particular cusp of nation and race.

Within these contexts and in the current climate of fear Obama’s supposed Muslim identity coupled with his blackness creates a direct as well as subliminal threat that must be subverted. In fact, his Muslim middle name and connections (such as the ‘endorsement’ from Hamas) have been repeatedly emphasised to underline the absolute ‘otherness’ represented by this candidate. While mainstream media has been largely innocent of this characterization its circulation on the internet is indicative of the profound suspicion of Islam mediated in the US by the media. As Edward Said pointed out in a book written more than a decade prior to 9/11: ‘“Islam” seems to engulf all aspects of the diverse Muslim world, reducing them all to a special malevolent and unthinking essence.’[6] In emphasising Obama’s Muslim identity in a post-9/11 world it is the malevolence of the religious association that is fore-grounded. An example of this was a letter written to a local paper by Tunkhannock Borough Mayor Norm Ball. Mayor Ball explained his support for Hillary Clinton in the following words: ‘Barack Hussein Obama and all his talk will do nothing for our country. There is so much that people don’t know about his upbringing in the Muslim world. His stepfather was a radical Muslim and the ranting of his minister against the white America, you can’t convince me that some that didn’t rub off on him. No, I want a president that will salute our flag, and put their hand on the Bible when they take the oath of office.’[7]

 

The central focus of media coverage and controversy has, however, been Obama’s race and the persistent racism of sections of the American electorate. Kevin Merida quotes a Victoria Switzer who was on phone-bank duty during the Pennsylvania primary campaign. ‘She made 60 calls to prospective voters in Susquehanna County, her home county, which is 98 percent white. The responses were dispiriting. One caller, Switzer remembers, said he couldn’t possibly vote for Obama and concluded: “Hang that darky from a tree!”’[8] Merida also notes that ‘In Vincennes, the Obama campaign office was vandalized at 2 a.m. on the eve of the primary, according to police. A large plate-glass window was smashed, an American flag stolen. Other windows were spray-painted with references to Obama’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and other political messages: “Hamas votes BHO” and “We don’t cling to guns or religion. Goddamn Wright.”’[9] The vandalizing and graffiti are reminiscent of an earlier era when Civil Rights protestors were attacked physically, churches and houses fire-bombed, and lynching a common practice. The reaction to Obama hasn’t reached the same level of violence and intimidation but the incidents cited by Merida are indicative of a strong and under-reported current of racial hatred.

 

A significant part of the media debate about race, loyalty, and patriotism was triggered by the Rev. Wright’s incendiary sermons blaming America for unleashing the HIV virus to decimate blacks, characterising 9/11 as a case of ‘chickens coming home to roost’, and his ‘God damn America’ diatribe. Obama’s response to his pastor’s opinions were outlined in a major speech in Philadelphia on March 18 where he attempted to place the anger and the bitterness expressed by Rev. Wright in contexts ranging from the history of slavery to the memory of the Civil Rights movement. Obama’s speech was followed by a further spate of media attention, some negative and some hailing it as a landmark speech in American politics.

 

Ed Koch, a former Mayor of New York City, weighed in with a piece on ‘Why Obama’s Speech Was Unconvincing’ and asked several questions: ‘Why didn’t Senator Obama stand up in the church and denounce his hateful statements or, at the very least, argue privately with his minister? […] What is it that I and others expected Obama to do? A great leader with a conscience and courage would have stood up and faced down anyone who engages in such conduct. I expect a President of the United States to have the strength of character to denounce and disown enemies of America – foreign and domestic – and yes, even his friends and confidants when they get seriously out of line.’[10] Koch’s argument was emblematic of the guilt-by-association logic whereby Obama was tarred with the same brush of intolerant and excessive rhetoric. In Koch’s and subsequent media articles there was little or no attempt to analyse the contexts and substance of the Rev. Wright’s works and words nor was there any sense that Obama may not agree with all that his former pastor says.

 

The Rev. Wright did not help his or Obama’s case by his series of media appearances in late April wherein he repeated his earlier assertions and forced Obama to formally and forcefully dissociate himself from the pastor’s ideas and iterations. Obama’s denunciations did not, however, alleviate the ‘out-group homogeneity effect’ whereby, as social psychologist David Hamilton puts it ‘on average, people tend to feel that those from other ethnic, cultural and political groups are quite similar to one another, whereas they know that people from their own groups are quite varied’.[11] The need to homogenise and thereby minimise and condemn a person as belonging to the ‘out-group’ was expressed in different forms in media analyses.

George F. Will’s article ‘A Pastor at Center Stage’ was subtitled ‘And a Parishioner with Questions to Answer’ and it raised questions similar to the ones raised by Ed Koch. Will concluded by establishing a close symbiosis between Obama and Wright: ‘He is a demagogue with whom Obama has had a voluntary 20-year relationship. It has involved, if not moral approval, certainly no serious disapproval. Wright also is an ongoing fountain of anti-American and, properly understood, anti-black rubbish. His speech yesterday demonstrated that he wants to be a central figure in this presidential campaign. He should be.’[12] It is interesting that Will ignored nuances within Wright’s arguments classifying them as ‘anti-American’ and ‘anti-black rubbish’ implying that to make such connections – between 9/11 and the conduct of US foreign policy, for example – is to be generically ‘anti-American’ (a not so subtle reminder of the ‘you’re with us or with the terrorists’ adage). Will omitted mention of Obama’s Philadelphia speech but one of his colleagues was quick to dismiss that as a ‘shameful, brilliantly executed, 5,000-word intellectual fraud’.[13] These swift and sarcastic dismissals are emblematic of an anxiety whereby the fissures and often unpleasant contexts revealed by Rev. Wright are sought to be dismissed as the ravings of a lunatic and Obama, by association, is unfit to lead the nation. While bi-culturality, multiculturalism, and the heterogeneity of the United States are justly celebrated, there is a strong resistance to these ideations and constructions of the nation, a resistance reflected in media outrage.

Obama’s Philadelphia speech was interpreted by Robert Tracinski as an attempt ‘to neutralize criticism of Wright by appealing to white racial guilt. Shelby Steele has memorably described “white guilt” as the presumption that whites are guilty of racism until they can prove otherwise, which they do by subjecting themselves to “diversity training,” by embracing “affirmative action” racial preferences–or by patiently taking abuse from the likes of Jeremiah Wright, in order to show how understanding they are of black grievances.’[14] Tracinski and Steele simplify ideas of white responsibility and guilt to the point of caricature and thereby create absolute polarities between the seemingly irrational anger of Wright and the rest of America that is truly American. To be sure this kind of polarization is ably aided by the politics of the liberal left which seems to fetishize ‘white guilt’ and the celebration of an untroubled multicultural country, but Tracinski and Steele and Krauthammer and their ilk are quick to denigrate any criticism of American race-relations, as well as its troubled history and continuities. The Rev. Wright serves as a perfect hate figure in this framework of partisan paranoia and the fear of transition that Obama represents. As Tracinski concluded with some satisfaction: ‘This is the final collapse of the noble promise of the Obama campaign. The man who had once put himself forward as the candidate who would transcend racial politics once and for all has ended up legitimizing a Christian equivalent of Louis Farrakhan–and injecting him into the American political debate.’[15] The construction of Obama’s denunciation of Wright’s extreme views as ‘legitimizing’ them is linked precisely to the idea of ‘out-group homogeneity’ whereby nuances, disagreements, subtleties of context and history are swept aside in favour of a monolithic black ‘other’, the enemy within who refuses to assimilate appropriately to mainstream roles and ideas. Even Obama’s supporters, as The Guardian reported, ‘fear that his denunciation of Wright will not be enough. Stacee Nichols, 33, said: “The state [Indiana, stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan] has a horrible history. There is still racism but it is more subtle now.”’[16] While Obama lost Indiana by a whisker the issue of race and its importance in the defining and re-defining of America and Americanness continues to reverberate in media debate.

– Subarno Chattarji.


[2] Kevin Merida, ‘Racist Incidents Give Some Obama Campaigners Pause,’ Washington Post, May 13, 2008, p. A01.

[3] Karel Prinsloo, ‘What do we know about Obama?’ AP

[4] Harold Meyerson, ‘McCain’s America,’ Washington Post, May 14, 2008, p. A19.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World, (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), p. 8.

[7] Kevin Merida, p. A01.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ed Koch, ‘Why Obama’s Speech Was Unconvincing,’ http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/03/obamas_unconvincing_speech.html  Accessed March 27, 2008.

[11] Shankar Vedantam, ‘The Candidate, the Preacher and the Unconscious Mind,’ Washington Post, May 5, 2008, p. A02.

[12] George F. Will, ‘A Pastor at Center Stage’ Washington Post, April 29, 2008, p. A17.

[13] Charles Krauthammer, ‘The “Race” Speech Revisited,’ Washington Post, May 2, 2008, p. A21.

[14] Robert Tracinski, ‘Obama’s Chickens Come Home to Roost,’ http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/04/obamas_chickens_come_home_to_r.html  Accessed April 30, 2008.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ewen MacAskill, ‘Fatigue and racism threaten to knock Obama bandwagon off the road,’ The Guardian, May 2, 2008, p. 28.

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