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

August 20, 2008 at 1:11 pm (Politics, Subarno Chattarji)


Barack Obama’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination has triggered anxieties not only about what it means to be American but has also led to a spate of speculations into the nature of blackness and the black community in the United States. Teddy Davis’ ‘Obama: “A Bound Man?”’ is one example and Davis’s article was based largely on a book by Shelby Steele, A Bound Man: Why We’re Excited About Barack Obama and Why He Can’t Win. The title in its combination of hope and inevitable loss encompasses the notion that Obama is a passing phenomenon, that America is not ready to vote a black man yet.

Davis, summarising Steele, makes a distinction between two kinds of black leaders: the ‘challengers’ and the ‘bargainers’. The Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright are the ‘challengers’, because ‘they make whites feel guilty’. Obama is a ‘bargainer’ because ‘he agrees not to shame Americans with the history of slavery and segregation and whites respond with enormous gratitude’.[1] Steele does not perceive Obama’s possible cross-racial bargaining capacity as a positive quality because he thinks Obama has to ‘prove’ his blackness. Steele argues that in order to establish his black credentials Obama advocates a type of black agency which is contingent on whites (and their approval) and if this is so blacks will remain at the bottom forever and they will continue to need government help. ‘Steele thinks Obama’s alleged insecurity about his racial identity explains not only his 20-year relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright but also his continued support for affirmative action’.[2] Steele’s pop-psychological deconstruction of Obama’s racial identity and dilemmas is cited without comment, indeed with approbation, throughout the article, indicating the need for definitive frameworks to understand as well as criticize Obama. In Steele’s formulation it is not so much that America is not ready to vote for a black man but that the black leader is himself flawed and insecure and therefore unworthy of trust and votes. Davis concludes with a quote from an interview of Steele: ‘“What he is really saying is that he’s afraid,” Steele continued. “What Obama is saying is, ‘I’m afraid if I am less than receptive to Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, they’re going to call me an Uncle Tom, they’re going to call me a sellout.’ The terror of Barack Obama’s life has been that blacks would reject him. That’s why I call him a bound man.”’[3] Steele was responding to Obama’s comments that he couldn’t selectively distance himself from being African-American in American society. Steele perceives Obama’s capacity for bargaining as a type of ‘sellout’ and it is interesting that the Uncle Tom stereotype is wheeled out to condemn Obama for trying to conceptually and ideologically, if not actually, challenge the idea of a black politician as speaking to an exclusively black constituency. So while it is theoretically possible to postulate the idea of the ‘bound man’ the phrase seems emblematic of community and perhaps national insecurities rather than only the anxieties of Obama.

Part of Obama’s problem with sections of the black electorate is related, as noted in the Shelby Steele/Teddy Davis analysis, to his refusal to take extremist stances and to tap into a wider sense of black nationalism. Thus while Obama has benefited from African-American support, his repudiation of the Rev. Wright as well as his more nuanced responses to matters of race, has made African-Americans unhappy. As Jonathan Tilove observes: ‘To many, [Andra] Gillespie [political scientist at Emory University] among them, Obama’s problem is that he has never made explicit what, beyond symbolism, his election would do for black America. Now, he is rejecting Wright’s racial agenda without having clearly articulated his own. “The whole thing with Barack’s campaign is making all the other black leadership be on mute,” said Kevin Alexander Gray, an activist and writer in South Carolina. “The idea is that black people should just shut up and accept him as the prize of racial advancement with nothing given in return except him being the president.”’[4] Black nationalism, according to Michael Dawson, a political scientist at the University of Chicago ‘refers to a way of thinking that “takes race as the fundamental dividing line in the U.S.” and the “primary determinant for making political judgments”’.[5] The testimony of Obama’s political workers in the field, the persistent focus on his alien background and upbringing are indicative of the racial divide and it would be too much to expect Obama to heal that rift in his person and his campaign. What is interesting in the commentary of Gillespie and Gray, however, is the reinstatement of racial identity and division, this time from a black point of view. For one black commentator ‘So much of the educated white people’s love for Barack depends on educated white people’s complete ignorance of and distance from the rest of us. Barack is the black person they want the rest of us to be–half-white and loving, or “racially transcendent,” as the press loves to call him.’[6] The anger and disillusion is based on Obama’s appeal to a certain class of white people (the ‘latte liberals’ from a Republican perspective), his ability to reach across racial divides, however inadequate that might be. The polarization mediated here is not just between black and white, right and left (the continuance of the culture wars), but within a black communitarian ideal that sees itself as authentic only when it is defined in exclusive terms. Part of this exclusivity is predicated on a memory of slavery, a collective pain and generational trauma and Obama, although his Philadelphia speech referred to the well-springs of communal anger, has largely steered clear of the divisive terrain represented by this memorial and historical landscape.[7] At one level this could be seen as an attempt to escape history, a political sleight of hand whereby race is fore-grounded but not brought to the forefront to upset the idea of racial transcendence. At another level Obama’s soft peddling of race may be connected to the ways in which many black leaders have thrived on constituencies of victimhood, and his desire to move to a more positive frame.

The New York Post, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is not a liberal newspaper but it carried an analysis of Rev. Wright’s speeches in the context of victimhood that is worth considering. Ralph Peters in ‘The Rev & the Global Victims’ Club’ reduced Wright merely to the level of a demagogue who thrives on a sense of historical dispossession, but he also pointed to certain contradictions and contexts not mentioned by other analysts. Peters wrote: ‘Blame is delicious. And easy. Progress takes work. Nor is it in the interest of demagogues to see their followers graduate from society’s margins toward the center. Social, economic or political success undercuts their fundamental argument that their poor will always be with us.’[8] Parts of this argument are unexceptionable, particularly the ways in which leaders in all parts of the world – and Peters gives examples from the Middle East to Latin America to China – thrive on historical memories of dispossession and the idea of being victims because victimhood seems to erase historical responsibility for the past and especially the present. Within the African-American community this is a point that Bill Cosby and Obama (among others) have stressed in varying ways: that blacks need to take responsibility for their own lives and futures rather than blame the past and the government. While this argument is important, Peters also implies that since blacks have moved to the center and since America is a land of opportunities the blacks have only themselves to blame for their plight. This argument is disingenuous at best given systemic inequities which have led to large numbers of blacks without decent schooling, or the high rates of incarceration among the black community. Thus while there is a need to move beyond the rhetoric of victimhood – as Obama does – there is equally a need to focus on the dispossessed and the angry within the black community. Peters refuses to contextualize Wright’s anger lumping it with the demagoguery of ‘white supremacists, polygamist child molesters, UFO cults and the less scrupulous “advocates” for troubled minorities’.[9] The catalogue deliberately trivialises black issues by association with ‘UFO cults’ and the implication that ‘troubled minorities’ generally have unscrupulous advocates.

Peters then goes on to place his generalizations within the context of America since the battleground in all these debates is the imagining and refashioning of the nation. ‘Fortunately for us, this paralyzing cult of victimhood is the antithesis of the ethic that allowed the United States to achieve the quality of life the vast majority of us enjoy today. What built our country was the get-up-off-your-butt belief that God, by any name, helps those who help themselves.’[10] The reiteration of a founding myth of energy and progress based on a Protestant work ethic is imaginatively powerful but historically problematic in its elision of moments when America has placed itself in the position of the victim. The re-writing of the Vietnam War in popular culture (Hollywood in particular), literature, and political language has created the iconic image of American soldiers as victims of their government, the Viet Cong, the media, the anti-war protestors, or a malevolent combination of all these. Post 9/11 America positioned itself as a victim of terrorism – which indeed it was – but that positioning allowed for an erasure of histories of US violence within and outside its borders. As Suman Gupta observed: ‘In one fell swoop on 11 September those who could be perceived as perpetrators (the West) and their allies had turned into victims, and those who could be conceived of as victims (the objects of Western power politics and self-interest) had turned into perpetrators.’[11] Peters does not deal with these troubled contexts because for him ‘victimhood’ is a minority disease, an affliction from which mainstream America is miraculously immune, and Rev. Wright represents a recrudescence that only bolsters the argument that ‘the global victims’ club’ have nothing really to complain about. Between the explaining away of victimhood through trivialization (Peters) and the fixation on victimhood (Gillespie and Gray) there seems to be little middle ground. Are Obama’s silences on some of these issues evasions or are they indicative of his realization that mere rhetoric will not address the problem? These questions are not within the media matrix under consideration but there are more thoughtful responses to some of the problems raised by Wright and the response to Wright and what he represents.

 Subarno Chattarji.

[1] Teddy Davis, ‘Obama: “A Bound Man”?’ ABC News, http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/Vote2008/Story?id=4524005 March 26, 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jonathan Tilove, ‘Renewed Wright Imbroglio Exposes Fissures Among Black Voters,’ http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2008/05/renewed_wright_imbroglio_expos.html  Accessed May 2, 2008.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Cinque Henderson, ‘Maybe We Can’t: The Black Case for Obama Skepticism,’ The New Republic, May 28, 2008. http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=331c77bb-9591-422c-aa2b-11a741c6ebb9

[7] Obama’s even-handedness does not mean that he has moved beyond the consciousness and travails of race. As Debra J. Saunders wrote: ‘Obama is a viable candidate because he is a black man with a foot in two worlds. Obama appeals to white America as a black success story. But even if Obama has grown beyond grievances, that doesn’t mean Obama has moved beyond recognizing grievances of underclass African Americans, who have fared less well in a world that can look at them with hostility.’ Debra J. Saunders, ‘With Wright, Obama is not Guilty by Association,’ San Gabriel Valley Tribune, March 18, 2008.

[8] Ralph Peters, ‘The Rev & the Global Victims’ Club,’ The New York Post, April 30, 2008. http://www.nypost.com/seven/04302008/postopinion/opedcolumnists/the_rev__the_global_victims_club_108818.htm

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Suman Gupta, The Replication of Violence: Thoughts on International Terrorism After September 11th, (London, Sterling, VA.: Pluto Press, 2002), p. 10.


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