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What Race Has to Do With It

Bill Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago and recently author of Fugitive Days (Beacon, 2008). Bernardine Dohrn is director of the Children and Family Justice Center and Clinical Associate Professor at Northwestern University School of Law, Bluhm Legal Clinic. She is coeditor, with Rick Ayers and Bill Ayers, of Zero Tolerance: Resisting the Drive for Punishment in Our Schools (The New Press, 2001). This essay is excerpted from their new book, Race Course: Against White Supremacy (Third World Press, 2009).

Who could have imagined the 2008 presidential campaign?

Commentators, media people, and especially politicians fell all over themselves proclaiming that the 2008 election had, “nothing at all to do with race.” And yet every event, every speech and comment, every debate and appearance had race written all over it. Stephen Colbert, the brilliant satirist, hit it on the head when he asked a Republican operative, “How many euphemisms have you come up with so far so that you won’t have to use the word ‘Black?’” Everyone laughed good-naturedly.

It turns out that they and everyone else had plenty. When Senator Hillary Clinton spoke of “hard-working American workers,” everyone knew who she meant, but just in case anyone missed it, she added, “white workers.” The invisible race talk was about “blue collar” or “working class” or “mainstream” or “small town” or “hockey mom” or “Joe the plumber,” but we were meant to think “white.” All the talk of Senator Barack Obama’s exotic background, all the references to him as “unknown,” “untested,” a “stranger,” or a “symbolic candidate,” or “alien,” a “wildcard,” or an “elitist,” which one Georgia congressman admitted meant “uppity,” all the creepiness packed into the ominous “what do we really know about this man?,” and all the questioning of his patriotism, the obsession with what went on in his church (but no other candidate’s place of worship)—all of it fed a specific narrative: he’s not a real American, he’s not reliable, he’s the quintessential mystery man. The discourse was all about race, us and them, understood by everyone in the United States even when the words African American, black, or white are not spoken. Anyone who dared to point to these proxies and to call them euphemisms for race was promptly accused of being a racist, and, of course, of playing the ever-useful race card.

In this carnival atmosphere throbbed the omnipresent and not so clandestine campaign drumbeats that the senator from Illinois is a secret Muslim, that because his father was a Muslim, the son is forever a Muslim—assuming, of course, that faith in Islam is disqualifying. In a year of loopy ironies, it took a conservative Republican, retired general, and disgraced Bush secretary of state Colin Powell, to vigorously call the question, movingly insisting that it should be perfectly fine to be an American Muslim, and a president. In a perfect storm, Powell was immediately accused by white commentators of siding with his race.

Then there was the lethal mix of gender, race, ethnicity, and class. In the wake of Obama’s primary win in the “heartland” (white) state of Iowa, the Clinton campaign escalated. Gloria Steinem’s Op Ed in the New York Times on primary eve in New Hampshire, “Women are Never Front-Runners,” laid down the gauntlet, asserting a hierarchy of oppression, claiming that it was women who were the most despised, vilified, and unfairly treated by the media and by history—compared to the (supposed) deference to black men. “Why,” she wrote, “is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the racial one?” Steinem’s intervention made a dichotomy of race and gender, and instead of a complex analysis of the breakthroughs of discriminatory barriers, here was an assertion of superior victim status on the part of white, powerful women. It obliterated the half of African Americans who are women, and the half of women in the United States who are women of color. Intending to highlight the real river of misogynist venom unleashed against Clinton, it posed and perpetuated racial division rather than intersection and unity—the popularly recognized hallmarks of the Obama campaign.

Hillary and Bill Clinton seized on this framing of feminism as a white women’s concern with escalated race talk. Hillary proclaimed on Fox News, “I don’t think any of us want to inject race or gender in this campaign.” But the Clintons promptly resorted to the well-worn “Southern strategy” in South Carolina and the border states. They dismissively referred to Reverend Jesse Jackson’s historic campaigns of 1984 and 1988 as purely race-based, rather than recognizing the unique “rainbow” coalition that included white workers, farmers, and professionals and was to be a harbinger of the Obama campaign. Clinton flagrantly appealed to white voters’ identity as “workers” or “women”—offering white people any reason to vote against Obama without saying he’s black—and followed the ancient and dismal road of racial discourse that appeals to white supremacy, fear, and anxiety. In fact, the prolonged Democratic primary served to chart the Rovian path the Republicans would later hone and utilize in the general election against Obama. Combined with their brazen strategies of voter suppression, demagoguery, and hate, the defense of the color line would become the core of the McCain/Palin convention and subsequent attack machine. dfsFabricated issues of “character,” values, and patriotism dominated the discourse, appeals were floated to white voters’ racial resentments and fears, and the deliberate marketing of the Republican Party—our kids used to call them “Repulsicans”—as the bastion of white peoples’ interests saturated targeted states across the land.

On March 18, 2008, Barack Obama delivered an epic, masterful speech in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on race and identity. Senator Obama’s talk was called, “A More Perfect Union,” and it tapped a deep longing to be free from the racialized straightjacket of anxiety, fear, and separation. The comedian Jon Stewart got it right when he said, “He treated the American public as if we were adults!” Obama managed to frame the discussion of racial justice in terms of broad American unity.

The speech was designed to redeem his campaign momentum in the wake of relentless, replaying videos of a line delivered by Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s pastor, after September 11. In it Wright challenges Americans to question the nation’s sense of exceptional goodness, and the refrain “God bless America” in light of our history. It was an edgy sermon to be sure, and apparently most dangerous of all, it was delivered by an angry black man. Using a technique honed by the far right over thirty years, the media seized upon and de-contextualized a sentence from Wright’s lifetime work, characterizing him as “ranting,” “raving,” and “divisive.” Liberals joined the discrediting party, referring to him as that “loony preacher,” spewing “bigoted and paranoid rantings.” In reality Reverend Wright’s sermons were no more incendiary than everyday conversations when white people aren’t looking or listening, or than Dr. Martin Luther King’s sermons a generation before.

In contrast Senator McCain’s active association with the Reverends Hagee, Parsley, and Robertson and the remarks by Governor Sarah Palin’s Pentacostal “spiritual warfare” and “prayer warriors” ministry remained unmemorable and apparently unremarkable. Hagee’s political preaching remained in the realm of the acceptable, including his assertions that AIDs is an incurable plague, God’s curse against a disobedient nation, until an audio clip surfaced in which he preached that what Hitler did in the Holocaust was God’s plan to drive Europe’s Jews back to the land of Israel. Only then, did McCain disassociate himself from his insidious religious flock.

Nothing stopped the McCain and Palin campaign from agitating, encouraging, or at the very least tolerating shouts of “Kill him!” when Obama was verbally attacked by the candidates from the stump. The candidates’ failure to aggressively disassociate themselves from such threats appeared to have lost them a significant part of the independent electorate, and all moral credibility—an encouraging development. The right-wing attack on Congressman John Lewis’s mild rebuke, however, comparing these white crowds to segregationist supporters of Governor Wallace forty years previously, again illuminated the incendiary role of race.

As soon as Barack Obama began winning primary battles, Michelle Obama, the senator’s brilliant, accomplished wife, became a target for the far right-wing haters. Brazen commentators mixed up a bitter brew of misogyny and racism, and sloshed it generously throughout the blogosphere: she’s anti-American; she’s a disgruntled and hectoring black nationalist seething with unresolved racial rage; she’s Reverend Wright but with estrogen and even more testosterone; she’s a ball-breaker who wears the pants in the family. Maureen Dowd referred to the attacks as “Round Two of the sulfurous national game of ‘Kill the witch.’”

Demonizing Michelle Obama began in earnest when, in February 2008, she said that because of her husband’s campaign, hope was sweeping the nation, and that, “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.” Those fifteen words were played over and over in a stuttering loop of outrage on right-wing cable, and stood as absolute proof that she (and he) came up fatally short in the “real American” department. In this narrative, uncritical pride-in-country is assumed to be a given, the default of all the good people; anyone who can separate affection for people, a land, an ideal from the actions of a state or a government is a de facto traitor. There’s absolutely no room here for refusal or resistance, for criticism, skepticism, doubt, complexity, nuance, or even thought. Citizenship equals obedience. Right-wing “commentator” Bill O’Reilly’s first reaction to Michelle Obama’s proud-of-my-country comment was to say, “I don’t want to go on a lynching party against Michelle Obama unless there’s evidence, hard facts, that say this is how the woman really feels.” Interestingly, almost no one remembers her joy in the expanding and participatory electorate she was seeing, in contrast to her relatively mild critique, because the “first time” never stopped repeating. And almost no one recalls O’Reilly’s racialized threat of personal violence because it conveniently disappeared from the media’s discourse without a trace.

Fox News called her “Obama’s baby mama,” derogatory slang for an unwed mother. (Fox later apologized.) The National Review featured her on its cover as a scowling “Mrs. Grievance,” and referred to Trinity United Church of Christ as a “new-segregationist ghetto of Afrocentric liberation theology.” It is always black people who have to clarify an unstated assumption (as if John and Cindy McCain’s church, like George Bush’s and Ronald Reagan’s, are models of “post-racial,” integrated America). Take a look. It’s like the famous question: “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” The white kids never explain why they sit together.

On the night Barack Obama claimed the nomination, he walked on stage with Michelle and she turned and gave him a pound or a dap, a playful and affectionate little fist bump. It flew around the Internet like topsy—reviewed, debated, photo-shopped, commented upon—until E. D. Hill called it a “terrorist fist jab” on Fox News and that proved to be one step too far—Hill was ridiculed and scorned and eventually apologized. Simultaneously, of course, it was seized upon and imitated by new waves of young admirers.

But Michelle Obama had become an established, larger-than-life target for racial and gender animus on conservative blogs. Where were the (white) feminists to defend her and decry the rot? And the liberals seemingly can’t help themselves either—the New York Times ran a positive puff piece on her in which they noted that compared to her husband, “Michelle Obama’s image is less mutable. She is a black American, a descendent of slaves and a product of Chicago’s historically black South Side. She tends to burn hot where he banks cool, and that too can make her an inviting proxy for attack.” So much racialized and racist craziness packed into three short sentences.

In the aftermath it’s time to remember that President Lyndon Johnson, the most effective politician of his generation, was never involved in the Black Freedom Movement, although he did pass far-reaching legislation in response to a robust and in many ways revolutionary movement in the streets. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was not a labor leader, and yet he presided over critical social and pro-labor legislation in a time of radical labor mobilization in shops and factories across the land. And Abraham Lincoln was not a member of an abolitionist political party, but reality forced upon him the freeing of an enslaved people. Each of these three responded to grassroots movements for social justice on the ground.

And it’s to movements on the ground that we must turn as we think beyond this election or the next, and consider—in the midst of massive economic calamity—the problems and possibilities of building a future of peace and love and justice. We may not be able to will a movement into being, but neither can we sit idly waiting for a social movement to spring full grown, as from the head of Zeus. We have to agitate for democracy and egalitarianism, press harder for human rights, link the demands that animate us, and learn to build a new society through our collective self-transformations and our limited everyday struggles. We must seek ways to live sustainably; to stop the addiction to consumption and development and military power; to become real actors and authentic subjects in our own history.

It is surely a unique, awe-inspiring moment. The Obama campaign offered up a new paradigm, activated young people under thirty who have not heretofore exercised the franchise, and illustrated that substantial numbers of white people and Latino people and Asian-American people would indeed vote for a black man. A new generation has learned the tools of campaigning, community organizing, and political discourse and debate. Now their experience can be put to use mobilizing those same people to insist on the changes they imagined. Within the context of cultivating the tacit myth of being a post-racial society, the Obama campaign inspired and mined a deeper longing for humanizing racial unity—even racial unity based on justice. There is change in the air—evidence that the population has travelled some distance—as well as the familiar stench of a racist history.

Our favorite moment came in the heat of the primary battle when now President Obama was asked who he thought Martin Luther King Jr. would support, Clinton or himself. Without hesitation, he responded that Reverend King would be unlikely to support or endorse either of them, because he’d be in the streets building a movement for justice. That seems exactly right.


2009, Volume 60, Issue 10 (March)
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