Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Wright and Rong in Chicago

The latest episode of our Presidential election sitcom is about Rev. Jeremiah Wright, spiritual mentor to Barack Obama, and the various stupid and incendiary things he was spoken from the pulpit. In political terms, we all want to know, did Obama successfully evade substantial negative consequences of his association with Rev. Wright with today's speech in Philadelphia? Will anyone even care about this three weeks from now? Frankly, I don't know.

But I do want to write a little bit about how we got here, especially as how it relates to the ways race relations have changed in America over the last fifteen years or so in ways that have largely fallen under radar. Essentially, ethnic relations in America are less a matter of black vs. white than at any time in my memory, and perhaps any time in the history of our country. All the constituents of our national race narrative (slavery, busing, affirmative action, segregated schools, the one-drop rule, etc) are still with us, but they are less important now. Other things have taken their place. The cultural profile of Muslims is obviously much higher in the wake of 9/11. The center of gravity of international finance has shifted away from Western Europe toward the BRIC nations. The demographics of Mexican immigration have registered on the public consciousness. In this context, black grievances against white America seem a lot more parochial than they used to.

We see this at the local level in Chicago, where the cultural life is a lot less polarized now. The political voice of the black community is spoken through the churches (and to a lesser extent black radio), but the sermons of Rev Wright sound like a time warp. Today's politically active preacher is more likely to work toward closing a liquor store that's a nuisance to the community or fixing the potholes on Stony Island.

Where does Barack Obama fit in here? A culturally prominent black man with substantial white crossover appeal, like Obama, is vulnerable to the accusation of sellout. His association with Wright inoculates him against this. It may not be a coincidence that Oprah Winfrey apparently belongs to the same church.

That said, I don't think his motivations are quite as crass or Machiavellian as that. Let's also realize that Obama holds himself out to be a figure of racial reconciliation, to himself as well as others. That Obama transcends race requires we live in a vortex of racial animosities that Obama can transcend us out of, and that requires racially polarizing figures like Rev Wright. In a weird way, Wright's racial radicalism doesn't threaten Obama, it comforts him.

It's a shame really, because even if we don't need an Obama figure to transcend our racial grievances, we emphatically _do_ need one for our partisan bitterness, and Barack Obama is as good as any. If I were going to vote in this year's Democratic Presidential primaries (and I'm not), I'd vote for Obama in a heartbeat. Even though I do think the rap on Obama as a lightweight solipsist has some merit. But even allowing for that, I'd still like to think that the Democratic Party can stand for something other than hardened antagonism towards the bourgeios, and right now the face of _that_ party is Barack Obama.