Conversating: Obama and Dissident Voices on Race

I am interested in posting some conversations, emails, IM's I have with colleagues, friends, adversaries because often I find I say some dope ass shit when I'm just talkin and vibin off of someone compared to when I say "i'm gonna write a blog post on X thing about race today."  LOL.

To that end, this post is informed by a couple of incidents including, but not limited to, the Dyson verbal beatdown of Obama on race, some (what I would consider to be) problematic critiques of the Dyson beatdown, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell's critique of the latest Smiley effort.

Appreciating what me and a friend are discussing here is not contingent upon reading that stuff, but I wanted to provide context for those curious about why we are talkin about this stuff.

Enjoy and comment freely!

Tyler: Have you seen this: http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/06/05/lacewell.race.agenda/ ?

Friend:  I did. She posted it on Facebook and had been talking about it and that radio piece that Dyson did recently. She and Smiley, and now Dyson, have all been doing this little interesting black public intellectual dance in an attempt to define Black politics in the Obama era. Though I appreciate some of the critiques Dyson and Smiley have made, I also feel like there’s a weird energy of resentment and ego that runs through a lot of their message. And again, the idea that Obama would come forward with a “Black agenda” is ridiculous if you paid any attention to his campaign. Now, having said that, though he’s done an admirable job in terms of foreign policy, he still needs to make some real change domestically, like staffing up and empowering the Dept. of Urban Policy, which would help our communities more than if he said King’s name in a speech.

Tyler: I totally agree. I felt very much like a lot of the really powerful points that Dyson made in that interview got lost because at the top he whined so obviously about not being invited to the White House. Even me, who is a fan of Dyson, sorta didn’t want to listen after that. I can’t imagine how white folks (good and bad) reacted. I wish he’d acknowledge the sour grapes aspect a bit, though one could argue he was doing that (if subtly).

I think also the "not saying MLK’s name" thing is just bullshit. These people are too smart not to see what Obama was trying to do rhetorically by turning "MLK Messiah" into what he was, a regular brother who changed the world. Again – this shows the level of hateration.

That said, his [Obama] pattern of apologizing for minorities who speak out on race (from Rev. Wright, to Holder, to Sotomayor) is, for me, the biggest problem we have with him. It may not be his job to deal with race relations, but the dynamics of race that make every public person of color a “representative” means that his continued, if reluctant, beating down of dissident voices on race I think represents a dangerous precedent.

Friend: Absolutely. He’s so deliberate and he wants to check all who are connected to him, but he needs to realize the value in having individuals out there who can say the things that you can’t and how powerful that is in that it allows him to do his job as the president and continues a much-needed dialogue on race relations in America. You push the soft message from within, and then you let others go hard on it; dominate the conversation subliminally and explicitly and that’s how you advance an agenda.

Tyler: That’s what I’m saying. And because I know he’s so smart, the only thing I can think is that he genuinely doesn’t think that strategy works (which leads me to believe he has less faith in white folks than he would care to admit), or that he genuinely doesn’t think that racism is as complicated and insidious as it is (which I doubt.)

Friend: I think he does question it as a strategy, regardless of the position of white people, he’s never been one to lead with race and if he were to trumpet anything it would be class. And maybe that’s what it is, that is his agenda and that’s the message he wants to push and wants all those around him to push. Or it could be that this is new territory for him and his advisors and they aren’t sure how far they can push the race issue.

Tyler: I think that’s right.

But I sort of want him to recognize (as I want many liberals and moderates) to recognize that what I think you and I are talking about is political discourse and political change with a lowercase “p” meaning how to talk about how society really works in such a way that marries race and class in powerful ways. I think there’s a fundamental problem when otherwise smart people think substituting class for race will be sufficient. It’s this tacit capitulation to the notion that money alleviates oppression, such that rich black folks are somehow buffered from racism (when in fact the mores that govern the ruling class silence so much of what they could, should, and probably want, to say). It also ignores the fact of how black people went from being currency to having absolutely none. So clearly there is a relationship between class and race, created from the minute we set foot on these shores.

Further – Since there are millions more poor whites than poor blacks if you set up a program that is solely class-based and government limits its reach, as they often do with “dirty” social programs, the likelihood that it will “lift all boats” (especially black and brown boats) is small. That’s just the raw numbers of it. Again – class and race not class instead of race.

Lastly – why should fairness to disadvantaged peoples be predicated on how comfortable it is for white folks? That fundamental underpinning of race/gender/sexuality/class social justice work is so inherently problematic and limiting to me. It also centers white folks in a way that reinscribes their power without really challenging it.

All this to say – I just think Obama is too fuckin smart not to get this. But I wonder when we are going to get long-term visionary thinking on these problems. And I wonder if the “success” of Obama, tied so tightly to suppression of dissident voices on race, will prevent a figure or a movement like this taking shape (or delay its formation).

Friend: I totally agree. I think we need to get out of this savior or messianic paradigm of how change happens. The “success” of Obama, the historical relevancy of his election, I think will depend just as much on the work done by communities, organizations, public intellectuals and voters. One of the things that impressed me so much about the campaign was not necessarily Obama, but the way he, or what he represented, made people feel empowered and accountable to their country and the rights of others. That energy is where change has to happen. Big shifts very rarely come out of the White House, or at least they don’t start there. Though there will be those from the coalition built during the election that will deny that a conversation on race needs to happen (we’re seeing this with the whole “post-racial” messaging), there is a strong foundation of people and organizations who know the work that remains to be done around that issue. Maybe we need to start the political discourse from without before it becomes “safe” enough to push from within.

Tyler: I think that is absolutely right. I’m just afraid that since we seem to be so top-down in our thinking (by and large) that his lack of leadership here will quell any desire by folks to talk about race. I mean I can see a lot of black and brown folks saying “Well if Obama can’t say it, who can?” or worse, “well if Obama doesn’t think this is the best way to go, then it must not be.” That’s why I think his example is dangerous.

That said, it is just incumbent on us to carry on the dialogue, and also, I think critically, resist that tendency to have our opinions clouded by hateration the way it seems to be clouding the important critiques from our strongest public intellectuals. I think it’s a shame that people will be missing what Dyson and others can bring to this work and our view of the way the nation operates because they are publicly hating. I would hate to think that there behavior would hasten a quick end to the need for insurgent public intellectuals, but sadly much of what I’m hearing sounds like they just mad (not so much Harris-Lacewell, but definitely the brothers like Dyson).

Friend: Well, Dyson’s right over at Georgetown, look the brotha up and have a talk with him

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