The other day Kelley Eskridge posted a story on her blog. Told by Bono, who got it from Harry Belafonte, it involved Civil Rights leaders’ reaction to Robert Kennedy as his brother’s Attorney General. This would have been 1961 or so. Bono quoted Belafonte:
We knew we were in deep trouble. We were crestfallen, in despair, talking to Martin, moaning and groaning about the turn of events when Dr. King slammed his hand down and ordered us to stop the bitchin’: ‘Enough of this!’ he said. ‘Is there nobody here who’s got something good to say about Bobby Kennedy?’
“We said, ‘Martin, that’s what we’re telling ya! There is no one… There is nothing good to say about him. The guy’s an Irish Catholic conservative bad ass, he’s bad news….’
“To which Martin replied: ‘Well, then, let’s call this meeting to a close. We will re-adjourn when somebody has found one redeeming thing to say about Bobby Kennedy, because that, my friends, is the door through which our movement will pass.’”
(Hm. I really doubt that King would really have said “re-adjourn” when he meant something like “re-convene.” I wonder whose error that is?)
So, okay, I’ve been trying to think of at least one redeeming thing about Barack Obama. Not necessarily as a person – I am sure I’d like him if I ever met him – but as a Presidential candidate (and now, of course, as President). That he’s an eloquent speaker is immaterial – that just makes me more wary, frankly. He is, as far as I know, pretty securely pro-choice, and so the great Fear over Supreme Court Justice nominees that liberals have waved during the past several Presidential campaigns can probably be retired: as the older Justices finally lay their burdens down, it’s probably reasonable to hope that President Obama will choose sound replacements. And something else occurred to me while talking to a friend about this (actually, she drew it to my attention and rubbed my nose in it): Obama's courage in running for high office in what is still a dangerously racist country.
I expect we’ll see some incidents of white racist violence in backlash against Obama’s election, though I think the same would have happened (worse, probably) if McCain had won – the bigots would have taken a McCain presidency as a promise of impunity for their crimes. (And as Avram Grumer noted at Making Light, "I fully expect to get sick of hearing coded racial slurs in criticisms of Obama over the next few years.") McCain’s campaign deliberately stirred up his constituency’s worst attitudes, to the extent that McCain himself was booed by his own mob when he tried to get them to tone it down. (Some of that was audible in the responses to his concession speech Tuesday night.) McCain has a lot to answer for.
And this is really a side issue for me personally, but I recognize the importance of having elected our first President of visibly African descent. I’d always thought the first African-American President would be someone like Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice. My ambivalent pro-Obama friend, mentioned here numerous times before, is African-American, and he left a message on my answering machine today. His parents, he told me, who are in their eighties, were thrilled that they had lived to see the election of an African-American president. I can imagine how that must feel, and I'm really happy for them. Obama’s election is unquestionably a victory over American racism – but like every other such victory, it doesn’t mean the end of American racism. Our prisons will still be overstuffed with African-American males, African-Americans and other people of color will still be subject to special attention by the police, and so on. (And US missiles will still be shredding Afghan wedding parties, but that’s another issue.) Obama’s victory won’t affect any of that.
I’m also haunted by something I once read about the election of the first black mayors to major American cities (Ed Bradley, Marion Barry, Harold Washington) – that the local political machines only allowed them to get so far because the cities were in major trouble (political, financial) and the blame for their worsening condition could then be put on their black mayors, not on the white power brokers who were really responsible. Obama faces a similar crisis, only worse, and I don’t see any reason to believe that he knows how to fix it.
It's taken me some time to figure out why I don't feel right, as a person of pallor, about feeling triumphant about the election of America's first African-American president. I think it's because I've seen too many white people congratulate themselves for overcoming their own racism, when so much remains to be corrected. And there's also what might be called the colonialist or paternalist move, where Bwana gives himself too much credit for the natives' celebration, or appropriates colorful native garb or customs in order to feel diverse. Racism isn't (in my hubristic opinion) primarily a personal failing, it's a structural failing that sometimes expresses itself in personal attitudes of greater or lesser virulence. But in any case, while I concede that white Americans' attitudes have improved to the point where a black President could be elected, that only means that we've begun to catch up with the Third World, and as this writer points out, that women and ethnic minorities have become heads of state in such countries "does not prove anything positive about the status of those communities." Anyway, Obama's election doesn't feel to me like something that white people are entitled to use to feel better about ourselves or our country, not just yet.
So, what could cure my blues? So far the announcements of the new administration abuilding are not encouraging: Obama has asked Democratic Leadership Council party hack and attack dog Rahm Emmanuel to be his chief of staff, Larry Summers’s name is high on the list of choices for Secretary of the Treasury, and there is word Robert Gates will be kept on as Secretary of Defense – one of those bipartisan gestures Obama is so big on. Okay, okay, I know: to the victor belong the spoils. Besides, these people worked hard for Obama. They want to be respected and to continue to be involved in what he does. They expect to have a voice in governing. I know that some raw meat will have to be thrown in their direction. I’ll just be waiting to see what crumbs Obama is going to throw at the grass-roots supporters who played an equally important role in getting him elected. Noam Chomsky for Secretary of State, maybe? Amy Goodman as Press Secretary? I’m not holding my breath.
(P.S. I spent some time this evening adding some links and making some other revisions.)