Thursday, March 20, 2008


Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech is brilliant. If you haven't already, watch it or read the transcript. As Pam Spaulding puts it,

In Obama’s speech I was reading the words of a man that gets it, regardless of the fact that he is a candidate for President of the United States of America that resonate with me on this issue. That he is this close to becoming president of this country — and to risk it all by cracking open this door on a painful area of this country — is something I thought I would never see. He is giving voice to a healthier view on race relations that needs to be embraced from a stage where it’s hard to argue that it is not an issue worth tackling.

Of course, a call to have an open, sincere national dialogue about race is totally ignored by the pundits, in favor of scandal-sniffing. "Did he sufficiently distance himself from Wright?" "Did he contradict himself about not having attended controversial sermons?" "Did he throw his grandmother to the wolves under the bus?"

And now the latest "gaffe" being pounced on is his clarification about the mention of his grandmother in the speech:

The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity, but that she is a typical white person. If she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know - there's a reaction in her that's been bred into our experiences that don't go away and sometimes come out in the wrong way and that's just the nature of race in our society. We have to break through it. What makes me optimistic is you see each generation feeling less like that. And that's pretty powerful stuff.

The typical response I hear from the folks who want to pounce on Obama for this statement is "What if someone (Clinton, McCain, Joe Whitebread) talked about a 'typical black person'?"

What if they did?

Here, I'll even go ahead and make such a statement, so it's not just a hypothetical:

A typical black person in America harbors anger and resentment at white society because he or she has been on the receiving end of racism throughout his or her life. I think that comes pretty close to the tone of Obama's statement - though of course, nowhere near as eloquent, which is one of the reasons he's a serious candidate for President of the United States and I'm just a guy with a Z-list blog.

Was I stereotyping? Was I racist? Perhaps. The black experience is not my own; I'm just repeating my understanding of the situation, learned secondhand. You can make the argument that it's not my place to speak for black people, and that my role as a white person at this point in the discussion is to shut up and stay out of the way, or to use the privilege I have to help people who know what they're talking about get heard. Even if I don't completely agree, that would at least be a productive discussion (one that we as a nation aren't currently having).

Would Clinton or McCain be attacked for making a statement like the one above? Probably. There are partisans on all sides who use whatever disreputable tactics are at hand. Clinton gets attacked with sexism. McCain gets attacked with ageism. This sort of thing should be regarded as uncalled for, as beyond the pale, but it never is. Maybe it's a human tendency to overlook the faults of our allies and exaggerate those of our enemies. Maybe it's a belief that the ends justify the means. Maybe, to quote The Simpsons, "some people are just jerks."

But I'll risk being accused of some more stereotyping and say this: a lot of the people who are complaining about the potential blowback for talking about a "typical black person" are not talking about a statement anything like what I said above. Some have just internalized the idea that *any* talk about members of a race as a group is going to be racist (which, though an easy fix, is a privilege that's far more available to white people) and they're resentful that they have to police their behavior in a way Obama apparently isn't.

But I suspect others are talking about the typical ways of talking about typical black people. They're talking about Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray (the latter of whom is on record as favoring Obama's speech, incidentally) discussing black people's intelligence in The Bell Curve. They're talking about Jimmy the Greek going on TV and theorizing about black people's athletic ability. They're talking about Darryl Gates defending his policemen in Los Angeles by claiming that "blacks might be more likely to die from chokeholds because their arteries do not open as fast as they do on 'normal people.'" They're talking about bigotry, and they're complaining that they'll get called bigoted if they're open about it.

As well they should.

As Jon Stewart said of Obama's speech, "at 11:00 a.m. on a Tuesday, a prominent politician spoke to Americans about race, as though they were adults." Isn't it time we started acting like it?