Thursday, March 20, 2008

Damned if He Does and Damned if He Doesn’t: Obama, Race and the Media Regime
By Sikivu Hutchinson

The recent flap over Chicago liberation theologian and Obama supporter Jeremiah Wright has finally given the right wing enough ammo to begin its blitzkrieg against Barack Obama’s presidential bid. Wright’s fiery oratories on racism and American imperialism have whipped the jackboots of Fox News into an orgiastic heat in their mission to out Obama as a radical black nationalist. Caving to the media-drumbeat on Tuesday, Obama delivered a reflective speech on race, acknowledging America’s racist history while drawing dubious parallels between the economic struggles of middle and working class whites and African Americans impacted by racial segregation. Prior to Obama’s plea for racial healing he’d denounced Wright’s comments and removed him as one of his campaign advisors. Obama’s swift censure of Wright, and his willingness to act as white America’s native informant interpreting the gaffes of bad Negroes, is yet another example of how his ambivalence about fully confronting racism is driven by political expediency. Portraying Wright as a throwback to the “divisive” past of the 1960s in one interview, Obama resorted to Kumbaya rhetoric to let black folk know that they aren’t the only ones hurting—in essence, been there done that, let’s move on.

Much of the outrage over Wright has centered on comments he made about 9/11 in 2001 and a recent sermon he gave on Obama’s experience as a black man in racist America. Wright charged that Clinton, due to her wealth and white privilege, has never had to suffer the indignities of being passed up by a cab or racially profiled by the police. The footage of Wright declaiming against Clinton’s privilege was replayed on Fox and other news outlets ad nauseum, casting Wright as a foaming at the mouth zealot making a reckless charge. Yet Clinton’s entitlements as a white elite female whose husband was once one of the most powerful men in the world have been conveniently omitted from the mainstream media’s hand wringing about whether race trumps gender in the presidential contest. Deftly relying on patriarchy, while decrying her status as a beleaguered female in a male dominated arena, Clinton owes her once presumed march to coronation to a form of political capital that has never been available to American women of color.

In their zeal to skewer Wright, the Fox jackboots played their own race card, trotting out a duo of black conservatives to trash his credibility. Wright was caricatured as a David Duke-meets-Farrakhan buffoon, a demagogue spewing anti-white anti-American bile with no historical basis. In the parallel universe of the right wing media regime, it is black “bigotry,” not white racism, which poses the biggest threat to the multiculti allure of Obama. Never mind that the reality of institutional racism, signified by deep disparities in black unemployment, household income, homeownership and health care, belie claims by the likes of Geraldine Ferraro and the Fox crew that Obama’s success is primarily due to his blackness. Set against this backdrop of black disenfranchisement Obama’s meteoric rise is a paradox, defying the traditional white supremacist terms of presidential politics while placating Middle America. Though his high-minded musings on racial unity may help him dodge Fox’s attempt to “Sharptonize” him, they won’t satisfy the black electorate’s need for concrete policies addressing the divide in income, homeownership and education that make the wages of whiteness a bitter reality for people of color in the U.S.

Sikivu Hutchinson is the editor of and author of Imagining Transit: Race, Gender and Transportation Politics in Los Angeles (2003).