The Least, First

Monte Asbury's blog

Race, Obama, and white privilege

with 5 comments

Geraldine FerraroObamaIt is impenetrably difficult for we who are white to see what white privilege has handed us.

Sometimes I wonder if the common white “I am color-blind” outlook really amounts to just plain blindness. For to ignore color is to ignore the elephant in the room: being white is still very different from being non-white in the USA. Self-professed color-blindness, which has such a noble ring to those with the upper hand, may say to non-whites, “I am blind to how the past affects you and me today.”

It may be like saying, “You don’t hurt. If you do, that’s sad, but it has nothing to do with me. For since I bear you no ill will, I am no racist. As far as I’m concerned, we’re equals.”

Perhaps the operant phrase is as far as I’m concerned. Might it mean “My (white) view is the view by which we’ll operate”? Might it be the basis of Geraldine Ferraro’s rage: that her white view of what racism is—something like “harboring ill will toward people of color”—is, to her, the only view that matters?

Might the elements of racism that invisibly color our own outlooks be as pernicious as the more obvious ones we detest in others?

Roger Cohen, in a NY Times opinion piece, writes an eloquent, poignant personal reaction to the Obama race speech. I encourage you to read it all. Here are some excerpts:

Beyond America’s Original Sin

There are things you come to believe and things you carry in your blood. In my case, having spent part of my childhood in apartheid South Africa, I bear my measure of shame.

As a child, experience is wordless but no less powerful for that. How vast, how shimmering, was Muizenberg beach, near Cape Town, with all that glistening white skin spread across the golden sand!

The scrawny blacks were elsewhere, swimming off the rocks in a filthy harbor, and I watched from my grandfather’s house and I wondered.

Once, a black nanny took me out across the road to a parapet above a rail track beside that harbor. “You wouldn’t want me to drop you,” she said.

The fear I felt lingered. […] Apartheid entered my consciousness as a kind of self-humiliation. […]

A racial divide, once lived, dwells in the deepest parts of the psyche. This is what was captured by Barack Obama’s pitch-perfect speech on race. Slavery was indeed America’s “original sin.” Of course, “the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow” lives on in forms of African-American humiliation and anger that smolder in ways incommunicable to whites. […]

It takes bravery, and perhaps an unusual black-white vantage point, to navigate these places where hurt is profound, incomprehension the rule, just as it takes courage to say, as Obama did, that black “anger is real; it is powerful; and to simply wish it away, to condemn it without understanding its roots, only serves to widen the chasm of misunderstanding that exists between the races.” […]

I understand the rage of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, however abhorrent its expression at times. I admire Obama for saying: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community.”

For seven years, we have lived with the arid, us-against-them formulas of Bush’s menial mind, with the result that the nuanced exploration of America’s hardest subject is almost giddying. Can it be that a human being, like Wright, or like Obama’s grandmother, is actually inhabited by ambiguities? Can an inquiring mind actually explore the half-shades of truth?

Yes. It. Can. […]

Perhaps it’s my African “original sin,” but when Obama says he “will never forget that in no other country on earth is my story even possible,”I feel fear slipping away, like a shadow receding before the still riveting idea that “out of many we are truly one.”

May we be so bold as to listen and look—not to ridicule one another’s weaknesses, not to “fix” one another’s problems—but first, simply, to humbly wonder and learn from one another’s fears.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , Monte Asbury

Written by Monte

March 22, 2008 at 6:29 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Thank you Mas for doing this. There is nothing really wrong with what Wright said in those speeches. Yes, he got some facts wrong and the language was exaggerated, but it was not incorrect, it was the truth. Those who want to label it racist, hear but do not listen. I imagine that something like this is in play (

    “The voters Obama needs, it is now sometimes said, are the “Reagan Democrats,” those blue-collar whites who rejected their traditional ties to the Democratic party to support Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. But one of the things that has been forgotten about the Reagan Democrats is that the phenomenon was built almost entirely on racial resentment. The question now is, will those voters be receptive to a black candidate? At their birth nearly a quarter century ago, the answer most certainly would have been no. As Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg noted in a detailed study he did of Reagan Democrats in Macomb County, Michigan during the early 1980s (which I take from Thomas and Mary Edsall’s 1991 book Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics):

    These white Democratic defectors express a profound distaste for blacks, a sentiment that pervades almost everything they think about government and politics … Blacks constitute the explanation for their vulnerability and for almost everything that has gone wrong in their lives; not being black is what constitutes being middle class; not living with blacks is what makes a neighborhood a decent place to live. These sentiments have important implications for Democrats, as virtually all progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms.

    It’s almost three decades later, and American opinions on race have become far more progressive in the interim. But Greenberg’s point about how “progressive symbols and themes have been redefined in racial and pejorative terms” points to an effort at which Reagan excelled but Republicans continued after he was gone. They successfully defined nearly the entire project of government in domestic affairs as taking money from hard-working white people and giving it to shiftless blacks. When Newt Gingrich wanted to fight Bill Clinton’s spending bills, he offered a new version of Reagan’s “welfare queen” — the nefarious money pit known as “midnight basketball,” a catch-all for efforts to give inner-city kids an alternative to hanging out on streetcorners. It may have been offered only a tiny bit of federal funds, but the specter of taxpayer money going to black teenagers was just too much to stomach. As Gingrich understood as well as anyone, merely invoking certain kinds of government spending is enough to activate associations with undeserving or even threatening blacks in the minds of many voters. ”

    As for your comment on colorblindness, I tackled that subject on my podcast a few months ago. You can find it here:

    Confession of a Colorblind Man

    Monte Says: Man! Really excellent comments! Thank you for adding these more-than-meets-the-eye insights!


    March 27, 2008 at 12:06 am

  2. Listen to comments from Sunday. The new pastor talks about the “lynching” the church got from the media. That kind of divisive language would be condemned if it was coming from a “white” church. But somehow this church can get away with it.
    Black liberation theology is racist and divisive. It doesn’t bring people together, but divides. This is what comes out of this church of Obama’s. I just don’t like it. Obama should condemn whats comin out of this place.

    Monte Says: Zeke, here’s the analysis of Prof. Martin E. Marty of the University of Chicago, one of America’s most distinguished professors of religion:

    Trinity is the largest congregation in the whole United Church of Christ, the ex-Congregational (think Jonathan Edwards) and Reformed (think Reinhold Niebuhr) mainline church body. Trinity’s rubric is “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” So far as I can tell Trinity shapes a kind of ellipse around these two “centers,” neither of which makes sense without the other. This you would never know from the slanders of its enemies or the incomprehension and naiveté of some reporters who lack background in the civil rights and African-American movements of several decades ago, a background out of which Trinity’s stirrings first rose and on which it transformatively trades. So Trinity is “Africentric,” and deals internationally and ecumenically with the heritage of “black is beautiful.” Despite what one sometimes hears, Wright and his parishioners, an 8,000-member mingling of everyone from the disadvantaged to the middle class, and not a few shakers and movers in Chicago, are “keepin’ the faith.” To those in range of Chicago TV I’d recommend a watching of Trinity’s Sunday services, and challenge you to find anything “cultic” or “sectarian” about them. More important, for Trinity, being “unashamedly black” does not mean being “anti-white.” My wife and I on occasion attend, and, like all other non-blacks, are enthusiastically welcomed.

    I understand the current senior pastor of the church the Clintons attended while living in the White House came out today in support of Rev. Wright. Here are his excellent comments:

    “The Reverend Jeremiah Wright is an outstanding church leader whom I have heard speak a number of times,” Snyder wrote. “He has served for decades as a profound voice for justice and inclusion in our society. To evaluate his dynamic ministry on the basis of two or three sound bites does a grave injustice to Dr. Wright, the members of his congregation, and the African-American church which has been the spiritual refuge of a people that has suffered from discrimination, disadvantage, and violence. Dr. Wright, a member of an integrated denomination, has been an agent of racial reconciliation while proclaiming perceptions and truths uncomfortable for some white people to hear. Those of us who are white Americans would do well to listen carefully to Dr. Wright rather than to use a few of his quotes to polarize.”

    “What’s coming out of this place,” Zeke, has been enormously good. A few entertainer/media types have distorted its record to nail Obama. Their criticism doesn’t stand up under more careful – and less partisan – examination.

    Thanks for bringing it up!


    March 25, 2008 at 7:22 am

  3. Thanks for your comment, Zeke. You’ll have to help me out here – did Obama really call someone a “racist conservative”? When was that? And who?
    And maybe you could help me see how his church “continually spills racist vermin.” The pastor in question is retired; I’ve heard no such comments from any current staff. And even from him, I’ve only read of a thirty seconds of atrocious comments out of an entire lifetime of public ministry. Apparently, he mostly focused on helping the community.


    March 24, 2008 at 11:32 pm

  4. Obama plays the race card more than often, refers to “typical white people”, declares anyone who opposes him as racist conservatives, stays in a church that continually spills racist vermin, and today his minister talks about the “lynching” that has been taking place in the media the past week.
    Barak, YOU are the racist. You can’t have it both ways. I think the country is starting to see that you are phoney.


    March 23, 2008 at 12:06 pm

  5. A reader named Zeke had a comment here. I was responding to it, and clicked delete rather than edit, on my dashboard. My apologies, Zeke – you’re welcome to say it again.


    March 22, 2008 at 9:56 pm

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