Andrew Meyer: Obama, Race, and History

Roundup: Historians' Take

[About Meyer: After living in mainland China and Taiwan for four years and in Japan for one year I returned to the U.S. and earned a doctoral degree in Chinese history, which I teach at the City University of New York. This blog reflects my belief that the study of the history and culture of other nations is indispensible to the conduct of modern politics.]

In today's Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer offers a denunciation of Obama's recent speech on race relations that is exemplary of its reception by many Americans. According to Krauthammer, the speech is a"brilliant fraud." This judgment hangs on two points. Firstly, Obama asserts a false"moral equivalence" between the private sentiments of his white grandmother and leaders like Harry Truman (who was known to use racial and ethnic epithets) to the public sentiments of Jeremiah Wright. In doing so, Obama confuses"the moral difference between the occasional private expression of the prejudices of one's time and the use of a public stage to spread racial lies and race hatred." Secondly, Obama relies on what Krauthammer calls"white guilt" in falsely contextualizing Wright's speech:"By context, Obama means history. And by history, he means the history of white racism....But Obama was supposed to be new. He flatters himself as a man of the future transcending the anger of the past as represented by his beloved pastor."

These arguments will no doubt be persuasive to many white Americans who are shocked at the level of anger expressed in Jeremiah Wright's sermons. This is unfortunate, as Krauthammer mischaracterizes Obama's assertions and offers up an analysis built on flawed logic. What strikes me as most objectionable in Krauthammer's analysis is his misuse of history. On the one hand Harry Truman's racial views may be dismissed as"the prejudices of his day," while on the other any attempt to explain black anger as a response to white racism is invalid. This is clearly a double standard. By contrast, Obama's speech expressed a much more nuanced and coherent historical sensibility:

"Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety...The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America. And this helps explain, perhaps, my relationship with Reverend Wright."

Obama does not claim, as Krauthammer would have him do, that Wright's attitudes are the natural product of white racism. He does, however, admit that Wright's"bitterness and bias" are an organic gauge of the state of public discourse in the black community today; not in the sense that all or most blacks agree with Wright, but that a critical portion of the community is at least willing to overlook his biases in assessing his leadership. In other words, to use Krauthammer's phrase, Wright was guilty of no more than expressing"the prejudices of his time." Thus Obama" could no more disown [Wright]" than he could"disown the black community."

Still, Krauthammer's argument about the moral distinction between"public" and"private" expressions of racially charged sentiments might be cited by way of rebuking Obama. This ignores, however, the ways in which the nature of"public" and"private" discourse changes over time. Harry Truman might have felt constrained in the expression of his views in ways that Jeremiah Wright did not, but this is more a gauge of the historical state of race relations than the moral status of either man. One fair test might be to search for a genuine moral equivalent, for a white leader that Americans revere despite their publicly expressed views on race.

In a speech in Springfield Illinois, the"Great Emancipator" Abraham Lincoln declared,"There is a natural disgust in the minds of nearly all white people to the idea of indiscriminate amalgamation of the white and black races ... A separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation." In his debates with Steven Douglas, Lincoln asserted,"...I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people...There is physical difference between the two which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality..."

These sentiments are naturally abhorrent to our present-day sensibilities, and despite being tolerated in the political discourse of nineteenth century were, in absolute terms, as morally deficient then as now. Do such realities invalidate the present-day reverence in which Americans hold Lincoln? Are we wrong to build monuments to him, place his picture on our currency, to count him among the greatest Americans who have ever lived? I would argue not, and Barack Obama would agree. What he indicates, however, is that to be American is and was to inhabit a social reality that chronically and violently distorts our orientation towards issues of race, no matter what side of the racial divide we inhabit (or whether, like Obama himself, we stand astraddle that divide). There are many points on which one might protest the comparison of Jeremiah Wright to Lincoln, but in this one respect they are equal: in their problematic orientation toward questions of race (and here one must note that Wright has not, to my knowledge, said anything as personally disparaging of whites as those remarks about blacks quoted above) they are equally American.

Barack Obama launched his campaign for the presidency in Springfield, Illinois, on the steps of the same state house where both he and Abraham Lincoln served as legislators. Obama speaks with frequent pride about his historical connection with Lincoln, and wrote with passion about the inspiration he draws from Lincoln in an essay in Time. In assessing Obama's response to the Jeremiah Wright controversy, one must ask what a reasonable response would be if one were to confront Obama with the words of Lincoln's Springfield speech (of which Obama himself evinces being aware). Would anything less than a complete denunciation of Lincoln and repudiation of Obama's former praise amount to a betrayal of the black community? Or, could he reasonably reject and denounce Lincoln's abhorrent statements while persisting in his judgment that Lincoln had been"our greatest president?" If one accepts that the latter response to Lincoln's flawed legacy would be understandable, it is difficult to explain why Obama's current response to the controversy surrounding Jeremiah Wright is not.

Read entire article at Madmanofchu (blog)

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