Apr 27 2010

Racist America and a Black President?

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 5:05 pm

The Banality of Race

In March 2007, Barack Obama, then the junior senator from Illinois and a presidential aspirant, spoke in the Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama. Just over 40 years before, civil rights marchers were horribly beaten at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma by state troopers under the command of Sheriff Jim Clark. In the pulpit of Brown Chapel, Obama laid claim to the legacy of the civil rights heroes who suffered on the bridge. “So don’t tell me I don’t have a claim on Selma, Alabama,” Obama said. “Don’t tell me I’m not coming home when I come to Selma, Alabama. I’m here because somebody marched.” Congressman John Lewis, whose skull was cracked at Selma, endorsed the claim: Obama, he said, “is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

In The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, David Remnick portrays the 44th president as a fulfillment of the promise of the civil rights generation. There can be no doubt that Obama’s identification with those heroes is part of the story of his life and work; in reaching the White House, he has realized a dream that seemed quixotic not so long ago, when Jim Crow laws were still in force. But the president’s conception of himself as a fellow-laborer in the vineyards of the civil rights prophets is surely not the whole story. In studying Obama almost exclusively as a man of racial destiny, Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, not only fails to pluck out the heart of the president’s mystery; he evokes a vision of race that has become a too-familiar element in modern liberalism, an article of faith that has done a good deal to undermine liberalism’s moral sensibility.

It is not simply that the racial aperture in The Bridge is too narrow to do justice to the ascent Remnick traces. A book constructed on the figurative underpinning of the bridge at Selma is practically bound to be organized as a morality play. But the tone of moral indignation, so justified where the incidents in Selma in 1965 are concerned, is less obviously fitting where the subject is a man’s rise to the presidency. The passionate pursuit of political power is always a morally ambiguous spectacle; there is a shortage of both satisfactory saints and believable scoundrels. A moral romance, however, requires a villain, and in The Bridge Remnick is at pains to make racism into the dragon that his hero must dramatically slay.

Exactly right.

If America was still mostly “racist,” Obama would not be president. It really is that simple.