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The Race Against Race

Nicholas Powers Apr 7, 2008

Run, nigger, run, the paterollers catch you.
Run, nigger, run, it’s almost day.

– African American folklore

A black man runs from a howling crowd. If caught he is torn to pieces. If he makes it to sanctuary he’ll be feted as a holy man. The ritual is called the Sacred Lynching and is a scene from Olaf Stapledon’s classic science-fiction book The First and Last Men. Set in the far future, humanity had mixed and very few people were visually “white” or “black”. The ritual was a celebration of racism in post-racial world. As I read it, the scene from Stapledon’s book eerily resembled are own supposed post-racial politics. The novel became a movie in my mind and I saw Sen. Obama as that last black man on earth trying to out-run the media-mob.

The sanctuary is the White House. If Obama makes it, he’ll be the sacred man who broke America’s color line. But the color-line, in America, is also the border-line between our repressed history and our collective consciousness. The violence that created who we are; American slavery, indigenous peoples marched off land at gun-point, workers hung for unionizing, is censured by a media that protects our national self-image. We are white, we are middle-class, and we are the Indispensable Nation. We are freedom itself and we are the greatest show on earth.

Since our origin that self-image has sent out expanding waves of violence. The waves pulsed through our 1840’s policy of Manifest Destiny  to the 1890’s Yellow Peril, the 1917 Red Scare to 1950’s Domino Theory and McCarthyism, to White Flight and Red-lining. Each wave pushed away the dark and the poor and ended with an undertow that pulled new European immigrants inside the circle of whiteness. Out of huddled masses was soldered a racial voting block who looked to the White House as the citadel of origin. It is the seat of our national super-ego and the nominee who wants the Oval Office must promise to translate this history into action. He must sign laws that send new waves back and forth; each one re-creating whiteness.

But that violence so often directed outward, turns in as the promise of whiteness stumbles in the pitfalls of capitalism. In the 1930’s Americans used cheap credit to buy the “Good Life” and when they maxed out cut spending, which lowered demand for new products which caused more lay-offs. Great Depression breadlines stretched long and patience ran short. It was a crisis of confidence. President Hoover assured the nation the worse was over but whites kept falling out of the circle. At the 1932 Democratic National Convention Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the “Forgotten Man” stranded outside the shrinking American dream.

If World War 2, “The Good War” pulled us out of the Great Depression our latest “Bad War” pushed us into one. The new millennium began with George Bush stealing the presidency and standing on the rubble of the Twin Towers. When a worker said, “I can’t hear you,” Bush shouted through his bull-horn, “I can here you! I can here you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people — and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” And the world did hear our bombs blast Afghanistan and our tanks roll through Iraq. Months after the invasion, President Bush landed on aircraft carrier to assure us the war was over but each day Americans died. The list of the dead stretched long and patience ran short.

In December 2006 President Bush said, “I encourage you all to go out shopping more.” We did and bought homes. Decades of corporations moving industry overseas to bypass unions and increase profits had eroded the middle-class. In this gutted landscape, banks created a sub-prime industry that was in essence a predatory loan scam. They hustled people with the hope of a home but unable to keep up payments, once proud owners are mailing their keys in. Like the Great Depression we bought the “Good Life” on credit and now the credit card is maxed. Windows are boarded up. Gas costs more. Sons return from Iraq with no legs. We are cornered between a war and a recession. Again the anxiety grows as our self image is isolated from our reality. CBS/NY Times polled the street and found 81% of us think the nation is going in the wrong direction.

The waves of aggression are turning inward and as it does, the very history we repressed is coming with it. Into this dynamic, steps Sen. Obama but his should be an impossible campaign. A black man, whose skin-color is the sign of our repressed violent history, is moving toward the White House, the site of our national super-ego. It’s not the first time an African-American has run for president. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm did in ‘72, Rev. Jesse Jackson in ’84 and ’88, Rev. Al Sharpton did in 2004 but it was more a media stunt than campaign. Yet each time, each candidate did so in our supposedly post-racial era they found themselves involved in the Sacred Lynching. They ran, were chased by the howling media-mob, were caught, darkened and destroyed.

But Obama wins and wins. He seemed to run effortlessly beyond the media-mob, no one could touch him. He “transcended” race but it wasn’t by floating over our heads but by camouflaging himself as a blank man instead of a black man. On him an audience could project wishes. He became in classic Freudian terms, a compromise-formation defined in The Language of Psychoanalysis as a “Form taken by the repressed memory so as to be admitted to consciousness when it returns.” Obama is America’s repressed violent history returning to national consciousness as its redemption. Yet he has to get to past the defenses. Obama has to run a race against race.

For months, it seemed possible only to whites. On CNN, in the New York Times and mainstream media article after article said blacks wavered because he wasn’t “black enough”. Yet it wasn’t if he was black enough it’s that we didn’t have enough blackness to risk on someone who could be killed. We didn’t want to identify with a man who could fail. If he lost millions of us would lose what last shred of hope we had. If he is shot, the bullet will go through every black in America. So we lied to ourselves and debated his “color”.

But he won and won big. Instead of blacks being questioned why they wavered in supporting him; whites were now grilled as to why they did. On a Fox interview, linguist and black conservative pundit James McWhorter said, “The reason he’s considered such a big deal is simply because he’s black,” and finished with, “It’s almost like he’s Mammy and it kinda worries me.” A counter-narrative quickly formed. Obama’s ascension was driven by naïve white guilt.

Former president Bill Clinton called Obama’s campaign a “fairy tale”, a doomed sequel to Jessie Jackson’s runs in the 80’s. News sites from the Black Republican to Alternet to the Huffington Post repeated the mantra. White guilt. White guilt. White guilt. I did to in my The Great White Hope article. Soon though, Obama would become “black” and his campaign would stumble and he would lose his lead against American paranoia.

The Blackening of Obama

If Obama is a compromise-formation making a run to the super-ego of the White House he will encounter repression. The Right wing immediately began to blacken Obama. Fox news “broke” a story that Obama was a smoker. “Would you want a smoker in the White House,” a headline asked as a photo of Obama, the capital and a pack of Marlboros lit the screen. It was silly dig done when he wasn’t the serious contender but it was a code-word for dirt, for letting a pollutant into the polished whiteness of the Oval Office.

Next Fox “reported” that he went to a Muslim school. CNN disproved it. But the report wasn’t meant to be real just believed. It was another attempt to link the fear and rage of 9/11 to Obama through a perceived secret Muslim identity. In an interview of McCain the conservative host kept saying Obama’s middle name Hussein. It was so bald that McCain denounced it afterward. Reporters constantly slipped and said “Osama” not Obama. BET’s Bob Johnson, a black billionaire and Clinton supporter referred to Obama’s drug use in college.

None of it was taken seriously by the media. Not until Obama’s pastor hurled prophetic condemnations of America in his last sermon. It was videoed and looped on cable TV, hit on You Tube and created a crisis. Surprisingly, even black pundits, like McWhorter who criticized Obama circled him for they had heard the same wrathful condemnations. In the Bloggingheads tv web-site McWhorter and liberal black economics professor Glen Loury shared a smirk at how little whites knew of the black rhetorical tradition.

It was tradition of testimony passed through generations of black people from the plantation to the pulpit. It was and is the burden of truth that one could shun, embody, exploit or love but not ignore. Still, his campaign was in danger. Fox pounced and soon other pundits saw his blackness. It was visible to whites and they could no longer see past his color to the friendly, smiling man they loved just the day before. Yet what if it’s not that he became “too black”?

In each compromise-formation is the desired and feared. What we fear today is being excluded from the whiteness at the core of the American Dream. What we desire is a new self image and so Obama’s skin-color was never invisible but where so many whites saw reflected the wished for content of their own character as good non-racist people. But now inside smiling Obama they saw a fiery pastor and the flames jumping out of his mouth illuminated a dark and angry world whites thought they had left behind. Obama’s poll numbers dropped. He was losing the race against race.

The Pastor Wright controversy forced Obama to give his now acknowledged classic speech on race in Philadelphia. In its carefully crafted 37 minutes, he guided America into the history it denied, the mark it left on today, the invisible weight it piles on our shoulders. He balanced black rage and white resentment saying they both rose and fell like a see-saw on the same fulcrum of corporate greed. He did it without anger or sorrow. He allowed that it was not easy but that we could love all of our history, learn from it and be saved by it.

At the speeches climax he said, “Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing, questionable accounting practices, and short-term greed; a Washington dominated by lobbyists and special interests; economic policies that favor the few over the many.”

When he was finished he left the podium and to his wife weeping backstage. It was fitting for he married her to grow roots into the black tradition, to find a mirror to reflect the change he made when, as Newsweek reported, he went from his Americanized name Barry to his first African name Barack. It was fitting because it was she who gave him the talisman he needed.

Obama’s speech reminded me of a Malaysian legend of a young man, the fastest in the village who had to out-run demons. If he did, the village would live. If not, they’d be destroyed. So he ran, swift-footed far ahead of the howling mob. Yet they slowly caught up to him and he wearied. Stumbling with fatigue, he was about to fall under their claws when he took a mirror his wife gave him, turned and flashed it at the demons. Seeing their reflection terrified them and they burst into dust.

Obama, like the Malaysian hero was in a ritual trial, our Sacred Lynching and had to win for our sake. He did what all mythic heroes must; he changed the rules of the game itself. As the media-mob beamed him with camera lights, he flashed the mirror of history and they seeing themselves were driven back.

There was criticism from the political poles. Former Trans-Africa president Bill Fletcher Jr. said, “Senator Obama…attributes much of the anger of Rev. Wright to the past, as if Rev. Wright is stuck in a time warp, rather than the fact that Rev. Wright’s anger about the domestic and foreign policies of the USA are well rooted–and documented–in the current reality of the USA.”

Conservative pundit Pat Buchanan blasted Obama for flipping the charges of racism from his Pastor Wright to white America. He wrote, “First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known…no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans.” Of course, blacks weren’t “brought” to America, they were kidnapped and hauled in chains. They did not just “grow” into a community of 40 million but had to re-grow communities after being bombed and burned out of them. They didn’t “reach” today’s levels of freedom and prosperity but marched and died for it.

So I stand with Fletcher but lean to the side at times, to see otherwise because viewing any presidential race from the vantage of the far Left is distorting. We stand at great distance from the center. We’ve measured our world and know that a mile of social change needs to be done before we can celebrate. It’s hard to get excited over mainstream America drama over moving an inch. Still, inside that inch is explosive energy that could be the source of so much more. And Obama won. In driving back the media-mob he set his course to sanctuary, the White House.

The campaign is over. Sure there will be wild swings, new media controversies, nail-biting debates and election night euphoria. But it’s done. Hillary can’t get the nomination without destroying the Democratic Party. And McCain can’t win. He’s too old and looks older when next to Obama. He has nothing to offer that’s new, nothing to sooth the anxious American middle-class. Our Sacred Lynching is over. Yes, Obama is in the end a left-center mainstream politician. He is not going to inaugurate the Revolution. Still, we did see a momentous event. We just saw the first black man to out-run the mob and he did it without breaking a sweat.

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