W.E.E. See You:
The predominately white progressive intelligentsia don’t see Obama clearly because of our racial blind spot. We don’t see the role of race in how he seems to understand himself and how others perceive him.
First of all, we think that he understands himself as one of us. A progressive activist, heir to the radical and New Left movements most of us were raised in. He is not; I think that he understands himself (and certainly his real base understands him) as the first African American President. We’re thinking Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. We should be thinking about Harold Washington, the first African American mayor of Chicago. Washington was elected and immediately faced a solid wall of opposition from most white aldermen in the city. Washington understood his role as breaking down that wall of opposition and assembling a governing majority, which he finally did after his re-election. Unfortunately, he died shortly thereafter. By the way, one of Washington’s political strategists was David Axelrod.
How does Obama break the iron unity of the GOP opposition to assemble a governing majority in the US Congress?
If we progressives were not blinded by our own assumption that our history is the only history, we might see how Obama may be seeing his situation.
White progressives often think that African American elected officials are politically naive. We will give far more credit to Cornel West, who has never been elected to anything, than to an elected state senator, or even the President of the United States. We think that Obama does not understand the nature of John Boehner, Mitch McConnell or Eric Cantor, as though he has not sat across the table from them. He doesn’t understand how mean they are, we think.
Obama acts entirely within the tradition of mainstream African American political strategy and tactics. The epitome of that tradition was the non-violence of the Civil Rights Movement, but goes back much further in time. It recognizes the inequality of power between whites and blacks. Number one: maintain your dignity. Number two: call your adversaries to the highest principles they hold. Number three: Seize the moral high ground and Number four: Win by winning over your adversaries, by revealing the contradiction between their own ideals and their actions. It is one way that a oppressed people struggle.
Obama has taken a seat at the negotiating table and said “There is no reason why we cannot work out solutions to our problems by acting like responsible adults. That is what people expect us to do and that is why we have entered into public service.” That is the moral high ground.
Honestly, I have been reminded more than once in the last few months of those brave college students sitting in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter, back in the day. Obama sits at that table, like they did at the counter. Boehner and McConnell and Cantor clown around, mugging for the camera, competing to ritually humiliate Obama, to dump ketchup on his head.
I don’t think those students got their sandwiches the first day, but they won in the end.
Obama is winning. Democrats are uniting behind him, although some white progressives think that they could do the job better. Independents are flocking to him. Even some Republicans are getting disgusted with their Washington leaders. Obama is not telling us about lack of seriousness of the Congressional GOP; he is showing us the vivid contrast between what we expect of our leaders and their behavior. The last two and half years have been a revelation of the essential conflicts in our society and politics.
If white progressives understood much about the politics of the African American struggle in the United States, we would see Obama in the context of that struggle and understand him better. And you don’t have to be African American to know something about the history of the African American struggle. The books and the testimony is there. It’s not all freedom songs. But you have to be convinced that it is something that can teach you something you don’t already know.
Like many progressives I have often felt frustration that President Obama does not stand up to the Republicans and shout in their faces that they are tearing this country apart in the service of future political gain. Or that he does not shout from the rooftops that THEY are the problem, and that the media is simply not reporting on the kinds of sabotage which is happening behind the scenes.
But every time I stop to think how that would look splashed across our television screens I know exactly why he does not do that.
Number one it is not part of his character to act in that way, but it would also redefine him as the angry black man, which would be the box that he would live in for the remainder of his first term. And let's be honest, after that there would be NO second term.
President Obama is blazing a trail, that even ten years ago would have seemed impossible. He literally IS sitting at that Woolworth's lunch counter stoically maintaining his dignity, while suffering the taunts from those who believe only THEY should have the right to sit there.
And sometimes I fear that he is sitting there all alone. That he is waiting for all of us to see him there and take our place next to him. NOT to tell him to stand up and push back against the bullies, but to rest our hands an his shoulders and say that we understand his struggle, and that we have his back.
(H/T to Andrew Sullivan.)