Home > US Politics > Bugger sounding black, Obama needs to sound red.

Bugger sounding black, Obama needs to sound red.

NaderI can’t believe that more of the blogosphere has been adopting tones of outraged condemnation regarding the Nader/Pilger-style rubbish. Neil has linked to a blog I’d not come across before, but which confirms for me utterly just how much of a non-issue this thing is. Not only is it a non-issue, it’s been hijacked by people who want to settle some scores with Nader.

The original post isn’t too objectionable, though it flatly fails to realise that this isn’t just about Obama being black, it’s Obama being a black Democrat and still leaving room for him to be accused of trying to “talk white”. What is this talking white? Could it be an attempt to pretend that racial issues don’t exist, or that where they do they don’t have anything to do with structuralised poverty?

I’d call that talking white, because it’s the language of the hegemonic class – by and large white and male. That this hegemonic class exists is the reason we had feminist and racial equality movements in the first place. Fifty years ago, people like CLR James were trying to get black people written back into history and politics, now it’s racist to accuse black individuals of trying to write them out again?

If people don’t think that’s what Obama is doing, they should say so – but it’s not racism, race-baiting or racialism to say that a black man might potentially attempt to pander to white, middle-class America. If people think it’s bad short-hand to reduce such a concept to “talking white” they should say that too. However it’s simply not racism or its variants.

The original post also ignores that Obama has higher expectations placed on him not just by white people because he’s black, but by black people too. The media has had a race to see who can identify with Obama the most, and that’s before we even get to the exploded black vote, which went Democratic. Are black people racist too for having higher expectations of a black President?

Rubbish.

That’s not the worst bit, though it’s the extent of the original post. Much worse is dragged up in the comments by people attacking Nader for the following:

1. Nader’s comments on “talking white” encourage black kids not to read because it seems white too.

2. “What [Nader] said places burdens on Barack’s future administration to do things all of the previous presidents should have done and that all presidents should do.”

3. Nader is racist because he’s telling all black people how to think and extrapolating what a black President must do on the basis of his race.

4. Nader thinks all black people are the same.

5. Nader is saying that black people should only concentrate on black issues.

6. Nader is risking Obama’s coalition of the middle class by sounding radical.

7. Nader is actually saying “that uppity Negro should stay in his place”.

8. Nader is just annoyed that’s never risen above being an electoral spoiler candidate.

What I find interesting about the accusations Nader thinks that all black people are the same can equally be made against the original post – which spouts off about “me and mine” and presumably means all black Americans. No one thinks all black Americans are the same – some black Americans are ludicrous figures. See my comments on Shelby Steele. Some aren’t.

All black Americans share, to a greater or lesser degree, a burden of discrimination. This is what Nader is honing in on when he accuses Obama of talking white – a potential blindspot which will do nothing for that level of discrimination. As someone who has experienced that discrimination, surely it’s reasonable to expect that Obama will make moves to challenge it?

If Obama doesn’t make moves to challenge it, it makes him either a hypocrit or a coward. As the only black US Senator, who else was going to take the lead on this? As the only black US President, who else is going to take the lead on this? The wealthy white men put into office by the money of the corporations which make their profit from the exploitation of the working class?

Yes that working class is white, black, Latino, Chinese and so on – but the ethnic minorities make up a disproportionate section of it, and are often the most heavily exploited. There still are colour differences in the USA, and the UK come to that. If Obama can’t return the empathy such a large section of these peoples extended towards him, then he didn’t deserve to win.

The views expressed above, that by so saying all this Nader is placing too high expectations on Obama and that it risks Obama’s middle class vote, aren’t worthy of any activist. Any candidate that goes out of his or her way to appeal to “the middle class” probably isn’t worthy of a vote anyway, as they are buying into a variety of myths propagated by the American chit-chateratti on idiot talkshows.

It also goes some way towards proving that maybe Nader had a point – if members of Obama’s movement are worried he’s going to sound like Jesse Jackson, by which I mean radical, is it a far-fetched extrapolation to think that such a thing might concern Obama as well? I don’t think so. Sounding radical has always worried the Democrats, it’s just now there’s an added race complication.

I admit, Nader, Ferraro, Piler and so forth haven’t phrased their criticisms in the most lucid possible manner – but that doesn’t make them racist. They may be wrong, but that doesn’t make them racist either. Democrats were supposed to be the party of the working class, of whatever colour – so it’s a perfectly legitimate question to ask if a fear of middle-class white racism might scare them away from the goal of raising the living standards of American workers.

Such a fear doesn’t even have to be justified; judging by a lot of the posters on that Angry Black Bitch website, it’s a fear not restricted to white people.

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Categories: US Politics
  1. November 18, 2008 at 11:55 pm

    See, this is what I like about you David; in over 1000 words you never mentioned the fact that – among other gaffes – the author you’re linking to can’t even spell the word ‘appalling’. I clearly nearly upgrade my coffee intake.

    I don’t know whether you were referring specifically to me, but I want to reiterate that I haven’t said that Nader or Pilger made racist remarks. I will contend that phrases such as ‘Uncle Tom’ and ‘talking/acting white’ are part of a discourse which presupposes difference between races, and I’ll stand by my earlier statement that such a discourse is inherently racialist (the difference between the two terms is important). Do I think that these two antagonists intended the interpretation I’ve offered? Of course not – your rewording of Nader’s remarks was entirely accurate. But the unfortunate nature of distanciation is that we can’t ever control how others interpret our words, and it was stupid of Pilger and Nader to choose phrases with such negative pre-existing meanings.

    I think this:

    What is this talking white? Could it be an attempt to pretend that racial issues don’t exist, or that where they do they don’t have anything to do with structuralised poverty?

    Was mostly covered in the debate we had a few weeks ago, but if the inference is that Obama himself tries to pretend that racial issues don’t exist or have anything to do with structuralised poverty, then I’m afraid this is a characterisation I don’t recognise. The following is from his ‘race speech‘:

    Legalized discrimination – where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments – meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations. That history helps explain the wealth and income gap between black and white, and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persists in so many of today’s urban and rural communities.

    A lack of economic opportunity among black men, and the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family, contributed to the erosion of black families – a problem that welfare policies for many years may have worsened. And the lack of basic services in so many urban black neighborhoods – parks for kids to play in, police walking the beat, regular garbage pick-up and building code enforcement – all helped create a cycle of violence, blight and neglect that continue to haunt us.

    Also, whilst this interview was recorded prior to his national political career, I don’t think it’s irrelevant to note that his main criticism of the civil rights era was that it focused on judicial activism rather than “redistributive change.” He’s never been a Marxist, but nor has he been ignorant or dismissive of the structuralist aspects of Marxist theory. I should’ve probably been clearer in my post, but I consider Nader’s comments to be substantively wrong, as well as symbolically troubling.

    Anyway, this topic has consumed a massive amount of our time, and I should really sleep before I continue today’s trend of schoolboy spelling errors. I’ll will just finish, however, by restating the point of that post: America isn’t spoiled for choice when it comes to positive black male role models, and in the absence of achieving the seismic social & economic shifts which we both know are necessary, I’m quite comfortable hurling spitballs at people who’re too clumsy & out of touch to know that the language they use – however good their intentions are – implies that the guy in the Oval Office is different from them.

  2. November 18, 2008 at 11:56 pm

    Case in point:

    “I clearly nearly upgrade my coffee intake”

    I give up.

  3. November 19, 2008 at 12:34 am

    I admit, Nader, Ferraro, Piler and so forth haven’t phrased their criticisms in the most lucid possible manner – but that doesn’t make them racist.

    No, but its pretty patronising for these writers to think they know what’s best for an entire race, and accuse any people who different to be ‘traitors’.

    It’s like patting a black or brown person on the head and saying ‘I know what’s best for you’ and then subsequently condeming anyone who doesn’t follow that stereotype. If negative sterotypes are pernicious, so are positive sterotypes.

    Obama won’t sound red. In fact he doesn’t need to. The country isn’t red. He needs to rule pragmatically and hopefully the centre ground will shift leftwards.

    I realise that the far-left thinks anyone who doesn’t follow Marx to the letter is a traitor, but when they start using ‘Uncle Tom’, that is clearly as patronisingly racist as those who think all black people are criminals or vagrants.

  4. November 19, 2008 at 7:45 am

    Sunny, the nature of political belief – of any description – presupposes being right, presupposes knowing what is best. If it didn’t, why bother having political beliefs? I’m not saying one’s views should be immutable, but it’s hypocrisy of the highest order for a liberal journalist to accuse anyone else of being patronising for presuming to know what’s best.

    Moreover, I’d say that these people should be allowed their podium and might have something important to say, judging by their activist histories. Speaking of indulging in stereotypes, by the by, you have half a dozen of your own, which I’ve counted every time you tap on your keyboard about the “far left”. I’m fairly certain I’m far-left and I don’t regard other political ideologies as traitorous – simply as wrong.

    Is that patronising? If it is then you’re just as guilty by presuming to hold opinions which in turn can only be validated if I’m wrong.

    Finally, you open up for me the clear difference between woolly-thinking and Marxism. Obama shouldn’t sound red because America’s not red? Give me a break. A country’s leaders should perhaps be beholden to whatever the latest opinion polls say about late-term abortion or euthanasia perhaps? That’s the natural extension of what you’re saying.

    I have no problem with ruling pragmatically; Obama should walk softly and carry a big stick as the Teddy said. Persuade the public and meanwhile organise across the country to win. I don’t think this is what you mean by pragmatism of course – what I suspect you mean is that Obama should ignore people to his left in favour of courting media approval.

    Which in turn is what I suspect he will do. But we’ll see.

    Neil, most of your piece was, I thought, spot on. I don’t prima facie agree with Nader, though I certainly think that in following through with redistributive change, Obama might come up shorter than in days before his campaign to be President.

    As for whether Nader was being racialist, it’s a difficult one to call.

    Nader asked if Obama was afraid to sound like Jesse Jackson, implied as an opposite to “talking white”. Presumably he thinks that Jesse Jackson “talks black”, but what he means is “stands up for working class black people”. Everyone got what Nader was trying to say – even the people who are bringing the acrimony. To that extent I don’t think Nader was being racialist.

    Okay, so he’s a bit of a tit for saying it like that but I don’t think he was ascribing significance to presumed differences between the races. I imagine if one asked Nader that he’d be the first to say that if Obama looks after the black underclass, he’ll take steps for the white and latino and Chinese underclasses too.

  5. November 20, 2008 at 1:36 am

    A country’s leaders should perhaps be beholden to whatever the latest opinion polls say about late-term abortion or euthanasia perhaps? That’s the natural extension of what you’re saying.

    A leader can sometimes take leadership and make unpopular decisions. But trying to turn the country red when a significant proportion are happy calling themselves capitalists is what you call political suicide. And political suicide is always a stupid tactic.
    Oh you can try and convince people… you can persuade through discussion and examples. You can be like the Goldwater Conservatives of the 1970s and 80s and run a guerilla campaign to turn the country leftwards through sheer power of ideas and example. But that’s different to straightforward political suicide – which is what would happen if Obama followed your policies.

    but it’s hypocrisy of the highest order for a liberal journalist to accuse anyone else of being patronising for presuming to know what’s best.

    If this was aimed at me, that’s precisely what I’m against. If I won any mandate, it would have to be a popular one, based on my abilities to convince people what my arguments and ideas are sound.

    That’s the difference between being a journalist/blogger – who can say pretty much anything without consequences – and a politician who depends on popular votes.

    Is that patronising? If it is then you’re just as guilty by presuming to hold opinions which in turn can only be validated if I’m wrong.

    Making a generalisation about a political grouping is rather different to making a generalisation about people marked out by the colour of their skin/

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