Then and Now: On Obama and the Rhetoric of Race

It is encouraging that the 50-year celebration of the 1963 March on Washington has unmistakably gotten the message out–that crime, violence, illegal immigration, and squalid poverty in the United States are not only all too prevalent, but are systemically tied to growing income inequality, which is driven in large part by a dominant ideology that having money genuinely launders how you earned that money, as long as the sovereign legislative, executive, and judicial apparatuses (the political leanings of which may well have been influenced by some of your money, however earned, that you have used to amplify your free speech, in the form of political advertising and other political mass communication forms, such as “robo-calling”) have given you the stamp of approval that your money was earned legally, no matter how exploitative or otherwise unethically you acted.

What is not so encouraging is this. The 50-year celebration of the 1963 March on Washington has not gotten a critical corollary message out–that this ideology of wealth encourages and even celebrates unlimited private comfort, consumption, and continuous entertainment, diverting our attention from simultaneously seeing both sides of contemporary American conservatism. It is a conservative position that possessing legally sanctioned monetary wealth is itself proof of proper morality and personal responsibility. But the other side of this conservative political ideology is that there is a moral inverse: the poor are irresponsible and immoral because they tend to be parasitic violent criminals, illegal immigrants, those who fraudulently receive welfare benefits or perhaps fraudulently vote, or some combination of these.

In other words, having money sanctioned by the sovereign system–and privately consuming goods and services with that money–is unmarked, in contrast to the marked symbolic construction of the poor as parasitically, immorally spending on and consuming goods and services. There’s so much circular reasoning going on here! How can such an ideology have such a hold on so many peoples’ political attitudes, for instance, hindering support for marginal tax increases across the board, to achieve an economy of scale in providing a public single-payer universal healthcare system? Or investment in transportation and communication infrastructure? Or public education?

Well, we tend to separate getting money (we worked plenty hard for it) from spending it and realizing the “utility” of what we’ve bought (we want to have money so we can spend it and buy happiness). So I would suggest that we’re unaware that we’re telling ourselves a powerful myth when we consume political media (which is so pervasive, it’s cheap), engage in political discussions, and make political decisions. In fact, politics–especially school, state, and national politics–constitutes a kind of ritual departure from everyday routine. In this ritual, the poor sit at the threshold of uncontrolled, powerfully transforming chaos threatening our ability to buy goods and services and enjoy them. The myth that the poor obtain their money (what money they can obtain) and purchase their goods and services by immoral, illegal means legitimizes the prevailing order in which certain ways of earning money are o.k. Politics in the United States is driven by a ritualizing tendency to legitimize power by marginalizing the poor as immoral. Politics ends up focusing on keeping the poor in this marginal, ritually critical threshold position.

Why didn’t the recent celebration of the 1963 March on Washington get this message out? Because there’s more to it than just the systemic link between income inequality and our ideology praising earning money. It’s the next link that’s critical. This link is to our ideology valuing how we use that money. This is the American Dream–the aspirational dream of a comfortable middle-class life–that has become so difficult to question in political discourse. The rhetoric of the American Dream ritualizes political engagement, tending to move us to exclude the mythologically immoral, parasitic, dangerous, liminal poor.

This brings me to Obama’s nearly 30-minute speech at the Lincoln Memorial this past Monday. Now, Ta-Nehisi Coates has written an interesting, already widely read critique of Obama and his speech commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous Dream speech (of course, a very different dream than the “American” one I’ve just talked about). Coates wrote for The Atlantic yesterday that Obama sounded an awful lot like WEB Du Bois 116 years ago. As Coates stated, Du Bois asserted that “black people ‘must be honest’ and fearless in ‘criticizing their own faults.’ Those faults included a disturbing number of black boys succumbing to ‘loafing, gambling and crime,’ and a ‘vast army of black prostitutes that is today marching to hell.'” And as Coates described, Obama made a corresponding contemporary point last Monday–that black people have made mistakes since the 1963 March on Washington, by occasionally but very conspicuously giving into rage and crowd mentality with rioting, especially in 1968, but also in Los Angeles in 1992. By occasionally (but nonetheless too often) using the victim card to justify child neglect … or criminal violence and fraud.

Coates’s point is that WEB Du Bois eventually concluded that this focus on the oppressed acknowledging their faults didn’t really work in terms of changing prevailing power inequalities, and Obama is making the same mistake, undermining his critique of income inequality. This is an important point. But here’s the big difference between Du Bois and Obama. When Du Bois published his 1897 essay on “The Conservation of Races,” William McKinley was the P.O.T.U.S. Today, Obama himself is the President. And he achieved this political office by ritually telling us one part of the myth, leaving the other part unsaid. As he spoke at the Lincoln Memorial this past Monday:

And so as we mark this anniversary, we must remind ourselves that the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. (Applause.)

The ranks of a middle-class life? This is simply political code to mask valuing a life of comfortable, occasionally wasteful consumption and instant gratification, certainly without willingness to cut back and conserve on the margins in order to make the world a better place over the long-term for everyone. Why not only speak–as he did elsewhere in his speech–of dignity and welfare:

In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination — the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice — (applause) — not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?

This idea that — that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood, that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security — this idea was not new.

Lincoln himself understood the Declaration of Independence in such terms, as a promise that in due time, the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men and that all should have an equal chance.

Dr. King explained that the goals of African-Americans were identical to working people of all races: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures — conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.

Now, what Obama’s talking about in this particular part of the speech (which was the set-up for the “middle-class life” punchline) is actually an ideal of universal right to welfare and dignity within the community. Not what the middle of society’s socio-economic spectrum should be able to afford. In other words, Obama’s sending a very mixed message. He’s not asking anyone, regardless of race, to give up their middle-class dreams of having a nicer car with the more expensive option package, or a bigger house with energy-wasteful high ceilings. At the same time, he’s asking us to work together so that more people can achieve this comfort. And what’s the fastest, cheapest way for people to achieve such comforts? Allow private businesses to offer cheaper credit (made less costly by reducing regulation), engage in exploitation of workers, limit environmental protection oversight, allow disruptive or near-sighted tax and trade policies, simultaneously favoring disruptions in employment within communities and speculation in equities and derivatives in international finance. Nor is he asking anyone to question their beliefs about the poor too carefully. We should allow more poor people into “the ranks of the middle class,” but we should simultaneously increase border security and make sure that the poor acknowledge that they’ve given into immoral temptation.

Obama is a politician first, leader and advocate for universal welfare and civil rights somewhere after that. And contemporary American politics is especially ritualized, in which the marginalization of the poor legitimizes the statuses of the middle class on upward. As a successful contemporary US politician, Obama is a very good ritual leader.