March 23, 2008

Kool-Aid Drinker vs. Cynical Black Man

I have a narrative going back and forth in my head about the nomination fight, how race plays into it and what may be its ultimate result. Its a rhetorical civil war represented in my mind by two personas. The indefatigably optimistic but ungraciously denominated Kool-Aid Drinker and the world weary Cynical Black Man. Its an inner dialogue about Obama and Wright that if you could hear it, might sound something like this:

Kool-Aid Drinker: Obama gave a moving, intelligent and persuasive speech in response to the controversy ignited by the selected fiery snippets of his pastor Jeremiah Wright. Obama's speech openly challenged Americans, as few politicians ever have, to go beyond the sound bite, to re-engage our minds and hearts with each other on this most uncomfortable and bitter subject of race in America. He changed the tone of the controversy. It was brilliant. It was uplifting.

Cynical Black Man: It changed nothing. Played endlessly on cable and the web, those soundbites have been used to caricature in the minds of white voters a pastor, his church and the black community as embittered haters of America, permanently locked in a cycle of victimization and resentment. Obama has now been successfully labeled as the "black" candidate with an accompanying stigma. That labeling damages him. He's run a campaign that tried very hard to help voters see him through the prism of candidate first, racial identity second. The Wright episode has been used to tie him permanently to white perception and resentment of blacks as unpatriotic whiners who prefer playing on white guilt for handouts to earning their way in America.

Kool-Aid Drinker: No, that speech really made people stop and think. Even conservatives like Huckabee said it was a great speech. That speech has got people talking and thinking about race in a deeper way. He's opened up a space for black and white and brown to talk to each other about the issue of race that did not exist before. He's helped move the conversation about race to a slightly higher level within the broad body politic. This speech was different.

Cynical Black Man: His speech showed that nothing is different. His speech was him telling America "I'm not an angry black man like Wright". His speech was saying to America "look, you know I've done everything I can to keep my blackness from scaring you or bothering you in any way. Now this Wright mess has gone and reminded you of the fact you have been working hard to ignore, which is I'm black. I'm asking you to go back to ignoring my racial identity." Now he's been tagged with the dominant white perception of blacks in America, a perception in which Condi and Colin are considered exceptions to the rule of Sharpton and Jesse. The speech is the political equivalent of the way that if I'm on a dark street and find myself walking behind a white women, I do things to ease her mind like staying in her eyeline so that she can always see me, or making a little more noise than neccesary so she can be aware of my movements, to prevent her from being fearful of me. Obama's speech is his way of doing that for the white electorate.

Coming soon: Kool-Aid & Cynic: The Comic Strip