Now that I’ve gotten everything else I wanted to say about Nader off my chest, I suppose it’s time to look at those comments of his about Obama. Reviewing this is an important exercise, as I indicated last night, for the chaos it produced, and because you’d have to have been paying pretty close attention to several factors, including Nader’s comments, how they were reported, and how Obama responded, to understand what is going on here. Oh yeah, and it probably helps to be familiar with black culture if you are white, and white culture if you are black. I spent a significant chunk of my childhood as a minority white in a Louisville projects, and a lot of my family members are black or mixed-racial. That’s the kind of experience-through-osmosis I’m talking about. It’s probably more accurately defined as poor culture, the most integrated culture in America.
It really is difficult in America to talk about race issues if you are white. There are reasons for that, including the fact that white people aren’t yet good at it because they don’t have much practice at it. It’s pretty much a taboo subject to really try to analyze as if you have any authority. And as a result of this inarticulate attempt at participating in the discussion, as white people, we run the risk of offending black people just by claiming any insight into the issues at all. That sometimes leads to being called racist, which is an especially hurtful, if somewhat understandable, charge to make, especially against someone who has actively worked for or supported Civil Rights, and has traditionally seen themselves as sympathetic to, and willing to do something about, the complaints of black Americans. We all saw this dynamic in play with Hillary this primary season, as Jesse Jackson, Jr. and Obama himself continued to cynically deploy strategies designed to unnecessarily incite racial tensions within the black community against a person who, by every account, has more of a record of serving black communities than Obama does.
So it is no wonder that Nader came off sounding racist, and he really did. He is unaccustomed to talking about race, because as a white person, especially an older white person, the topic has been pretty much verboten for him, except for declarations of solidarity in the heat of the fight against some common racist enemy. Not that I’m defending him, or making apologies for him, because lord knows, if he really felt the need to make those comments, he should have taken the time to be accurate and to account for the dynamic that occurs whenever white people talk about black issues.
Interestingly, the story got started in the Rocky Mountain News, with a report about an interview, but not the interview itself. It’s not apparent if the editors ever intend to publish the complete interview, which may or may nor put some things in context, or if they just interviewed Nader with the hope that the old white professional, so unfamiliar with common culture, would produce a few newsworthy gaffes. I do hope an answer to that is eventually provided, but I’m not holding my breathe or anything.
All that said, let’s look at the actual comments as reported, shall we? Here’s the very first paragraph out of the RMN report, provokingly enough titled Nader: Obama trying to “talk white”:
Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader accused Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic Party nominee, of downplaying poverty issues, trying to “talk white” and appealing to “white guilt” during his run for the White House.
What an opening, eh? We learn right off the bat that Nader is a racist who is accusing Obama. The gall! Racists shouldn’t be allowed to accuse anybody! Except that he wasn’t accusing anybody. As the third paragraph clearly says, he was providing answers in a wide-ranging interview, so more accurately, he was responding to a question, not accusing anybody. Did he tell the truth about Obama? I think he did on two of those three items, and on that third, he nearly got there. That third is where his own latent racism is actually on display. Let’s break it down point-by-point.
Downplaying poverty issues: If you read Obama’s first book, Dreams From My Father, you will know first and foremost that his claim to living in poverty as a child is a stretch, if not an outright lie after a point. It is true that he did live in relative poverty in Indonesia, relative to the US, that is. He was actually relatively well off by Indonesian standards, and his family grew more so. But he went to a private school for the privileged in the paradise of Hawaii for most of his childhood, and as a result was accepted into colleges and universities the likes of which common people like you and I can only dream about. I just mention it because his childhood, that woeful and misremembered history, is the foundation on which he lays his claims to fighting poverty.
One thing belies this claim, though, and provides the actual record of how he cares for the poor and works for them: His relationship with Rezko. In that relationship, he helped Rezmar, Rezko’s construction business, win bids for rehabbing 30 buildings in Chicago’s poor areas, including 11 in State Senator Obama’s own district. A few years later, as the company fell into financial trouble, Obama would find himself the beneficiary of a campaign contribution from the company, even though Rezmar claimed it didn’t have the money to restore heat to a 31-unit government-subsidized housing project on Chicago’s South Side. In January. In Chicago, for chrissakes. Simple translations: Obama cares more about getting ahead than doing what’s right by the poor, so much so that he’s willing to risk their very lives in order to do so. This is exactly the kind of thing Nader was inelegantly referring to.
Getting to the other correct and obvious point: appealing to white guilt. I think Obama did, by design. I think it’s what he means when he claims things like being aware early on that a black man who isn’t angry provides him an advantage, because it makes him non-threatening. I have always wanted the mic for just a second to ask him: Doesn’t this suggest that you think being angry is the problem? Not the fact that some whites are threatened by an honest display of emotion on behalf of person who resents the lack of privilege, privilege they see all around them?
Anyway, this dynamic is most evident in the O-bot, not that all Obama supporters are O-bots. The O-bots are the ones running around telling everyone how stupid they are not to support Obama, and how racist they are (they are actually projecting their own inner racism), and how Obama is so good for all of these reasons that have nothing to do with being a help to righting a leaning ship. Which is what this election calls for, and none of the candidates running now, not one, can do that, but that’s another post. No, for the O-bot it’s all about Hope and Change, and nagging worries about unity, and ignoring worries about Obama, like his authoritarian leanings as evidenced by his stance on the FISA bill. They have completely traded any semblance of rational thought for the “strategy” the Republicans used in 2000–offer an empty, inexperienced suit with a lot of skeletons but a pretty face and a religious message, and allow projection to do the work for them. They compound this insanity by being more Anybody But a Clinton that Republicans are. But most importantly, they are, almost to a person, largely lily-white.
When you can’t even rationally and accurately describe how your candidate is, in fact, the best one for America, don’t be surprised when people start attributing your shallowness to cultural dynamics like white guilt.
Sidebar: Another dynamic was in play as well–black guilt–which the Obama campaign employed when, for instance, it had Jesse Jackson, Jr. asking black Missouri Representative Emmanuel Cleaver if he “wanted to go down in history as the one person to prevent a black from winning the White House.”
Finally, getting to the actual display of racism: “Talking white.” The truth in this one is simple. Obama doesn’t “talk white.” He is white. While he was raised in the cultural melting pot that is Hawaii, all of his early influences were white, until Lolo came along. And Lolo didn’t manage to keep making the grade for Stanley Ann. But I digress. What I mean to say is that Obama talks white because he was raised by white people. It’s actually when he’s talking black that he’s being disingenuous, and I believe this is what Nader was actually picking up on, though he’s not culturally integrated enough to articulately voice it.
Nader’s racism is evident because if he had been paying attention since Obama emerged on the national scene in 2004, and watched as Obama’s persona changed this entire election season based on the racial make up of the crowd, he would have known that Obama most often “talks white.” And that he started “talking black” right after New Hampshire, and in preparation for South Carolina and the rest of the southern states. I call it the Obama Southern Strategy, and find it every bit as offensive as Nixon’s. This goes along with the Wilentz school of thought on what actually went down this primary season. Wilentz was himself cynically vilified as a racist as soon as this article was published, for the record.
But getting back to Nader, he assumes the wrong thing about Obama, because his privileged history informs him it is true that black folks all “talk black” and that when they “talk white,” they are mimicking as a way to exploit advantage in a predominantly white culture. But lazy thinking will not get you a cup of coffee. It will get you a label, and perhaps, in this case, a well deserved one. This is an expression of racist sentiment. Those are the facts. But that doesn’t mean that we should discard the nuggets of truth in each of Nader’s claim, that we should dismiss his non-racists truths because of his racist expression.
I could go over the rest of Nader’s remarks, but this post is already long, and I’ve hit the most important parts. Suffice it to say that he pretty much nailed Obama on the list of issues he’s been inactive on, except he made an error regarding asbestos, the evidence for which is in Obama’s first book. Obama did once try to get some community folks to fight back on asbestos in their apartment buildings, but that decision had some significant fall-out precisely because Obama doesn’t understand, and doesn’t want to understand, poor culture.
Obama’s response is telling in and of itself. Asked about the remarks in yesterday’s news conference, Obama replied that he thought Nader wanted attention and used smears to get it. That is a cynical non-answer, and does nothing to respond to the legitimate criticism Nader offered. That’s because the Obama campaign is trying to make an art of placing all criticism beyond reach by labeling it “racist.” It’s what they’ve done to Nader here in order not to have to answer. They’re rolling out new initiatives in this effort every day. For instance, it’s now racist to say Obama is unqualified because of his lack of experience and his weak record. You’re even a racist if you say he’s too liberal.
There will be consequences to pay for this cynical manipulation of white and black guilt and race relations in this country, and I would bet money those consequences include confusing the issue so much that cultural resolution of race issues will take more time. The misapprehension of poor culture is an oversight that will resurface in the future, playing out like a land mine you planted yourself, and then forgot about, only to end up blowing off your own leg with your own bomb. Resentments will continue to build. If we are to fight against it, we must be willing to take risks and discuss these things out in the open, without caring if people mislabel us racist for it. And we must do it without being afraid to identify racism when it works against our side, as I did here with Nader. Everybody in this country has a right to discuss these issues openly and fairly, and it behooves us to go ahead and do so. It’s our only hope for healing.