Right after Hillary Clinton won the Pennsylvania primary, the pundits were busy dissecting the supposed “failure” of Senator Obama. The main question: “Why Can’t Obama Close the Deal?” Which means, given his big lead and his momentum coming out of the February and March primaries, why can’t he finish off Hillary?
The metaphor, of course, suggests that a presidential nomination is some sort of gunfight at the DC corral. But the metaphor notwithstanding, the reason Obama can’t eliminate his rival is simple: it’s called Racism. This nation always has, and arguably always will be the most racist nation on the planet. And by racism, I am talking specifically about racism against African Americans. The other forms of racism—against Asians and Hispanics and Pacific Islanders and East Indians and American Indians—can, and eventually will recede if not disappear. But the fundamental racism against those who were brought here from Africa as slaves, all the Emanicipation Proclamations and voters’ rights acts and affirmative action programs notwithstanding, persists to this day. It persists in patterns of living, it persists in patterns of education, it persists in the degree of punishment for crime, it persists in longstanding, deep-seated attitudes that are as American as apple pie.
Barack Obama thought he could transcend all this. He thought that his half-white background, his distinguished record at America’s most prestigious university, his stunning ability to speak the language of white folks better than they can themselves speak it, would neutralize all this. He thought that by not exploiting his blackness to garner votes, he could rise above petty racial politics and disarm the racists he must have known still existed in droves. And in a certain sense, and with a younger, more educated electorate, he has succeeded in this. At least partly.
Sadly, he ran into middle America. And middle Americans, not to mention southern and western Americans, have by no means risen above their instinctive racism. Which is to say, their resentment that some uppity Harvard-educated black man—and the one percent doctrine still holds for most Americans, i.e. if you’ve got even one percent African in your genes, you’re black—could actually lay claim to the American throne heretofore reserved for not just whites, but whites of a certain northern European background and skin tone. Preferably with names of only one syllable: Bush, Gore; or maybe two: Clinton, Johnson, Carter, Nixon. But Obama. Lord almighty, how could the Whitest of Houses contain a trisyllabic, fear-evoking name like that?
The proof of this, if proof is needed, lies in the numbers. Hillary Clinton has won every large state with a strong rural or powerful working-class population: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, New York, New Jersey, and California (large parts of which derive, ultimately, from southern states.) They are also states that harbor immigrants and their children—those who have always been able to derive some comfort from the fact that, though they may be low on the class totem pole, at least they can always look down upon that population which remains permanently below them. To have a representative of that population now lay claim to the highest office in the land is simply too much to bear. He must be brought down. And if Hillary fails to knock him off his horse, we can bet that the Republicans—whose entire winning strategy, from at least the time of Nixon, has been predicated on winning these very same rural and working-class southern and Midwestern voters—will prove only too eager to play their favorite election game, race baiting. Think George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ads. Think Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens.”
All this gives the lie to the constant protestations by American conservatives of their patriotic veneration for our founding documents: the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, the Declaration’s ringing phrase that “all men are created equal.” For when it comes to the privacy of the presidential voting booth, the phrase that really counts is the add-on by Orwell in Animal Farm:
“…but some are more equal than others.”
Anything that challenges, in a fundamental way, that “more equal” status will be met with savagery. And, as we have seen with the Jeremiah Wright ads, it already has.
To be sure, hope springs eternal. America could still right itself, redeem itself. But at this point, it seems to me, ‘closing the deal’ is going to take a miracle.
I saw Rev. Jeremiah Wright on Bill Moyers’ Journal last night. First of all, he struck me as an admirable figure—intelligent, passionate, and totally dedicated to his improving his people’s welfare (not to mention the fact that, unlike the Bush administration’s chicken hawks, this man served his country as a Marine for many years before becoming a pastor). Part of that dedication takes the form of his sermons, which educate his congregants about the truth of their past, and the truth of their country’s past. It’s an education that more white people should attend to. Then perhaps, they might not react to Wright’s passionate utterances—the 9/11 chickens coming home to roost; god damn America, etc.—with such condemnation. They might come to realize that though he sometimes lets his rhetoric go over the top, in its essentials Wright’s analysis of the African American condition, as well as the U.S. role in spreading misery both at home and around the globe, is spot on. America has gone around the world acting as if it can dominate and exploit every other nation and its people. It has assassinated or brought down democratically elected leaders in Chile, Iran, Iraq, Panama, Guatemala and elsewhere. It has bombed and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocents along the way, most recently in Iraq. This is what Wright meant by “chickens coming home to roost.” It is what he meant when he said “God damn America,” because for anyone who believes in a god, and that god’s commitment to justice, the statement would have to be credited. Perhaps that’s why it raised such a storm: those who found it offensive may have sensed the justice within it, and found the logical consequences of such divine justice too awful to contemplate. And so, like all who find the truth too mighty to bear, they choose to cling to their illusions and condemn the messenger. Which tactic might work for a while, might work to keep Obama in the Senate for a few more years and consign his pastor to the outer fringes, but it won’t work forever. Sooner or later, we’re all going to have to face those chickens.