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Theology after Obama--what does race have to do with it? A racial prolegomenon to American theological production in the twenty-first century.

My concern in this essay is one of challenging North American Chris tianity concerning the ways our racialized history continues to influence and impede our national aspirations toward democracy and justice. In lifting up this concern, my focus is not primarily one of identifying strictly theological issues for strictly theological purposes, but one of making clear the degree to which race continues to dominate perception and broker behavior both inside and outside the church, even in supposedly "post-racial" America. In my short 60 years on the planet--moving broadly through church circles of all kinds--growing up Presbyterian, born-again evangelical at age 19, charismatic renewal "disciple" for decades, 15-year member of Episcopal Church of the Messiah on Detroit's near east side, Roman Catholic seminary trained, University of Chicago schooled, (not ordained) Disciples of Christ pastor/preacher for a year, poet-performer for 3 years for the downtown United Methodist Church in Motown--and simultaneously spending 9 years in the business world and another 15 years teaching for six different universities/colleges--I have yet to notice any generalized difference between Christian whites and secular whites in handling race. My concern then is not so much to tease out relevant theological themes as to outline racial meanings for theological consideration. In such a project, "God-talk" is secondary and after the fact. What first must be grasped is an underground tsunami of our time, only one of whose tributaries is conscious articulation. How the Spirit is moving inside of such remains a task of discernment possible only on the other side of plunging into the waters.

Framing the situation

In his recent book entitled The Backlash, Philadelphia News writer Will Bunch elaborates a tripartite rationale for the recent emergence of the Tea Party into the role of public adjudicator of political speech. Whatever actual electoral successes might ensue in coming elections, Bunch argues, Tea Party-ers have already proven potent in shifting public debate onto the terrain of right-wing concerns for "things American" by amalgamating rank-and-file conservative anger and panic with talk radio and social networking jingoism under the rule of vulture capitalism, "ever-circling" in search of popular means to further a big-business agenda (Bunch 2010). While reason three (big-capitalist "prescience" in funding rabid hucksterism and supporting Tea Party rancor) occupies much of Bunch's attention, the undercurrent of anger and fear that anchors the amalgam will command consideration here. Anti-racist activist Tim Wise has written extensively on the way the continuing subtext of race, in the United States, serves as an ever-looming portent useful for segmenting shared interests and organizing popular resentment into political sentiments and behavior actually at odds with popular interest (Wise 2010). The interest in this essay is precisely at the point where anxiety meets elocution.

It is no mystery that Obama's own party heads into a new election season laboring under an enthusiasm-deficit. Its own tacit covenant with corporate interest and mainstream mentality in securing electability required foreswearing strong shows of oppositional emotion. Obama as "icon of the new" could never step free from the deep shadow of our continuing struggle with race in this country. He remained intimately tethered to the great shibboleth of popular terror in the political imaginary: a public black man armed with both political power and historical anger. Gaining access to the top office of power required a clear and public repudiation of black indignation. As Wise has argued, Obama had to package himself as post-racially "pale" to have any chance of securing the mainstream support necessary to ascend the steps of the accurately named "White" House (Wise 2009). That pallor is the subject of this writing.

But as already indicated, the theological interest animating the text is one that works the intersection between word and energy, the place where palaver and passion intertwine to determine political destiny. In teasing out the argument that in many ways race today remains the most potent political fulcrum to manage "democracy" in service of what Citibank in a 2005 memo to investors called the newly emergent "plutonomy," I will focus on two moments of explicitly racialized public discourse with implicit theological significance that "bookend" the Obama ascendency. I will argue that the controversy around Jeremiah Wright during the primary campaign defined Obama's political currency in no uncertain terms. And the Andrew Breitbart attack on Shirley Sherrod in 2010 acted as exculpatory sanction for the Tea Party momentum organizing white rancor in utterly clear resolution to "take back the country" from its control by a racialized "other." The analysis here focuses on these two moments as metaphoric "iceberg tips," briefly exposing to sunlight the vast underbelly of cold whiteness that poses the true danger to the ship of state. Or said more prosaically, here in these two events the work of racial hegemony in manufacturing consent on top of inchoate longings and inarticulate angers that themselves remain implicit and intransigent becomes visible and revelatory. At issue in each, I contend, is the imprecatory force of the term "racism," as it has found employment largely in the direction of a "reverse" predication in recent public parlance.

Archetypal Obama

Before attending to such, however, it is worth tracking briefly, in phenomenological outline, the degree to which Obama is made to sum up politically useful "otherness" in contemporary political discourse. He becomes less a clear personality than a cipher and "place-holder" for agendas historic and resurgent. In keeping with the post-civil rights anxiety about blatant racial predication, color-blind racism today operates largely in terms of euphemism and code. As Detroit NAACP leader Horace Wheeler recently intoned in a conference in Motown grappling with the "Wright effect" on campaign fortunes, the landscape of significant racial reference today is organized under a triune bogey, simultaneously invoked and masked as "criminal," "illegal," and terroristic." That these terms today are explicit legal code for, respectively, "black," "Latino," and "Muslim" antagonists in the national morality play is patent, policing--figuratively and literally--"the other" within, at the border, and across the water. The slippage between each code and its reference is two-way and elusive, mobilizing racial stereotypes at unspoken or even unconscious levels of association, and in the same dazzling instant, reversing directions as innocent evocation or merely empirical comment. But it is also not recondite that each legal term mobilizes massive bureaucratic constituencies whose continuance in power is not separate from the "threats" those institutions are mandated to manage.

For instance, the steadily privatizing prison-industrial complex has mushroomed from an inmate populace of 300,000 in 1970 to a world-leading 2 million today--most of the increase coming from "criminalization" of inner-city youth on minor drug charges--while rural communities vie with one another to host prisons in their midst to increase employment prospects. Immigration and customs enforcement, working at cross and coordinated purposes with business interest in importing temporary labor on the cheap, catches the desperately disenfranchised victims of globalizing Latin American economies in a form of cross-border "whipsaw," whereby "illegal" status ensures incapacity to organize or otherwise seek legal redress from slave-labor work conditions and wages. And of course. Defense Department aggrandizement--as indeed defense industry profitability and the rampantly burgeoning private-contractor outsourcing--requires the prosecution of wars of either high or low intensity, against enemies "keefa-ed" or "burqua-ed" in "terroristic" mystery, to keep the U.S. population committed to military development and "green-zone" colonialism, as detailed, among many others, by the likes of a Chalmers Johnson (2004).

But criminalized "blackness," Latin "illegality," and a terroristically imagined Islam are not merely ad hoc racializations generated at the intersection of contemporary bureaucratic needs and popularized misinformation. They each have roots deep in the history of Euro-American relationships with others (the slave trade, the 1846 invasion and conquest of Mexico, and the reconquista of Spain from Islam only completed in 1492). Those political economy projects of racial othering were also theological projects structuring the deep text of whiteness in a long historical process whose transmutations are too complicated to trace here, but whose social undercurrents and explicit politics have never ceased to organize economic access, erotic imagination, or spiritual aspiration ever since.

Against just such a background, the currency of these tropes of race today is griping. Amazingly convenient is the degree to which Obama, in certain right-wing fantasy, has become the emblem of aspects of each. Under the "halo" of skin tone--despite half-white ancestry--he is unquestionably identified as "black" with all the easy slippage toward popular meanings of "African jungles" and "witch-doctor savagery" that association has never ceased to imply. In birth status--no matter the extant certificate--Obama is recurrently decried as outside the law in his claim to citizenship or eligibility for the Office. And by the name of Hussein, he is continuously cast as a Muslim "plant," poised to wreak serious havoc on our revered way of life. While not blatantly shouted down under any of the explicit code-terms, in Tea Party signs at rallies, the depictions are figuratively unmistakeable. Yes, he also is made to harbor hated meanings of highbrow elitism, anti-capitalistic socialism, and gun-control liberalism. But it is the racial undertow that energizes the tides of anger and focuses the force of the ressentiment.

It is no grand insight that times of economic disenfranchisement issue--almost invariably, it seems--in a ramped-up search for scapegoats. The reaction of course finds its archetype in Nazi Germany, but has been intricately theorized in ritual studies and the work on violence by Rene Girard, among others, and shows up in multiple theaters of action and exchange (Girard 1979). That popular angst in our time would find compelling focus in a central political incumbent, rather than a marginalized minority like Jews or "gypsies," is perhaps unique, though. But here it is imperative to keep in mind recent research unearthing the degree to which the centuries-long history of race in this land of the free and home of the brave has imbedded itself deep inside American brain chemistry.

Unconscious racism

Philip Goff, social psychiatrist at UCLA, for instance, offers evidence for the operation of a "racism without racists," joining other researchers in arguing that racial discrimination today is most insidious not among those who openly espouse their bias, but among the well-meaning majority who believe themselves free from prejudice, but nonetheless continue to show preference for whites over blacks in hiring experiments where all other things are held equal (Bonilla-Silva 2006, Goff and Eberhardt 2005). John Dovidio weighs in with studies of "aversive racism," tracking the role of inchoate doubt in complex decision making, where the energies of aversion are deflected away from a conscious employment of racial criteria onto less invidious reasons for preference such as lack of experience (Dovidio and Gaertner 2004). Yet other research--duplicated ad naseum over recent decades--indicates more than half of whites have unconscious biases that lead to discriminatory behavior, and even that blacks harbor such--toward blacks! A National Opinion Center survey from the 1990s uncovers a belief in at least one negative stereotype ("laziness," "inferior intelligence," or "proneness to violence") about blacks among more than 50% of whites, while an Anti-Defamation League study puts the figure at 75% (ADL 1993, Bobo 2004, Smith 1991). In more informal association exercises performed at conferences, Tim Wise corroborates the evidence, but with a public admission rate to negative stereotyping on the part of whites that approaches the 90% mark (Wise 2008). And that is "admitted" activity.

But the most formidable evidence emerges in connection with Implicit Association Tests, correlating racialized imagery with rapidity of associative thinking (participants asked to link faces with positive or negative words), or other tests flashing images before participants at rates that cannot be consciously processed, coupled with magnetic resonance machines tracking brain response (Feagan 2006, Wise 2010). Here the rate of bias is above 90%. The magnetic resonance imaging testing focuses on amygdala responses of "fight or flight"--the same piece of brain anatomy responsible for PTSD flashbacks or aggression. While such testing also indicates that the first line of defensive response at unconscious levels of chemistry can be overcome if the imagery is slowed down to allow for involvement of the anterior cingulate cortex and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, the profile is patent. Racial bias toward blacks is ingrained in most white brains at the deepest levels of primitive response, as indeed black bias toward whites. But of course, the key difference here is recognition of which group has their hands on the levers of institutional power to translate such deep-seated antipathy into discriminatory action and social positioning that advantages their group at the expense of--indeed, because of--others. This is perhaps the most critical realization about race: that white advantage depends upon black (and brown and yellow and red) disadvantage.

The evidence of asymmetry is undeniable. A simple litany will have to suffice here for what is historically a complex and interconnected system. Two to three million cases of housing discrimination per year against people of color (McCoy and Vincent 2008). Discriminatory health care provided by the industry--according to its own studies (on top of the higher disease incidence rates across virtually every measure that reflect the life consequences of "racialized stress"--the duress of living under a racist domination structure) (Wise 2010). A job discrimination rate affecting 1.3 million people of color per year, involving 1/3 of all businesses and translating, in recent years, into an increasing number of race-based discrimination complaints (Blumrosen and Blumrosen 1999). A median household net worth disparity of 11 to 1 as of 2007--now closer to 20 to 1 given the disparate rate at which people of color were targeted by predatory sub-prime lenders and foreclosed in the "bust" of 2008--reflecting 33 years of federally promulgated racial red-lining followed by de facto segregation of the housing market (and thus stagnation of house values in neighborhoods of color leveraged by white avoidance of such areas) (CPR 2003). An educational system, disparately funded between inner city and suburban districts, regularly "tracking" disproportionate percentages of young people of color into remedial paths that usually end in low-wage service work, military "employment," or prison Lipman 2004). A criminal justice system functioning, as Michelle Alexander has recently demonstrated, as "the new Jim Crow," targeting young offenders of color with minor drug charges for plea-bargained sentences, thereafter stigmatizing such as a largely unemployable "caste" of expendables, ineligible for federal support in housing or education, vulnerable to garnishment proceedings to pay for the original incarceration time, left with recidivism as their only option (Alexander 2010). Within each bureaucratic complex of organization, the machinations of discrimination unfold in ever-finer grained modes of representation--re-arranging access, controlling opinion, constraining decision making, and reinforcing perception of racial stereotypes--in an almost irresistible machinery of social "prophecy" made to fulfill itself.

But all of this summation is background for the point to be elaborated here. Against such a generalized horizon of the purchase of racial perception on national life, Obama functions as a living lightning rod for the charged up content of the national psyche. As manufacturing continues to de-industrialize urban centers through automation and outsourcing, and finance capital finesses the Federal Reserve system into ever more exotic schemes of re-arranging public monies into private coffers (through the mortgage debacle, hedge fund backing of charter schools and privatized colleges, the marketing of credit card debt as the new "commodity" of choice, etc.), increasing numbers of middle-and working-class whites are facing starkly reduced expectations or dire situations of unemployment, bankruptcy, and foreclosure. The violated sense of relative entitlement finds its most provocative irritant in a chocolate President, who is also academic, liberal, authorial, and formal. But also useful for the likes of Koch brothers Charles and David and Rupert Murdoch, as Bunch lays bare.

As the new face of government spending and federal regulation, Obama's visage offers umbrage for all manner of elite bait and switch tactics. The bait is the skin tone and its historic associations--a classic hook into the racist panic stored in the amygdala treasury of things terrifying. The switch, of course, is the barrage of policy initiatives and/or details that further free big capital at the expense of mainstreet and the working class. Within this frame of reference, the Tea Party is perhaps nothing so much as a sacrificial bull, already angered by the pricks of economic loss and cultural threat, charging with intense focus at the wildly waving cape of Obama's face, unable to distinguish the real matadors from the falderal of a Glenn Beck or a Rush Limbaugh. But it is a spectacle offering a parable. The welding together of a simmering racial anger with a big-money policy-aim requires continuous maintenance in the theater of "common sense."

The elective affinity between popular anxiety over real economic loss and historic white rage is not simply a tautology. Again and again in the history of the country, the possible alliance between working-class whites and blacks around shared economic vulnerability has provoked elite class intervention. Whether in early forms of "motley solidarity" such as the "tri-cultural isolate" amalgam of slave "maroons" making common cause with Native Americans and disaffected whites (the Seminole Indians is perhaps the classic example), or the late 1880s coming together in the South of free blacks and poor whites in a Populist Party initiative acting against planter class rule rooted in former slave plantations, or the growing melange of grass-roots activists of color articulating their anti-globalization struggles with small farming interests and labor unions in the Social Forum movement--social marginalization does not immediately and automatically translate into racial antipathy. The latter "achievement" requires public work, usually in the form of ritualized sanction. Certainly lynching contributed such in the Jim Crow South, soliciting and "resolving" poor white rage and middle-class angst in a climatic picnic atmosphere of collective jouissance that was simultaneously public pedagogy. In our contemporary atmosphere of popular disenfranchisement (and likely the beginning dissolution of the "American Empire"), I want to camp out before the "media-lynching" of Jeremiah Wright and "job-lynching" of Shirley Sherrod, to tease out the role of racialized communication in mobilizing generalized rancor in service of politics. More precisely, I want to suggest that alternative "white" media (talk radio combined with social networking amplification) effectively "conjured" black anger (Wright) and black laughter (the NAACP reception of Sherrod's narrative) onto the surface of the body politic at crucial junctures of our public process to "monkey-wrench" race in support of white hegemony and capitalist business-as-usual.

Wright's "Wrong"

In retrospect, the staging of Jeremiah Wright's half-decade-old sermons for national consumption in the midst of the 2008 Democratic primary campaign could be said to have constituted a rite of "white" initiation for Obama, demanding a painful public gymnastic of "passing" for a body too dark to accomplish such unaided. The sound-byte-send-ups ("God damn America!" "America took this land by terror from the Indians!" "America's chickens are coming home to roost!" etc.), circulated relentlessly like a religious white chant of "gotcha now, black man!" (directed at Obama's election bid) and attended by palpable glee among the white punditry, vilified not only Wright, and his south-side Chicago church, but an entire tradition of black preaching that cannot be dismissed merely as old school hyperbole. Drum-roll-like repetition of the clips' characterization as "hatred," "racism," and "anti-Americanism" sought simultaneously to open up the subject and close down any real examination of the issue. Arguably, this was not news as much as public liturgy.

I remember the daily routine for my Filipina wife and I, against our better lights, returning from teaching each day that spring, to sit fulminating and pained before the nightly spectacle (though our particular outrage was directed differently than what the screen ventriloquized). For months, the media fetishization of the long Democratic nomination process had churned up every least gesture and word--legitimately associated with the candidates or not--for daily drama and spicy titillation, like a postmodern bread and circuses routine, feigning ultimate consequence, trumpeting significance, demanding obeisance as if any other consideration of life must be laid at its altar of things important. So "lay" we did. And certainly the sudden advent of Wright's homiletic bombast was, at one level, not surprising. As already discussed, there are few hot buttons like race, in the American national psyche, to trigger instant vitriol and inebriating soliloquies of inanity! Keenly aware as our household is of the media as money-making machine, it was anything but astonishing that an ages-old talisman appeared, held up like a fetish-mask to draw out "evil" and exorcise its menace--all while increasing ratings dramatically! The icon of angry black man is immensely useful! Not surprising either was the fact that even though it was right-wing chanters of all things salacious that got the clip rolling in the first instance, it was the mainstream, so-called liberal-leaning voices who most vitriolically reiterated the unthought rant--again and again and again.

That a pastor's lifelong efforts to remedy south-side Chicago suffering and struggle could be served up like a burnt offering for national entertainment and entrainment, with nary a question of accurate representation or deeper investigation, for my wife and I, was a revelation not of Wright but of the country at large. America. Equally telling, for us, was the National Press Club grilling of Wright on the Monday morning (April 28) after his first public appearances (on Bill Movers the Friday before and at a Detroit-hosted NAACP gathering the night before) since the video clips had begun circulating. The griller, as it turned out, had not ever heard the whole sermon in question--even though the Movers interview had made it nationally available in that Friday telecast! (But then she was undoubtedly an exception. The rest of the punditry--and country--had listened carefully and weighed reasonably the content and cadence of the message in its congregational context--right?)

What was most overwhelming in those moments of watching was the seemingly unassailable triumph of sound byte vision that seemed to peer out through the typical talking-head eyeball like a national cult of spirit-possession. Its myth was freedom of thought. Its "reason" was the rapid-fire repetition of the latest epic assertion that America has ever been unassailably innocent. Its most trigger-happy emotion was the militant rage mobilized in a millisecond at any criticism of the nation. Wright's assertion of a patently central evangelical principle (that the God of the bible condemns--damns!--any violence visited on the vulnerable no matter who the perpetrator) was met with, among those commentators most "evangelically" persuaded, utter vilification (behind which stood death threats)! But in all the spin from all the liberal experts, much less the shrill Buchananesque voices, no other argument was heard than ad hominem attack. Wright's actual claim was never disputed.

Undoubtedly, that is because the histoiy is as clear as it is relentless. America visited genocide on its native peoples, created its early wealth on the back of ruthless enslavement, killed half a million Filipinos in taking over its first colony, propped up dictators galore since the beginning of the twentieth century to secure corporate access to coerced labor and cheap resources throughout the Western Hemisphere (Nicaragua, Haiti, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Chile, El Salvador, Panama are only the most flagrant in a litany of intervention that scrolls like the credits after a blockbuster movie), cooperated with the World War I dividing up of the Middle East in the name of oil, used the helpless population of Grenada for target practice in preparation for Desert Storm, while the latter unfolded as a high-tech "drive-by" aimed at containing its own hegemon, Saddam, armed with the biological weapons supplied to him by us to face-down Iran for us, when he went rogue over oil in Kuwait and threatened the House of Saud, initiated sanctions for a decade knowingly consigning more than one-and-a-half million Iraqis to early graves (half of whom were children), before unleashing the latest version of "shock and awe" to funnel, one more time, U.S. tax dollars to U.S. corporations like Halliburton and Bechtel by way of a war zone, and continues to back illegal and UN-condemned Israeli occupation of Palestine at great cost to Semitic lives rendered "Arabic" and thus "expendable." This history of ruthless imperialism and rabid globalization never gets commentary or even denial because it is simply true. The media response is rather high-decibel vituperation of any such litany of fact as "extremist hatred"--never actual address of the reality.

But Wright was (and is) simply right--in both his precision and his passion. To merely list the massive damage would miss the meaning. Anger alone is adequate to the teeming--indeed incomprehensible--numbers of crushed bodies, dismembered children, widowed women, ravaged environments, bulldozed cultures and forests, and zom-bified populations reduced to living an incessant nightmare as menial labor for the global market. It is not that America is alone in occasioning these conditions for so many of the world's peoples--far from it. But it is unassailably true that America is no exception! It is also true that since the end of World War II, America holds the lion's share of both power and responsibility. That America has never fully looked itself in the eye and owned its own bloody hands is also indisputable--it has never had to!

But in the eye of a Jeremiah Wright--and a thousand other dark faces, preaching without flinching and refusing to mince the words--America has again and again been offered an opportunity to see. So far it has chosen rather to quarantine or kill than come to maturity. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., any one of thousands upon thousands of quickly or slowly lynched bodies of dark resistance to the self-certain supremacy of white ways of naming things could have been the occasion for a cessation of denial and the hard but honorable work of national maturation. The quintessence of the humanizing "turnabout" (whether coded "religious" or "secular") that America has never yet ceased to avoid with a vengeance is confronting its founding "sin": the colossal hubris of using racial denigration to rationalize ongoing plunder. American middle-class lifestyle sits on a pile of commodities and garbage whose real economic condition is contraband, stolen at the point of gun. That we have more than 1000 bases or base-like installations in more than 150 countries around the globe is not for the sake of the well-being of others!

But woe be--literally damned!--the one who dares name such theologically in any public forum with the kind of acrobatic finesse and diss-rhyme duress of a Wright-like brilliance, such as he exhibited in the moment when on the spot before the Press Club. As he himself growled, in so many words, at the time--"they chose the wrong man to play this game with; I have been trained by a lifelong tradition of dozens-playing, from boyhood banter to adult rancor: where I come from, we do this for fun!" The combination of attitude and eloquence--face pontificating hilariously on top of the hard-hitting word-spitting--made the barb unbearable. "I'm unpatriotic? I spent 6 years in the military! How many years did Cheney serve!" It could not be dissimulated or side-stepped. It struck home. And, for this writer, that is exactly what white power needs in order to come to its own healing ... if it would ... if we would. And some of us indeed have begun. But the country at large insists rather on perpetuating its grandiose narcissism. It is uncanny how much the charges laid on Wright all along the way were so much projection. Racist hatred! Unpatriotic extremism! Egotism! Narcissism! If we (who are the majority) could actually set aside our terror at being discovered not to be innocent, and actually look at the clear history of our relations with the world's "others," we would find the pointing finger points at us. But I indeed dream. The chickens are coming, have come, home, no matter the volume of our histrionic "screedalism."

The real burden of my own white-faced lament here is in the word "lynching." Precisely such is what we witnessed in electronic form. It was promulgated by a postmodern posse using prime time privilege to round up the chosen darkie, hound him into a corner by means of insufferable lies, convene an instantaneous court of kangaroo opinion when he finally came out bellowing and strident in defense of honor and culture, then sit back in picnic-time glee when the more favored "negro" was coerced into kicking the stool out from under the roped-up body. Yes, it was virtual rather than physical. But the effect was the same: terror in the community. Watching the ritual "passage" of the would-be candidate in response, was agony. Obama's depressed demeanor and halt groping for almost unspeakable words of repudiation was enough to deflate an entire hurricane of hope in my household. And it served as utterly revelatory counterpoint to the "extreme-sports-like" joy irradiating CNN-MSNBC faces of pallor--a repudiation of the church daring to name the state in favor of the state silencing the church. The only thing more remarkable--and more telling--in the whole episode of outrageous white response to prophetic black anger was the by-line on the news that evening: "Obama hammers Wright!" The candidate did not have to exhibit even a thimbleful of the exaltation rampaging through white bellies to be credited nonetheless with "bombastic" defense of mainstream opinion. For the spin machine, the mere words themselves were enough to arch the toes in titillation! (And to enfold the possibility of change back inside the curtain of control.) White-shirted supremacy once again licking its lips over its latest stage production of black-on-black agony! It sure beat having to go rent Birth of a Nation!

But there is also a second thought here, a re-visiting of this debacle well after the fact. It is clear now in 2012 that Wright was not only pushed away from Obama, in what happened in the spring of 2008, but simultaneously brought near, and arguably left in the wings as a kind of shadow-cipher, "the other brother" in Civil Rights parlance (referring to Malcolm, if King's agenda be rejected), an offstage element of insurgent anger never far from the meaning of the pigment occupying the Office. Thus Glenn Beck could argue that under Obama policy (such as health care reform, of all things) is an ever-present specter of dark skin eager to gerrymander the policy in the direction of surreptitious reparations--and be believed by a significant percentage of the white population. This Obama-not-quite-removed-from-what-Wright-represents is then foil for a "take-back" agenda whose nostalgia runs from Reagan's "southern strategy," turning back the civil rights gains, to a Ron Paulesque reminiscence for unrestricted private sector practice, able to refuse anyone it wants in the process of doing business. How far back behind FDR this particular aim actually goes, among those like the Koch brothers or the Ruppert Murdocks, wielding their millions to fund the Party's parties, is not a pleasant suspicion to unfold.

Breitbart's bashing

Fast-forward 2 years to the emergence of a movement embodying broadly shared energies of disaffection that were given hyper-animation by the economic bust of 2008. The "R" word is once again being launched like a mortar across the political divide. The NAACP charges the Tea Party with tolerating racist elements in its ranks. Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart tries to return fire by claiming the NAACP does the same thing among its own ranks. Is the firestorm that ensued to be understood as a clear "tit for tat," a moment of high-stakes "gotcha," demonstration that all groups are equally liable to being racist in a supposedly post-racial nation with a playing field presumed to be level? If we take Breitbart to heart--as if his floating of the video-cut was innocent and ignorant (!) of its context, as he quickly claimed in the aftermath (he who prides himself on paying attention to context)--what are we to grasp from the comparison he trumpeted?

The NAACP's July 13, 2010 call to the Tea Party to take responsibility for the racist imagery attending its own public outings cited rather unmistakeable expressions. Among its more egregious examples--signs of various kinds at Tea Party rallies styling Obama--sometimes in blackface paint-up--as monkey, as bone-through-the-nose-African, as "long-legged mack daddy," as Muslim; uses of the n-word on a sign and flung verbally toward black congressional members at a March rally; and Tea Party leader Mark Williams' blog, ventriloquizing NAACP President Ben Jealous in an Ebonics rant offered back through time to a supposedly racist President Lincoln, protesting having to work for a living and longing for a return to the "easy gig" of slavery.

Breitbart's evidence, on the other hand, was a two-minute clip, of a black Department of Agriculture official's talk at a recent NAACP event, evoking gentle and knowing laughter at the moment the official describes her own brief temptation to retaliate for the racial violence her family had suffered growing up in the South. The moment bears extended analysis.

In recalling her own journey from more than twenty years earlier, Shirley Sherrod recounts having moved from the deep pain of losing a father to white supremacist violence (whose perpetrators were never brought to justice), through a moment of temptation as a private advocacy firm employee in 1986 not to use her full powers to help a white farmer save his farm, to her present stance as an Obama official. Of course, the full forty-three minutes of the tape gives a remarkable account of transformation, of refusing to be locked into a retaliatory stance toward whites, of, in fact, deciding to fully help the farming couple in question (whose gratitude remains lively all the way up to the present, as demonstrated in their public defense of her actions once her firing became news), indeed, of a life dedicated, at no small risk or cost, to working for racial reconciliation for more than a quarter century.

But Breitbart's reiterated concern was not Sherrod's behavior as much as the NAACP's own response. In an interview early in that week, he described the audience reaction to Sherrod's moment of temptation as "clapping," but in later interviews amended that to a charge of "laughing," when no clapping could be detected at that point on the tape. Subsequent interviews with Breitbart did not offer anything else to illuminate the implied comparison, so what were we to make of the jux-taposition of this laughter and Tea Party sign-waving?

Despite having been hipped to the full import of the tape, Breitbart continued to claim that a knowing chuckle in such an audience, greeting a rich narrative of change, offered in a group of folks who have undoubtedly wrestled with their own experiences of racial discrimination and violence, having as its import the overcoming of any resulting hatred or retaliatory response in kind remains the equivalent of a sign casting a black official in some of the crudest white supremacist symbols of our national history, attended by grins or clenched-jaw glares, asserting not transformation but more of the same. Of course, each bit of communication--murmured laughter in the NAACP audience and sign-and-grin in the Tea Party rally--are mere tokens of something much deeper and more characteristic of their respective crowds, that does require context and narration to interpret.

The context is patent: a three-century-long history of de facto white affirmative action, accumulating some two trillion dollars of wealth on the backs of enslaved black labor, circulated largely among white families by way of inheritance and benefiting white communities by way of differential access to the infrastructure created (schools, jobs, houses, insurance, mortgages, police protection, health care, legal counsel, etc.), underwritten by the long tenure of overt white supremacy and more recently by a supposedly color-blind neutrality that nonetheless continues to maintain (and in some cases even increase) wide racial disparities across every one of the aforementioned social goods. It is also a context most recently generating (legitimate, I think) Tea Party anger at bailouts and big spending, which has also disproportionately targeted families black and brown with predatory subprime loans (and thus foreclosure rates) yielding the largest rearrangement of wealth in our nation's history--in no small part from communities lower-income and of color into bank accounts white and well-off. But I am missing Tea Party anger at this latter.

In such a context, Sherrod's full speech supplies the requisite (and remarkable) narrative and the crowd's response to the whole offers "call-response" testament to its reception. But the deep question is why the disparity? Why the difference in the first place and why the increase in certain cases? Boiled down to their basics, there are only two possible kinds of answers. Either black folks (or other racialized groups) "create" their own situation of disadvantage (through biological or cultural inferiority as evidenced in a failure of personal agency) or it is something that is foisted upon them by others who have more power to control the institutional practices and outcomes at issue. Either "they" do it to themselves or they are caught in structural dynamics nearly impossible to resist. Over the top of a basic conviction about one or the other of these two kinds of explanation swirl all manner of posturings and vitriol.

But anyone convinced of the influence of institutional dynamics is at immediate disadvantage in public debate conducted through two-minute tapes and sound bytes. Sussing out the impact of structural forces requires sophisticated statistical and cybernetic analyzes about exercises of power elaborated over time. Indeed, "racism" as a term was coined in attempt to move national debate in the 1960s beyond simplistic invocations of mutually held bigotries, and bring questions of power asymmetries and bureaucratic coercions into the picture. Obviously, that move failed, as "racism" today, for the average pontificator in our national screaming match scarcely means anything more than "personal prejudice."

Neither the typical news consumer (or pundit, for that matter) nor the passionate adherent of a party platform is likely to dig underneath the most immediately compelling image and snarl of outrage to try to gain some appreciation for how bureaucratic chains of influence work (tracking in grade school increasing the likelihood of dropping out in high-school increasing the likelihood of drug-employment as a youth increasing the likelihood of prison as an adult increasing the likelihood of ...). Nor is there likely to be any recognition of the large-scale profits many links of the chain yield for various corporatized "players" positioned to capitalize on the resulting dilemmas (a political push for charter schools in poor communities yielding double-your-money investment returns through huge tax breaks and rents to Wall Street hedge funds; a gargantuan prison-industrial complex now the largest single employer in the country, yielding dividends to investors where incarceration has been privatized, and jobs to many rural white communities otherwise without economic prospect). That 70% of drug use in the country is by whites, while white incarceration on drug charges is only 10% of those jailed (and blacks and Latinos thus only 25% of users combined, but nearly 90% of those imprisoned for drug offenses) is of no moment for either the Breitbart crowd or mainstream media (CDCP 2006; SAMHSA 2003).

Large-scale social structural absurdities like these require way too much synthesis of complex processes for the average discussant. So our public debate rages on simplistically, continuously vulnerable to the loudest voice, the grimmest scowl, and the most penetrating augury of our historical storehouse of easy explanations. More blacks are in jail?--of course, everyone knows they are born criminal, or at least, born into a criminal environment! More whites have joined the billionaire club in recent years?--little question here why that is the case for the average white interlocutor (though of course, the vague certainty of entitlement based on a presumption of merit, rooted, ultimately in a taken-for-granted notion of Euro-American genetic and cultural superiority will not usually be explicitly invoked). And so the racial juggernaut rolls on, piling up ever more nuanced modes of translating racial stereotypes into economic advantage for those positioned to control the perceptions and anchor the practices in the national "common sense."

From this perspective, the term "racism" has not yet made it into our national vocabulary, except as a term already warped to reproduce what we think we already know. Its utility of revealing the way largescale social structure encodes and perpetuates relationships of power, translating racial perception into economic advantage, has never been broadly realized. Thus Andrew Breitbart can float a two-minute video tracking titterings of laughter at an NAACP gathering, purporting that such a moment represented reverse racism. After all, Sherrod had institutional power over a white farmer!

But not only did Breitbart fail to do justice to the narrative of transformation and reconciliation actually offered, he in no way situated his claim in relationship to the broader outline of race in our day. The signs on the Tea Party rally portraying Obama as monkey have everything to do with the continuing history of disparities referenced in a statistic like a 20 to 1 net worth ratio between white and black families. How would NAACP laughter at the conference--even forgetting about context--"explain" that inequity? Blacks as a group are not, and never have been, in power over, or advantaged at the expense of, whites as a group in the history of this country. Quite the opposite--by indices large and small, all the way up to the present! Breitbart's attempt to mask such, by claiming blacks are as racist as whites, is a reprehensible effort at disinformation about the actual situation at hand. It can be construed as itself racist. It hides inequity under a disingenuous proclamation of equality, forcing one to conclude by inference that whatever actual inequity does exist could only be a consequence of personal failure. Which is precisely one of the ways racism reasons in order to legitimize its advantages!

Conclusion

But the real object of the Breitbart broadside was not actually white reasoning so much as white emotion. It worked the opposite side of the affective spectrum from the Wright send-up, but with no less potent consequence. Here it was laughter that was in the dock rather than anger--but the exhibition of the tittering had calculated effect. Whatever the outcome of the exchange between the dueling punditries, the chagrined and repentant politicos, the chastened activists, and the offended and ready-to-sue victim, the sound of many black tongues chuckling undoubtedly found a hearing in that already inflamed white amygdala. Where a Jeremiad of anger might augur terror and histrionics, tittering levity surely registered as indignation and a "how-dare-they" resolve to fight and be rid of the offending uppity-ness. That a black audience should find polite delight in a black woman wrestling with whether to get over on a white man, simply because for once, she could--what has the world come to?! Intolerable! Blink an eye, and we will be enslaved (after all, we did it to them, surely they will be just like us and want to return the favor)! Whether or not the charge of racism leveled by Breitbait could be made to stick did not matter in the least. What was of eminent political value was the spectacle of the soft laughter. It pricked the covert supremacy like a goad and loaded into it yet another image for offense. Between the wrong of Wright and the audacity of Sherrod, an entire river of churning outrage found the requisite channels to become a flood. How vast the inundation-to-come, and how in-discriminant the damage, now remains to be seen.

In the face of such, how shall mainstream theology speak? Will it continue its historic role as acolyte to the operative supremacy? Or will it take its cue from courageous figures (like Wright and Sherrod) offering prophetic clarity and long-term resolve, allow itself to be initiated into an alternative current of pain and beauty, and speak a new word?

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Author:Perkinson, James W.
Publication:Cross Currents
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Date:Mar 1, 2012
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