Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Moving Dialogue Forward: Obama and a New Post-Racial (Postmodern) Politics

Reading lately about the persistent refusal of some fellow citizens to entertain the possibility of an African-American president makes me wonder how, when, whether the “problem” of race in American society can be resolved. I’m feeling frankly hopeless as the campaign rolls on and some voters become less coy about their hidden racism. Given the dismal performance of Mr. Bush measured against any scale of values imaginable, I had hoped that churched voters, in particular, would turn away from the party whose “values” this president has been exemplifying—for the sake of the very values they claim to hold so dear.

It doesn’t seem to be happening. Though what happened with Hurricane Katrina decisively exposed the current administration’s total lack of commitment to “pro-life” values,* there’s growing evidence that many Catholics will once again vote Republican in the coming election. That stalwart (and moribund) organization of graying middle-American Catholic businessmen, the Knights of Columbus, just met in Québec, and its Supreme Knight gave a rousing speech that stopped only a whisker short of endorsing Mr. McCain.

The speech of Carl Anderson, the Supreme Knight, reiterated the tired old talking points that have many heartland Catholics voting Republican in recent years: talking points about how Catholics must vote on the basis of a handful of “non-negotiable” stances such as resistance to abortion and gay marriage. These talking points have been adroitly manipulated by right-wing political leaders (and by many bishops) in recent years to give Catholic voters the impression that their only morally justifiable option is to vote Republican. Anderson’s speech is already being touted on Christian right websites as a call for a Catholic revolt against Obama (see, e.g., www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2008/aug/08080703.html).

And the strategy seems to be working. Last week, Zogby International reported that Obama’s previous lead over McCain among Catholic voters has now been reversed. McCain is leading among Catholics by a margin of 50 to 34% (see www.catholicnewsagency.com/new.php?n=13455).

Though those interpreting the trending of Catholic voters towards Obama are stressing in particular the influence of McCain’s commitment to “non-negotiable” values—and that influence certainly should not be discounted—I think that another factor needs to be considered, to account for the trending of voters of churches of the radical middle towards McCain. This factor is racism, plain and simple. And it needs to be discussed, though media analysts are doing all they can to sing and dance around the ugly reality that racism persists in American culture, including American churches, and that the response of churches of the radical middle to the sin of historic racism is all too often faint, equivocal, and useless.

Last Sunday’s New York Times ran an outstanding op-ed piece by Charles Blow entitled “Racism and the Race,” in which Blow argues that we see the race between Obama and McCain in a dead heat for one reason and one reason alone: this is race (www.nytimes.com/2008/08/09/opinion/09blow.html). As Blow notes, though many voters are ashamed to acknowledge how much race skews their political choices, strong empirical data predict that even among voters who will not admit being swayed by race, the choices voters make in the privacy of the voting booth have everything to do with the skin color of the candidate for whom they are voting.

It’s high time we acknowledge this. And do something about it. And in my humble opinion, though our churches ought to be leading the way in the process of social healing, they are not doing so, for the most part, and will never do so. With notable exceptions (I think, for instance, of the current initiative of the United Church of Christ for a nationwide Sacred Conversation on Race: see www.ucc.org/sacred-conversation), the churches of Main Street USA simply do not want to deal with issues that make their adherents uncomfortable.

Issues like race. Issues like sexuality. Issues like bullying of gay teens in schools. Issues like the shadow side of family life in mainstream America, a shadow side that includes wife abuse, sexual abuse of children, etc. Issues like how we treat illegal immigrants. Issues like what people really mean when they say that they believe in God and follow Jesus.

It is so much easier to talk in glossy platitudes about love and peace and healing than it is to address specific social wounds that call for real love, real peace, and real healing. It is easier to maintain the placid surface of church life (and to maintain uncontested pastoral control in churches) when one assumes that churches are not like newspapers in being called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. It is easier to preserve the untroubled peace of church life when we do not probe into the causes of the social ills we claim to deplore—when we do not study, talk together, and learn about (and confront) our own complicity in these ills.

Talking about race makes us uncomfortable. Facing the deep roots of racism in our society (and inside ourselves) is tough work. Churches all too often prescind from such tough work in favor of magical-mystery cures. And in doing so, they all too often make themselves extrinsic to important political conversations in the world today . . . .

If the churches won’t provide a forum for such values-oriented discussions, then where are we to turn for forums? I’ve talked before on this blog—a number of times—about what I like to call “safe spaces.” In my view, the key to preserving our democracy is to create safe spaces for the dialogic interaction of those who absolutely must sit together at table, if we intend to build a truly vibrant participatory democracy.

Our society has far too few such safe spaces for the serious interaction and serious work necessary to hold a democratic society together. The civic ties that bind us are fraying because we do not have places in which those who construe each other as Other can interact—safely, respectfully, with the intent to hear each other’s stories, and, in hearing, to commit ourselves to do something about what we hear, to involve ourselves in the Other’s life.

In previous postings, I’ve proposed that the historically black college/university (HBCU) has the potential to provide such safe spaces for the interaction of those who are Other (see http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/07/hate-crime-in-daytona-beach-continuing.html; and http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/05/soul-work-holy-conferencing-in_05.html). I’ve noted the premier opportunity of HBCUs to bring together, for instance, openly gay persons with members of churched communities that resist including gay brothers and sisters. I’ve also noted the important historic role HBCUs have always played in building a racially inclusive society, by bringing together faculty, students, staff, and leadership teams that cross racial boundaries.

Because of their histories, because of the concern of most of their founders to build bridges between racially alienated communities, because of the concern of most of these founders to address mechanisms of marginalization that create inequity in democratic societies, HBCUs have tremendous potential to make an important contribution to American society today—in a presidential election period in which the need for such cross-racial bridge building is more crucially apparent than ever. HBCUs have a significant opportunity in this postmodern moment, when our nation may well elect its first African-American president, to model the post-racial, post-liberal politics this presidential candidate represents to many voters.

After having given almost two decades of my life to HBCUs, I would be disingenuous if I suggest here that I truly believe HBCUs are, on the whole, creating such safe spaces for respectful interaction of various communities to discuss issues of race (and gender and sexual orientation, along with the mechanisms of marginalization that trouble all minority communities). On 3 June, I posted an excerpt from an essay I wrote on 23 May 2006, at a time when I was working at an HBCU and was asked to summarize my reflections regarding a workshop I had recently attended on the topic of transformative leadership (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/06/and-pilgrimage-continues_03.html).

In that essay, I note the potential for HBCUs to create safe spaces for soul-searching conversations that would provide an important service to our democratic society. I note as well, however, the following:

Though HBCUs should be premier dialogic safe spaces for soul-searching conversations about race (and gender, and poverty, and sexual orientation), I have found that discussions of race (and the other topics) are often even more hedged about with taboos in the HBCU setting than in majority-culture institutions. We seldom put our cards on the table. We seldom dare to speak from the places in which we live, move, and have our being.

As a result, we are impoverished, and much of the energy inside all of us—which could become synergy to build a new university within the framework of the old—is thwarted and bottled up…..

While HBCUs have strong potential to make important contributions to our culture today through the creation of such safe spaces, I have found that HBCUs are often the last places in the world in which people are willing to talk freely across racial lines about issues of race and marginality. The faculty of many HBCUs live in fear of leaders they perceive as sometimes capricious and cruel, as lacking a strong commitment to academic freedom and to humanistic values.

Though some HBCUs have a longstanding commitment to creating racially inclusive leadership teams (I think, for instance, of Xavier University, where I began my HBCU work, where academic vice-presidents have been variously Caucasian and African-American over the years), others have resisted the creation of leadership teams that model racial inclusivity. Some HBCUs with a tradition of racially inclusive leadership teams have moved to a racially monolithic model that no longer models the core values of the founder. The pressures to move in such a direction can be very strong; they often come, for instance, from alumni who do not understand the need for the institution to model racial inclusivity either as an expression of its historic character, or in order to transmit its core values to a new cultural context. When HBCU presidents lack the fortitude and integrity to resist such pressures, HBCUs sometimes move in a self-ghettoizing direction that thwarts their ability to engage the culture in fruitful conversation.

My hope is that the current presidential campaign will be a moment in which HBCUs will reconsider their opportunity to contribute to a new postmodern model of participatory democracy. It is a cliché to say that Obama represents a new day in American politics.

But as with most clichés, that statement contains a grain of truth. Within some segments of the American voting public, Obama is a symbol of a passion for a new way of doing politics, for a new post-liberal moment in American political life.

Leaders almost always fail to live up to the promise they symbolize, and I have no doubt that this will be the case with Obama, if he is elected. Nonetheless, we would miss some important opportunities in this election period if we did not move beyond personality politics and think carefully about what Obama symbolizes to many, and why he symbolizes this.

People have grown frankly tired of the tendency of liberal leaders to triangulate, to play one marginal group against the other, to calculate how to play the game adroitly enough to stay on top while making vacuous promises to exploited marginalized groups who have no choice except to support the liberal leader, since he or she promises to be marginally less horrible than the neoconservative one (on this, http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/06/and-pilgrimage-continues_03.html).

Reading the Atlantic’s post-mortem on Hilary Clinton’s failed campaign today at the Huffington Post website made me recall yet again why some of us have placed so much hope in the Obama candidacy (www.theatlantic.com/doc/200809/hillary-clinton-campaign). People are frankly tired of liberal rhetoric about inclusive values that does not issue in inclusive behavior. I am frankly tired of having men of the ilk of Bill Clinton or John Edwards speak about the need to safeguard the sanctity of marriage in the face of appeals to extend marriage rights to gay citizens. It’s bad enough to hear that rhetoric from Larry Craig, but from Clinton and Edwards?

Many of us are tired, too, of race-baiting—whether it comes from the white or the African-American community. The same issue of the New York Times that contained the Blow op-ed piece decrying racism in the current election also carries an essay by one of my favorite political commentators, Bob Herbert. As does Blow, Herbert deplores the race-baiting that keeps surfacing in our political process www.nytimes.com/2008/08/09/opinion/09herbert.html).

He notes, however, that this critique cuts both ways. Herbert recounts a sordid little story of a recent Democratic primary campaign in Memphis in which an African-American candidate, Nikki Tinker, played the race card against her opponent, Steve Cohen. To be specific, she resorted to ugly anti-semitic tactics against Cohen, in the hope of eliciting black discontent with Cohen because of his ethnic-religious background.

And she lost, in a district that is heavily African-American. People are growing weary of racially divisive political tactics, and this weariness is helping to spur the movement that points Mr. Obama to the White House. If Mr. Obama is elected, it will be interesting to see whether both black and white social institutions—including churches and academic institutions—take advantage of their opportunity, in this new moment, to transcend the tired liberal politics of race-baiting (and of other forms of division and exclusion, including demonization and marginalization of gay people), and help build a better, more inclusive, more honest and more compassionate, society in which the values to which liberals pay lip service actually make a difference.

*On this, see my essay “Remembering Katrina” at the blog café of the National Catholic Reporter (http://ncrcafe.org/node/429).

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