Saturday, August 28, 2010

Beck, Obama, and Innocence

In his now-classic essay "I'm Black, You're White, Who's Innocent?" Shelby Steele argues that "the racial struggle in America has always been primarily a struggle for innocence."

White racism from the beginning has been a claim of white innocence and, therefore, of white entitlement to subjugate blacks. And in the ’60s, as went innocence so went power. Blacks used the innocence that grew out of their long subjugation to seize more power, while whites lost some of their innocence and so lost a degree of power over blacks. Both races instinctively understand that to lose innocence is to lose power (in relation to each other). Now to be innocent someone else must be guilty, a natural law that leads the races to forge their innocence on each other’s backs.

Steele uses this concept of innocence to frame his narrative about the Civil Rights Movement, which I think in many ways has become the dominant narrative, especially among white people in America:

Non-violent passive resistance is a bargainer’s strategy. It assumes the power that is the object of the protest has the genuine innocence to morally respond, and puts the protesters at the mercy of that innocence. I think this movement won so many concessions precisely because of its belief in the capacity of whites to be moral. It did not so much demand that whites change as offer them relentlessly the opportunity to live by their own morality—to attain a true innocence based on the sacrifice of their racial privilege, rather than a false innocence based on presumed racial superiority. Blacks always bargain with or challenge the larger society; but I believe that in the early civil rights years, these forms of negotiation achieved a degree of integrity and genuineness never seen before or since.

In the mid-’60s all this changed. Suddenly a sharp racial consciousness emerged to compete with the moral consciousness that had defined the movement to that point. Whites were no longer welcome in the movement, and a vocal “black power” minority gained dramatic visibility. Increasingly, the movement began to seek racial as well as moral power, and thus it fell into a fundamental contradiction that plagues it to this day. Moral power precludes racial power by denouncing race as a means to power. Now suddenly the movement itself was using race as a means to power, and thereby affirming the very union of race and power it was born to redress. In the end, black power can claim no higher moral standing than white power.

This narrative appears to omit a couple important points: 1) The "sharp racial consciousness" that Steele says emerged in the mid-'60s has always been a part of the movement, in which Martin Delany and Marcus Garvey are clear antecedents of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and the Black Panthers. 2) Martin Luther King's saintly, Gandhian bargaining ended when he was murdered by a white racist. (As were white civil rights workers like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner.) The path of strategically using innocence has problems too. Bargaining and challenging are probably both necessary strategies for blacks in America.

Nevertheless, Steele's formulation tells us much about the current Tea Party movement and Glenn Beck's rally today—the anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the March on Washington—on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Tea Partiers see themselves as oppressed innocents, inheritors of the moral righteousness of Martin Luther King. From the NY Times:

Tea Party Patriots, the largest umbrella organization for thousands of local groups across the country, posted a petition on its Web site calling for the N.A.A.C.P. to revoke its resolution “condemning the Tea Party movement as ‘racist.’ ”

“It is nothing less than ‘hate speech’ for the N.A.A.C.P. to be smearing us as ‘racists’ and ‘bigots,’ ” the petition declared. “We believe, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in a colorblind, postracial society. And we believe that when an organization lies and resorts to desperate tactics of racial division and hatred, they should be publicly called on it.”

Entrepreneurial demagogue Glenn Beck is cashing in on this sentiment:

“We are the people of the civil rights movement. We are the ones that must stand for civil and equal rights, justice, equal justice. Not special justice, not social justice. We are the inheritors and protectors of the civil rights movement. They are perverting it.”

One problem with this formulation is evident in Beck's "us/them" formulation. As Steele asserts, "Innocence imposes, demands, division and conflict." Barack Obama, in Beck's view and that of the Tea Partiers, can't be a democratically elected American president who is interested in a substantive debate about how to make our country work better. Instead, he must be a foreign Manchurian candidate secret Muslim bent on a Marxist subversion of all that is good and true and American.

In Steele's formulation, Obama is a highly successful bargainer—a black man who assures white Americans of their innocence in order to gain entry into the mainstream. Stanley Crouch puts it somewhat differently, asserting that Obama's appeal stems from his ability to present "an American history that is common to us all:

Obama does that by building a blues- and glory-bound train. He has shown himself to be a master of making couplers that should have functioned before.... He takes his listeners to the station and shows them how well the train is built and how all of the cars are linked to each other by importance. The couplers of perception that Obama has designed link the Revolutionary War to the abolition movement against slavery. Those two are coupled to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. He then couples those four to women getting the vote and the emergence of organized labor. The train has become more impressive as those six are linked to defeating European fascism during World War II, saving the world from people driven mad by the superstitions of bigotry. That's seven cars held together by strong couplers made from facts, not dreams; timeless actualities, not nostalgia. The last car so far is the Civil Rights struggle in which white and black people, some young, some not, brought this country much closer to its democratic destiny. (from "The High Ground," published in Best African American Essays 2009)

Contrast that with the warped versions of history that Beck presents on his programs, and that permeate Tea Party rhetoric.

Crouch makes a strong case that Obama has reclaimed the high ground that Martin Luther King occupied—that he bargains (to use Steele's term) with white America by granting us our innocence and asking us to live up to it, to live up to the best of the American tradition.

Beck and the Tea Partiers reject the bargain, as many white Americans (including the federal government, as represented by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI, who considered King a Marxist threat and spied on him as if he were a terrorist) rejected Martin Luther King's bargain and helped add fire to the climate in which King was assassinated.

What scares me most is that Beck, the Tea Partiers, and their ilk are stoking a climate that may eventuate in some nutjob's attempting to assassinate the President. And the Secret Service's failure to keep the White House party crashers from gaining access to the President does not encourage me about his safety. And that's why, after I read to my daughters before their bedtime, I pray for Barack Obama.

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