In the ongoing debate about the Wright/Obama relationship, I am most concerned about the apparently widespread idea that we should not hold African-Americans to the same intellectual and moral standards to which we hold white Americans.
Obama has a serious chance to serve as the next President of the United States. He has repeatedly described Wright as his mentor. Yet, many seem willing to dismiss Wright’s conspiracy theories and even outright hatred as minor matters when it seems highly unlikely they would accept a white person with such views so close to a white president. Clearly, many hold the African-Americans Obama and Wright to lower intellectual and moral standards than they do whites.
I think this strong evidence that racism still persists in the American Left.
Images of the Klan and Nazis so dominate our contemporary conception of racism that we forget that a benevolent racism that viewed non-whites as permanent children in need of constant oversight by whites proved equally powerful in the past. At least among whites, we’ve driven a stake through violent, aggressive racism that views non-whites as a threat but we’ve preserved and updated the benevolent infantilizing racism.
Equality and respect depend one upon the other. If you do not respect a person, you do not view them as your equal and if you do not view someone as your equal, you do not really respect them. We love and protect many people in our lives whom we do not view as our equals: children, the mentally handicapped, old people in their dotage, but when it comes to decision making we do not fully respect their views and we do not treat them as equals. If we disagree with their decisions we override them and do what we think best. We never behave that way with those we respect as our equals.
When we view someone as an equal we do not withhold criticism. We do not pull our punches. We drive them to wall and make them defend their ideas vigorously. We let our equals make their own decisions and suffer their own consequences, and we expect the same in return.
People who argue that we should not take Wright’s views seriously essentially argue that we should not take Wright seriously as a person. They argue we should not respect him as an equal.
The Left’s benevolent but infantilizing racism has trapped African-Americans in a kind of social and political nursery. African-Americans, especially current and future leaders, grow up in an insular intellectual-hothouse which allows them to hold and promulgate views that most white Americans find ludicrous. African-American politicians can succeed in African-American dominated areas, but they find themselves laughed at when they try to assume their due on a larger stage.
Few African-Americans seem aware that white Americans view politicians such as Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Marion Barry not as threats to a cherished white-bread status quo but rather as embarrassing jokes. Social conventions grounded in benevolent racism require us all to treat them as equals but we do so in the manner of people trying to include children in an adult conversation. To the extent we fear them at all, we fear the damage their naive world view would lead to if they obtained power. We fear them the way we fear a twelve year old driving a Porsche.
(African-American rightists largely escape this trap by escaping the intellectual nursery and going out into the wild rough-and-tumble debate of equals. No one infantilizes Colin Powell or Condi Rice.)
I think that for many white Americans Barack Obama seemed at first to break the mold. He seemed to define himself not as an African-American leftist politician but rather as a leftist politician who was African-American. He defined himself as an individual with a heritage instead of the exemplar of a group. He seemed an African-American politician whom white Americans could debate and criticize just as they would a white politician without being called a racist. He appeared at first to be the first African-American with whom white people did not have to pull their punches. In short, he seemed like the first African-American white Americans could fully respect and treat as an equal. The Wright controversy (as well as other controversies involving people around Obama with similar views) threatens to destroy Obama by making him seem like another infantilized African-American politician who can’t keep up with the grownups.
We will see if he can truly break the shackles of the old benevolent racism or if the old chains forged by white leftist intellectuals will bear him down. He seems destined for either the Oval office or the kiddy table.