Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama's "Big" Speech - A Black Cynic's Perspective

Here's what most people we talked to thought of Obama's speech:

It was great, insightful, genius from top to bottom, and open-hearted. It was proof that he should be president in large part because it was so honest and real.

Fair enough.

Let us state here, that we are in many ways the cynics Obama mentioned in his "State of Union Over Race" speech delivered yesterday morning. One of the reasons our teeny staff has been cautiously supportive of Obama is because we apparently fall in that shrinking minority of people who aren't moved by his usual speeches. We read enough and study enough to know that how government truly works is a morass of purposeful inefficiency and favoritism that is the result of an unwritten pact between Democrats, Republicans and the occasional Independent or Green Party official. We won't launch into a literature review, but suffice to say it's disheartening that Americans need to read books in order to find out what's going on rather than tuning into the news (we will NOT get started on the media). So for us, Obama's campaign message of CHANGE was welcomed, but we wanted details. We had to go to his website because we weren't gettin' it from the speeches. And as for a "new day," let's just say Onyx Cranium is more on the Strategy Train than the Hope Train. Please keep in mind that trains are statistically the most dangerous route of transportation in this country.

So it was with this "jaded" viewpoint that we lended our ears to his speech on race and later our eyes to the transcript. Here's what we saw/heard/felt:

First off we appreciated the delivery. It was sobering and had a candid undertone that was, well...somewhat tired. There is a certain amount of exhaustion that accompanies black people who choose to tactfully explain why so many African and African American people are tired of willingly oblivious white people. There is a certain frustration for those of us who watch mainstream America re-enact the Civil War, celebrate July 4th and talk expertly about the Jewish Holocaust while knowing nothing of Juneteenth or insisting that slavery is the one American institution that should be left completely in the past. We felt some of that weariness from Obama, even if it was reserved just for this speech. Quite frankly, it's annoying to tell people what they should already freakin' know.

What we could have passed on...
Now let's get our criticisms and critiques out of the way. Yes, we're black and we have them. That is allowed. We aren't "cynics" for no reason. We suffered through his textbook opening that laid the groundwork for what was to come. We let out a long breath when forced to hear once again of his "unique" multi-race background - another opportunity to draw everyone in. One of us briefly tuned out when he took the opportunity to read from his own book. We understand the strategy of using your own recorded words to make your point, but we could have done without it. Another "of course" eye roll occurred as he once again brought in Jews and gave props to Israel while also making sure that he gave enough mentions of other races so they wouldn't feel ignored or left out. We gave a sinister chuckle when he said he could have taken the "politically safe" route and let the issue fade - as IF that would really happen. We were put off by the imbalance between his stressing of black self-determination and white acknowledgment of privilege since he leaned markedly toward the former rather than the latter. His naked appeal to his base of young voters was blatant pandering to a group of people who already treat him as a political Messiah. When he said he's never heard Wright say disparaging race-specific comments before, we didn't believe him. And color us "whatever" on how he managed to bring in Dr. King, if only in passing reference. The bridging of a white woman's experience with a black man was ineffective for us, but we can see why it would have played well to others.

Usually, that's all we'd have to say about an Obama speech. But, we readily admit, "not this time." You like that? First off, we are ambiguous about his decision to split the difference between giving credit to the root of Reverend Wright's speeches/sermons/rants while condemning their current validity. Anyone with half a brain knows why Wright said what he said and that racism is anything but part of a bygone area. Hate crimes, by the way, are on the rise and have been for years and that's just the blatant stuff. But to his credit Obama didn't leave Wright hanging or disown him (not that he credibly could have since he's been his pastor for so long).

What Was Music to Our Ears...
Here's what made us nod, smile and occasionally issue our own form of "Amen." We love that he (eventually) said that black people are not paranoid when it comes to race. Though we've heard the history lesson of black oppression in this country before, we give him props for providing it again and linking it to the current state of black America (not just the college educated). Obama's choice to use the word "reality" in referencing the African American predicament was grounding. We also respect his frankness in admitting that when out of polite company, the frustrations and resentments let lose for whites and blacks (he could have given a whole other speech about Latinos, Asians and Native Americans). And can we say that his expert pinpointing of how the Limbaughs and O'Reillys and Coulters have profited from purposeful ignorance based on occasional truth was a LONG OVERDUE statement?! Finally, we were apprehensively pleased to have him list all the other serious issues this country is facing and in the messy midst of right now. If someone were giving equal focus to the racist and classist religious supporters behind McCain, then this whole "thing" would be a campaign issue, but since it's focused on Obama alone, it is indeed a distraction. No one seems to be YouTubing how lobbyists run Washington or trying to break open the controversy over who is truly profiting from the Iraq war while health care is run as a business rather than a service.

What it all comes down to...
Overall, we were impressed. Obama stopped short of directly stating that being white is still a permanent state of privilege in this country and that losing your job or being poor is further impacted by your race. Not always, but often enough. We cringed when he said, "...most working and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race." That's true. We were waiting for him to say, "But they are." Of course he never did. We felt a swift kick of knowledge would have been more impacting than an encouraging pat of "dig deeper," but admit it wouldn't have been very "presidential."

In the end, the real question is what is he doing (as a sitting Senator) and what will he do to address all the genuine issues of rampant corporate maleficence, deteriorating schools, the two (or three or four) tiered justice system and a host of other social ills that cynics pour over while some (but not all) optimists get roused up by grand rhetoric and slogans? Obama made two essential points in his speech concerning race. His first point was intentional. He insisted that America has and can change. Yet although Jim Crow is no longer official, the last time smartly dressed (college aged) whites intimidated black voters occurred in Florida in the year 2000, not in Mississippi in 1900. We (blacks) are not in physical chains, but the fact that many of our ancestors once were means that many of us will never have an immigrant mentality. Why? Because we WEREN'T immigrants! Our experience in and relationship with this country is one of a kind and the reason American chattel slavery has always been referred to as a "peculiar institution". Obama's second point was not made in words, but in the fact that he was speaking in the first place. By having to make the "race" speech in order to move his campaign forward, by having to address Reverend Wright's words and defend their impetus, he proved that, at the heart of it - beyond the laws and the arguments to the contrary - not enough has changed at all.

We won't dash the hopes of optimists or say change is a shifting illusion. But we will say that no matter what Obama or Clinton or McCain or anyone else tells you, Unity and Honesty have a rocky marriage when it comes to race, class, religion, sexuality or gender. Obama didn't make the rules but he is to a certain extent playing by some while tearing at others. That, after all, is what a good politician, or rather an effective politician, does. And the last time we checked, unless your Daddy has major pull, that is who and what you must be to become president.

NY Gov. Patterson - Puttin' It All Out There

Photo: Nathaniel Brooks

How much time should we spend on this one? Shortly after his swearing in as Governor of New York, David Patterson was commenting on a different oath - the one he took and repeatedly broke as a married man. In what he hopes is a "pay now to avoid suffering later" maneuver, the legally blind and well educated Harlem born man admitted that he cheated on his wife, that he sometimes used his government credit card for booty call expenses when his own didn't work and that he did his thing with "several women." He also allowed that his lovely wife had her own blemished track record when it came to their marriage.

What he was aiming for, according to the New York Times, was preventing his past being leaked to the press to discredit him or worse, being blackmailed. He's only governor because Elliot Spitzer was caught using hookers. So it would seem that he's just adding fuel to an already raging moral fire. Then again, he did become Lt. Governor because of persistence, determination, probably some luck, and his own will to build a political career. So there is more to him than where he chose or even chooses to lie at night (or during the day or the afternoon). The question was if this was a smart move. Was it smarter than being caught? Was it better to tell people to lower their expectations of his private moral compass while judging him strictly on his public work? Did it make him seem more "human"? Truth be told, many people have had all the humanizing of politicians they can take through their Johnny and Jane-Come Lately confessions, campaign crying and grand speeches. We're based in Los Angeles, but know quite a few New Yorkers. Most are more concerned with how he'll address the budget and if he'll need to be replaced come re-election time. Though some in the "moral majority" may disagree, an increasing amount of Americans are weary of knowing more about what their elected officials are doing in the bedroom than in their office. Our hope is that Gov. Paterson is as open, concise and clear on how NY's tax system is handled as he's been on how he handled his bidness.

State of New Orleans Unmasks Federal Government's Priorities

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Over two and a half years ago a predicted hurricane hit New Orleans and Mississippi. More catastrophically, the levees guarding large parts of New Orleans from related flooding burst open. For those who care, what's the current state of things? You can find some good news and good times in New Orleans, despite the handicapped school system and increasing wealth disparities. There are stories of neighborhoods that are nearly 80% rebuilt. But they are in areas where residents had determination and, let's be honest here, private wealth and resources. Vast areas have been cleared of garbage and debris, including the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards. Thing is, the latter neighborhood still has more porches and open fields than houses. It's here and in other poorer areas that rebuilding is slow and no going. Why? Because the same government that allowed the levees to corrode and rupture is unsurprisingly sluggish in dispensing funds to local officials, citizens and organizations that need it. There are numerous reasons, but an article in USA Today highlights the federal government's rule that emergency disaster funding be granted on the condition that the state requesting and/or city requesting it be able to give 10% of the request up front. Now this was waived for governments of previous natural disasters, including Florida's Hurricane Andrew. But not New Orleans. The city currently has a homeless rate around 400% of most major U.S. cities (1 in 25 compared to 1 in 100). And YES, many are waiting for homes to be rebuilt or at least the money for raw materials needed to get the process going themselves.

Here's our beef. How can the same government that's raining money on major corporations through "give-away" loans, paying astronomical rates for contract services in Iraq and quietly spending inordinate amounts of dinero on space exploration deny money to American citizens whose only crime was being poor or middle class or "just making it" when Hurricane Katrina blew into their neck of the woods? What makes it even worse is that our government's negligence of the structure designed to protect against flooding collapsed. That's not natural. That's what you call a man made disaster. (Funds have gone toward fixing the levees, but it's largely a case of too much, too late.) Seems the federal government through their maneuvering and determination find money for when officials decide to find money. There is little campaign funding or back end profit to be had in simply helping people get economically and socially back on their feet or on at least their knees. The decision for many in New Orleans is "find it yourself." Or rather, go find somewhere else to be ignored.

9021...Oh, Do We Need More of This?

As you hopefully haven't heard, there's a 90210 spin off in the works by Rob Thomas, the creator of Veronica Mars and other less "colorful" shows. The family at the center of what promises to be a melodramatic explosion of whiteness (with a minority character or two thrown in) will have a little more going on than the original Walshes. Okay, that's as journalistic a treatment as we can give another show of this nature centered in Beverly Hills or the OC or any other rich area of greater Los Angeles.

Two Onyx Cranium observations for you:

1) Is THIS really necessary or even a good idea for the already saturated mainstream perspective of network television?

2) It's going to have a shitload of viewers.

Sometimes you just know.