When one thinks, objectively, about the accomplishments of Barack Obama’s eight year term as U.S. President they are nothing short of remarkable. The accomplishments include, but are not limited to: a nuclear arms deal with Iran, successful containment of Ebola and the H1N1 swine flu, joining the Paris Climate Agreement, legalizing same sex marriage, attempting gun control and a cure for cancer, balancing the courts and passing health care and economic reform that would benefit the most marginalized the most.
He comforted a grieving nation after Sandy Hook and after South Carolina where he showed his unmatched grace by singing Amazing Grace. He gave speeches about race and justice, even as a Senator, when it may have been politically inconvenient, and he did all of this while remaining a stellar father and a faithful husband to his equally amazing wife. He also did it all in between the turkey pardons and the Easter egg rolls and, worst, and, most egregiously of all, he did all of it in the face of obstruction that was rooted in racism.
During his Presidency I found myself questioning what was happening. Why did a man of such unmatched intelligence, accomplishment, intellect and integrity face the uphill battles that he did? I knew but like all great passive aggression it was hard to name, hard to nail down so imbued it was with plausible deniability. It was hard to trust what I was feeling because I wasn’t really seeing anything. The White House wasn’t being stormed, no one was outrightly threatening violence or calling him terrible things. It was more subtle and subversive than that; a subversion brilliantly addressed by Chris Rock the year of the #Oscarssowhite controversy.
A moment where Rock brilliantly contrasted what Black Americans were protesting in 2013 (a lack of representation) versus what they were too busy protesting (rapes and lynchings) 40 years earlier to even attempt to care about the Oscars and they ways in which they were being withheld. What he said signalled progress to my white ears, but, my white ears misheard. They misheard Rock, who knew that his blackness was being falsely held up as a mirror of, and in reaction to, whiteness, and who was making a much larger and much more sophisticated point.
He was noting that the tactics of oppression, the ways and means by which white people held on to their power had become sharper, stealthier; more refined, but, in no way, less dangerous. If anything, the weapons now move so quietly, but with such exacting aim, they are infinitely more dangerous. That night, as per The Guardian, “Rock joked about telling Barack Obama at a Hollywood fundraiser: ‘Mr President, you see all these writers and producers and actors? They don’t hire black people, and they’re the nicest, white people on earth! They’re liberals!’”. In other words, white money, white power still held the keys to the entertainment industry, and, the President’s own ascendancy. Both of it, all of it, were still held; owned by the grip of white power and influence.
Throughout Obama’s Presidency I did see somewhat more blunt weaponery, more obvious tactics. Memes and GIFS and conspiracies online but, still, those came from the fringes, the darkest and deepest reaches of the internet right? Right? The only people who believed that stuff were the most backwater, ignorant, marginalized-in-their-own-way people right? Right? I also knew there was a failed reality TV star turned carnival barker questioning Obama being a U.S. born citizen but so what? He was such a joke there was no way he could be a weapon. A crude implement maybe, but, not anything meaningful or effective.
There was also a hockey Mom who said President Obama’s middle name, Hussein, like she was throwing a hand grenade but who cared? These people were freaks right? Right? This was, after all, the 21st century, civilization on the brink of a brave, new and wonderful world. A country who had given full citizenship rights to black Americans roughly only 40 years earlier had accelerated their own progress and gone on to elect their first black President. It meant things were changing right? Right?
Wrong, wrong, wrong. All horrifyingly, awfully and terribly wrong. James Baldwin said “It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”. Mitch McConnell was and remains that enemy. Mitch McConnell is the embodiment of ignorance allied with a terrible and frightful power. He may operate in the shadows but he denied Obama just as a master would. He shackled Obama whether it was related to his Supreme Court pick, or, McConnell’s own vow to make him a one-term President.
Just recently, when Obama, after three years of grace-filled silence, rightfully and privately remarked, that 100,000 dead from Coronavirus signalled a disastrous government response, McConnell in his drawl, said he thought Obama should have “kept his mouth shut.”. All that was missing from the master was “boy”. Boy ought to have kept his mouth shut.
Now, anyone who accused McConnell outright of racism may have been met with shock, a hand to the forehead, the need for a fainting couch. No, this wasn’t a racism you could name. This was, as Carl Bernstein calls it, “ a cold civil war.”. The party of Mitch would need a few more years until it found just the right man to give, as Joe Biden calls it, oxygen to their racism.
It would take a few more years for a starkly naked Emperor to be delivered to the White House, aided and abetted by Russia, a rabid media and a craven Republican Party. But, between the years of 2008 and 2016 it was all seething venom just below the surface. These weren’t ideological attacks or attacks on ideas. These were personal without naming that which they were attacking. It would not have been…..gracious, or, palatable for them to do so. Maybe not Southern, or, wherever the hell it was that they came from.
Throughout this period, not only were Mitch McConnell and his ilk handed the perfect propaganda machine thanks to the Murdoch’s in the form of Fox ‘News’, they were also handed the perfect useful idiot. The failed reality TV star turned carnival barker: Donald Trump ‘won’ the Presidency in 2016. Russia helped. Animus toward Hillary Clinton helped. Voter suppression of, you guessed it, black and brown people, helped. That night, in November 2016 was, as Van Jones called it, “a whitelash”.
A new weapon, a 21st century whip, was unleashed. Developed in a seemingly terrible lab and its effects have been brutal, violent and horrific. The man at the centre of the whitelash, began at birtherism and is not done yet. Not even close. We don’t know where he will end up but, if the last three years have shown us anything, it is that there is no bottom. White nationalists “very fine people”. Armed white militia men “nice people” with just the tiniest anger problem. Black and brown people protesting for their lives “THUGS”. It may take decades but his bark will be quieted, he will be banished to the absolute dust heap of history. No one of any depth or thoughtfulness will ever quote him. How could they? He’s never said anything of any value and you can’t quote a dog whistle or wisdom about ingesting Lysol or UV light. But he and the forces he unleashed won’t just be silent; they will have to be made silent. By all of the rest of us, especially those of us with privilege.
I see now that the questions I held about what was being done to Obama, I knew the answers to. The questions just screamed out of me so badly and I kept screaming them so I wouldn’t have to hear answers that I didn’t want to believe could be true. Instead, I wanted my naive, possibly Pollyana’ish centre to hold. I wanted my worldview because it was so much more pleasant than the world itself. I wanted something that I couldn’t really understand, racism, to go away. I wanted to not have to examine what I viewed to be my non-racism because I knew that I would see that it was, simply, not enough.
And, so, I would talk in astonishment about what we were all seeing but I never looked beyond. I never looked at systemic racism and my part in it. I never called out old uncles who said racist things because, well, they were old. Dying off. A new generation was being ushered in that would repent for the sins of their fathers. I never questioned what more, if anything, I could be doing, or, at the very least, learning.
To my great and enduring shame, I said “but all lives matter” in response to Black Lives Matter and questioned their not having a better refrain. What a stupid, vapid, ignorant and most certainly not non-racist or not allied thing to say. I am not someone with many regrets, but, that will always, always, always, be one. As Carl Lentz recently pointed out to his followers, “anyone with a functioning brain understands that all lives matter”.
Well, my brain was clearly not functioning for a time. My sight was blinded by my privilege. I have so much left to learn and that education begins now. It can no longer wait. Black Lives Matter. Of course they do. But, until they are treated like they do, everything else is noise and rhetoric. So, I will read Layla F. Saad and Ibram X. Kendi. And I will actually learn about Black Lives Matter and see where I can become involved. And I will raise my voice as I have been doing here, where it may do some good. And I will stand corrected when needed. I will also shut my mouth and, instead, open my ears and my heart to listen when I do not know of what I speak. The one thing I won’t do, the one thing none of us with any modicum of privilege can do, is stay silent. Silence kills. Literally. And we all have a part to play in raising our voices, no matter the subtlety or blunt force, of what we see. We have to speak up. We have to raise our voices and we have to do it now.
Originally published at http://bringforth.wordpress.com on June 8, 2020.