Boy, I think this was my toughest article on comment is free. It took so much re-wording that my head was hurting last night.
Anyway, following the controversy over Rev Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama, I thought i’d make a broader point about the dynamics with minority communities on “speaking out” and raising your head above the parapet etc.
What I like about Obama is that the man has to walk a very difficult tightrope. The Clintons and Republicans are doing everything to make it about his race, in coded terms (how patriotic are you really??), while Obama has to sit there and take it. He can’t acknowledge that shit because as soon as he does, they’ll just brand him a whiny black man complaining about racism. Its just not the done thing when you want to transcend race.
Anyway, here’s the article…
I suspect black households across America are currently embroiled in vicious debates about Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Since over 90% of Democrat-voting African Americans have supported Obama, I doubt many would be pleased to see his own former pastor determined to speak “truth to power” even if it sinks the Illinois senator.
But there were many, notably at the NAACP dinner where Wright said criticism levelled at him was an attack on black churches, who were supportive of his “bombastic” attitude.
In many ways this goes to the heart of how minority groups communicate with whites in western democracies, a debate that has had more airing in America than in the UK. But given the background of terrorism and a feeling here that we are unsure of our own national identity, it is more important than ever.
Context is important here. Where minority groups congregate, whether that be online, in a mosque or a community hall, a different language is spoken on contentious issues such as racism and xenophobia. America’s black churches clearly offer a safe house for African Americans to come together as a community and air their grievances. It’s not about resolving issues, sometimes it’s just about venting their anger.
Racism emasculates people – it makes them feel belittled. Black churches and other such “safe spaces” fulfil a vital role by trying to convert that feel of emasculation and anger into empowerment, which may involve criticising the establishment heavily. The establishment is, after all, the main reason why inequality persists.
I’m generalising here for the sake of brevity – not all such places are the same. A forum populated by young British Asians is likely to be less about racism (and more about flirting) than a gathering place where members of the first generation meet.
According to the Washington Post, Wright said the black church tradition was neither bombastic nor controversial but misunderstood by the “dominant culture” in the US. Maybe, but that is neither here nor there. The problem, as it became apparent over the weekend, is that Wright was only interested in preaching to his flock. Obama meanwhile is trying to straddle two different worlds and speak to a wider audience. And therein lies the conflict and what makes this dialogue so difficult.
Britain has its own Wright in the form of Dr Mohammad Naseem, chairman of Birmingham mosque, who infamously refused to believe 7/7 could have been the work of British Muslims and claimed the videotape by Mohammad Sidique Khan was doctored.
Where there’s a crossover, a clash occurs. People such as Wright and Naseem want to communicate the hurt and anger, which makes them popular within their own flocks, but does nothing to address the concerns of the majority. There is no dialogue, only confrontation.
Its an unfortunate fact that most “community leaders” of minorities in Britain and the US are more interested in pandering to their own base than taking part in a discussion that bridges the gap. Hence the continuous stream of gaffes by Muslim leaders here, including that letter on terrorism and foreign policy.
This is what made Martin Luther King so compelling. He spoke of black people lifting themselves, not by denigrating white people but by speaking to both communities in a language whites and blacks could identify with. We have a modern Martin Luther King in the form of Barack Obama, but he’s being dragged down by the us versus them politics that has become so ingrained.
That is not to say only minorities should make the effort. Trying to get white people to talk about racism is like … well, trying to get white people to talk about racism, concluded one very astute blogger.
It’s too easy to slice and dice quotes from Wright and Naseem and paint them as nutters without bothering to pay any attention to what they were saying. A modern media environment that thrives on sensationalism only makes this worse.
The real problem is that trying to get anyone to talk about their own hypocrisy is difficult. Brown people certainly are not averse to bigotry and xenophobia themselves, and boy do they hate it when confronted with this fact. Similarly some whites pretend they’ve never benefited from past privilege.
But rather than acknowledge that no one is perfect and have an honest dialogue on that basis, people prefer to see themselves as victims. In Britain the victim mentality is everywhere.
We’re the victims of Muslim terrorists and black kids with guns, while they’re the victims of our foreign policy and policing. The aggressors, depending on who you speak to, are: Europe, the establishment, the police, political correctness, New Labour, the BNP, Jews, Muslims, bloggers, yobs, pregnant young girls, large corporations, the Chinese, Iranians, radical preachers, bendy buses, hippies, libertarians and so on. We’ve become a nation of victims. To each it’s inconceivable of course how the other could be the victim when they themselves are.
There is a serious point to be made here. Freedom of speech is a bit useless if you’re not willing to hear what the other has to say, and why. We have to understand each other’s language and motivations otherwise all we get is a series of confrontations.
Journalists want soundbites and three-minute packages; bloggers want to shoot first and ask later; newspapers take harmless remarks and skew them. No one wants to deconstruct what’s going on, not even the BBC.
I’m trying to avoid sounding like I’m complaining here because its an obvious point to make. When a “leader” of a minority background wants to communicate with whites, they have to speak to both, not just their own flock. And vice versa.
During our mayoral elections Boris Johnson belatedly realised that London isn’t Henley and that there were reasons why ethnic minorities support Ken Livingstone overwhelmingly – the latter doesn’t talk about them just in the context of terrorism or immigration. Suddenly Boris was crowing about his Muslim heritage and trying to “out-ethnic” Asian DJs.
Similarly, when British Muslims want to challenge their own community leaders or question the narrative on terrorism (that it’s all about the Iraq war), they get shouted down by those who accuse them of being sellouts. I’ve faced the same claim many of times.
To Wright, Obama has now become a sellout and part of the establishment, which is why he doesn’t care if Obama gets buried. But he forgets that African Americans voted for Obama precisely because they long to get past that us versus them divide, and so the backlash has started.
Wright should have kept his mouth shut but instead, as Michael Tomasky pointed out, he needs to re-affirm his righteous view that America is too racist to elect a black president. And there’s nothing more annoying than being a called a sellout/dhimmi/wet-liberal when you’re trying to build bridges.
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Filed in: British Identity,Culture,Race politics,Religion