Why the ABC Democratic debate fit into a larger pattern of racism.
A black man runs from a howling crowd. If caught he is torn apart. If he reaches sanctuary he’ll be loved. The ritual is the Sacred Lynching and it’s a scene from Olaf Stapledon’s science-fiction book The First and Last Men. Set in the future, humanity had mixed and few people were "white" or "black". The ritual was a nostalgic celebration of racism in post-racial world. It eerily resembled our own supposed post-racial politics. I saw Sen. Obama as that last black man on earth trying to out-run our media-mob.
And the mob tries. At ABC’s Democratic debate in Philadelphia, hosts Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos tied trivia around Obama’s feet. What about your angry black pastor? Are you patriotic? Are you a friend of a Weatherman terrorist? Obama did what he did during the Pastor Wright controversy. He reflected, questioning the question itself until they looked absurd. The audience saw it and afterwards, when the cameras blinked off, they heckled the hosts.
The reason for this chasing of Obama is because of what he represents. If he wins the race and gets in the White House, he’ll be the sacred man who broke America’s color line. But the color-line, in America, is also the border-line between our repressed history and our collective consciousness. The violence that created who we are; American slavery, indigenous peoples marched off land, workers hung for unionizing, is censured by a media that protects our national self-image. We are white and middle-class. We are the Indispensable Nation. We are freedom itself.
Into this dynamic steps Sen. Obama, a black man whose skin-color is the sign of our repressed violent history, trying for the White House, the site of our national super-ego. His campaign should be impossible. But somehow he outruns the media-mob.
If he "transcended" race it wasn’t by floating over us but by transforming from a black man to a blank man. On him an audience could project wishes. In Freudian terms, he is a compromise-formation, a "form taken by the repressed memory so as to be admitted to consciousness when it returns." Obama is America’s repressed violent history returning to national consciousness as our redemption. Yet to win he has to get to past our defenses. Obama has to run a race against race.
If Obama is a compromise-formation making a run to the super-ego of the White House he’ll face repression. The Right began by blackening Obama. Fox "broke" a story that he smoked. "Would you want a smoker in the White House," they asked. It was silly dig. He wasn’t a serious contender but it was the first code-word for dirt, of a pollutant staining the polished whiteness of the Oval Office.
Next Fox "reported" that he went to a Muslim school. CNN disproved it. But the report wasn’t meant to be real just believed. It was another attempt to link the fear and rage of 9/11 to Obama through a perceived secret Muslim identity. In an interview of McCain the conservative host kept saying Obama’s middle name Hussein. Reporters constantly slipped and said "Osama" not Obama.
None of it was taken seriously until Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright hurled prophetic condemnations of America. It was looped on cable TV and You Tube becoming a crisis. Prophecy is tradition of testimony passed through generations of black people from the plantation to the pulpit. It was and is the burden of truth that one could shun, embody, exploit or love but not ignore. Fox pounced. Soon pundits saw his blackness. America could no longer see past his color to the friendly man it loved the day before.
Obama’s skin-color was never invisible but its where many whites saw reflected the wished for content of their own character. But now inside smiling Obama they saw a fiery pastor and the flames jumping out of his mouth illuminated a dark and angry world they hoped to leave behind. Obama’s poll numbers dropped. He was losing the race against race.
The controversy forced Obama to give his now acknowledged classic speech on race in Philadelphia. In its carefully crafted 37 minutes, he guided America into the history it denied, the marks it left, the invisible weight it piles on our shoulders. He balanced black rage and white resentment like a see-saw on the same fulcrum of corporate greed, "Just as black anger often proved counterproductive, so have these white resentments distracted attention from the real culprits of the middle class squeeze – a corporate culture rife with inside dealing ... and short-term greed."
When he was finished he left the podium to his wife weeping backstage. He married her to grow roots into the black tradition, to reflect the change he made when he went from his Americanized name Barry to his African name Barack. It was she who gave him the talisman he needed, a mirror.
Obama’s speech paralleled a Malaysian legend. A young man, the fastest in the village had to out-run demons. If he did, the village would live. If not, they’d be destroyed. So he ran, swift-footed far ahead of the howling mob. Yet they caught up to him. Stumbling with fatigue, he was about to fall when he took a mirror his wife gave him, turned and flashed it at the demons. Their reflection terrified them and they burst into dust.
Obama, like the Malaysian hero was in our ritual trial, our Sacred Lynching. He did what mythic heroes must; he changed the rules of the game. As the media-mob caught up to him, he flashed the mirror of history and they seeing themselves were driven back. He is only a left-center mainstream politician. He will not inaugurate the Revolution. Still, we did see a momentous event. We just saw the first black man to out-run the mob and he did it without breaking a sweat.