Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Disowning America

By Michelle Alexander, Associate professor of Law at the Moritz College of Law with a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute

Last week, in one of the most extraordinary political speeches in modern times, Barack Obama refused to disown his former pastor, Reverend Wright, as media pundits and some political advisers had urged him to do. The uproar over the YouTube videos depicting Reverend Wright fiercely denouncing white America, blaming American foreign policy for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and mocking Hillary Clinton for never having been called a nigger, threatened to derail his presidential campaign. Yet bravely, and without apology, Obama declared that Reverend Wright “is like family to me.“ He denounced Wright’s controversial remarks “unequivocally,” but forcefully rejected calls to disown the man, saying:
“I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother - a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe. These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love."
This clip has been shown repeatedly on all the major news channels, with media pundits invariably focusing on Obama’s reference to his white grandmother, who apparently was not immune to racial stereotypes. I suppose it is possible to interpret his remarks as narrowly as the media has chosen to do. No doubt, Obama was pointing out that even someone as wonderful and loving as his own grandmother is far from perfect on race. But I think a much larger point has been missed here. Obama was not simply refusing to disown his former pastor or point out the prevalence of racial stereotypes; he was refusing to do something even more profound – nearly radical. He was refusing to participate in the politics of disownership.
As a society, we have become accustomed to disowning one another. We condemn and disown those who disagree with us, who look different from us, who have a different religion, who have a different sexual orientation, who lack status, and who behave in ways we do not understand, especially when they commit crimes.
Among politicians, disownership is nearly a rite of passage – some individual, or group of people, must be publicly condemned in order for a candidate to be viewed as “tough enough.” Tough enough to do what? Tough enough to expel “the others” from the body politic, to deny them the basic privileges of American citizenship the rest of us take for granted. In our society, we feel utterly comfortable imagining that some people – many people – are simply unworthy of belonging. There is an undeniable racial element to this belief.
During the past few decades, it has been the welfare queens, the crack mothers, the “super-predators,” the gangbangers, and the “drug pushers” who have been designated the enemy – the ones who exist outside our circle of concern, and who have been the targets of political campaigns to purge them, literally, from our society. Indeed, the dramatic explosion of our prison population during the past three decades, from a mere 350,000 in the mid-1970s, to more than 2 million today, is an excellent example of how serious we, Americans, are about disownership.
But the politics of disownership goes beyond purging people from welfare rolls and locking them up for longer periods of time than any other country in the world. We can see it in our immigration debates, and not just among those who argue for mass deportation of “illegals.” It is evident even among those who argue for guest worker programs, programs which allow – in our great generosity – immigrants to come to America to mow our lawns and clean our toilets, but without any hope of ever enjoying the benefits and privileges of citizenship.
We can see it, too, in how we care for the sick and educate our children. Those who cannot afford health care are not our concern. They are literally left to die. And those children who live on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, they are not our concern either. When their schools are crumbling, and their grades failing, we look away. Of course, if those children were in our family, we’d care. But they’re not. They’ve been disowned; quietly perhaps, but cast out all the same.
When Barack Obama refused to disown his former pastor, no matter what he had done, and when he refused to disown the black community (no matter what it has done or it may do), he showed us, by example, what a politics of unity might look like.
We need not disown one in other in order to disagree – even strongly. None of us need be outside our circle of concern. None of us need fear that we are beyond hope, beyond redemption. We can be one American family. There can be room enough for us all, no matter how flawed and imperfect each of us may be.
Admittedly, this is not the path most traveled. But regardless of your political views, political party, or preferred candidate, can we not agree that it is a path that could make all the difference?

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