Thursday, January 21, 2010

Rocket to the Bottom

The loss of Teddy Kennedy's Senate seat to a Republican is being greeted in France a clear sign of Obama's fall from grace and perhaps from influence.  In the midst of the avalanche of commentary came this poll about how Americans think Obama has done with improving race relations and the position of African Americans.  The WaPo reports that "On the eve of President Obama's inauguration a year ago, nearly six in 10 Americans said his presidency would advance cross-racial ties. Now, about four in 10 say it has done so."

There's far more agreement about this between the right and left than between black and white.  70 percent of "Americans" think Black folks have achieved social parity.  11 percent of Blacks folks agree.  The existential gap persists between those who actually experience being American while Black and those who don't.  So does a deficit in cultural capacity, which I define here as the majority's ability to credit "minority" experience.  The U.S. majority is bad at this, though it must be said that the majorities of most countries also are.

The main race debate in Obama's first year revolved around the arrest of the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his own home in Cambridge Massachusetts.  Obama retreated from his initial explicit outrage at police behavior, leaving the outcome as a public teaching moment murky at best.

But race relations are obviously also at stake in Obama's escalation in Afghanistan and inability to reduce the meddling and swaggering and support for tyrants that intensifies rather than suppresses the violence. He's maintained what is widely perceived as a war on Islam, a war on Arabs and on other middle eastern peoples - on non-Western brown folk who object to U.S. sovereignty over their own region of the world. 

The saddest example in the U.S. rescue effort in Haiti.  Haiti is the litmus test of Black conditions in the world as a whole - the first and last successful slave revolt created it as the first Black republic, and its neighbors starting with the U.S. haven't given it a break since.  When Port-au-Prince and many other Haitian cities were flattened in last week's earthquake, Iceland arrived first, and Cuba and Venezuela were there, and France sent various planes including one with field hospitals. The U.S. then arrived, took over the airport, turned back the French plane with field hospitals among others, injected 11,000 heavily-armed troops into the country, with the visuals looking a lot like the U.S. a military occupation. The mainstream media has copped to the fact that the U.S. is not really helping the rescue effort so much as policing an effort that "needs gauze, not guns."  Obama's most visible moment was appearing with former Presidents Clinton and Bush II in a weird show of solidarity not with Haitians but with the white presidents who meddled constantly in Haitian political affairs.  Bush backed the current government's perverse privatization efforts, which resulted in the closing of the country's only cement company and the closing of the country's only flour mill.  That was the kind of American support Obama reflected in posing with those two guys in his ride to the rescue.

It's no wonder Black racial optimism is back where it was before Obama's election.  I still see those lines with hundreds of people waiting in the rain at 5 in the morning to make sure their vote got to count.

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