Friday, June 20, 2008

The Meaning of Obama

This column is about race, not about politics. The impending nomination of Barack Obama is a seminal moment in U.S. history and its significance will not be much affected by the outcome of November’s election. That a Black candidate has progressed so far is a measure of how far this country has progressed in race relations, how far we have moved away from the sins of racism and slavery, its more ignoble antecedent.

There is more progress to be made, but we are surely past the halfway point in achieving the promise of equality which is one of the blessings of liberty. Social pathologies are tenacious. They have roots and even reason and their total eradication is a utopian fantasy. Discrimination persists in all pluralistic societies – and nowadays all societies are pluralistic – because ethnic diversity ensures that it persists. Where ethnic diversity is manifested through physical features such as race, there is a heightened prospect that pockets of bigotry will endure. They are shrinking and this is an indication of how much has been achieved.

It is necessary, I think, to distinguish between what may be termed positive and negative discrimination. The former arises out of the understandable desire of group members to favor their own, whether in employment or housing or some other key social indicator. The negative variety is manifested in hate language and actions aimed at hurting others. Admittedly, the two are often linked but they operate on a different moral, if not also legal, level.

It is deeply painful to write that one of the pockets of enduring racism is the community that I am part of, a community that contributes inordinately to what is good and noble in Jewish life and yet has lost its way on an issue that should be fundamental to religious Jews. I imagine that I will be pilloried for writing about this, the least of the charges being that I have aired dirty linen in public. Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s emergence has, it seems, been a catalyst for additional racism and that is why I write now. Emphatically, what is not at issue is criticism of his views on the Middle East or any other policy matter.

Over the years, I have taken certain Orthodox Jews to task for their negative attitudes toward all non-Jews, emphasizing that when we denigrate others we denigrate rather than elevate ourselves. Racism partakes of the same characteristic and it too needs to be condemned. It should not be necessary to point out that the language used at times about Gentiles and Blacks is a desecration of G-D’s name and a defense of such language expands the desecration.

My co-religionists who seem unperturbed by this religious consideration should ponder how we can condemn language that is hostile toward Jews when some of us use hostile language when speaking about race. They ought to reflect on our thriving in this land of freedom and opportunity. Do we believe that this blessing, bestowed to hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors, is reserved to Jews alone?

On the larger canvas of American life, overwhelmingly what remains to be done on the racial front is less of a challenge to whites than it is to Blacks. I do not refer to anti-white sentiments among Blacks, although there is an excess of that, but rather to the internal racism of Blacks toward Blacks that is on display without end in the cesspool that is popular entertainment. The fetid message emitted is that Blacks are an inferior people.

In the aggregate, the primary thrust of music, television and movies marketed to Blacks is that they are a people who are engulfed by promiscuity, obscenity and various forms of animalistic behavior. To ensure that this base profile is maintained, Black youth in particular are bombarded with admittedly seductive messages that extol what most of us would find disgusting. The point was made last week in a New York Sun column by John McWhorter, a Black writer whose book, “All About the Beat: Why Hiphop Can’t Save Black America” has just been published. McWhorter quotes a popular Black rapper whose lyrics include the gem that high school is a “four-year sentence” with teachers “tellin’ white man lies.”

Unless the trash of internal Black racism is challenged – and the challenge must come primarily from Blacks – there is, in McWhorter’s words, “little hope for our future.” Whites, and I specifically include Jews because of the role that some play in the entertainment industry, have the additional responsibility of challenging the white dominated exploitation of Blacks that is one of the major stories of contemporary entertainment. It is not sufficient to preach about tolerance and equality and to contribute to liberal and noble causes. It is no defense of the Ku Klux Klan and its despicable ilk to note that these days popular culture degrades and harms Black Americans far more than the white-sheeters.

There is also the vexing question of Black leadership. Any people led by Al Sharpton, the greatly talented and equally cynical civil wrongs leader, are in deep trouble. Can we ever count the ways that this charlatan has sinned? He has trafficked throughout his career in bigotry and hypocrisy and he is a stain on the political leaders and media types who enthusiastically embrace him. Blacks are the primary victims of his phoniness.

It may be too much to expect that Barack Obama’s startling success will cut Sharpton down to size, although I sense that the Illinois Senator has not given him a role, nor has he paid much attention to Jesse Jackson who by now is a caricature of a caricature of Jesse Jackson. However he fares in November, it is to be hoped that Obama’s extraordinary story will mark a salutary turning point in the saga of Black America.