"To announce that there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public." -- Theodore Roosevelt

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Benediction for Post-racialism?

Well, despite my misgivings I did manage to make myself watch Obama's inauguration. While managing to avoid much of the ostentatious spectacle, I watched the important parts-- the swearing in, the new president's address. Like most of Obama's speeches it was filled with vague but high-sounding rhetoric and short on anything concrete beyond general platform statements. I generally don't expect much from inaugural speeches, so it would be unfair to expect much more from this one.

The irony of humility being a theme du jour of a $150 million extravaganza seemed to be lost on the television announcers. Nothing surprising there.

What I did find both striking, however, and perhaps telling was Rev. Joseph Lowery's benediction in which he implored:
"We ask you [God] to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right."


I've been hearing a lot of buzz about post-racialism following the election. Like many political buzzwords the definition of "post-racialism" seems to be murky to the point of obfuscation and meaninglessness. Based on the linguistic construction of the word, however, you might think post-racialism would mean an end or moving beyond the concept of race as being a significant factor in whatever is being referenced. For example: A post-racialist South, post-racialist country, post-racialist world, etc.

Well, in this benediction the concept of race is certainly not being referenced as being insignificant. With annoying hubris, God is being asked to conform to our own self-imposed racial definitions and segregated identities that have been cloyingly simplified into the West Coast's categories of Black/White/Hispanic/Asian/and Other. Maybe we can also start asking God to conform to our concept of baseball and help us get over the designated hitter rule while we're at it. Most bothersome to me, however, was exactly what Lowery seemed to ask God to help us accomplish.

"... for that day when black will not be asked to give back" Give back? What does that mean? Asked not to give back to the community, the country? That doesn't seem to jibe with the "remaking America" and the embrace our neighbors in need shtick. Now, according to a reader of Michelle Malkin's blog, this portion of the benediction was apparently referencing an old civil rights chant called "Bill Broonzy Black, Brown and White" the lyrics of which can be found here on Michelle Malkin's website: http://michellemalkin.com/2009/01/20/about-that-race-based-benediction/

In the lyrics the repeating phrasing is "get back" regarding black. Now every transcript I've seen (at least three) has used the phrase "give back" and when listening to the vid of that line it is pretty difficult to hear clearly since his voice is hoarse, accented, amplified and aged. But I think that it is fair to assume that he actually said "black will not be asked to get back" which is far more acceptable. Sort of. I mean when was the last time a black person was actually asked to "get back" because of race. Get to the back of the bus? In the last twenty years? Really? I mean there was that Denney's thing about 10 years ago and Denney's was immediately sued and paid up both in money and bad publicity for their breach of law and manners. I guess I'm just totally out of the loop because I'm not just not seeing the overt racism from "Big Bill Broonzy Black, Brown and White" in any significant form outside of the mostly impotent and incredibly marginalized white supremacists and separatists that everybody, outside of themselves, feels are an absolute embarrassment. When will this day come that a black man/woman can walk into a restaurant and legally expect to be served? Or be legally allowed into public swimming pools? Or be legally allowed to keep their seat on the bus? Or legally allowed to use all public water fountains? Or be legally allowed to live anywhere they can afford? Wasn't that day about 50 years ago?

"...when brown can stick around" Well, even in the overt racism described in the chant, brown could stick around. What's being wanted? The right to stick around and exist? How giving and noble... allowing brown to exist. Thank you for granting the right to exist.

"...when yellow will be mellow" Cute. I don't know of too many Asian-Americans who like being called yellow-- none actually. Well at least Lowery didn't say "buck-toothed" too. Real sweet of him. But this cavalier manner of using such insulting imagery seems quite odd when so many Americans feel perfectly justified at flying into a rage over such slights. It all suggests a racially privileged position. Yellows need to get over it, but blacks shouldn't have to get back. Also oddly suggested is that "yellows" are not currently mellow, that Asian-Americans are running about like hyperactive children on a sugar rush. Hey, maybe they might be mellow if you stop calling them yellow. Ya think?

"...when the red man can get ahead, man" Great... Does anybody else remember the Washington Redskins flap? Cleveland Indians and Chief Brave Spirit? The Kansas City Chiefs? Does Rev. Lowery not remember that a great many (read: all that I've met) Native Americans don't really like being called "red." I suppose that hoping for Native Americans to get ahead is better than telling Asian-Americans to calm down. But again the flippancy of language...

"... and when white will embrace what is right." Hmmm. That must mean that whites haven't been embracing the right. The abolition of slavery, the passing of a plethora of Civil Rights Bills, the wiping away of segregation, the openness and acceptance that is, quite rightly, lauded by the mainstream media, the endless classes on tolerance, the widespread acceptance of mixed marriages and bi-racial children, the opportunities afforded to excel as easily evidenced in the numbers of black lawyers, business owners, doctors, professors, teachers, politicians, policeman, firemen, etc., is not embracing the right? What exactly is the "right" whites must embrace?

Surely, there are race problems in the U.S. Under no circumstances and conditions should I be interpreted as claiming that there is not. What these problems are and who they are perpetrated by is a hugely complex issue that I'm not even going to think about tackling in this already lengthy post (I must mention that I do not believe it is solely any racial group, nor is any group absolved). But I will say that this benediction touches on more of the real difficulties than I would've imagined possible in a short, contemporary, inaugural prayer. The problem is that it didn't mean to.

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