The Dreadful Genius of the Obama Moment

By Jonathan Adams Nov 10, 2008

Inaugurating Multiculturalist White Supremacy By Dylan Rodríguez

What happens to the politics of antiracism when the phenotype of white supremacy "changes?" At the risk of being scolded for offending the optimistic spirit of this historical moment, I offer these thoughts with a different kind of hope: that the spectacle and animus of the Obama campaign, election, and presidency fail, and fail decisively, to domesticate, discipline, and contain a politics of radical opposition to a U.S. nation-building project that now insists on the diversity of the American "we," while leaving so many for dead.

To be clear: the political work of liberation from racist state violence–and everything it sanctions and endorses, from premature death to poverty–becomes more complex, contradictory, and difficult now. The dreadful genius of the multiculturalist Obama moment is that it installs a "new" representative figure of the United States that, in turn, opens "new" possibilities for history’s slaves, savages, and colonized to more fully identify with the same nation-building project that requires the neutralization, domestication, and strategic elimination of declared aliens, enemies, and criminals. In this sense, I am less anxious about the future of the "Obama administration" (whose policy blueprint is and will be relatively unsurprising) than I am about the speed and effectiveness with which it has rallied the sentimentality and political investment (often in terms of actual dollar contributions and voluntary labor) of the purported U.S. "Left."

Celebratory liberal multiculturalist patriotism, in whatever complex and historically laden form it assumes, is a deadly compromise. I recognize, with all due respect, that millions are moved to tears as they recognize in Obama the promise of a fulfilled democratic (Black/multicultural) citizenship–the national fraud that millions have bled, died, and cried over, before and beyond the Civil Rights Movement–while weeping joyfully at the possibility of (their children and grandchildren) finally becoming human in a place that seems obsessed with destroying, dehumanizing, and humiliating.

Living in a history of racism, genocide, and everyday suffering is a heavy thing, and moments of optimism are preciously rare. This is why the historical burden is multiplied for those who care to address the euphoria with a different kind of urgency: to move against the visceral sentimentality of the moment and insist, over and over again, that optimism endorses terror when its premises are removed from–and therefore unaccountable to–liberation struggle in all its wonderful forms. It is worth restating that the historical point of departure for liberation politics is uncompromising opposition to a racist/colonialist/imperialist state (regardless of who leads it), and a willingness to pursue wild but principled ambitions for the sake of achieving the political fantasy of radical freedom. Herein, the pending inauguration of an authentically multiculturalist white supremacy entails, at best, a change of leadership for a mind-numbing apparatus of normalized repression and mass-based social violence, the one that capably imprisons well over 2.5 million people (most of them poor, Black, and Brown) in cages all over the world and will kill well over 2 million Iraqi, Afghanis and Palestinian civilians (through a combination of blockades, bombs, and "diplomacy") in the span of less than a generation. This apparatus is the one thing that will not change, even as some entrust the Obama administration with the arrogant hopes of a reduced global body count.

Putting aside, for the moment, the liberal valorization of Obama as the less-bad or (misnamed) "progressive" alternative to the horrible specter of a Bush-McCain national inheritance, we must come to terms with the inevitability of the Obama administration as a refurbishing, not an interruption or abolition, of the normalized violence of the American national project. To the extent that the subjection of indigenous, Black, and Brown people to regimes of displacement and suffering remains the condition of possibility for the reproduction (or even the reinvigoration) of an otherwise eroding American global dominance, the figure of Obama represents a new inhabitation of white supremacy’s structuring logics of violence.

This is to say, Obama’s ascendancy hallmarks the obsolescence of "classical" white supremacy as a model of dominance based on white bodily monopoly, and celebrates the emergence of a sophisticated, flexible, "diverse" (or neoliberal) white supremacy as the heartbeat of the American national form. The signature of the "post-civil rights" period is precisely marked by such changes–compulsory and voluntary–in the comportment, culture, and workforce of white supremacist institutions: selective elements of police and military forces, global corporations, and major research universities are diversely colored, while their marching orders continue to mobilize the familiar labors of death-making (arrest and justifiable homicide, fatal peacekeeping, overfunded weapons research, etc.). While the phenotype of white supremacy changes–and change it must, if it is to remain viable under changed historical conditions–its internal coherence as a socialized logic of violence and dominance is sustained and redeemed.

Candidate Barack Obama’s "A More Perfect Union" speech, arguably the definitive moment of his campaign for the U.S. presidency, provides a useful elaboration of this change in the political structure of white supremacy. Given that this was one of the few moments in the campaign in which Obama actually addressed "race" as a political issue rather than a descriptive matter-of-fact, a close attention to the oration reveals something about the premises of the new multiculturalist, nationalist optimism. Lifting its title from the opening sentence of the U.S. Constitution, Obama’s denunciation of Chicago pastor and Black liberation theologian Jeremiah Wright begins with a backhanded caricature of racial chattel slavery that replicates the classical liberal denial of the nation’s constitutive–in fact Constitutional–patriarchal white supremacist conditions of possibility:

"The document [the nation’s founders] produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations."

Obama’s condemnation of "original sin" begets the white Christian nation’s perpetual forgiveness and redemption, but also anticipates the pessimism of those who would rightfully allege that white supremacy’s visceral structures of dominance are endemic to American national reproduction. This attempts to erase the indelible: the social and economic system that rests on the subjection of Africans as racial chattel is not a compartmentalized or reconcilable event in the American white racial destiny, but is the foundation of what legal scholar Cheryl Harris has called the ongoing legal consolidation of whiteness as property, a consolidation that can only occur at the expense of those who are dispossessed and/or actually owned by the white nation.

Thus, while Obama’s otherwise stale re-narration of white supremacist nation-building falls back on an allegory of the sinning-forgiven white body politic, his comportment of "electability" proposes an authoritative black/multiracial/multicultural patriotism that rejuvenates the rhetorical matrix of contemporary white supremacy. He is "presidential" precisely because he galvanizes admiration and reverence through a paean to the historical imagination of the white slaveholding nation. Obama fetishizes racist/slave "democracy" as a piece of the American national mythology, a moral tale of vindication that alleviates the white nation’s guilty burdens of the racial present. More importantly, it permanently defers the political obligation of confronting an enduring and present white supremacist social form.

"Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution–a Constitution that had at its very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time." A vast and deep body of scholarly critique and radical social thought has thoroughly refuted the common sense of the U.S. Constitution as a magical and morally transcendent document that has timelessly valued the "ideal of equal citizenship" within its philosophical architecture. In fact, the most incisive critical race theorists argue that the opposite is closer to the historical truth: it is the ongoing racial-national project of determining which aliens and nominal "citizens" are to be marginalized and excluded from the entitlements of citizenship that sits at the heart of the Constitution. Why, then, does the political integrity of Obama’s "race speech" rest on the foundations of such a flimsy, hackneyed sense of history?

The genius of Obama’s oration is not traceable to its racially marked (and rather overstated) "eloquence" or any substantively original content: rather, its profound resonance with a liberal white/multiculturalist sensibility derives from the fact that it is an authoritative 21st century doctrine of the "color line," a deforming of the early 20th century DuBoisian wisdom that "the problem of the Twentieth century is the problem of the color line," and "the social problem of the twentieth century is to be the relation of the civilized world to the dark races of mankind."

"On one end of the spectrum, we’ve heard the implication that my candidacy is somehow an exercise in affirmative action; that it’s based solely on the desire of wide-eyed liberals to purchase racial reconciliation on the cheap. On the other end, we’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike." While for DuBois, the color line would be understood as a primary site of political antagonism in the emergent "American Century," Obama posits the contemporary color line–his "racial divide"–as the terrain of the American nation’s neoliberal, post-civil rights perfection, the culmination of its progressive national telos, and the place of fulfillment for an authentic national culture of "unity." In this context, his disavowal of Rev. Wright not only marked Obama’s electoral phobia of Black liberationist political affinities, it clearly pronounced his solidarity with a liberal racist consensus:

"[Wright’s comments] expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country–a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America; a view that sees the conflicts in the Middle East as rooted primarily in the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam."

"As such, Reverend Wright’s comments were not only wrong but divisive, divisive at a time when we need unity; racially charged at a time when we need to come together to solve a set of monumental problems–two wars, a terrorist threat, a falling economy, a chronic health care crisis and potentially devastating climate change; problems that are neither black or white or Latino or Asian, but rather problems that confront us all."

At the risk of some oversimplification, the political logic is clear: some lives and destinies matter dearly, while others must be neutralized, disciplined, or decisively ended; radical antiracism and liberationist struggle are the bane of national unity, and can only disturb the seamless progress of the diverse nation toward resolution of its "monumental problems."

"This is the political condition of possibility for the opening lines of the victory speech that arrived in storybook fashion just days ago: If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

The euphoria of the moment allowed far too many to happily surrender any political and moral revulsion at this invocation of the Founding Fathers, and pushed far too few to seriously consider what, exactly, animated the founders’ nation-building dream and what it might mean for someone like Obama to valorize it. In the end, however, my concern is not with Barack Obama the politician, but rather with the emerging liberal multiculturalist common sense that assembles its points of optimistic compromise and political enthusiasm in alliance with the reforming and re-visioning of classical white supremacy that the Obama campaign and administration represent.

While the historical trajectory and political structure of U.S. white supremacist nation-building will not be substantively altered, its explanatory rhetoric, institutional appearance, and resurfaced racial personage has generated a sweeping political sentimentality and popular cultural narrative of progress, hope, change, and racially marked nationalist optimism. And what do these things mean, really, in the age of Katrina, the prison industrial complex, and the War on Terror?

At best, when the U.S. nation building project is not actually engaged in genocidal, semi-genocidal, and proto-genocidal institutional and military practices against the weakest, poorest, and darkest–at home and abroad–it massages and soothes the worst of its violence with banal gestures of genocide management. As these words are being written, Obama and his advisors are engaged in intensive high-level meetings with the Bush administration’s national security experts. The life chances of millions are literally being classified and encoded in portfolios and flash drives, traded across conference tables as the election night hangover subsides. For those whose political identifications demand an end to this historical conspiracy of violence, and whose social dreams are tied to the abolition of the U.S. nation building project’s changing and shifting (but durable and indelible) attachments to the logic of genocide, this historical moment calls for an amplified, urgent, and radical critical sensibility, not a multiplication of white supremacy’s "hope."