I’ve gotten some grief lately over critical comments I’ve made about President Obama. Folks reference a piece I wrote a while back about why I was a supporter of Obama’s candidacy in the last election, calling on other racial justice advocates who were critical of his first term to join me. Why, folks now ask, would I so strongly support the candidacy of our nation’s first Black president, only to be so critical of his reign?
Here’s my answer. In politics, silence is often as good as consent.
We ought not stand mute in the face of human rights violations committed by our government, either domestically or abroad. When drones kill innocent civilians in Pakistan in the name of our national security, we should ask ourselves how we would react if the Pakistani government launched drone attacks against U.S.-based White militias who are stockpiling guns in anticipation of a religious war against Muslims.
When thousands of undocumented immigrants escaping poverty, even warfare, are arrested and deported, tearing apart families and leaving children without parents, we pay a price as a nation. When we are silent as it happens, it costs our humanity even more.
The same is true when we are silent about the president waffling over cuts to safety net programs that threaten the security of the elderly, disabled, and poor. Compromise may be a necessary part of the political process, but to ignore the suffering of the losers in that process is simply wrong. Silence normalizes a brand of political horse trading that too often results in dire consequences for the most vulnerable among us. We see this now in the fight over sequestration. Compromises have been made in order to ensure convenience for travelers, while those exposed to much worse than mere inconvenience continue to suffer, dividing us across class in a struggle over budget priorities that should be a concern for everyone.
When what passes for a “fair” federal immigration bill actually results in an expansion of racist policing and, moreover, creates what amounts to a potentially exploitative guest worker program, we should speak up. Even as we fight for a political win, we should acknowledge that political victories, while important, don’t necessarily result in good policy.
This week, the president is expected to nominate Tom Wheeler, a man who amassed a fortune as a telecom executive, head of the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler has headed two of the most powerful and well-funded telecom industry lobbying groups in Washington. When a president chooses corporate interests over the common good, it our responsibility to speak up. To exclude him from criticism because of his race is a profoundly conservative act. It strengthens the destructive racial categories at the heart of white supremacy.
I voted for Obama, even knowing he was less than ideal. I did so because I believe that Obama the candidate and Obama the president are distinct and profoundly different political animals. Obama, the liberal African American candidate, was both the better choice from a bad menu, and a canary in the mine shaft of racial progress. Had the political environment been so toxic that the canary died, it would, no doubt, have been a set back.
I made a similar choice in 1992 in Oregon when a right wing evangelical group sponsored Ballot Measure 9, a proposed constitutional amendment that would have excluded LGBT people from civil rights protection on the grounds that we are “abnormal, wrong, unnatural, and perverse.” Oregon’s constitution is among the strongest in the country when it comes to freedom of speech, and I was certain that expressing LGBT identity would be understood by the courts as speech. But, I nonetheless left my work fighting white supremacist hate groups to take a job with the campaign.
I made that choice because the evangelical right in Oregon was as much a racist, anti-Semitic, and sexist movement as a homophobic one, and they were growing in influence and power. Their “no special rights” strategy of using bigotry to build political power needed to be publicly checked and put in its place. I also believed that if the measure won, that win could ruin the political chances of any group who could be painted by the right wing as seeking “special (minority) rights” in the Oregon legislature for years afterward.
Obama’s candidacy was a similar historic occasion. His win was a defeat, though certainly not the destruction, of the racist right in the U.S. It showed political leaders and voters that the days of the particular brand of racist politics exemplified by the Republican southern strategy were coming to a close, at least in national elections. We proved our point. Now we’re in a different kind of political fight, and one we can’t afford to dodge for the sake of political correctness.