It may not be what you think.
The praise for Sen. Barack Obama is getting over the top. Novelist Alice Walker recently said that Obama is “our Mandela.” And after Obama’s speech, I heard people say he was “a cross between Martin Luther King and Jackie Robinson.”
To me, he’s more reminiscent of Tiger Woods: He wants to wear the green jacket and be part of the club but he’s not going to change the rules of the game.
Until the controversy broke about his ties to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama himself frequently played the race card — on black people.
Shortly before the Texas and Ohio primaries, Obama was speaking to a mostly black audience and said, “I know some of ya’ll, you got that cold Popeye’s out for breakfast. I know. That’s why ya’ll laughing. … You can’t do that. Children have to have proper nutrition.”
In South Carolina, he told the state Legislative Black Caucus that a good economic development plan in the black community would be “cleaning up the garbage.”
Now, if white politicians had said these things they would have been pummeled.
And even in his much-heralded speech, Obama went out of his way to criticize welfare, decry “the erosion of black families” and stress the need for black fathers to spend more time with their kids.
This Bill Cosby routine goes down well with white voters, but it further stigmatizes blacks.
And while Obama gets points for not tossing his church pastor under the bus, he loses points for running away from the critique of American empire-building and oppression that his pastor offered.
Obama fobbed off his preacher’s entire sermon as an expression of the “anger and bitterness” of an older generation of black men.
What Obama refused to say was that Wright made some solid points: about the genocide of the Native Americans, the immorality of dropping atom bombs on Japanese civilians in World II, the killing of millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, and the deaths so far of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Obama also went out of his way to distance himself from the Palestinian cause. He said his pastor was wrong to “see 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.”
Many progressives, black and white, want Obama to be bolder. We’re against the death penalty and for national health insurance. We want an end to the drug war and most of the police powers that have accompanied it. We don’t just want the soldiers out of Iraq; we want a non-imperialist foreign policy.
While Obama likes to invoke King’s “fierce urgency of now,” I don’t hear him quoting King about how “America is the greatest purveyor of violence on the planet” or that the struggle is against the “evil triplets” of “racism, materialism, and militarism.”
Many whites tell me they support Obama because they believe a multicultural face would send a positive signal across the country and the world. There may be some truth to that.
I’ve also been told that Obama’s speech challenged whites to have a conversation amongst themselves on racism. That’s positive, I guess, too.
But the hunger for change that underlies Obama support remains the most important thing he has going for him.
And until he embraces bold new policies, he won’t be a change agent.
Kevin Alexander Gray is a writer and activist living in South Carolina. He managed the 1988 presidential campaign of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in the state. His forthcoming books are “Waiting for Lightning to Strike: The Fundamentals of Black Politics” and “The Decline of Black Politics: From Malcolm X to Barack Obama.” He can be reached at email@example.com.