By Ruth Conniff
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It’s not time for black people to hit the mute button.
Progressive black critics of Sen. Barack Obama are facing a lot of criticism.
Several black people have urged me, in various ways, not to write or say anything that would give the other side anything to latch on to. And so they hand me the race gag.
But I won’t put it in my mouth.
It’s not healthy for our democracy to suppress our own opinions. And it’s not helpful for progress in America to neglect to mention that Obama wants to increase the Pentagon’s budget above the current astronomical level of $500 billion.
Nor is it helpful to muzzle any mention of the fact that Obama has expressed approval of President Clinton’s devastation of the welfare safety net or that Obama’s proposals on health care and the housing crisis are inadequate.
And should I have covered my ears when I heard him say, after the Pennsylvania and Indiana primaries, that “we don’t need big government”?
One argument for keeping quiet is that blacks shouldn’t do anything that might prevent a black person from finally getting elected president. But this is to put racial identity above everything else. Should I be quiet if Justice Clarence Thomas runs for president, too?
Another argument is to avoid confirming or fueling white racist suspicions.
Jokingly, comedian Jon Stewart asked Obama that if elected, “Will you pull a bait-and-switch and enslave the white race?” But I’ve actually heard more than one white person say, “If Obama gets the White House what will they want next?” Or, “If Obama wins, blacks will think they’re running things.”
The implication for black critics is obvious: Don’t push Obama to be out front on issues because that will just antagonize some white voters. But that only empowers these voters and suffocates the debate on big issues.
Obama is constantly called on to swear allegiance to America, to prove he isn’t swearing allegiance to blacks. Put another way, he’s supposed to swear allegiance to white, not black, America. The back end of that deal is that black Americans are required to substitute Obama for real structural racial progress.
As in, “You got your nominee. See, we’re not so racist or bad after all. Now shut up!”
Obama refuses to appeal to black voters in the way that Sen. Hillary Clinton has appealed to white voters. Some 17 percent of white voters in Pennsylvania acknowledged “they wouldn’t vote for a black under any condition.” And 81 percent of voters in West Virginia said race was a factor. And Clinton got away with equating “hardworking Americans” with “white Americans.”
Meanwhile, Obama had to throw the Rev. Jeremiah Wright overboard, even though what Wright said about the U.S. treatment of American Indians, blacks and Japanese Americans was on the mark.
Obama also refuses to appeal to black voters in the way that Clinton has appealed to women. She talks about making history, while he is trying to pitch himself beyond race.
At the same time, those of us within the black community are told that we have a racial obligation to be mute.
I’m against uncritical solidarity, be it race-related or gender-related.
If solidarity makes you fall in line without asking where you’re going, don’t be surprised if you end up lost.
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.