Monthly Archives: December 2008

Tim Wise on Obama’s “victory over white supremacy,” part I: Or, The difference between an index and a prospect

Seriously, my biggest fear with Obama’s presidency is that it will make radicals stupid. This is already evident in the tendency of some leftists to hyper-inflate the political significance of his “blackness.”

Tim Wise is a writer and activist who is dead-on about the persistence and ubiquity of white privilege. As a speaker, he is smart, aggressive, witty, and immensely competent. I’ve gotten chills watching videos of his debates. I’ve linked him favorably on this blog before.

However, his latest essay is a particularly vulgar example of this “stupidity.” Its the absolute worst thing he has ever written. (It may be the only very bad thing he has written.) He attacks “barbituate leftists”—“downers” who are so wedded to the “revolution” that they pooh-pooh any signs of progress short of the full program. So far as I can tell—and I’m from the same city as Wise—these guys either don’t exist or are too marginal to warrant serious address.

Don't harsh this guy's mellow, dude

Don't harsh this guy's mellow, dude

In Wise’s view, radicals have failed to appreciate how Obama’s win is “a victory over white supremacy.” At the root of this failure is “left cynicism”—the idea among radicals that Obama is just “the same” as Republican politicians and thus that his win represents nothing good.

As Lou Proyect points out [and nods to him for the Wise link], American elections actually presuppose—they require—that Democrats and Republicans not be “all the same.” And this, indeed, is part of the problem: As I’ve written before, Democrats can so assuredly count on “lesser evil” votes from their “core historical constituencies” of women, minorities, labor, and the poor, that they don’t have to be but a step to the left of (indeed, merely “less evil” than) their rivals. And they don’t have to offer their “core” anything; they only have to deal with the white, male, wealthy voters who are actually up for grabs. This moves the whole spectrum of political thought—what counts as left and what counts as right—a bit further to the right every single election. (If both parties were “the same,” this might be better. There wouldn’t be this internal regressive dynamic; the spectrum could just “hold” rather than slide right-ward.)

The thing is, Wise never defines just how Obama is a “victory over” white racism. At most he notes there is a “significance in the election of a man of color in a nation founded on white supremacy.” And indeed, this is true. Obama would not have been elected when black people were being murdered for looking whites in the eye or reading books without pictures. Nor would a black man have been elected just eight years ago, as some polling data [1] suggests.

But this describes not so much a “victory over” anything as it is an index or representation of victories already gained. And let me stress that this does not make it “nothing”; the “significance in the election of a man of color in a nation founded on white supremacy” is real, positive, and nothing to be “cynical” about. This was indeed my first thought on hearing the election results. And, contra Wise, I haven’t encountered a single leftist who would say otherwise.

But we still have to call things by their proper names. An index is not the same as a prospect. The fact that Obama represents progress on race doesn’t mean his tenure won’t still be a net loss for black people (and white workers, and the world, for that matter)—any more than a wedding, as an index of a couple’s love, means they will actually have a good life together.

And really, the prospect is the important thing here, right? At least, it is far, far more important than anything Obama “represents.” Wise seems to agree: He objects to radicals’ “lecturing the rest of us about how naïve we are for having any confidence whatsoever in [a President Obama]” (i.e., confidence in the prospect that he will do good things on the racial front). But he never bothers to argue why such a confidence is warranted. At most, he cites the “millions of people who…are mobilized and active,” whose “[political] energy is looking for an outlet.” Ostensibly he means that this energy can be harnessed for progressive political ends. Fine, perhaps we should “hav[e] confidence” in them. But what does this have to do with “confidence in Obama” himself?

(Maybe Wise hopes Obama will be progressive. Well, so do I. I hoped Bush would be, too; I hope the Iraq occupation goes well; I hope the Klan starts serving inner-city children breakfast. I hope golden coins fall out of my cat’s ass. But I have no “confidence” in any of it.)


The point (index versus prospect) is a logical one: A, quite simply, is not B. But beyond this, we have good reason to be, if not “cynical,” at least reticent about B—that is, about the prospect that Pres. Obama will further the fight against “white supremacy.” I argue for this specifically in my next post.

But for now:

(a) If I’m right—if Obama looks to be a bust for black people—there is no contradiction in stating this fact while celebrating the positive things his election “represents.” Indeed, if so,

(b) We should focus on that fact, because it affects the kind of strategy we who are concerned with black liberation and “progress” should follow.

In the end, Wise’s lament against political “downers” has no teeth on its own. When “downing” is applied to a deserving target, it simply amounts to telling the truth. It is only wrong to deny “confidence” in Obama IF he has given us a reason to have confidence in him. (Nobody would tell the doctor, “Come now: First the cancer diagnosis, now diabetes? Stop being such a downer!” If they do have cancer and diabetes, “downing” is just what they need.)

So Mr. Wise: Do the work; make the case. If we should have “confidence” in Obama’s willingness to fight “white supremacy,” give us the evidence, as you would (and do) with any other truth-claim.

Again, I present my own evidence to the contrary in the next post.


[1] Richard Wolffe and Darren Briscoe, “Across the Divide: Barack Obama’s Road to Racial Reconstruction,” Newsweek (July 16, 2007). 2007 Poll shows 59% of respondents agree the U.S. is “ready to elect a black President”; only 37% said so in 2000.