Progressive Illusions

by Alexander Cockburn, August 12, 2009

In retrospect we can see what a lucky fellow Barack Obama was to have had, during his run for the presidency last year, a radical black pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, as his opponent in an argument about race and racism in America. Obama scored big with whites for his measured put-down of Wright as the embittered voice from an angry past, now being thankfully overtaken by a mellower and more sensible age of racial reason. And in an added irony, the most supportive black voice for this hopeful posture was that of the Harvard prof, Henry Louis Gates, who shot into the headlines last month after being arrested by a white Cambridge cop,

Sergeant James Crowley, for allegedly abusing Crowley for racist conduct. In an amazing lapse in his usual steely self control, Obama said in a press conference that he thought the cops had acted “stupidly” in this incident which began when a neighbor called the police saying two men were trying to break into the house. Actually this was Gates and his driver trying to recoup from that familiar misfortune, the missing front door key of Gates’ own home.

The irony stems from the fact, as Ishmael Reed, author of two marvelously acrid and funny pieces on the Gates affair on CounterPunch.org, points out that Gates had become the darling of white liberals for putting down blacks in exactly the same manner as Obama had adopted with Wright. In the New Yorker and kindred outlets Gates would serve up anodyne pottage about race being “a social construct” and would whack deadbeat black dads, cuing Obama to the same sort of grandstanding, all of which fell like music upon the ears of white opinion-formers always receptive to black people prepared to utter “difficult truths” — viz., that blacks — African Americans — had and have only themselves to blame for most if not all of their problems. The presiding deity over this nonsense for many years was the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who won hundreds of admiring editorials in the New York Times for his supposed courage and intellectual integrity in serving up “difficult truths” to white Americans eager for scholarly reassurance that they had nothing to apologize for.

Then suddenly here were Gates and Obama both catching a torrent of abuse from whites for shouting at white cops and calling them racists and stupid. We can safely stipulate here that a very large number of white cops are violence-prone racists, both by upbringing and by assigned role, since they are the whites’ first line of defense, furnished with awesome firepower, complicit prosecutors, indulgent forensic laboratories, mostly-white juries and a mostly-white press in the endless battle to keep the dangerous classes generally and the blacks specifically in their place. If the job requires you to be “stupid” — by over-reacting to the level of shooting an elderly black woman holding a cellphone on the grounds you thought she was armed and about to shoot to kill — then so be it.

Crowley became the overnight darling of the right-wing Talk Radio and Roundtable TV hosts, just as Joe the Plumber did last fall. Obama’s senior aides, aghast at the uproar which took the big battle over health insurance off the front pages, successfully urged Obama to say that Gates might have acted unreasonably and to recapture the high ground by inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for a manly beer and constructive chat, duly hailed in its aftermath last Wednesday by the President as “friendly, thoughtful and positive.” It would have required Gates and Crowley to be carried out on stretchers after bloody combat for Obama to have said anything else.

The entire event was positive only for Crowley. Cops are notorious liars in the accounts they give to prosecutors, juries or the press of their conduct as guardians of the peace, and Crowley’s account of what happened chez Gates had plenty of improbabilities in it, such as his claim that Gates uttered a slur about his, Crowley’s, mother. Boston and Cambridge has been suffused with acrid racist divisions for decades, and the cops there have ugly reputations, as vividly evoked by the Boston cop, Justin Barrett, who was fired by the city’s mayor for calling prof Gates “a banana eating jungle bunny.” Barrett and his lawyer are suing the city and the mayor for damages for causing him “pain and suffering, mental anguish, emotional distress, post-traumatic stress, sleeplessness, indignities and embarrassment, degradation, injusry to reputation and restriction on his personal freedom.” Barrett’s lawyer says “banana-eating jungle bunny” were terms used by his client to evoke Gates’ words, not his African American essence. Barrett told Larry King he doesn’t know what made him say that.

White America is never more vividly and comically racist than when trying to excuse impromptu racist utterance or deny the racism of American society, which is manifest in every number, every graph and scatterplot in the annual Statistical Abstract of the United States. It was a former governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis, regarded as an impeccable progressive in matters of race, who denied any racist motive for launching his final presidential drive in 1988 by appearing at the Neshoba county fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers were murdered in the 1960s and where Reagan wooed the white south in 1980.The great and courageous black attorney, J.L. Chestnut, one of two black people in the huge audience, recalled Reagan crying that “‘the South will rise again and this time remain master of everybody and everything within its dominion.’ The square came to life, the Klu Kluxers were shouting, jeering and in obvious ecstasy. God bless America.” So eight years later Dukakis visited the Fair, to give the white voters a tacit message. It didn’t do him any good. His campaign blew up amid race-baiting first by his Democratic rival Al Gore, who denounced Dukakis for giving a weekend furlough from prison to a black criminal called Willie Horton. George Bush Sr soundly whacked Dukakis using the same charges.

White progressives have been cheering Obama’s “tough love” homilies to delinquent black dads, content that he spared white or Spanish dads any such reproof. Maybe the support for Sergeant Crowley and the vilification Obama and Gates will come as a wake-up call, though I doubt it. Bill Clinton was probably the most disastrous president for blacks in postwar history, in terms of criminal justice policies, removal of social safety nets and systematic vilification of young black mothers for having babies (at an optimal time for the babies’ care and survival ). Yet if you call Bill worse as an effective racist than Reagan they’ll quack with incredulous raillery and remind you that it was a black writer, Toni Morrison, who called Clinton our first black president. So? It was Gen. Colin Powell who stepped up to criticize Gates and thus endorse Crowley.

Can we hope Gates has learned a lesson? Nope. He’s back at his crowd-pleasing antics, pledging more beers with Crowley and seeing he’ll see what he can do about getting his kids into Harvard. Ishmael Reed asked caustically here, “Maybe the officer who killed a black man in Oakland the other night should send in her children’s application to Gates. Is Gates a candidate for the Stockholm Syndrome?” Scarcely a candidate, Ishmael. Stockholm Syndrome captured Prof Gates long, long ago and did his career no end of good.

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