What Obama's "race Speech" Won't Say

by Dayo Olopade | March 18, 2008

I confess some small disappointment that Barack Obama has decided to give a speech on race in America this morning. No doubt he will touch both intellect and emotions, highlighting his ability to provide spiritual reparations for all the Americans whose racial nerves have been rubbed raw by this campaign season. But I'd prefer something more constructive. Unlike "faith," or "a new politics," when we talk about "race" in the abstract, we often gloss over the more pertinent subject areas in which social capital--which, for the child of color, is always lacking--dominates outcomes in the US.

As a bit of a counterpoint, I'd like to share some detailed informatics about black women today. I don't like to entrench myself as a race-writer, but I fear the needed progressive conversation on race and policy is being lost in the slurry of identity-based campaign meta-narratives we've seen to date (including the canard that electing a half-black man President will ease America into a  "post-racial" future). Three hot-button policy topics illuminate inequalities that are, of course, an enormous problem in a plural society.

Health Care

A study released earlier this month by the National Urban League says it all: Black women are in a bad way in 2008, especially when it comes to public health. Disproportionately affected by common killers like diabetes and heart disease, black women are also well-known to be at genetic risk for breast cancer at an earlier age, and in more aggressive forms. They also fall prey to uncommon killers like HIV/AIDS, with which black women in America are 23 times likely to be diagnosed than their white counterparts. This intranational crisis recalls the 2004 Vice Presidential debate between John Edwards and Dick Cheney, wherein, presented with that statistic, Cheney grumpily conceded that he "had not heard those numbers with respect to African American women." Edwards clammed up in equally unimpressive fashion, riffing on the trendy non-sequitur of AIDS abroad. Neither used their full time in making a response; neither was prepared to address the public health or social ramifications of such an epidemic (cycling mainly from black men to vulnerable women) within the black community.

The urgent need for comprehensive health care reform is painfully clear; more so given the triptych of poverty, poor education and inadequate access to treatment that I've encountered firsthand as a health instructor in communities of color. Last weekend, news reports detailed how 3.2 million young women--one in four--have some sort of STD (most commonly, chlamydia, herpes or HPV, which we know can cause cervical cancer). Black women were infected at twice the rate of other subgroups--with over half reporting at least one infection. Why this is not more of a national emergency I will sincerely chalk up to selective racial caretaking. Hillary Clinton rightly echoed the point in a January debate: "If HIV-AIDS were the leading cause of death of white women between the ages of 25 and 34 there would be an outraged, outcry in this country." There is not--but piecemeal, preventative solutions (better nutrition education, subsidizing the $360 HPV vaccine, promoting mammograms and condom use) are within reach, and well before January 2009.

The Mortgage Crisis

The home foreclosure crisis is hitting women of color harder than any other demographic group in the United States; not only did Black and Latino women sign more bad mortgages in 2006 than any other American subgroup, but these women were five times more likely to be offered a subprime mortgage, even if they had good credit. Much like the "free market evacuation" of New Orleans in 2005, predatory lending, so racialized, is a disgrace. In a nation where 49 percent of young women of color are the heads of households, recent market failures are undercutting the stability of lower- and middle-income black families with impunity. Communities with an 80 percent minority population account for 65 percent of home forclosures. During the housing boom, home equity had become a "last resort" for single female breadwinners (forget welfare queens) needing to deal with unforeseen health care, heating or educational expenditures. Today, such credit--that flawed but basic American tether--is in ruin for thousands of black families without a margin for error. As critics of Monday's bailout of a blue-chip financial provider have well-noted, no such gesture is forthcoming from an administration that has plainly broken all the homeowning families struggling with the market downturn, regardless of race.

Criminal Justice

In late February, while politicos were busy making hay of Ohio and Texas polling data, the Pew Institute released a shocking report detailing the uptick in incarceration rates and incarceration costs to taxpayers-without a proportional increase in crime over the last year. Simply, our nation is locking up offenders at an unprecedented rate, especially when they are black, though it makes little sense from a budgetary or deterrence standpoint. Today, one in 100 Americans--that's 2,319,258 people--is in jail. One in fifteen black adults is in jail, and one in nine black men between 20 and 34 (one in 100 black women in that age group) is also incarcerated. States are dropping an average of seven percent of their budgets on corrections, with no meaningful matching expenditures on prisoner reentry programs or job training to reduce the rate of recidivism. Countless inmates-again, mostly minorities-are therefore set down in the same neighborhoods where they were scooped up, hardened, virtually unemployable, and trapped in the prison outside jail walls.

No matter the root cause of disproportionate criminality in black communities, it is not hard to see the apocalyptic effect of mass black male incarceration on the lives of the black women and children who might otherwise comprise a traditional family unit. Though it spreads violence, disease, and has increasingly robbed prisoners of basic rights like freedom from bodily harm, state and federal governments continue to swear by the blunt object of incarceration-because it is politically expedient to throw the bad guys under the bus. To wit: criminal justice is one area in which Clinton has sought to distinguish herself from Obama, tacking right against his "liberal voting record on criminal defendants' rights" in the wake of her Iowa loss. I take this to mean the bill he passed regarding the taping of police interrogations in Illinois--an admirable attempt to repair the juggernaut, highly-racialized incompetence of our criminal justice system. Other such reforms are imperative.

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I suppose the prior is no different from any laundry list of grievances, like those mounted on Obama's back here. But unlike "Jim Crow," or "the three-fifths clause," these are not problems of our past. These structural imbalances are current, real, and why some blacks, including intellectuals like Jeremiah Wright, feel no compunction about being very angry in America.

But many find it is neither anger, nor victimhood, but anxious tolerance that characterizes the experience of most minority cultures in America. Michelle Obama, when asked directly about the "race thing," tends to respond with a discussion of shared values-suggesting that black Americans are not so different in their wants and needs. Obviously that's quite true. But it's important to contemplate the fact that minorities are, definitionally, the integrators of American society. We know more of what is labeled as different from us--and have long internalized the idea that, without overt effort, majority culture may not return the favor.

Perhaps this is why two-thirds of whites say that blacks have achieved racial equity, or soon will--while eighty percent of black Americans are skeptical that day will ever come. And why it's fascinating that this week's political storm centers on perhaps the most hidden, yet integral part of black America--the church. Never mind that Trinity Church is the only majority black congregation in the white, liberal United Church of Christ. Of course Wright sounds "radical" (here, a synonym for the unfamiliar); Americans are likely nowhere more segregated than in their places of worship. Black Baptist, Pentecostal and mainline protestant churches have been running their own dialogues on race since before the civil rights era. White churches--or, "churches," full stop--have done likewise.  Turning back the curtain on this political schism has been a body blow to much of the American public. It's hard to lay blame for that.

But I do believe the principle of advocacy for the disenfranchised is the distinguishing feature of domestic liberalism--and as a Democrat, hope that Obama's speech today will not wholly avoid the earthbound, race-based ways in which inequalities fester in America.

--Dayo Olopade

Source URL: http://www.newrepublic.com//blog/the-plank/what-obamas-quotrace-speechquot-wont-say