Obama “controversies” bring out America’s underlying race problems
By Ray Hanania
Some people say the controversy surrounding presidential nominee Barack Obama is about his policies and his controversial associates. But the real issues underlying everything in this presidential election is race and the failure of America to really get past the racial divide that up until the late 1960s was characterized by hatred, violence and a Black-White divide.
Rev. Jeremiah Wright continues to speak out despite the mainstream media’s snickering, and head shaking. From the far right wing fanatics to the mainstream network journalism veterans, all seem to be wondering why is Wright continuing to speak out when his silence would better assist the Obama campaign.
But Wright’s words resonate with African Americans and also with other minorities in this country who believe that the mainstream media and mainstream political institutions continue to be driven by racist notions. America’s government and majority White society are consumed with policies of exclusion and discrimination that once were open but that today are more subtle and embedded in our daily life.
The fact is that Obama’s pastor is not the problem.
The problem is racism in America that many Americans hoped to avoid discussing after the turmoil that plagued this country during more than half of the 20th Century.
Americans never really openly discussed their racism. They simply put the issue aside and learned to live apart while believing that because the debate has been muted, things are better.
They are not better. Racism continues in America and it has expanded from the hatred of “Black people” to the hatred of “immigrants, non-White minorities and Arabs.”
In part fueled by the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, the pool of those “hated” in America has increased to include Arabs and Muslims, yet they continue to be a small part of the incidents, although they attract more media attention because of the controversies and debate over the so-called “War on Terrorism” and the ongoing debate over the war in Iraq.
FBI statistics show that last year, there were 9,080 incidents of hate crimes reported – not every act of racism rises to be recognized as a hate crime.
More than 70 percent of the hate crime incidents rose to the level of criminal conduct, meaning they were identified and prosecuted as hate crimes, as opposed to being behaviour involving hate.
Of the 7,720 single-bias incidents, 51.8 percent were motivated by a racial bias, 18.9 percent were motivated by a religious bias, 15.5 percent were triggered by a sexual-orientation bias, and 12.7 percent of the incidents were motivated by an ethnicity/national origin bias.
Those numbers remain consistent from past years, and do not include the entire gamut of racial incidents.
Part of the problem is that Americans perceive that racial tensions have subsided because the public dialogue about racism has subsided. They believe racism is a thing of the past because we have fewer problems between White and Black communities.
The White Flight that dominated the 1960s and early 1970s is a thing of the past. These days, we continue to have communities that are segregated, but the issue is no longer a public debate.
Part of the change is simply that White opposition to race is no longer that vocal.
Yet Wright’s claims that racism continues in America resonates not only with African Americans, but also other minorities.
Wright points out the hypocrisies that exist. White societies mock the speech patterns of African Americans, for example, but find the speech patterns of various White societies are just as unusual.
Wright points out accurately that White America does not understand the African American experience. In fact, White America does not understand the experiences of most racial, ethnic and religious minorities at all.
White Americans often say they object to “Americans” embracing “hyphenated” identities, and yet the reality is that the hyphenated existed of White America is far more pronounced and accepted in America. Most White ethnic Americans such as Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans and celebrate their own ethnic hyphenations without even a thought that it is no different than African-Americans, Arab-Americans or Mexican-Americans, for example.
As an Arab American reporter who covered Chicago’s City Hall from the time the government transformed from White to Black and back to White, I witnessed how the White dominated news media reacted with arrogance when the city’s first African American mayor, Harold Washington, lectured them on their “inability to understand the African American experience in the hood.”
White media responded by partnering Black reporters with the White reporters who covered City Hall exclusively for years.
The issue today is not about the controversial comments of Rev. Wright. His comments are comments that reflect what African Americans and other ethnic, racial and religious American minorities believe, but that White America prefers to ignore.
Certainly, the fact that one of the lead candidates in America today is African American suggests there has been some improvement. But that reflects merely the steady empowerment of the minority communities, not a growing openness of White America.
The biggest challenge facing Barack Obama is that he is not White. He is viewed as Black, as Muslim (he is not), and as a “minority.”
In today’s America where race remains one of the country’s most important concerns, Obama’s race is in fact the primary issue.
(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist, author and Chicago radio talk show host. He can be reached at