Jul 12, 2008

Tom Dubois, Ralph Nader, and Barrack Obama

One of the things I loved the most about The Boondocks when it first came out was that Aaron McGruder was pretty raw about some characters that we see out there. He had a pretty sharp take on otherwise successful black characters, with prosecutor Tom Dubois being at the top of the pile. Straight-laced and uptight, Dubois (the irony of the name choice does not escape us, Aaron!) wasn't wholly clueless about the fact that he was black: he just didn't really know how to connect with either the more radical vision that Huey represented, or the popular culture side of things that Riley represented. He was the archetypical buppie. Actually, his white wife Sarah seemed a little more down than he (she worked for the NAACP, I think, and told him to chill out on more than one occasion).

Without going too far into a breakdown of the comic strip (and when I thought it was awesome vs. when I thought it started to stray), I thought that McGruder gave us a perfect model for some of the people we come across in progressive/radical work in communities of color generally. Well-meaning but often more than a bit clueless about issues of power, privilege, and the people. I feel like a lot of these folks are involved in partisan/"political" organizing in the name of our communities. Ever try to have a conversation with them about what it means to take certain money or certain kinds of stances (or not) on things outside of their comfort zone (i.e. see my posts on Palestine and Asian America)? Many of them take up spaces that could be held by real community members, or at least people who will try to bring their voices to the table. But they are the folks white people point to when they say "the black vote" or the "Hispanic vote," at least for the Dems.

So that brings me to Nader's bomb against Obama last month, which you have have missed if you were paying attention to news on North Korea, gun control, capital punishment, or whatever else. Basically, read this CNN report on Nader's comments that Obama is feeding off of white guilt, "talking" white, and ignoring the real plight of African American and other communities of color. He calls him out on brashly supporting AIPAC/Israel and moving so far from his initial position on Palestinian rights that he's no longer recognizable. When I first read his comments, it should come to no surprise that I thought "yeah!! This is what I've been thinking! Go go Ralph!"

Then I started to think about his comments and put them in the context of the last 8 years, communication strategy, and what could be going on here. I started to wonder - why is Nader going so hard against Obama? These criticisms are equally apt for both Obama and McCain, so why isn't he taking that angle?

And I started to think about how Nader is saying things that McCain can't say directly as a candidate. McCain can't presume to step in the black community's shoes and say anything on their behalf. He knows as much (in other words, he ain't no Bill Clinton). So Nader is levying some of the far left criticism against Obama, kind of hitting him on a flank that's otherwise sort of safe from the Republicans - they aren't going to raise any of the issues that I take with Obama - they are just going to keep pushing the Islamophobic, xenophobic buttons of their willing audiences.

But Nader has the ability to actually get both whites and blacks upset at Obama. And while I think that people need to wake up, I don't know what Nader's real game is, and it makes me wonder - he has a lot of other angles he can work on Obama that might even be more effective, but why be a runner for the GOP in this way? Who are his target, beyond Obama's people and the handful of radicals in the nation who are still tuned in and have a racial justice lens that would allow them to recognize what he's saying?

I'm just saying - to tie it back - what would Tom Dubois say or think about Nader's statements? Would he agree or would he wonder where Nader's coming from? Or would his post-Civil Rights context make him think, "well, it's racist to tell Obama to focus on the black community, and suggesting that the black candidate should be the standard-bearer for issues like mass incarceration, public assistance, and any of these other "black" issues is also racist."

Because the Toms we know in the world know how to say things are racist, but most of the time, it's not a structural lens that they are using: Tom's drunk deeply from the pitcher of "American kinda multicultural society" Kool Aid. Generalizations about race and what candidates of color are supposed to focus on are the most offensive to him, because in the end, Tom Dubois does not want to be identified with those issues.

If Obama's candidacy can be "reduced" to a discussion of the issues that most directly affect the poor and disenfranchised black community, well, that means that Tom should be thinking about those issues too. And frankly, he'd rather live his buppie life, play basketball once in a while with other folks like him, and call it a day. So I'm asking, what are Nader's statements doing to these folks - the educated, successful, 30- and 40-something middle class people of color who are so excited about Obama's candidacy (and not asking questions because of it)? I say he's getting them to circle the wagons to protect Obama - because though he will bring change, they're hoping that it's more of a change of who can seen and identified as successful in the U.S. In essence, creating a slightly improved status quo, that they will be right in the middle of (no radical challenge to the social order here!). And Nader's comments strike at the heart of that premise - they aren't going to hear any of it.

Makes me feel like he's just trying to play to the media, and who knows, maybe it's the only way he can get CNN coverage now. But because he is largely unrestricted by the traditional barriers to honest and thought-provoking speech that other politicians accept, he has a lot of ways to go with this stuff. I'm not particularly happy with the angle he chose. He done confused Tom.


Anonymous said...

I think that Nader is following a tactic that his experience running as an independent presidential candidate in America has taught him: always criticize the Democrats, because they fear third parties the most, and therefore it is the Democrats who will always smear Nader (and any third party candidate for that matter) the hardest.

The Republicans love Nader, because they think any press he gets splits the Democratic vote. It is always the Dems who criticize Nader the loudest. They know that they have a monopoly on left and progressive votes right now because there is no viable alternative progressive party to vote for.

Thus, so many votes go to the Democrats in every election, votes that would otherwise go to more progressive candidates if they actually had a viable political vehicle/party to run for.

The Dems now feel entitled to those votes, even though they do nothing to EARN them. But you already know all that.

However, Nader has been pretty consistent throughout his campaigns, and the strategy has always been attack the Democratic Party. They are the ones who feel so threatened by true democracy that they are ACTIVELY working to suppress third parties in this country.

Who knows, Bob Barr doing strong in the polls and threatening to split the Republican vote could get them to come hard on the third parties too.

Great post, brother.


Rage said...

Hey KC - good to hear from you again, and thanks as always for breaking it down. I definitely hear you. It's funny - I had really strong feelings right after Nader's unusual CNN coverage, but by the time I got to writing this piece, I wasn't feeling as much antipathy towards him, because I'm still not feeling Obama's politics.

I haven't read the piece in this week's New Yorker, but I heard it actually looks at his time/rise as a Chicago organizer. Would be interested to hear your take on it (I'll get to it after the bar exam is over!).

Thanks again for reminding me of why I should remain critical as we march towards November.

Anonymous said...

Man, thanks for the link to that New Yorker article. That is probably one of the best overview's of Obama's rise to power that I've read. I think the quote that they include in which Obama describes his thoughts on Bill Clinton in 1996 really captures my thoughts on Obama himself:

"Well, his campaign’s fascinating to a student of politics. It’s disturbing to someone who cares about certain issues. But politically it seems to be working.”

Good luck on the bar.

Rage said...

Cool - now I'll definitely read it. And yeah - that quote, and the one you pulled out on your post, are pretty telling. I think the piece is making some people think a little more about what his past really means.

Thanks again, brother. I'll be back soon: I'm really really hoping to catch Dark Knight soon - your reviews (and Geo's, if you haven't seen that) have me anxious.

Anonymous said...

IDK...Nader hasn't really spoken out on racial issues himself has he? It seemed like a cheap shot. A lot of people don't know he's Arab.

Rage said...

Nader hasn't come out about his own background much, that's true. But he has a pretty good platform on racial justice if you listen to his stuff. He talks about indigenous communities, opening up immigration, broadening affirmative action, and a range of other things.