The Roanoke Shuffle: Obama and the Racial Gratitude Racket
President Obama's Roanoke speech was not really an insult to businessmen. No, in fact, it was far worse: it was a threat.
Worse still, it was a threat rooted in a long and ugly racial history in the United States.
Consider that Obama mentioned, early in his remarks, teachers and urban infrastructure like roads.
When Obama says "you didn't build that," he is employing the rhetorical strategies of two subcultures that he remains closely involved with:
(1) the urban Democratic political machines that often shake down both businesses and minorities using City Hall's power over permits, union jobs, fines, and bonds; and
(2) the higher education system that has monopolized credentialing and apprenticeships, forcing racial minorities into submissive gratitude by inserting affirmative action into their careers at early stages.
While Mitt Romney and Barack Obama both hail from Harvard professional schools, Obama has shown a weirdly deep loyalty to Columbia and Harvard, as evidenced by the number of appointees in his administration who have come from those two schools (for example, Eric Holder and Elena Kagan), and by Obama's financial indebtedness to Harvard, whose employees constitute one of the largest contributors to his 2008 campaign. He feels he owes the Ivy League something.
Funny thing: I'm an Ivy Leaguer, and I don't feel indebted.
Unlike Barack Obama, I attended public schools from kindergarten through high school in a small town outside Buffalo, until 1988, when I entered the freshman class at Yale University.
My childhood haunt was a heavily Democratic environment (for heaven's sake, my county voted for Walter Mondale in 1984!). Labor unions commanded the awe of people desperate to land secure jobs handed out by local bosses. The county and the local university were the biggest employers. Partly because of the antics of party bigwigs like Buffalo mayor Jimmy Griffin, I was wary of white Democrats from as early as I could remember.
White Democrats in that declining Rust Belt controlled the entry-level opportunities through corrupt practices and often blatant ethnic cronyism. To get approved for a loan and start your own business (as my mother did, for example), you'd have to work through regulations, certifications, and licensing. Irritate the white folks by straying from the local party line, and presto! The sanitation company won't empty your septic tank, the health inspector shows up, and you're fined out of business. Even more relevant to Obama's speech, they'll decide to close the road leading to your business for "repairs" that last two years!
Thugs in such a climate get you indebted to them pre-emptively. They make sure you can't get ahead without their collusion, and once you do get ahead, they claim with chutzpah that you owe them. Two sayings I hated: "don't bite the hand that feeds you" and "don't burn your bridges." Basically, the liberal "pro-civil rights" whites in my memory inserted themselves into one's life and then retroactively claimed credit for anything one did.
When I was accepted to the University of Michigan, Columbia, and Yale in the spring of 1988, I thought, quite naively, that I had my ticket out of the suffocating Democratic Party machine of Buffalo. I saw my mother's struggles as a Puerto Rican businesswoman battling against white paternalism, and I wanted better for myself, which I thought I'd find if only I could get out of western New York.
I'd heard murmurs about affirmative action and knew some would say I didn't deserve to get into those schools, but I figured once I was there I'd put all the murmurs to rest. I finished ninth in my high school class. My SATs were about 1300. Who could say I didn't deserve whatever I got by going to Yale?
Unlike Barack Obama, I don't feel indebted to the Ivy League after the fact. In truth, I would have been better off attending a community college for two years, learning a trade, and transferring for a Bachelor's to Buffalo State College like all the other black and Latino people I knew when I was in high school. In terms of simple scholastic achievement, I learned more about world history, foreign languages, writing, and math in four years at a public high school than I would learn at an Ivy League campus, where everyone would prove too busy getting into secret societies, a cappella choruses, college dramas, and liberal activist groups to do much study of great books.
People of color on the Yale campus were jockeying to be groomed as godfather figures to their various ethnic constituencies upon graduation, and they quickly snuggled up next to aging white liberals who wowed them with stories about the Bobby Seale trial in 1960s New Haven. It was, for many people of color who bought into the Democrat narrative, a match made in heaven -- minorities cooed with gratitude, and old white liberals set them up with cushy job after cushy job. Get your people to the polls to vote for us, and I'll set you up with more money! We'll go places!
To my disappointment, Yale presented the same paternalism and boss mentality that had poisoned the well in Buffalo. Things didn't go well in my classes when I made it clear that I didn't agree with the many white liberal professors who expected credit for lifting the oppressed brown masses from squalor. I did the assignments, but I refused to be thankful or awestruck.
What happened? Well, precisely what you would expect: I dropped out halfway through my junior year. I disappeared into the bowels of New York City for a while, getting a taste of what life was like for a man of color who wouldn't exchange false gratitude for economic favors.
What is it like when you are young and Puerto Rican in David Dinkins' New York, and determined not to go along with the basic philosophy of the Democratic Party? You don't get jobs. You don't get dibs on those great rent-control apartments. You do not have security. You are lucky if you get by. One of my classmates told me point-blank, "I told you so." (Is it any wonder I voted for Rudy Giuliani in 1993?)
I did get readmitted to Yale and received my degree in political science, but the degree hasn't benefited me much, to be honest. The debt was a strain and retarded my progress over the years following. I ended up having to join the Army for financial reasons anyway, like countless other Puerto Ricans in the Bronx with no more than a high school diploma.
After graduation I had to field resentment from Ivy-haters with none of the perks that came with being a chum of the white liberal elite. When I got my Ph.D., I did so at SUNY Buffalo, down the street from where I went to high school. To add insult to injury, when I applied for the Ph.D. program, the administrators at SUNY Buffalo placed me in a fellowship for minority students, which did not require me to teach composition. I said, "Oh no, not this time!" Rather than be told "you owe us" for the rest of my life, I marched into the English department and demanded that they allow me to teach composition classes for free, so that I could say I did the same work as my white counterparts. Which I did.
Affirmative action makes it easier to replace minority troublemakers who aren't toeing the liberal line -- first, by providing white liberal bosses with a reserve army of less qualified, easily manipulated replacement tokens, and second, by making it impossible for the truly aggrieved minority to have standing for anti-discrimination complaints. The institution defends itself quite easily by saying, "Look at [Dumber, More Pliant Minorities X,Y, Z]. They don't have the problems here that [Self-Assured Minority Who Doesn't Feel Grateful to White Liberals] has. The latter has problems because he's uncollegial and doesn't fit in."
Nevertheless, even today people confront me with the same irritating line: "Be grateful that affirmative action gave you the opportunities that made your life possible." That comes up more often than not when Democrats are prodding me to support Barack Obama.
In Roanoke, Virginia, Obama was speaking in terms that he knew would terrorize young people of color because of the self-doubts fostered by affirmative action.
When he tells the audience not to take credit for their successes, he is perhaps rationalizing his own trajectory from a pampered private school in Hawaii to the presidency. His trajectory after Hawaii led him straight through the familiar Democratic "gratitude" rackets of Ivy League affirmative action and big-city machine politics, rackets that felt suffocating to me growing up and which led me to become a staunch Giuliani Republican. The fact that Obama landed a plum lecturer position at the University of Chicago without having to pay his dues on the tenure track -- which would have required the demanding rigors of a dissertation defense, peer-reviewed publication, years of formal student evaluations, committee work, and at the least a peer-critiqued monograph on a topic other than his life experiences -- indicates to me that he continued to get shortcuts in exchange for political payouts to white liberals, which could only make him feel more imprisoned by the racial gratitude racket. Yet that system worked for him, and maybe he needs to say such things in public to convince himself not to feel guilty.
But even more likely, he is purposefully burrowing into the minds of anxious businesspeople and people of color across America. He is telling them, "You know the deal. Whether or not you think so, and whether or not it's fair, you will owe me because my people will block your path if you don't give them what I am asking for, right now. Put my people in power, or you will never work in your town again."
Robert Oscar Lopez teaches American literature and classics at CSU Northridge. His teaching website, including information about his book (The Colorful Conservative), is accessible at http://textontrial.blogspot.com. His two novels, Demagogue 2037 and The Latino Bronze Age, will be coming out very soon; they both deal with many of the themes of oppressive racial gratitude and liberal hypocrisy. You can find more information about them at Trashademics in the coming months.