“Change we can believe in!” “Yes we can!” Obama specialises in very minimal phrases that fly straight to the target. Will “not this time” join them?

That was the kicker in his audacious – finally a little audacity – speech in Philly yesterday, to go head on against the sh*tstorm generated by the airing of tape of his pastor Jeremiah Wright’s sermons over the past week.

Though he had distanced himself from Wright’s full bore Amerikkka attack, so redolent of another time that Time-Life could release it on a mail-order only 6CD box set (Angry Blacks of the 60s), the pressure was still piling on. It’s pretty dirty politics, but it’s also fair game. Obama has written at length about the spiritual-political direction that Wright gave him, about the rich life and meaning he drew from being part of the congregation, and so on.

If you want to know what a man believes, hear his priest’s sermon goes the old adage, and the problem for Obama was that his activist life lay across the divide between the dying radical politics of the old new left, and the complete disappearance of that framework in the 1990s. Bama himself seems to have gone a long part of the way out of that mindset before he hit the south side of Chicago, but community work means working with people, not having endless stand up student union style arguments, and he would have had to let a lot slide.

That’s not to say he wouldn’t agree with a lot of what Wright says – that America’s attitude to the world is a mirror of its attitude to its own poor, whether in Katrina or the Bronx, essentially regarding them, especially young black people, as an insurgent population to be corralled in prison by draconian drug possession laws as pretext. That parts of America have become more like Iraq than vice-versa over the last decade is plain to anyone with eyes to see.

But it has to be said that the problems the black population faces are less easily solved by recourse to a simple “oppression” model of the Jim Crow era. No-one who reads the evidence can reasonably doubt that the FBI and other bodies had a pretty big role in helping foment the gang culture that arose in the 70s. The LA Bloods and Crips arose from the ashes of the Black Panthers, a process helped along by bankrolling the movement’s purely criminal margin for drug turf wars.

LA became the template not only for gang warfare and culture, but also for the policing of it – the LAPD simply regarded the city as Vietnam, and themselves as an occupying force, charged with keeping it locked down, rather than policed.

But even given that, and the CIA’s role in the process by which the hip LA white drug “base” became “crack”, the whole process only occurred because it moved into a vacuum which had been created, ironically enough, by the end of segregation. Under segregation, black communities had been more self-contained, essentially with an internal middle-class, and a degree of solidarity based on external threat. When that disappeared, a brief revolutionary upsurge was followed by a degree of spatial dissolution, soon to be matched by a cultural one.

No, I’m not arguing for Jim Crow – though many American conservatives did in those terms, something they haven’t been keen to be reminded of, of late. But the problem is one faced by oppressed people moving from one stage to the next the world over – that the reality of the weight of social and economic disadvantage to be overcome, once its overt political expression has been removed, can be a source of despair rather than renewed determination.

That despair takes many forms. Gangsta rap and its associated sub-genres was one – a culture which emphasises fantasies of individual wealth and power, plays up to white fear-fantasies of black culture – the Mandingo effect – and includes a fair whack of misogyny as well. Criticising gangsta rap as a movement tends to get accusations of “moral panic” – that catch-all term by which cultural studies ducks the hard task of social analysis – thrown at you, but you’d have to have your head deep in the sand to not suspect that it has both transformed and deformed the political imagination of many.

For the most part it remains in fantasy, but the point is what fantasies people entertain – those of rising up collectively and changing their world, or getting blown in the back of a hummer limo by two gold-spangle-hotpants hos (or being the ho)?

In that process of individualisation, the idea of “respect” was also diverted. Respect and recognition became less what you got from a changed society as a whole, and more what you got from within a constrained community, from another individual. Gangsta and all that came with it was not a roar of defiance, but of defeat, obstruction, of a historical impasse. The end-result being 14 year old white kids in Glen Waverly telling each other not to diss me in bad ghetto accents at the Catholic college bus stop.

In the US, such revolutionary rhetoric as remained flowed from the radical left – the Panthers were Marxist – back to God, as a transcendent guarantor of right, the Marxist god of History having failed to deliver the goods. Yet most of the people who wield it – Obama’s pastor included – know that things are more complicated than that. Nevertheless a political leader is as much a magus as is he a scientist, and you take people forward by keeping them together, even if the path ahead seems to require pretty different ideas.

Obama’s genius was in seeing that the strategies that such an impasse demanded in community work – reviving people’s sense of self-respect and possibility at its most basic level – applied to Americans as a whole. Whole swathes of the country have been psychologically ghettoised – into powerlessness, into resignation, into fantasy living, into purely personal narratives of redemption – recovering from drugs booze etc as a restorative of inner goodness. That meant establishing not the enemy’s demonic strength, but its pathetic weakness – that We Are Many and They Are Few, that their time is over and ours has come.

His speech yesterday, quite aside from a-se-covering, was about reconciling those two disparate dimensions of the present. He did not by jettisoning his past Clinton style but by drawing it into his wider vision and simply saying that the race question is unresolved in the country, but also that the same conditions – the lack of respect, of identity, of mattering to a society – apply to people across the colour rainbow. That people have always sought to use the question of race as an easy trigger, and that people have acquiesced. But “not this time.”

And thus, as Jon Stewart remarked, at 11am Tuesday 18 March 2008, for the first time did a presidential candidate talk to the American public about race… as if they were adults.

That may be a disservice to Shirley Chisholm and others, but it captured the moment. Whether it will work with the conservative white Democrats Obama needs remains to be seen. For of course when things fall apart, patriotism is one of the other things that people hold onto – and no matter how much you may have turned against Bush, when someone is tearing down the whole country, they might be demolishing all you’ve got to hold onto.

So “not this time”. Maybe. But I’m reminded of the other meanings that phrase has – Britain in 1992 for example, and closer to home in 2004.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey