Apples and Oranges and Pineapples: Decoding the Civil Rights Pandering in Obama’s Second Inaugural Address

I’ve had some time to think about President Obama’s second inaugural speech. Liberals find in it an inspiring declaration of progressive principles (despite the absence of references to drones, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, and the “no prosecutions” policy for the corporate criminals who destroyer our economy in 2008). The acknowledged centerpiece of the speech is a sibilant litany of milestones in the (putative) expansion of civil rights to include all Americans. Said President Obama:”… We the people declare today that the most evident of truths that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls and Selma and Stonewall…”  In one well-crafted turn of phrase, the President paid token homage to the movements for equality for women, Blacks and homosexuals. But in so doing, he cherry-picked events with high name recognition and symbolic resonance (at least to those groups whose loyalty he claimed going into his second term, but increasingly among Americans generally). Each of these groups was sufficiently alienated by Republican policies and rhetoric, and – in the case of gays – sufficiently appeased by Obama’s support of their interests that they voted overwhelmingly for his re-election. (Blacks neither asked for nor received anything from Obama, but voted for him in huge numbers, also.)

Notably absent from this litany was any reference to Asian or Latino struggles. There was no tribute to Japanese Americans whose patriotism was put into sharp relief by our government’s World War II internment policy or the Chinese-Americans who endured years of family separation because of racially motivated immigration rules and yet contributed generations of entrepreneurs to our society. Understandably he did not reference the “Zoot Suit” riots of 1943 or the Young Lords Organization in his adopted Chicago in the 1970s. He might have mentioned César Chavez and Dolores Huerta and the United Farmworkers Union. But even this was unnecessary. The President accepted the conventional wisdom that legal immigration opportunities for illegal entrants is the only concern of Hispanic voters, regardless of ethnic origin or the duration of their families’ residence in the US. Acknowledging their perceived priority, Mr. Obama said, “Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.”

The main problem that I find with the President’s tripartite litany is the complete dissimilarity between the events to which he refers and the moral shallowness of his implied comparison. Seneca Falls, Selma, and Stonewall, for all their alliterative harmony, have nothing of substance in common. We can agree that each was a statement of opposition to inequality (for the group at the center of the event). But the action that composed each event belongs to a different category of protest from that of the others. To imply that they can be equated indicates a refusal to acknowledge the true path that has been taken by groups throughout our country’s history in pursuit of basic human rights. (Ironically, the inauguration took place on the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday, when we celebrate the “nice” Dr. King and his “Dream Speech,” forgetting that the March on Washington was timed to coincide with the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, that the heart of King’s speech was about the “NSF check” that Black Americans were still trying to cash a hundred years later, and that King was reviled as an anti-American troublemaker throughout much of his career.)

In this light, we can examine the flaws in the Presidents comparison. What took place at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, was not a protest. It was a convention. It was a formulation of demands for the rights of full citizenship for women and the abolition of slavery. It was, indeed, the beginning of an organized movement toward full equality for women, a goal that has yet to be reached. However, it was the Suffragettes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whose civil disobedience made it impossible for lawmakers and the American public in general to ignore the unequivocal demand for voting rights for women. And it was the much satirized multifaceted women’s protests of the 1970s that placed the whole spectrum of women’s rights issues on the national agenda.

The events that took place in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, were, indeed, an act of protest and its violent repression. The planned Selma-Montgomery March was a demonstration of the non-violent core of the Black movement for equal rights. The nation, indeed the entire world, was stunned by the brutality that was let loose on peaceful protesters. The effect of this event was to make opposition to legal apartheid in the American south an acceptable moral position and to bring a degree of opprobrium to those who opposed President Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation. However, as I will explain shortly, comparison of this event with the third of the President’s references diminishes the quality of struggle that led to the gains obtained by the first two groups.

The events that began at the Stonewall Inn, in New York City, on June 28, 1969, are known generally as “The Stonewall Riots” and are, in fact, a violent confrontation between an oppressed community and the police. The detailed history of the event is easily obtained. The point I am making is that Stonewall represents an act of militant defiance against unjust police authority, enforcing unjust laws. But, much as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld excused riots in Baghdad following the US invasion, President Obama is willing to excuse a riot that took place over thirty years ago, in order to do a linguistic fistbump with one of his core support groups. It would, no doubt, be unseemly to include references to the Black insurrections in Watts in 1965, in Newark and Detroit in 1967, or Chicago riots of 1968, following the assassination of Dr. King. These events were also spontaneous expressions of outrage in the face of social and geographic isolation, economic injustice, and ceaseless oppression by the criminal justice system. But the President has no constituency for whom these acts of violence have a place of reverence. He expected to receive and in fact received the outpouring of support from those whose lives are lived in the physical and psychological ruins of these events. Better to refer to Selma as Stonewall’s soul brother.

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