In an interview with the Rocky Mountain News, Ralph Nader criticized Senator Barack Obama for being a typical centrist Democrat, but put his criticism in racially coded terms.

“There’s only one thing different about Barack Obama when it comes to being a Democratic presidential candidate. He’s half African-American,” Nader said. “Whether that will make any difference, I don’t know. I haven’t heard him have a strong crackdown on economic exploitation in the ghettos. Payday loans, predatory lending, asbestos, lead. What’s keeping him from doing that? Is it because he wants to talk white? He doesn’t want to appear like Jesse Jackson? We’ll see all that play out in the next few months and if he gets elected afterwards.”
[… snip … ]
Asked to clarify whether he thought Obama does try to “talk white,” Nader said: “Of course.

“I mean, first of all, the number one thing that a black American politician aspiring to the presidency should be is to candidly describe the plight of the poor, especially in the inner cities and the rural areas, and have a very detailed platform about how the poor is going to be defended by the law, is going to be protected by the law, and is going to be liberated by the law,” Nader said. “Haven’t heard a thing.”

The gist of Nader’s criticism is not off the mark. Like most his fellow Democrats running for the Presidency, Obama has appealled to “middle class” concerns, leaving issues that directly affect the poor out of his speeches. Indeed, for me, my initial preference for John Edwards was based upon his consistent and impassioned discussion of poverty issues. Should Obama win the Presidency, I would like to see him make a cabinet position for Edwards —a “poverty czar” if you will— to implement the reforms necessary to bring Americans out of poverty.

The problem with Nader’s criticism of Obama is in the wording. Does Ralph even know what “talking white” means? Does he not realize that it implies that Obama is merely imitating white speech, and not, say, speaking and writing as the accomplished academic, wordsmith and politician that he actually is?

There are, in fact, two ways one can go with the “talking white” description. The first occurs most often within the urban African American community as an accusation that questions the authenticity of an individual’s blackness, typically in response to either a person’s academic achievement or “biracial” identity. Last year in my daughter’s third grade class a troubled young African American girl who had a tendency to disparage her classmates in racial and ethnic terms accused my “biracial” daughter of “talking white” and “acting white.” This bothered Katie immensely, of course; as a “biracial” kid raised by “whites” she already feels insecure about her identity.*

The second application of “talking white” derives from racist propaganda against the end of slavery and the political participation of African Americans. Basically, racists accuse accomplished African Americans of being “trained monkeys” who have learned how to “imitate” the speech and mannerisms of educated, civilized “whites.”

I have a feeling that Nader was trying to imply the former, but being “white” himself (really, he’s partly of Lebanese origin), he comes off sounding like the latter. Like a surburban “white” boy saying “fo shizzle, my nizzle” Nader sloppily, irresponsibly employs phrases from a culture to which he does not belong and that he really doesn’t understand, and thereby unconsciously reaffirms the racist character of our culture.

Which is unfortunate, because Nader has legitimate criticisms of Obama. But no one is going to listen if he sounds like a clown.

UPDATE: My wife raised another annoying aspect of Nader’s comments that I didn’t grasp right away. Why should Obama’s African American identity automatically require him to address poverty issues? True, poverty and its attendant problems disproportionately affect people of color. But as plenty of conservative African American pundits prove, there is nothing genetic about class issues. As a former community organizer in Chicago’s hard hit working class neighborhoods, Obama could do much more to speak out on issues affecting them. That’s where Obama’s obligations lay.

* If you’re wondering why I am putting terms like “whites” and “biracial” in quotes, it is because I do not accept the premise underlying such concepts. They have no basis in biology, in reality. There is only one race, the human race. “Whites” and “blacks” can breed fertile offspring, for crying out loud. Whitness and blackness are socially constructed cultural norms created to reinforce institutional racism, whereby the ruling class maintains exploitation of the working classes through legal, structural and cultural divisions.

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