One For All
This was a real team effort, with contributions from Bethlehem Shoals, christycash and jetsetjunta, just FYI.
We’re glad that newly minted comrade-in-arms pizzawhale really delivered (wokka wokka) in a post about politics this week because, well, there’s a rather important election coming up, and we don’t want to give the impression that we’re completely lost in television. Anyway, because American electoral politics are so President-crazy, a lot of the gossip this fall centers on will-he-or-won’t-he Barack Obama, potential presidential material and the most charismatic speaker many of us have ever seen. Truly. He dazzles.
Now earlier this week, in newspaper-land (as opposed to TV-land, where The Wire lives, and where we do most of the time too), Stanley Crouch wrote a column for The New York Daily News stating in rather plain terms that Senator/would-be Presidential candidate Obama is not black like him. Now Crouch is not exactly the most progressive of thinkers, or critics, and has been known to not only complain about that brainless grating gangsta rap the kids are so into these days but to slap, punch, or choke-hold those who negatively review his books.
But Crouch has got a point. Obama isn’t black like him. He’s not African-American, he’s African American, and there’s a big difference in that dash. The difference is not only that Obama isn’t descended from slaves, but that Obama didn’t come up politically through and with the help of the black church, which until now has anointed almost every African-American politician you have ever heard of.
This difference is especially meaningful for black baby boomers and those who remember the ‘60s and the Civil Rights struggle, those who are looking for another Jesse Jackson, another Al Sharpton, another leader out of the same mold. It may be less meaningful for whites, who are not as tuned in to differences within the black community; more than anything, it may be meaningless for most anyone, black or white, under the age of 35, who don’t really care what Jesse Jackson has to say about anything, or what he thinks about anything, and who aren’t expecting black leaders to come from anywhere in particular, and who, raised on multiculturalism, are perhaps better equipped to handle the subtleties of racial and cultural difference. Who knows if whites or blacks will vote for him: the point is that he’s outside both the black and the white establishments. His role is unprecedented. It’s hard to predict anything.
The black church in America has never been as powerful as it was during the Civil Rights era, but it hasn’t gone away. The Wire has done a good job of foregrounding this: from Carcetti’s meeting with the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance to the scene a few weeks back showing each candidate genuflecting (to God and to the good people of Baltimore) at a different church. Sure, Tony’s church was Catholic, but Royce was raising his hands at a black Baptist Church in East Baltimore, while Carcetti countered with a visit to an influential black church in West Baltimore.
The Wire is supposed to be about institutions, but institutions work through the people, conferring authority on them that they carry. The deacon has helped Bunny – not only understand Hamsterdam but find his current posting – and he’s helped Cutty. The whole system of religious authority is tremendously important in the African-American urban community, just as its important in the white community. When something like 98% of people believe in God, religious authority means something. And when a certain kind of religious authority — black churches, black Baptist churches — have provided the means for their chosen to attain political power, it’s even more important. When Carcetti met with the Ministerial Alliance he was blunt, recognizing that they were unlikely to endorse him in any way, but also very canny, offering the open hand of communication and friendship if he won the election.
It will be interesting to observe Carcetti’s evolving relationship with the church, and we know you get just as stoked as we do when you see the deacon onscreen — he’s a small symbol of hope in an otherwise bleak system that is only getting bleaker. He makes us hopeful because he’s not bound by the institution he represents: he can move in many worlds, and his focus is always on positively helping one person at a time (not on, say, organizing voters for a get-out-the-vote-and-slam-gay-marriage style campaign, which is, of course, another way religious authority functions). We also know that Burrell has the ear of the city’s ministers, one of the reasons for his entrenchment as Police Commissioner, and it will be interesting to see if a potential black replacement (Daniels?) will be able to build any of those same bridges or if a white candidate (Rawls) has any pull whatsoever. As the political movements of Carcetti must intersect with the power brokers of Baltimore we should see some of the ways in which black political power is entrenched, practiced, and entreated.
There are a few questions: One, can someone get elected in a city with a powerful black church without being OK-ed by them; two, will one day the waning power of the black church mean that political rite of passage is no more; and three, what does any of this mean for our man Obama out there in the real world?