Race In America
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Obama, Washington and Dubois
In the immediate aftermath of Barack Obama's election, a number of commentators expressed an impatience with the emotional reactions to his victory. America didn't vote for its first black president, this argument went, but for a gifted politician who was the better choice among the two candidates running. To focus on the former accomplishment was in some way to denigrate the latter one. I happen to think that people did, in fact, vote based on the political aspects of Barack Obama's campaign. It's just that they celebrated the historic aspect of his victory, and understandably so.
But as much as Obama's victory was a collective victory -- for American blacks and their historic struggle first for liberty, then justice, then equality and ultimately dignity, as well as for the generations of progressives who fought alongside them over the years and generations -- it was also an individual victory. As always when the color line has first been broken, it took a gifted personality, because a black person must still outperform their white counterpart just to reach the starting line. It's easy to forget that the flawless campaign that Obama waged was not only the reason for his victory, but a prerequisite for his candidacy in a way that could never apply to a white candidate.
I'd meant to write yesterday, too, that Obama's victory will have an enormous impact on the formation of black Americans' identity, and sure enough, I waited a day and Jesse Washington at the AP beat me to it. What Washington touches on obliquely, but ultimately leaves unexplored, is the way in which Obama's victory represents the resolution of the historic conflict within the black community about how best to address the injustices and unfulfilled promises of American society. It's a conflict that goes back to the schism between the self-reliance, "up by the bootstraps" school of Booker T. Washington and the integration model advocated by W.E.B. Dubois.
Washington's model of black self-reliance would take on numerous forms during the 20th century, from Marcus Garvey's call for actual repatriation to the African continent, to the militant advocacy by the Black Muslims and subsequently the Black Panthers for a separatist cultural identity. The true significance of Jeremiah Wright, which was not examined during the campaign for obvious reasons, is that he represents the separatist current of black American cultural identity grafted onto the globalized awareness of Malcolm X in his post-Hajj, anti-colonial incarnation.
On the other hand is Dubois' integrationist model of the NAACP, one that gathers steam with the opposition to "separate but equal" and the landmark victory of Brown vs. Board of Ed., before growing into the broad coalition of the early civil rights movement and the inspirational model of Dr. King, the Freedom Riders and SNCC.
In his autobiography, Malcolm X recounts a favorite taunt that he would pull out during his campus speeches, when black professors in the audience used their personal success to challenge his advocacy for separatism."White people have a word for a black professor," he'd say, pausing to let the suspense build: "It's 'Nigger.'" (The back end of his taunt, that "We know what you say about us when we're not around, because we've got black folks who pass," would be portrayed to comic brilliance by Eddie Murphy in his classic Saturday Night Live skit two decades later.)
This refrain -- that no matter how many doors blacks break down, the innermost sanctum of the American mansion will forever remain offlimits -- became the ultimate replique pulled out against the inheritors of Dubois who argued that only by integrating American society would blacks achieve social and economic justice. And it is precisely this refrain that Barack Obama's victory has finally, at long last, put to rest. It is no coincidence that Obama entered the campaign with the Dubois-like David Axelrod perched on one shoulder and the Washington-esque Wright on the other, and that he emerges from it victorious alongside the former and disabused of the latter.
Since the violent disillusionment of the late-1960s and the anti-climax of the 1970s, the two currents vying for black America's identity have coexisted in grudging mutual acceptance. Integration has achieved a momentum that can no longer be either denied or stopped. At the same time, the rollback of some of the policies that led to its advance and the stubborn persistence of racism in America have reinforced the ongoing need for a double identity that oppressed minorities throughout history have used as their own inner sanctum of succor and support.
And despite the initial triumphalism of the AP's article, I imagine that it won't be easy for American blacks in general to give up that inner sanctum. (Based on the little I've read about the Obamas and how they arrived at Jeremiah Wright's Trinity United congregation, I have a hunch that the next four years are going to be harder on Michelle than on Barack.) Nor, for that matter, is it necessarily apparent that the time to do so has come. The impact Obama's victory has on the future evolution of black American identity will ultimately be determined by whether it actually results in advancing social and economic justice for American blacks -- a project that remains inconsistent and incomplete.
The reality of a post-racial America has not yet arrived. But Barack Obama's victory suggests that it just might, and that's something we can all be proud of. So while a lot of work remains to be accomplished, it's only right to celebrate this enormous success along the way.
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Who Isn't Ready Yet?
Another odd detail about McCain's "Yet" ad: the flashbulb pops that double as rifle shots, the ominous bell tolling in the background, and the sepia tone funeral images of Barack Obama. The copy might be referring to Obama, but the subliminal message here is that America isn't ready yet. Creepy.
Saturday, October 18, 2008
Sarah Palin's Anti-Americanism
Chris Matthews raises a good point in his interview with MN Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (video here at TPM) when he challenges the conservative talkingpoint that equates being liberal with being anti-American. Now contrast Bachmann's portrayal of Bill Ayers/Jeremiah Wright-style anti-Americanism with Sarah Palin's remarks in this Huffington Post piece (via Andrew Sullivan):
We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, . . .pro-America areas of this great nation. This is where we find the kindness and the goodness and the courage of everyday Americans.
The anti-intellectual, anti-urban current that Sarah Palin represents is actually the mirror image of Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright, and by Bachmann's logic one that is just as virulently "anti-American." Ayers and Wright, each in their own way, perverted the liberal belief that America must be perfected by bringing it more in line with its guiding principles of liberty and justice, taking it to misguided extremes that were either criminal (in Ayers' case) or vitriolic (in Wright's).
Palin's extremism is a rural, folksy populism that identifies an authentic America, as well as an "other" -- arrived at by conflating the progressive movement with its most extreme elements -- which it portrays as an internal enemy undermining America's basic goodness. But once you weed out the extremists such as Ayers and Wright, the part of America that Palin portrays as "other" is in fact just as authentically American as what she calls "the real America." Palin might accompany it with a coy smile, but what's she articulating is a hateful anti-Americanism that echoes the kind of urban-rural divide that was at the heart of this country's pre-Civil War schism, with all the implications for violence that her recent campaign events have made evident.
It's a geographic/demographic divide that, as Palin's demagoguery illustrates, has in many ways only partially been healed, and that serves as a coded evocation of America's racial and ethnic history. While both Ayers and Wright represent thoroughly American, homegrown currents of radical thought, they both fill in for foreign "others": Ayers as the European-flavored, socialist/anarchist, "Sacco and Vanzetti" firebomber; Wright as the post-colonial, dashiki-wearing, Afrocentric "angry black man."
Palin and the GOP need them both as charged imagery to mobilize the partisan base, but they are as relevant to the liberal movement as Timothy McVeigh or the Aryan Nation are to the "authenic America" that Sarah Palin celebrates. Barack Obama jeopardized himself politically by associating with either man, but it's important to point out that Ayers, repentant or not, has reintegrated society, and Wright's lifelong ecumenical and conciliatory actions provide a more nuanced context for the political views he expressed in his sermons.
More importantly, Obama has publicly repudiated both men's transgressions. Palin, by contrast, has become a standard bearer for those of her party.
Thursday, June 5, 2008
America's Obama Moment
I'm pretty deep in the weeds of a series of articles for WPR, and time has been in short supply the past few weeks, so I've let a few stories slip by without much comment. I'm thinking particularly of Barack Obama sealing the Democratic nomination, but there's also the gay marriage ruling in California, and some others that I'm probably overlooking. I'll try to get some of my thoughts organized and posted over the weekend, and even that might be unrealistic.
But with regards to Obama, I just wanted to acknowledge a moment, one that is the result of generations of hard work, enormous sacrifice, and deep commitment to what is essentially the greatest single American contribution to humankind's collective heritage of ideals. The past few weeks have seen a lot of talk of service to our country, and a lot of it has focused on military service. But just as many have paid for liberty with their lives on foreign shores, so too have many lost their lives in the effort to bring America in line with her highest ideals of justice and equality here at home. Not all of them wore uniforms.
Even though that struggle continues, it's important to appreciate today's victories. Barack Obama is a very special individual who has accomplished something that not many of us imagined was possible even six months ago. Regardless of the outcome this November, that's already a victory for all of us, and for everyone who dreamed, struggled and believed before us.
Thursday, May 1, 2008
Wright's Politics, and Obama's
I think Ezra Klein's right here, in that the essential problem posed by Jeremiah Wright is the political content of his remarks, and not the racial content. In fact, outside of the AIDS conspiracy theory, there isn't really that much racial content. But as I argued here when the sermon clips were first circulated, the political content of Wright's remarks grows out of the black American experience, one that has nurtured a dual identity, equal parts affirmation and ambivalence towards a country that is at once home and bitter exile. Ezra correctly traces the moral outrage over Wright's remarks to their Chomsky-ite quality, but it's no coincidence that, outside of the anti-globalization movement and far-left academia, black America is probably the most sympathetic echo chamber for Chomsky's analysis.
Ezra's thought experiment of a white candidate's white preacher espousing the same political views does support his argument that this is not a political issue simply because Obama and Wright are black. But it overlooks the ways in which Wright's views mean something essentially different in the context of the black narrative of the American experience, where they are inseparable from the struggle to move from object to subject in the larger national narrative, and from which they form a bridge between that national narrative and the global narrative beyond. The result is not a rejection of American history, so much as a correction to it, one that resonates all the more powerfully for coming from the ranks of the oppressed and not of the oppressor.
But the underlying ambivalence that comes from condemning America on the one hand, and fighting for one's rightful place in it on the other, means that a black politician like Obama can immerse himself in Wright's Chomsky-ite worldview without necessarily rejecting the broader socio-economic structure of American society. Within the black narrative, it is a radical perspective, but not a leftist perspective, anti-colonial, but not anti-capitalist. (Although Trinity UCC's philosophy does disavow "middle classness.")
The equivalent scenario for a white politician would have much broader implications, since they would suggest no ambivalence, but only a political orientation largely incompatible with mainstream American politics. Not only would this still be a story were Obama and Wright white, as Ezra argues, it would probably be a more politically damaging one. It would also be a very different story, as Ezra also argues, and that's very much due to the fact that Obama and Wright are black.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Obama's Speech: The Explainer in Chief
I just got a chance to watch Barack Obama's speech, after having read the transcript earlier today. Most of the commentary has focused, for obvious reasons, on his treatment of race and its legacy in American history and politics. And rightly so, because it's about the most succinct, balanced, inclusive and unflinching synthesis that I've seen, and I'm no stranger to the subject.
But not enough has been made, I think, about this portion of his remarks that deals with the capacity for change that exemplifies the American experience:
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright's sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It's that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country - a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old -- is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know -- what we have seen - is that America can change. That is the true genius of this nation.
Change has obviously been a theme of Obama's campaign, and the election in general, but it has often been reduced to a boilerplate message about changing the way in which we practice politics. This, on the other hand, strikes to the heart of what has historically led people, and continues to lead them, to our country in the hopes of starting anew against all odds: our capacity to change our conception of what America is and what it can be.
It's what gives us such an advantage over countries that are still struggling to reconcile the tensions caused by differences of origin and custom, and what makes us a model for what can be accomplished. American exceptionalism is often a manipulative device hauled out for jingoistic effect, but if there is a reason that America might be considered an exception, truly this is it.
I've also been convinced for some time that the most compelling case for Obama is a generational one. It's time not to turn the page, but to pass the torch. What the previous generation accomplished should not be rejected but refined, improved and built upon. That's what I heard here:
. . .This union may never be perfect, but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected. And today, whenever I find myself feeling doubtful or cynical about this possibility, what gives me the most hope is the next generation - the young people whose attitudes and beliefs and openness to change have already made history in this election.
And that's really all I need. Whether Obama survives this controversy is to my mind no longer relevant. He has moved the torch along, and if in the end that proves to be insufficient, he will have lost the election with his dignity and character intact.
Ronald Reagan was known as the Great Communicator. With any luck, Obama will become known as the Great Explainer. Hopefully America can spare the half hour it takes for him to lay out his case, not just on this but on other issues of the day as well, because it's a half-hour well spent. If not, if the soundbites carry the day, it will be America's loss. Not Obama's.
Saturday, March 15, 2008
Obama, Wright, and Black Ambivalence
It just so happens that the first post of mine that got widespread attention on the web was one I wrote back in February on Barack Obama's pastor, Jeremiah Wright, titled "Obama As Rorschach Test." Periodically since then, someone clicking through from a "Obama afrocentric" Google search will show up in the HJ traffic logs to remind me of it. Which is all by way of saying that the post has stuck with me more than the thousand-odd other ones I've written in the past year.
So each time the question of Wright's association with Obama has come up, I've been tempted to re-visit the post, but have held off. Now that the issue is front and center, though, I figured I'd mention two things. The first is that if you click through to this 2005 radio interview with Wright that I linked to in it, at about the 3:30 mark, Wright mentions that he'd had the honor of being invited to two clergy breakfasts during Bill Clinton's presidency. So if he's as radioactive as people are saying, what was he doing on the presidential mailing list ten years ago?
The second point is that, with respect to Wright's 9/11comments, I can't help but feel that the outrage over them illustrates the extent to which the far-left is non-existent in American political discourse. In fact, the only places you can still find remnants of radical leftist analysis are in the Chomsky-ite anti-globalisation movement, and in Wright's brand of afro-centric Black liberation theology.
Provocative declaration alert: It's impossible to put a number on it, but I'd wager that the only place on Earth where Wright's analysis of 9/11 could be dismissed out of hand is in the United States. Not that the rest of the world agrees with it. But I think you'd find a substantial amount of people willing to accept that a valid case could be made for it, even if they subsequently disagree with that case. I suspect that more people consider it defensible (not correct, but defensible) than consider it outside the realm of acceptable debate.
Now it could very well be that I'm totally wrong on this. But I don't think I am. I'd offer two reasons for why this is. First, the far-left still exists across Europe and most of the world (by which I mean the real far-left, not the Clinton administration), which means that analyses such as Wright's are heard more often and have a certain legitimacy. And second, the great cleansing narrative of globalization has all but erased America's memory of historical resentments (torture and disappearances in South America, agent orange in Southeast Asia, the plight of the Palestinians) that feed anti-Americanism worldwide. But that doesn't mean the rest of the world has forgotten.
It also doesn't mean that there isn't great love felt for our country around the world as well. But it's important to remember that the ambivalence is always there, ready to tilt one way or the other depending on the latest American foray on the global stage. The dramatic shift in sympathy for America between 9/11 and the Iraq War is all the illustration necessary to see how fluid and volatile the world's feelings towards us really are.
The significance of Wright's analysis is that it illustrates the similarities between the world's ambivalence towards the United States, and many black Americans' ambivalence towards the United States. It's no coincidence that his particular brand of Afro-centrism traces its historical roots to the moment when black Civil Rights leaders like Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X placed the struggle in the context of the Third World's post-colonial struggle for independence. That's why it functions as America's conscience, not only for its treatment of blacks in this country, but also for its spotty post-colonial record abroad.
Now, obviously someone with Wright's views could not be elected president of the United States, so Obama is forced to denounce and reject them. The question is whether Obama's spiritual relationship, not just to Wright or a few sentences Wright has uttered over the years, but to Wright's core ideology, will now cost him the election. Back in February, I concluded that:
Assuming that his membership in the church signifies his acceptance of its agenda, Obama would do well to articulate his vision of Afrocentrism, and how it fits into his vision of a united America. Not only would it keep his opponents from doing it for him. It would bring a meaningful discussion of race in general, and his race in particular, to the forefont of the campaign. Until then, everyone will just see what they want to see.
I don't think Obama ever did that. Instead his campaign chose to present him as a post-racial candidate, in the hopes that we'd finally arrived at a post-racial America. The result is that his opponents have done it for him. And now everyone will just see what they want to see.
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
The Promissory Notes Of Hope
I just watched Barack Obama's speech/sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and was not at all surprised, given his enormous oratorical skills, to find that it lives up to its billing. It's an inspirational and impressive speech, and the way he articulates and contextualizes his vision of hope as an active force for change is effective.
I found his arguments for unity less compelling, since I think what he's talking about is more solidarity than unity. Progress has always been a polarizing proposition, as most of the examples he cites to illustrate it (the American Revolution, abolitionism, the Civil Rights movement) demonstrate. The key is not to get unanimity or consensus but a solid majority. Ronald Reagan, for instance was a very polarizing figure. That didn't keep him from winning 60% of the popular vote in 1984, which is what makes it hard to call him divisive.
Three things occurred to me, having watched the video. First, the white-haired gentleman with the kente-cloth stole sitting behind the pulpit above Obama's right shoulder is Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of Obama's church, Trinity UCC. Wright, you'll recall, was asked by the Obama campaign not to attend Obama's speech announcing his candidacy last year. So the fact that he was in attendance at Ebenezer so soon after the recent publicity over Obama's ties to him strikes me as significant.
Second, there were a couple of moments in Obama's speech that I found symbolically awkward. The first came when he began his litany of "hope moments" from American history with the American Revolution. It seemed like you could almost feel the enthusiasm in the pews dip for the second or two it took him to hurry on to the abolitionists (not surprising given how many of the patriots that took on the British Empire were slaveholders).
The second was at the very end, when a story used to illustrate the unity driving his campaign culminated in a young white campaign worker inspiring an elderly black man to rediscover the fight he had left in him. Something about the "single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man", as Obama put it, struck me as tone deaf to the patronizing hint of paternalism in the story, to say nothing of our country's particularly charged sexual-racial history.
I wonder if the two moments reflect the difficulties that Obama is bound to encounter in tailoring his message to the various audiences of what seems like a decidedly less post-racial America with every week of this campaign (although I leave open the possibility that I'm paying too close attention and reading too much into both).
Finally, there was a noteworthy moment when, in telling his own story, Obama says, "I got in trouble when I was a teenager, did some things folks don't like to talk about..." Compare that to the language BET founder Bob Johnson used ten days ago, for which he was later forced to apologize: "...Barack Obama was doing something in the neighborhood -- and I won't say what he was doing, but he said it in the book..."
Now, granted, Johnson's remarks were objectionable, but this strikes me as similar to a dynamic that Matthew Yglesias already identified with regard to Obama's middle name. Namely, that his supporters don't hesitate to use his background and the impression it will make abroad as an appeal, while getting outraged by every mention made of it by his opponents. Yes, the attacks are cheap and unseemly, but as Matthew put it:
If he's going to get praised in these terms, he's going to get knocked in them, too. That's just how it is.
Obama seems to do a lot of talking (and writing) about the things he's done that "folks don't like to talk about". So he ought to have some responses ready when other people mention them.
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The Will To Power
Something to remember regarding the unseemly innuendo about Barack Obama that's been spread by Clinton surrogates and Richard Cohen this past week, as well as some of the coded language that's been used to accentuate his race. These are tactics that we knew would be used. We thought it would be a Republican 527 slime outfit using them, but we all knew they would come up. And from the start, Obama's candidacy was based upon, among other things, the assurance that he could handle them.
There's no justice to the fact that he has to. It's actually a pretty depressing hangover following the "post-racial America" euphoria of his victory in Iowa. But it's the reality of electoral politics as things stand today. If this can derail his campaign for the Democratic nomination, then no matter how inspiring he is, no matter how legitimate a candidate he is, he simply stood no chance of winning the general election.
So far the endorsements have continued to come in, and by all appearances he should do well enough in South Carolina and Nevada to legitimize his campaign for the longrun, which suggests that he can, in fact, deliver on his promise. If he does do well in those two states, it will be a major boost to his electability argument. And if he goes on to win the nomination, this will prove to be the Nietzschean stretch of the campaign that, in not destroying him, made him stronger.
In the meantime, I'll be pretty happy when my posts on Obama in particular and the Democratic campaign in general can be archived solely under "Politics", without the "Race in America" tag behind it.
Tuesday, January 15, 2008
When Farrakhan Is Short For Malcolm
Last night I said that Barack Obama would definitely be asked about his opinion on Malcolm X, and that his answer would be potentially risky for his candidacy. The reason I was so sure, which I didn't mention in the post, is Obama's church, Trinity UCC, which self-identifies as Afro-centric. (Here's what I wrote about it last February after a hatchet job first appeared in Investor's Business Daily.)
This morning, Roger Cohen gets us halfway there. Louis Farrakhan is admittedly a much less ambiguous figure than Malcolm X, who after all has appeared on a US postage stamp. But this storm is less about historical accuracy and more about codewords like Afro-centrism and black nationalism, and it's a storm that's already brewing (scroll down on the link). Hopefully Obama's got his answers ready.
Monday, January 14, 2008
The X Factor
I think Ezra Klein's onto something when he talks about the impact, rather than the intentions behind, the recent flurry of racial innuendo coming from Clinton surrogates:
If Obama has to spend a lot of time talking about race, it's hard for him to be the post-racial candidate. If he has to spend a lot of time on divisive topics, it's hard for him to make an appeal for unity. And if he gets thrown off message at this point in the campaign, it will be exceedingly hard for him to blunt Clinton's momentum. And, whether it's a coordinated strategy on the part of the Clintons or not, it's definitely what's happening.
As I noted here, though, I think this conversation was bound to come up right about now anyway, given that we're moving out of the lily-white phase of the primary season. But the Clinton camp does seem to be adding their fuel to the fire, and it's not farfetched to imagine that the basis of their calculation is that these kinds of media flurries cause tactical damage to her campaign (there's a lot of Clinton folks explaining away their comments lately), while they cause strategic damage to Obama's.
Ezra also beat me to the punch in mentioning Malcolm X for the first time in the context of this controversy, but he did so as a tongue in cheek reference to John Edwards. But if I were in the Obama campaign, I would be very seriously considering just how he responds when a reporter or debate moderator asks him his opinion of Malcolm X. It's a potential hand grenade because of the very different perception of Malcolm among black and white voters, and among older and younger voters. If he embraces or doesn't agressively distance himself, he risks alienating some white voters (see: angry black man). If he holds him at arm's length, he could very well alienate some black voters (see: not black enough).
No, I don't think any of the other candidates faces the same risk if asked this question, for obvious reasons. Yes, I think he's going to be asked it, and soon.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Going Way Back
Something to remember about the escalating tensions over race and gender in the Democratic primary campaign is that all of these disputes go way back. In the early days of the Civil Rights movement, there was already disagreement between proponents of legislative reform and legal challenges on the one hand, and proponents of civil disobedience on the other, prompting Dr. Martin Luther King to write his "Letter From a Birmingham Jail". Later, there was no small amount of tension between largely white, middle class anti-war militants and the increasingly radicalized civil rights and black nationalist movement. The modern women's liberation movement was in part born out of the deep-rooted misogyny of the anti-war and Civil Rights movement, best illustrated by Stokely Carmichael's response to a presentation on the position of women in SNCC to the effect that "The only position for women in SNCC is prone". And finally, identity politics sprang in part from the experience of black, hispanic, working class and lesbian women who didn't identify with the goals set by the white, middle class leadership of second wave feminism.
As you can see, we've had all of these on display the past few days: Paglia vs. Steinem, MLK vs. LBJ, the historical primacy of a woman presidential candidacy vs. a black presidential candidacy. But contrary to how it's been portrayed, Hillary Clinton's statement that direct activists drive the discourse but need allies in government to actually effect change strikes me as an attempt to synthesize that tension into a practical formula, even if it amounts to an admittedly self-serving one.
Paradoxically, Obama was supposed to be the candidate to get us past the bitterness of the culture wars. Instead, the dynamics of the race (the electoral race, that is) seem to be pulling him inexorably back into the fray. But instead of the expected right-left dichotomy, this battle is an internecine feud. And it's one, as I said, that goes even further back than the faultlines emerging this year in the GOP coalition.
But it's also one that's less of an existential threat to the Party. There will be bitterness and disappointment like there is every four years. But I think the brief moment of Obama-inspired intoxication has worn off and everyone is realizing that what we've got is not a revival that will culminate in transcendence but a campaign that will culminate in a nominating convention. And come this summer, I'm confident that the rough spots of the campaign will be put aside, and the Party will rally behind its nominee.
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The Semiotics Of Hope
Via Jesus Politics comes an absolutely must read article by Jonathan Raban titled "The Church of Obama". It's a brilliant exposition of the semiotics of Obama's message of hope, from its roots in black liberation theology to its broader application to the national political narrative. Regular readers of the site know that I don't use these words lightly. If you think you've read everything there is to read about Barack Obama, or if you think you can't bear to read another thing about Barack Obama, click through anyway. You won't regret it.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
The Race Begins?
This Stan Simpson op-ed strikes me as close to the mark:
The litmus test for me on Obama and his potential to persuade us to look past race will happen when his African American support emerges on the national stage.
When those camera backdrops are no longer the faces of mostly white Iowans and New Hampshirites but African Americans giddy with racial pride about Obama's prospects -- if Obama can sustain his white support then -- well, OK, he's got something...
South Carolina will be significant for a few reasons. First to see whether black voters break for Obama or not (polls suggest they will). And second, to see what impact that has on his national appeal. As Simpson points out, Jesse Jackson won five primaries in 1984 and thirteen in 1988, while never once being considered anything other than a black (as opposed to a serious) candidate. It's easy to say that Obama and America have transcended race, but it's more accurate to say that Obama has largely ignored it and America has not yet associated it with him.
This strikes me as one area where, in the debate between whether misogyny or racism is more decisive in American politics, Hillary Clinton actually has the advantage. As her 'emotional moment' showed, when she demonstrates behavior that in traditional gender stereotypes is considered feminine, it can wind up benefitting her (among voters if not with the press). And what I said here notwithstanding, if Obama ever engages in (pronounced) behavior that in traditional racial stereotypes is considered black, chances are he's history.
So it will be very instructive to watch Obama's language, both spoken language and body language, while publicly campaigning for black votes, in regards to how comfortable both Obama and America really are with a candidate who is both black and serious.
Wednesday, January 9, 2008
Matthew Yglesias makes the point that housing foreclosures haven't really hit Iowa or New Hampshire, keeping this huge issue out of the campaign for the time being. Based on a Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies brief I flagged last month, I'd wager that has something to do with the fact that subprime mortgages, both by targeted marketing and self-selection, disproportionately effected blacks and minorities, and Iowa and NH are both lily-white. Yglesias is correct in noting that we're likely to hear the candidates weigh in on this given the impact the housing slump has had on California, Nevada and Florida.
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
The Slang Thang
Ezra Klein makes a good point:
...One element of Obama's appeal to young people that has not garnered much attention is his speech patterns. Not the oratorical brilliance he demonstrates on the stump, but the slang. There was something undeniably powerful about watching him lean into the microphone the night he won the Iowa Caucus and saying, "Give it up for my wife Michelle!" Politicians don't say "give it up." My generation does. They also don't say, by way of greeting, "what's going on?" And they shake hands, they don't, as Obama often does, slap into a clasp linked around the thumbs.
I noticed the "Give it up for my wife, Michelle!" last week myself. There's also a point in the interview I linked to here when he refers to his security detail as a bunch of secret service guys "who are packing". When I heard it, my first thought was 'Does everyone who hears that know he's referring to their guns?' My second was, 'Can he really afford to talk street like that?' I was reminded of a recent Matthew Yglesias post in which he wondered if America was ready for a President who watches The Wire.
There's something more complicated going on here than just a generational thing, though. Because Obama isn't of the same generation as the young people in the audience, or as Ezra Klein, for that matter. And while they've grown up in a generation where everyone speaks hip hop, Obama didn't. This is language that has become the way young people speak, but has its origins in the way black people spoke.
The fact that Obama can so seamlessly and authentically insinuate it into the political discourse says something about the gray area of American identity that he inhabits, between black and white, street and campus, authentic and constructed. But in "transcending" race, Obama in fact represents a composite of several American racial archetypes. He's the black man who alleviates white guilt by making white people feel comfortable about race. He's the hip black man who makes square white people feel like they're "down" by unself-consciously talking to them as if they were. He's also the black man who managed to "play the white man's game" without losing his street cred, an uncommon but archetypal black persona that combines aspects of the House and Field Negroes while being wholly neither. (Specifically, neither servile as the former nor angry as the latter.)
By all appearances, Obama's just one of those guys, and in particular one of those black guys, who gets props wherever he goes and whoever he's with. That it's in a style that's more recognizable to younger people is understandable. But it's not an age thang. It's a black thang.
Thursday, December 6, 2007
According to this brief titled "African Americans and Homeownership: The Subprime Lending Experience,1995 to 2007" from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, even after controlling for comparable risk factors as well as borrower and lender characteristics, blacks and other ethnic minorities were wildly overrepresented in the subprime market for home purchase, home improvement and home refinance loans. There was also a direct correlation between states with a high proportion of subprime loans and states with a high proportion of black residents. Ditto for predatory loans and ZIP codes with predominantly minority populations.
Oddly enough, blacks in predominantly wealthy neighborhoods were three times as likely to take out subprime refinance loans as people in wealthy neighborhoods overall. Compare that to blacks in predominantly poor neighborhoods, who were only one and a half times as likely to take out subprime loans as people in predominantly poor neighborhoods overall. Leaving the brief's authors to wonder whether the expectation of racist lending practices doesn't lead qualified black borrowers to forego the more above board financing options and head directly to the predatory lenders that are happy to see them walk through the door.
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Dog Whistle Politics
I like Garance Franke-Ruta's take on the recent accusations that Hillary Clinton tried to play the "gender card" in the aftermath of the last Democratic debate (via Kevin Drum). She frames her discussion in the context of "the secondary conversation" that women have amongst themselves due to the fact that, a) so much of the discourse in the "primary" political arena is controlled by, conducted by or catered to white men; and b) women in positions of mainstream power suffer consequences if they call too much attention to their status as women. Hillary has been a master of what Franke-Ruta calls "dog whistle politics", basically shout-outs that are only heard by their intended audience. If she got called on it this time, it's mainly due to the intense scrutiny her opponents are placing on her every word these days.
On the other hand, I'm not so sure about this:
For example, Barack Obama took on Clinton on television this morning for slipping into secondary conversation talk, something he himself almost never does, even though he's been offered plenty of opportunities to do so. And, to the extent that he avoids embedding himself within or evoking the common tropes of an African-American secondary conversation, it's actually part of his cross-racial appeal. (Emphasis and links in original.)
I'm thinking about his appearance on 60 Minutes when, in answer to the question "Are you black enough?", he responded, "When it comes time to catch a cab, I am." Or more recently, when he danced his way onto the set of Ellen De Generes' show and, in answer to her comment that he was the best dancer of the candidates she'd seen, joked that "It's a low bar." Then there's his South Carolina Gospel Tour, which wasn't very subtle to begin with, but ended up more closely resembling a foghorn than a dog whistle, due to the flap over Donnie McClurkin.
Granted, these are tropes that have perhaps "crossed over", but they definitely resonate differently for a black audience than for a white one. Same goes for his "Rocky/Apollo Creed" quip at the last debate. It's true that given the historical stereotypes of black men, Obama probably has to be more careful of what he lets slip, as demonstrated by the extreme restraint he showed (hardly) getting his groove on with De Generes. But I'd argue he's been doing the same thing as Hillary.
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Allegedly Stupid, Too
Here's the lede from today's LA Times article on the fallout from James Watson's remarks on race and intelligence:
Nobel laureate James D. Watson, the renowned co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, resigned today as chancellor of the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the aftermath of an uproar over allegedly racist comments he made last week. (Emphasis added.)
Here's the offending passage from the Sunday Times profile/interview:
He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”... His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”. (Emphasis added.)
Now, I understand that the first remark is supported by enough research data to make it defendable, even if it is both highly contested and extremely provocative. Indeed, the context of the quotation as well as the profile in general demonstrate that Watson is no stranger to provocative, even inappropriate, declarations.
But I just don't see how that second remark can be considered anything but flat out racist. There's no "allegedly" about it; it's the real McCoy. Even if Watson himself isn't necessarily a virulent racist, as evidenced by this passage which closely follows the above citation:
In his mission to make children more DNA-literate, the geneticist explains that he has opened a DNA learning centre on the borders of Harlem in New York. He is also recruiting minorities at the lab and, he tells me, has just accepted a black girl “but,” he comments, “there’s no one to recruit.”
I don't know enough about the medical research community to know if there really is a shortage of qualified black candidates or not. But Watson strikes me as an Al Campanis-type, albeit a more articulate version. Here's a man who obviously does have a conscience, seems to have gone out of his way to advance the careers of individual black and female proteges, but in a moment of candor lets slip some wildly outlandish views on race, and elsewhere in the profile some veiled misogyny.
As Watson himself said, the change in leadership at the lab is overdue. But imagine he weren't a 79 year old man at the tail end of his career, but someone with years ahead of him. Does the punishment fit the crime? Again, his actions seem to have been beyond reproach, and there's every reason to believe he'd engage in even more outreach and recruitment now that he's under the microscope. He also immediately took responsibility for his comments, expressing his dismay and regret at the sight of his own words in print. Is it possible the guy can get a pass on something like this?
Update: Based on this comment from one of Josh Marshall's readers, I take it back. Screw Watson. The guy deserved it.
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Imus As Racial Snapshot
"You can make fun of everything, just not with everyone."
"She was five-foot-six/ Two-fifteen/ A bleach-blond bomber with a streak of mean/ She knew how to knuckle and she knew how to scuffle and fight."
-- Jim Croce, "(The Night That I Fell In Love With My) Roller Derby Queen"
Most of what needs to be said about Don Imus' offensive remarks about the Rutgers women's basketball team has already been said, but there are a couple interesting connections that I don't think anyone has made yet.
It's true "nappy headed" is an insult, but as far as I've ever heard it used, it's largely a black-on-black insult. For the simple reason that "bad hair" is a largely black cultural reference point (although my mother used to complain about having it). I would add that it seemed to be the kind of light-hearted dis that was shrugged off in any session of the dozens.
"Ho's", on the other hand, always struck me as shocking and distasteful. Nevertheless it's become a relatively banal term for women (along with "bitches") in the lexicon of black rappers, who have been largely using it with impunity for years, as has been pointed out.
So, yes, if a black comic had made the remark in the context of a routine, it might have gone unnoticed. And yes, too, if Imus had made the remark about a white team in terms offensive to poor whites, it might have gone unnoticed also. And yes, three, this is nothing new. Every group has something of an exclusive license to offensive humor about itself.
But above and beyond the issue of offensiveness, Imus' remarks offer an interesting crosssection of where things stand in terms of race in this country. I imagine that inasmuch as he thought there was humor to be mined in the remark, Imus was aiming for the longstanding punchline of a white guy mimicking black speech or behavior. In this, it was not so different from Al Jolson in blackface, or even Karl Rove as rapper.
But whereas the blackface tradition involved a white person camping a white caricature of black speech, Imus' remarks are the first that involve a white person camping a black caricature of black speech. From my own anecdotal experience as a white guy who spent quite a bit of my youth in black hip hop circles, I can attest to having heard the same remark, and far worse, casually tossed around by black men, and black women for that matter.
Which reminds me of a third quote, from The Autobiography Of Malcolm X, which I can only paraphrase since I don't have the text with me. (Anyone with a citation, pop it in the comments.) It went something along the lines of, "We know how you white people talk about us when we're not in the room. Because some of us can pass, and we've heard you."
Imus' remarks mark a turning point in terms of racial and racist speech, because for the first time, white people have an idea of what goes on among black people when "we're" not in the room. Imus just made the mistake of thinking he could repeat it.
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
When A Delicate Balance Becomes A Double Bind
The WaPo has a story today ostensibly about a group of affluent, educated Black parents and their efforts to keep their middle school-age kids from rejecting academic achievement as something meant for white children. But I couldn't help but read it as a testimonial to just how complex a matrix racial identity has become in contemporary America. Take this paragraph, for instance:
But even with their advantages, these parents say they worry about the images of African American men that their sons absorb from popular media. Carter said he started noticing his son and his friends strutting, letting their pants sag and picking up slang. He became troubled when they started doubting their abilities in advanced math and science.
Now, my reactions upon reading those three sentences started out pretty high on the politically correct meter, steadily worked their way downwards, and then bounced back up a notch or two. So to begin with, I felt outrage, that the hard work of parenting should be subverted by a society's insistance on promoting racial stereotypes for commercial gain.
Then I wondered whether, in 2007, this is a phenomenon limited to black middle class families. In fact, isn't this what American middle class families in general have been dealing with since the days of James Dean and Marlon Brando?
Then I found myself feeling less sympathetic to the kids, who just happened to be adopting behaviors that come along with obvious social advantages within their peer group. Because let's face it. If you're a black nerd trying to navigate a white school at the onset of adolescence, playing up the hip hop angle is a pretty safe bet.
And then it occured to me that if you're a thirteen year-old white nerd, you're just a nerd. But if you're a thirteen year-old black nerd, well, you've got a whole lot of explaining to do. Because given the kind of racial conditioning we get in America, the assumption is that you had a choice. Between the bling and the books. And you opted for the books.
And that's what these parents are trying to do. Get their kids to believe that there's nothing un-Black about opting for the books. But given how much American pop culture has modelled its image of coolness on Black popular culture, it seems like it's a delicate balance they, and we, are asking these kids to strike. A delicate balance that's not at all lost on the kids:
Her son Alden was sometimes the only black student in his class in elementary school, and although he did well, she worried about how comfortable he was. In first grade, he got in trouble for pushing a girl who kept touching his hair. Another time, Carpenter asked Alden what color he was, and he answered, "Dark white."
Of course, when they do buy into the academic system, when they do excel, when they rise in their chosen careers and run for high elected office, aren't these the same kids who, thirty years later, are asked, "Are you Black enough?"