The talented tenth
Black people were a lot more
comfotable when he was dead
Republican use of the race card
by cap and gown
Sun Aug 20, 2006 at 11:32:40 AM PDT
I read with interest Digby's recent piece on Republicans' subtle invocations of race (or not so subtle in the case of Allen) during this election season. I have no doubt that there is a certain amount of race-baiting going on here. Talk about Rangel, Conyers, Sharpton and Jackson is obviously meant to invoke a stereotyped image against which it is hoped that white voters will react. I think, however, that a more nuanced understanding of what is going on here might be helpful.
Consider, for instance, Condoleezza Rice or Collin Powell. If someone like Powell had been on that stage with Lamont rather than Jackson and Sharpton, there would have been hardly any comment. (Obviously, Powell himself would have caused considerable comment since he is a Republican and because of his connections to the failed policies against which Lamont was running. Nevertheless, I hope I am clear: the presence of average, non-descript African Americans would not have resulted in the kind of commentary we have seen.) If you grant me this premise, this would then bring into question the idea that what we see going on is a simple reincarnation of good old-fashioned race-baiting.
Instead, I think we should be aware of the politico-cultural dimensions of race involved. Race itself is a socio-cultural construct. Therefore, to differentiate between cultural blackness, for instance, and actual skin color should not be much of a stretch. I think we see this phenomenon all the time. So, for instance, we have the term "Oreo" which is defined as someone who, as far as pigmentation is concerned, is "objectively black" but behaves as if they were "white." O.J. Simpson, I think, is one of the prime examples of this. Until Johnny Cochran decided to cast his case as the continuation of a long history of treating black men as rapists and murderers, Simpson evinced no particular connection to the African American community. Many African Americans no doubt think of Powell, Rice and Clarence Thomas as "Oreos." The reverse situation is also possible as well. So, for instance, we have Eminem who, as far as pigment goes, is "white," but who is culturally "black." A greater stretch would be Bill Clinton who has been called America's "first Black President." At any rate, the point should be clear.
I think that the overwhelming majority of white Americans have now moved beyond the hard core racialism of the "one drop" era. (I.E., the time when having even one ancestor of African origin was enough to make one Black.) Skin color, in other words, is no longer the defining factor. Instead, we have moved into the realm where "blackness" (and "whiteness") is more purely cultural. I say "more purely" not in the sense that "blackness" was not culturally determined before, but in the sense of the weakened relationship between actual skin color and the cultural conceptions of what skin color means.
I think we have now reached a point where white Americans who worry about "race" have an image of blackness that is somewhat removed from worries about miscegenation and integration. In general, whites have no problem with middle-class blacks moving into their neighborhoods, going to their schools, or even hanging out with their children. What concerns them are "ghetto blacks." These are lower income blacks who generally live in inner cities and who are associated with crime, poverty, and drug use. More particularly, I believe they are concerned about the "gangsta" image which seems to now be the defining characteristic of blackness. Race, in other words, becomes conflated with class. This has always been the case to some degree. Previously, however, race had always trumped class such that even middle- and upper-class blacks could not escape the consequences of their skin color, whereas now they can. The class status of African Americans, who are generally poorer than whites, becomes a confirmation of their racial inferiority, though individual Blacks can divorce themselves from this broad-brush assumption of inferiority through their demonstration of economic success. (And in the process free the Social Darwinist predispositions of many white Americans from their racist moorings.)
The issue with Sharpton, Jackson, et. al., then becomes not one of race, per se, but of "blackness." Instead of being politicians who happen to be black, they are seen as Black Politicians. In other words, their agenda is focused on African American issues. I think this upsets many whites because they do not want to think of themselves as racists (and many of them probably are not in the classic sense of that term) yet this continued attention to issues of race makes them feel as though they are personally being accused of racism. Most whites are no doubt unaware of the continuing effects of past racist policies on the present life chances of African Americans, what is called institutional racism. They want to believe that now that the formal barriers to black advancement have been eliminated, that is all that is needed. Continued emphasis on the need to go further in helping African Americans, rather than being seen as something needed to remedy the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, is understood as a critique of current attitudes and practices.
We should also view the reaction to Sharpton, et. al. in terms of the hyper-nationalist sentiment so evident in many other areas of public life today. When Black Politicians focus on the shortcomings in America's treatment of African Americans, they are, in the minds of conservative whites, implicitly questioning the basic goodness of America. Patriots do not want to think that their country has any moral shortcomings. They wish to believe that America represents everything that is good in the world. Sure, we had slavery, Jim Crow, Indian removal, Chinese exclusion, and all that other nastiness. But that was in the past. In the end, America's eventual goodness overcame these problems. While we may have sinned in the past, American has repented and now walks the paths of righteousness. A continued focus on issues of race calls this narrative of repentance and salvation into question.
One can also relate this reaction to the right's focus on "hippies." Hippies are mainly reviled for their anti-Americanism. In the same way that the anti-war movement today dredges up images of hippies, Sharpton, et. al., are a reminder of the Black Panthers. Black nationalism has always been an affront to white Americans, not, I believe, primarily because of race, but because of nationalism. Black nationalism rejects the nationalism of the white community (which has been based on whiteness) and in so doing rejects the American nation, at least as it is currently constituted. Thus, what we have is not a simple matter of racism, but of racism wedded to nationalism. This, I believe, explains why Collin Powell could have such a broad-based constituency among whites: his bona fides as an American patriot were beyond question. Powell was a shining example of the essential goodness of American nationalism that would allow anyone, regardless of race, to rise to the highest levels of power, honor, and dignity. It was also a repudiation of the Black nationalist critique.
I imagine that none of this is new. And I don't know that it says anything useful about the correct ways to approach the current political situation that faces Democrats. Nevertheless, I felt a more comprehensive analysis of the Republicans use of coded racial imagery could contribute to the conversation.
As a final note: this analysis has nothing to do with Sen. George Allan's recent use of the term "macaca." That would appear to be just old fashioned racism with a french accent.
What the author misses is that the GOP campaign is designed to appeal to middle and upper class blacks, so people like Powell make them feel comfortable, while Sharpton clearly does not. Which is why Rice and Powell are acceptable and Jackson and Sharpton are not.
posted by Steve @ 12:07:00 AM