Friday, January 11, 2008

Finally Dealing from the Race Deck

There are times when I believe that American society is like an enormous warehouse-like room that is stacked from bottom to top and end to end with "race cards," each bearing a single fact about segregation, slavery, lynching, job discrimination, racial stereotypes, white supremacy, and racial profiling. As if that weren't enough, we also live like there is a printing press in the middle of the room running off more "race cards" with new facts about race. Sometimes, it appears the room is so saturated with race cards that all of us will start choking to death if they don't get played.

In other words, I'm glad to see the issue of race start to become more prominent in the nomination fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Before I comment further, I should state my biases. I'm supporting Hillary Clinton and am becoming more of a Hillary partisan over time. But I'm also very impressed by Obama, attended his rally in Lexington, KY and have contributed $150 to his campaign. Contrary to the dominant ethic of "color-blindness" which seeks to stifle racial awareness in American society, I believe that it is extremely important for all Americans to be aware of the legacy of white supremacy and the mostly African-American efforts to overcome white supremacy. Contrary to the traditional national ethic of assimilating other groups into an Anglicized white tradition, I believe that all Americans should orient themselves toward the largely African-American traditions of fighting brutal forms of domination in our own country. I'm not saying that whites haven't been the most prominent actors in resistance movements like the American Revolution, the labor movement, and feminism. But African-American struggles against white supremacy have been the most pervasive and persistent fights against oppression in this country. All Americans need to identify with traditions of African-American resistance if we are to pursue social justice in this country and act with any sense of decency abroad.

Having said that, I'll move forward.

Here's Hillary's controversial comment about Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King:

I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done,” she said, in response to a question about how her dismissive attitude toward Obama’s “false hopes” would have applied to the civil rights movement. “That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it and actually got it accomplished.
This is one of the most inept comments I've ever seen attributed to Hillary Clinton. I suppose she meant that it took someone of Lyndon Johnson's enormous experience and legislative skill to get civil rights legislation passed. But saying that "it took a president to get it done" is a vague and inapt way to make the point. Barack Obama's already acknowledged the importance of the presidency by spending the last year campaigning to be president himself. Besides that, Hillary Clinton doesn't have Lyndon Johnson's long pre-presidential experience or legislative skill any more than Obama does. Even then, Johnson was only able to push through fundamental change because of the wave of grieve and sympathy for the civil rights movement brought about by President Kennedy's assassination. Hillary doesn't really want to say that fundamental change is so hard that a president has to be in extremely fortuitous circumstances to get it accomplished. But what is she saying?

Some African-American observers believe that Hillary is insinuating that it took a white leader like Lyndon Johnson to get civil rights legislation passed. I don't necessarily agree with this. Hillary's comment does not sound at all like the right-wing race warriors Abilgail and Stephen Thernstrom who do argue this point in America in Black and White. But, it's certainly not a wholly unreasonable interpretation, and Hillary should have known better than to make a comment that could be interpreted in this light. She exercises that much caution in relation to the economy, the military, and the war in Iraq. The only reason Hillary didn't do so in relation to race is that she's a white Democratic politician who is not used to running against an African-American candidate, not used to talking about issues that are connected to race, and not used to being held accountable by African-American voters who have a real alternative. She better get used to that accountability quickly or she won't deserve the support of African-Americans during the primaries or the general election if she wins the nomination.

I don't want to attempt to appear even-handed, but I believe there's a lesson for African-American observers here as well. Some of the African-American blogs are referring to Bill Clinton's criticism of Barack Obama's rhetoric of hope as a "fantasy" as a racist, condescending, or at least an unwise or "racially risky" statement. I don't buy that at all. As the first serious African-American contender for the presidency, Barack Obama is an obvious target for the criticism of his opponents. In fact, Obama should, and does, consider Bill Clinton's criticism as evidence of his progress as a candidate. Now that African-American Democrats have become contenders, they should expect the same searching criticism that white contenders like Hillary Clinton get.

At the same time, African-American bloggers make an invaluable contribution to the Democratic primary by treating Hillary Clinton as a "white woman." In fact, she is a white woman. Actually, I'm a white guy myself. People in the United States and whites in particular are tempted to treat race strictly as an issue of black people. That's B.S. Neither contemporary American society nor American history can be understood realistically without thoroughly analyzing the ways in which the "whiteness" of white people is important. In this regard, "thefreeslave" performs a valuable public service when he caricatures Hillary's "tearing up" episode in this way.

The Tears of a White Woman are the greatest weapon this side of a knitted rope. Ask Emmit Till and a thousand other black men rotting on the vine, how strong them beige tears can be.

Heading into political oblivion, my white sister went to the well, literally bathing her face in water from her political makeup kit.

And one mo’ thang (said in my most Obamanesque lingua negra): Polling appears to be used to keep fools on that psychofragilistic-rollercoaster - what’s gonna happen, fuckin’ wit dem expectations and high hopes and then dashing them on the rocks like dem Spanish Conquistadores. They tell you Obama was up by double digits. You believe it, of course; then you are shocked, shocked when it doesn’t come out the way they told you it was ’sposed to. Did they play you, so you’d be surprised/ disappointed? Hmm. They play ya any other night of the year - why would this be different?!

Hell, this is the Oscars of manipulative, missionary mind control: another state, another dog fight, South Carolina here we come, Round 3, a fucking choreographed puppet’s dance - only you are the puppet. Dance muthafucka, dance!

Follow the bouncing ball while they rifle through your cranium, stealing your lint, coin, brain cells, vote.

To be honest, I disagree with "thefreeslave" here. I don't think Hillary's tearing up was pre-planned in the way that "thefreeslave thinks." But it's important for Hillary and all of us white people to recognize that a "white woman's tears" don't just have connotations for her being seen as "strong vs weak" in gender terms or as "contrived vs real" in authenticity terms. White woman's tears have often been used as a weapon in the race war that has characterized so much of American history. For me, the significance of the "thefreeslave's" comment is that he's bringing specifically African-American imagery into the mainstream of debate over the meaning of Hillary's tearing up in New Hampshire. I think that's a great thing even if I don't agree.

William Gray, a former Congressman and head of the NAACP from Philadelphia, argues that everybody connected with the presidential campaigns should stay quiet about race and gender.
“Some of the Obama people are clearly trying to use Hillary’s comments about Martin Luther King and distort them into something she did not say, which is
outrageous . . . It’s a hot issue in South Carolina, and they’re spreading the word all over. I hope that the good senator will make sure that none of his people are doing that. We don’t need to have a debate about race or gender.”

To the contrary, one of the biggest benefits of Barack Obama's and Hillary Clinton's candidacies is that it gives American society an opportunity to talk about race and gender in more fruitful ways. Both candidates should be playing our cards and developing better skills at doing so.


Anonymous said...

I wonder what Freud would make of your repeated references to "thefieldslave" instead of "thefreedslave"?

Ric Caric said...

Oh god! Hopefully, he'd forgive me.