Thursday, October 23, 2008

Nothing's New under the Sun

working through some thoughts...

## ETA another hopefully relevant thought below ##

While sitting in the pediatrician's office yesterday, I flipped through an issue of Time, drawn by the cover above. Interesting that, to show how race is less of a factor, half of his face is leeched of color, fading to white, in a sense.

Because we all know white = default, and thus, without race.

I was willing to venture beyond the cover because I wanted to read Ta-Nehisi Coats's article on what it would mean to black people if Obama loses.

Instead, I flipped first to Peter Beinart's essay, Is Barack Obama American Enough? He begins
"I am just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America." So said Sarah Palin about Barack Obama on Oct. 6 as she attacked him for his decision to "pal around" with onetime Weatherman bomber Bill Ayers. With Obama back in the lead, the new, harsher Republican line surprised almost nobody. The Obama campaign declared it a distraction before it even arrived.

But seen in historical perspective, the McCain campaign's strategy against Obama is actually kind of shocking. For years, the recipe for injecting race into a political campaign has been clear. First, invoke the specter of black crime, as Lee Atwater did in 1988 when he vowed to turn murderer Willie Horton into Michael Dukakis' "running mate." Second, attack lazy people in the inner city, as Ronald Reagan did in 1976 when he condemned a Chicago "welfare queen." Third, bash affirmative action, as the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms did in 1990 when he ran an ad showing white hands crumpling a job rejection notice.


[T]his year, with a black man actually running for President, the old recipe has been shelved. John McCain hasn't run ads on crime, welfare or racial preferences. At the GOP convention, the subjects barely came up.

Does that mean race doesn't matter this year? Hardly. It just matters in a different way. In the past, Republicans often used race to make their opponents seem anti-white. In 2008, with their incessant talk about who loves their country and who doesn't, McCain and Palin are doing something different: they're using race to make Obama seem anti-American.
I've highlighted the parts of his premise that I have a bit of an issue with (and it's certainly not the heart of his argument that troubles me).

Actually, seen from a historical perspective, it's not shocking. The political treatment of African Americans in this country has always painted us as not American and thus, our patriotism has always been suspect. The 1857 Dred Scot decision simply legalized what people already "knew": African Americans were not citizens, not Americans, not to have access to the country's legal or political systems. The 14th amendment less than a decade later would do little to change that, especially in the South. One of the primary arguments that southerners used in disfranchising African Americans was that we had proved ourselves unfit to serve in the American political system during Reconstruction and that we lacked the qualities of people who deserved the privilege (not right!!!) of the franchise.

But other regions of the country had their own methods of exclusion. Definitions of who was American increasingly excluded people of color (and certain immigrants and their descendants). To be American was (primarily) to be a white person of Northern/Western European descent.* I'll come back to this in a moment.

## I think this exclusion of African Americans from the category of "Americans" is one of the things that prompted Roy Wilkins to proclaim that the greatest contribution of the New Deal to the Negro "was its doctrine that Negros are part of the country and must be considered..." This ideology was overwhelming. Despite widespread discrimination in New Deal programs and FDR's unwillingness to take a stand on anti-lynching measures, the sense of finally being included prompted millions of African Americans to leave the party of Lincoln. ##

I just watched a film clip from Scandalize My Name in which the House Committee on Un-American Activities called Jackie Robinson in to discern his opinion on Paul Robeson's statement that African Americans wouldn't take up arms against the Societ Union. The narrator of the clip described it as (paraphrase) "Jackie Robinson being called upon to testify about the loyalty of his race."

Yes, because that loyalty was always in question--not that any perceived "disloyalty" could possibly have anything to do with the way African Americans were treated. Many communists in the U.S. were pushing for civil rights and full citizenship for African Americans, but it was stunning that some black people were receptive to those messages?

Trying to improve your condition is supposed to be the American way. But, when African Americans do it, it's painted as problematic, selfish, and suspect. To go back to the previous example, agitation for civil rights, for improving the status and opportunities of African Americans, for the end of Jim Crow and de jure segregation was [IS] linked to communism, and thus was unAmerican in itself.**

Also included in the abstract "American way" category is being politically drawn to and supportive of people who represent or at least support your interests. But this is not allowed for African Americans. Think of some Republican arguments: 1) Most African Americans support Democrats, overwhelmingly, because they engage in the unAmerican practice of encouraging reliance on the government instead of individuality and "personal responsibility." That's it--all our political awareness and concerns boils down to "I wonder what I can get from the government." Then there's 2) even though we typically support Democrats, we support Barack Obama primarily because he's black. It's like they say "let's create interchangeable reasons for why we believe black people are 'shills' for the Democratic Party" without ever once acknowledging that we have legitimate political concerns and that our affiliations are by choice.

White people who support the McCain campaign, however, are putting "country first." Which brings us back to the privilege of being the default; they are de-raced, perceived as having no (racial) self-interest. This is perfectly evidenced by Michael Savage's
[F]orgive me for being so blunt -- but it seems to Michael Savage that the only people who don't seem to vote based on race are white people of European origin.
The implication: because these real, pro-American Americans act in the best interests of the country. It's an implication possible because of who is defined as American.

*Which brings me back to that definition and the reason the McCain-Palin technique isn't all that new. If being American is being white, then there is little difference between being anti-American and anti-white. These people certainly understand that:

See how they mix fear of Obama's "foreignness," his possible "antiAmerican-ness" with fear that he is "anti-white?" On some level, they understand the American political system as one that has upheld white supremacy and remained a place where power is largely invested in wealthy white men.

This might be a slightly different angle, but it's the same old game.
**Links between African American agitation and communism served as a self-fulfilling prophecy for some--of course African Americans who were not truly American, would be attracted to the ultimate anti-American doctrine.


Mommy to Ander and Wife to Box said...

No, no, no. I disagree completely.

It is NOT the same old game.

It is a MUCH worse game. This time, it's harder to notice it happening. This time, I know tons of well-meaning white people - who would never knowingly and intelligently vote based on racism - who are voting against Obama.

These are the same people who work in inner city schools without fear. These are the same people that contribute to campaigns of people of all races. These are people who would have explained, in the 70s, about how race doesn't matter. These are good people, and they are slipping in to the McCain racism net.

Now THAT is very scary.

Kimberly said...

Elle- you describe it all perfectly. Blacks have always been marginalized as other, and our patriotism has always been questioned. I just can't imagine how it is rational or logical in peoples minds to think a man running for president of this country - and putting his own life at risk I might add - is not patriotic and does not love this country. But this mode of thinking doesn't have to be rationalized, it's just part of the cloth - it's engrained and socialized in these people's minds.

And Mommy to Anders, I agree. The ones who aren't out in the open with their racism scare me as much as the openly vicious ones.

Kismet said...

elle, thanks as always for the historical perspective.

The conflict has always been (will always be) about what is an American. What does that word mean? Even further back than you mention--from the antebellum period when abolitionists were criticizing the South for espousing ideas of republicanism and liberty but blatantly denying the same to its black population. And of course through Jim Crow. Accordingly, what an American is has always ended up resting at the black community's feet. More than any other population, not because others (Asian, Latin@, Eastern European, Jewish) communities weren't important as they entered the conversation but because the conversation, the rhetoric is literally very black and white. And it is difficult in the U.S. to think outside of that.

And there are always silences in the debate. Abolitionists were advocating anti-slavery from a North that was anti-suffrage, equal education, and pro residential and job discrimination.

Maybe there is a way to think through white reactions to Obama in that kind of context. So these whites who are slipping away as fast as post-Civil War Republicans did after Hayes-Tilden, as fast as the white working class did after securing home ownership in the 60s, as fast as white liberals did after deseg in the 70s...maybe there is a lesson to be learned (FAST!) about how to speak with them about what it means to be an American? That my rights do not make yours null and void? That our histories really come out of the same place, a place searching for equality, safety and justice--even when those terms meant different things.

Is there a way to get at a common definition that we haven't been able to get to before and prevent history from repeating itself again?

(Of course, if it does, the other lesson of history is that it is cyclical, and new days bring new challenges but new opportunities and triumphs too...)

Macon D said...

Great post! And this: " If being American is being white, then there is little difference between being anti-American and anti-white." What a perfectly succinct way to put it. Like Toni Morrison wrote, "American means white."

Co-sign what mommy to ander said. Beware the moderates.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...