Thursday, December 29, 2011

Compassionate Conservatism? An Open Letter to Newt Gingrich From the Child of a Janitor

I write this for little girls and boys like her...

Newt Gingrich has repeatedly demonstrated that he is a horrible human being. Therefore, his repeated comments about the black poor, and “inner city” communities, where people “don’t have a work ethic” are not at all a surprise. Time has demonstrated that “compassionate conservatism,” an oxymoron if there ever was one, is not particularly kind, just, or humane.

As demonstrated by his Wednesday editorial on the website Human Events, Newt Gingrich is apparently wedded to the idea that young black and brown kids should have the “privilege” of becoming janitors in their schools in order to learn about the value of “hard work."

There are any number of problems with this argument. Primarily, Gingrich is recycling the ugly and deeply racist belief that black people are inherently lazy: poor children who don’t see people around them working apparently grow up to be lazy adults, who are on welfare, dependent on the state, and have no understanding of how to put in an honest day’s work. He gives no consideration to the stigma that child janitors would experience, and the taunting and bullying that would inevitably result from being one of the students who carries a pail, mop, or broom around their school.

Newt Gingrich is also blindly ignorant of the issues surrounding structural unemployment in poor inner city communities, and where it is not a deficit of work ethic or drive, but a lack of desperately wanted job opportunities—especially for young people—that drives urban poverty. Given the Right-wing’s assault on unions, and the social safety net, more broadly, Gingrich’s smearing of school janitors as an enriched and craven class of greedy public employees is just more red meat for an agenda that wants to destroy the American middle and working classes.

In all, Newt Gingrich is offering up a Dickensonian fantasy of workhouses in which African American wastrels and street urchins learn the value of hard work from benevolent white folks like him.

Of course, Newt Gingrich’s children, and those of the moneyed classes who he represents, would never be asked to pick up a mop and broom at their schools—as their kids’ responsibility is first and foremost to prepare and study for college, and the bright future which awaits them.

And I must wonder, what lessons have the children of the financier class, the trust fund baby and inherited money types who brought about the Great Recession, been taught about the value of hard work from observing the destructive behavior of their parents during this time of economic calamity?

Over the years, I have developed a pretty thick skin regarding these matters. However, there is something particular offensive about Newt Gingrich’s repeated insistence that poor black kids become janitors in order to learn about the merits of “hard work” that demands engagement. It would seem to his eyes that janitors are disposable people with easy jobs. Moreover, to him, a janitor's job is so simple that anyone, even an elementary or middle school student, could do it well.

As the refrain goes, the personal is political. I am the son of a janitor. I try not to break kayfabe, or to drop the mask too often. Nevertheless, sometimes it is necessary to speak up for yourself, as well as for the many other people who may not have either the privilege, or opportunity, to speak truth to power.

In that spirit, please take this as an open letter of sorts to Newt Gingrich (and the particular brand of compassionate conservatism that he represents).

My father was a hardworking man. He was not perfect. He took his job seriously and worked for many years as a janitor. He did this with pride, integrity, and self-respect. My father rarely took a sick day, and worked in this job for several decades, retiring only in his late 70s. Work meant a great deal to him, and he would eventually pass away about a year later. I warned my father that without a sense of purpose, and isolated from the many people he befriended at his job over the years, that he would not last long. I was (sadly) proven correct.

These are not details designed to elicit a tear; they are details of a full life, the human experience that stands behind words such as “janitor,” “teacher,” “unions,” and “working class.” These are perennially good titles, now transformed into slurs, by people like Newt Gingrich and his conservative brethren.

My father was a boss, a confidante to his coworkers, and advisor to the men and women he affectionately called his “crew.” His work was at times dangerous, involved long hours, and a good amount of responsibility.

No elementary, middle, or high school student could do my father’s job.

Growing up, I was embarrassed that my father was a “lowly” janitor. His job title was technically “senior maintenance supervisor.” I used that whenever I had the chance. When one’s friends are the children of doctors, lawyers, and white collar professionals, you learn to improvise.

There would be many awkward moments, when my father, the janitor, would have one of his three or so pagers go off in the company of my friends. We could be at a bowling tournament, a movie, or a birthday party, and inevitably one of those beepers would ring.

Those who did not know the facts of the situation would ask if “he was a doctor.” I would answer “no, my father just has an emergency that he has to take care of.”

Unlike in Newt Gingrich’s twisted dream, janitors and their families are not rich. My family had good Christmases, an occasional vacation, and nice Sunday meals. My father’s pay kept me in nice clothes, indulged my hobbies, and helped me (with some hefty student loans and grants) to go to college. My father’s work, in combination with my mother’s, kept us comfortable. We were not middle class, or even solidly working class by most measures. Somehow, we were okay.

A janitor’s job is also about personal relationships. I will not pretend that my father’s position as a janitor at a large Ivy League university was typical. He made sure that I met interesting people; I could take the day off of school, follow him around, and go to the library. He would leave me with different professors or graduate students so that I could talk to them about politics, history, or philosophy. Because my father worked there for many decades, he was part of the university community. My father took that role seriously.

For example, there were many occasions when he made sure that international students had a place to eat and go for the holidays (at times, this welcoming space was our home). My father, the janitor, was a union man and took great pride in how he always fought for the rights of the part-time staff—a group that he felt was always “getting a bum deal.”

When people needed jobs, oftentimes young men who were recently released from jail, or career ex-cons, they could come to my father. He would size them up. If they passed his personal test of being honest and direct about their situation(s), my father would go with them to human resources, vouch for their reliability, and put them on his “crew” so that they would learn how to do “right.”

My father also had some fun times at his job. He loved to talk about how, on one afternoon, he had to show a student from rural China how to use an American style toilet. My father joked that “the young man made it this far, I didn’t think using one of our toilets would be so complicated.”

There were sad times too.

On more than one occasion my father, a janitor, had to take up a collection for a student to send home to their family, to help them buy a ticket if there was an emergency, or to subsidize the funeral expenses for one of his crew, or the part-timers, who didn’t have his years of seniority, and pay.

No child could do that job.

My father only wanted me to get a job where my hands would be clean, and I would not have to pick up other people’s messes. I have, fingers crossed, more or less gotten that far. It has taken some years, and a bit of growth. But now, I am finally proud to be the child of a janitor. Those millions of us who were taken care of, provided for, and raised by working class folks such as maids, home health care workers, and janitors, have much to hold our heads high about.

These people are the real “job creators” in this country: they pay bills, provide for their families, and donate to churches, mosques, synagogues, and charitable organizations.

Working class people like my father help to sustain communities and neighborhoods.

Whenever Newt Gingrich and his brand of 1% percent plutocrat conservatives besmirch the working people of this country, people like us and our kin, we need to speak up. There is no shame in our lineage. And all of us need to say thanks, to acknowledge those janitors, maintenance people, and the like who work in our schools, office buildings, apartment complexes, and take care of our aged and sick parents and relatives. They deserve our respect; unfortunately, they rarely receive it from the American people.

Once more, I am proud to be a child of the working class. Are you?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Notes on Historical Memory: "The point isn’t that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust..."

The point isn’t that American slavery is the exact moral or material equivalent of the Holocaust, but that our country’s “original sin” has not been fully, culturally processed.
A man with a wide smile appeared next to our table, seemingly out of nowhere, and introduced himself as the restaurant’s manager. We chatted about the proper pronunciation of “crawfish,” and the differences between the gumbos made on the bayou and in New Orleans, and when the subject turned to the Cabin, I asked him how it felt to run a place that used to house slaves.
“It’s history, and that’s all there is to it,” he said. “It’s not something we dwell on, or push out there for people to see. It is a touchy subject. We just want people to have a nice time when they come here, and to enjoy the food and the history. This is a place where everybody feels welcome."
Salon has a provocative and wonderful feature by Peter Birkenhead about the tapestry that is historical memory, the slave-holding South, and contemporary conservatism. We have spent a good amount of time this past year exploring these issues, and have worked though such topics as role-playing games as a means to "explore" chattel slavery historical tourism and slave cabins,black Confederate soldier.
Why We Still Can't Talk About Slavery seems like a fitting complement to a year-long conversation.
In all, it would seem that many of us have no use for such a flattening of history:
Later that day, at Destrehan, a former sugar plantation a few miles down, the guide neglected to mention that it was the site of the largest slave revolt in American history.
When I asked Angela da Silva, a professor of black history at Lindenwood University, and owner of the St. Louis-based National Black Tourism Network, for her thoughts, she said, “Jesus coming down off the cross couldn’t get me to stay in some gentrified slave cabin with a jacuzzi in it. The misery and pain that happened in those cabins … This is about shame.
People who own these places want the history to go away. But it won’t go away. And until we as black people insist on the story being told, no one has any incentive to change their business model.”
As Birkenhead beautifully details, the rise of the New Right and the Tea Party, the Republican Party's fetish for the Confederacy, its Lost Cause ideology, and embrace of States' Rights and nullification have brought questions of historical memory to the forefront of the public discourse during the 2012 presidential primary season.
Moreover, the literal white washing of the history of a traitorous Confederacy, what was a military state dedicated to racial tyranny, and a willful lie about the benevolence of whiteness, loom large in the Conservative political imagination. Those dreams are amplified and made more imminent when a black man is President of the United States, because for the populist conservative, neo-Confederate crowd, nothing could be more of an abomination.
For Tea Party GOP conservatives, the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism is inexorably tied to a Gone With the Wind, Redemption, race and reunion narrative. This tale has no use for such "inconveniences" as chattel slavery, white supremacy, the genocide of indigenous people, and racial pogroms.
The Reconstruction-era South didn't invent dishonesty, but its response to America's defining trauma has become a foundational lie, supporting an ever-growing edifice of false history. It’s a lie so big no one will forcefully challenge it, a lie that’s too big to fail. In the sesquicentennial year of the Civil War, the “stars and bars” fly over state capitals, proclamations are issued that honor the Confederacy without mentioning slavery, and commuters drive to work on highways named after white supremacists. And appeals to wounded pride and the lost values of imagined pasts are an everyday part of our political culture.
This should come as no surprise. Adults who dress up in Colonial era period clothing, believe that the Constitution is divinely inspired, and take the metaphor of "a shining city on the hill" as a get out of jail pass for America's shortcomings both at home and abroad, have little use for such facts. Selection bias, Fox News, and an embrace of a fantastical view of political and social reality, protects the Tea Party GOP faithful from any experience of cognitive dissonance.
Birkenhead concludes Why We Still Can't Talk About Slavery with a powerful point. He is spot on in many regards. But, Birkenhead commits a common error, where even in offering a robust critique of the lie that is the "popular" embrace of a neutered and "harmless" Confederacy--where millions of people were killed, tortured, raped, torn from family and kin, reduced to items in an inventory, or property to be taxed on a ledger--he uses the "universal I," a common sense judgement of who "we" actually are:
If America is a family, it’s a family that has tacitly agreed to never speak again — not with much honesty, anyway — about the terrible things that went on in its divided house. Slavery has been taught, it has been written about. There can’t be many subjects that rival it as an academic ink-guzzler. But the culture has not digested slavery in a meaningful way, hasn't absorbed it the way it has World War II or the Kennedy assassination. We don't feel the connections to it in our bones.
It’s hard enough these days to connect with what happened 15 minutes ago, let alone 15 decades, given the endless layers of “classic,” “heirloom,” “traditional” “collectible,” “old school” comfort we’re swaddled in. But isn’t it the least we could do? What is the willful forgetting of slavery if not the coverup of a crime, an abdication of responsibility to its victims and to ourselves?
Who is this "we" that do not feel the connections to slavery in our bones? Why must United States history, and the idea of shared (and manufactured) community, almost by definition exclude black Americans? I know that I feel slavery in my bones and spirit. Our struggle and triumph in the face of almost unimaginable White barbarism is a legacy to be honored. And when I think of the fact that my grandmother's grandmother was likely born a slave, the connection to "the peculiar institution" is pretty deep in my blood and soul.
In all, America wants to forget on its own terms, because to fully acknowledge the centuries of chattel slavery in this country, and almost a century of Jim and Jane Crow, may actually require an acknowledgement of debts due. As I have long suggested, it is not the financial or monetary compensation for harm done to black Americans both in the past, and to the present by Whites and the Racial State, that is necessarily the deal breaker. No, it is the acknowledgement of wrong doing, and the simple words "I am sorry, we were wrong," that are at the root of why reparations are a non-starter in the United States.
An apology doesn't "cost" a thing, but for Whiteness (and many White people), it seems to be prohibitively expensive.
Because we all know that the sins of the father (or mother) are never passed down to the son or the daughter. Ironically, the privileges of whiteness, materially, economically, psychically, and politically, can be accrued with interest (and with no accountability at all) for centuries without end.
That is one hell of a bargain.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Some Shameless Self-Promotion and a Dose of Pastor Manning: Chauncey DeVega Will Be on The Ed Schultz Radio Show Tomorrow Afternoon

As always, just sharing when you can get a small dose of my bloviating, faux-expertise, efforts at punditry. I am scheduled for The Ed Shultz radio show Wednesday at 2:30pm EST where I will be chatting with one of WARN's friends, Mr. Mike Papantonio, host of Ring of Fire Radio.

2011 went by quickly. Tomorrow, I am going to be doing a postmortem on the role of racism in the Tea Party GOP, as well as spending some time dissecting Mitt Romney's efforts to paint Obama as unAmerican and illegitimate.

To tide you over, here is a new promo from the one and only Pastor Herman Manning. This brother is a great performer. He changes his position(s) on Beck, Palin, and the Tea Party's bigotry every broadcast. There is no consistency here--except for his laser focus on Barack Obama as an agent of the devil, a man who apparently plotted to kill his own grandmother, is a secret C.I.A. agent, and is not a U.S. citizen. Manning's deep dedication to that one meme is his genius.

Like they say, a broke clock is right twice a day: Manning is spot on in his analysis of the Tea Party and how the New Right's pining for a second American Civil War is part of a bigger gambit by corporate interests who want to bring America fully into a state of "inverted totalitarianism."

He is also quite lucid in his suggestion that Right-wing media elites are marshaling their mouth-breathing goon squads, stirring the pot of white racism for the 2012 election, and in an act of desperation, will "come home to the truth" of how Obama is not eligible to be President.

Given the clown car that is the 2012 Republican Presidential field, the paranoid style is the only style--enabled by white racial resentment--they have left to play, as the Tea Party GOP's issue positions are extremely unpopular with the mass public.

Check me out tomorrow. And do wish me luck.

What Do They Call a President Who Happens to be Black? If You Are Fox News You Call Him a "Ghetto Crackhead"

Malcolm X famously asked, "what do you call an educated negro with a B.A. or an M.A., with a B.S., or a PhD?" The answer? "You call him a nigger, because that is what the white man calls him, a nigger."

Decades later, his wisdom endures.

Malcolm's observation captures the pain experienced by many African Americans, when during their coming of age moment (either before or after the talk about how not to get shot by the police during a routine traffic stop), they realize that being "young, gifted, and black" is not, all things being equal, sufficient for success in America. Malcolm's words also capture the sentiments felt by any black person whose confidence has been described by their managers or peers as "threatening" or "arrogant."

His wisdom also explains the moment when black professors walk into a room for the first time and their students look at each other in shock, wondering if this teacher is "qualified" to teach them; Malcolm's wit also captures the frustration and insult felt by any black or brown person who has been presumptively assumed to be a janitor, maintenance worker, or mail clerk at their job, when in fact, their titles are actually "manager," "director," or "vice president."

Malcolm's comment on the arrogance of white racism also speaks to collective memory: it conjures up family stories of men and women trained as doctors, engineers, and lawyers, but who had to work as Pullman Car porters, maids, and home health attendants because Jim and Jane Crow America was by definition, a system designed to choke out the social and economic mobility of the African American community. Both then and now, white racism does the work of class inequality.

African-American veterans of World War 2, "the Greatest Generation," were denied the fruits of citizenship given by the United States government to their white peers. Black Americans fought fascism abroad. But, at home they were denied access to the GI Bill, and the FHA and VA home loan programs that helped to create the American middle class. In practice, these programs were what Ira Katznelson famously described as "affirmative action" for white people.

The "Double V" campaign would continue against American Apartheid. The Black Freedom Struggle in the face of such stern and deep opposition would eventually triumph. This is an American success story, one which the popular imagination conveniently overlooks.

On the public stage in the present, the lack of faith in black expertise, ability, genius, and competence is on full display whenever the ugly phrase "qualified minority" is uttered by one of the faux populist Right in order to demagogue, and mine the waters of white racial resentment, for cheap political gains.

As the folkism suggests, African Americans have had to do ten times as well, to get half as far as whites. In the post-Civil Rights moment, that margin has diminished quite a bit. Yet, there is more than ample evidence that whiteness still pays great dividends to its owners and beneficiaries in such areas as the housing market, jobs, wealth and income inequality, inter-generational mobility, access to health care, and life chances (more generally).

It is a given that Fox News has no love for President Obama. To point, on the Hannity show last week (and without retraction or apology after the fact), Brent Bozell, of the conservative media "watchdog" group, Media Research Center, described President Barack Obama, "as a skinny, ghetto, crackhead."

This moment was an object lesson on the white racial frame in action, and the truth of Brother Malcolm's deep understanding of the pathologies of white racism, where any black person, however accomplished, intelligent, and gifted, is de facto seen as "less than," a "nigger," as a person who is not equal to even the most mediocre and lowest of white people.

Black people and black humanity are forever suspect, under watch, and viewed as less than by many in White America. To the white gaze channeled by Brent Bozzel, we are perpetual criminals, deviants, over-sexed, libidinous, dangerous, and pathological. These sentiments are a function of the "wages of whiteness," the psychological investment in white supremacy, and white superiority, spoken to perhaps most famously by W.E.B. DuBois more than a century ago.

I am not surprised by Bozzel's mouth utterances. Because they are propagandists, Fox News displays a double concentration and distillation of the impulses and anxieties which drive contemporary conservatism and the Tea Party GOP. In all, if conservatism and racism are one and the same in America, the election of a black man as President has created such cognitive upset that naked racism is the inevitable excreta, an expected outcome.

The suggestion that President Barack Obama is somehow evocative of a "ghetto crackhead," is part of a larger constellation of racial slurs, appeals to white racial anxiety, dog whistles, and open bigotry. To this point in his term, it has been suggested that Obama is not a citizen of this country. He faked his undergraduate grades at Columbia, and his success at Harvard Law was the result of "affirmative action." President Obama entertains black thugs at "hip hop barbecues." He is unqualified to be President, is "lazy," "incompetent," and "in over his head." Michelle Obama is a mirror of President Obama's shortcomings, a black radical in drag, who has never been proud of this country.

Furthermore, as offered by Palin, McCain, Fox News, and most recently by presumed presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Obama is outside of the American political tradition, a man who does not understand the country's greatness and is actively working to destroy it. Race is the connective tissue between all of these paranoid and ridiculous claims. Barack Obama is a black American. We are the perpetual outsider and the Other. Where other groups' "Americanness" is presumed, Black Americans, despite our contributions to all that makes this country unique and great--and as a people who forced her to live up to the promise of the democratic creed and the Constitution-- are marked as perpetual anti-citizens.

This pandering to the worst parts of the White racial id, contemporary populist conservatism, and the Fox News public, are textbook examples of symbolic racism.

The personal is political. The rage machine that presumes the worst of Barack Obama, precisely because he is not white, is old hat. Black folks have known that game for centuries. We did not need to read Thomas Jefferson's racist tract, Notes on the State of Virginia, in order to grasp the deep wells of anti-black sentiment which are the beating heart of America's political culture.

My surprise at the claim that President Obama shares anything in common with a "skinny, ghetto, crackhead" is rooted in its absurdity. Obama is human. He is imperfect. I often disagree with his politics. Obama is a man. He is nothing more, nothing less. But a crackhead? Impulsive drug user? A hype? Nope. Not ever. Obama's personhood and habitus, his relaxed and effortless black cool pose (even if some do not possess the cultural framework and lens necessary to perceive it) is obvious--and unapologetic.

The inability by some on the Right to see Obama's full and dignified black humanity, as opposed to a default of black drug use, criminality, and omnipresent, irrepressible "niggerdom," is the source of my hurt. I must ask: If the white conservative imagination can frame a man of Obama's abilities, poise, intelligence, genius, life accomplishments, and talent as a skinny, ghetto, crackhead, how do they see the rest of us?

And we wonder why the colorline persists.

Ultimately, as Obama derangement syndrome has continued to demonstrate, white folks need to get their own house in order; the problem of white supremacy, especially on the Right, is a sickness that only they can cure through intense dialogue and therapy with one another.

If the best and brightest of Black America are just felons and drug users in the eyes of populist conservatives, what of the legions of working class, hard working, regular folks? How do Tea Party GOPers see black bus drivers? Black teachers? Black janitors? Black attorneys and investment bankers? Black parents? Black people who are either no more, or no less, mediocre than the vast majority of White Americans?

I am not sure if I want to know the answer.

We are everyday people. All of us. Sadly, white conservatives such as Brent Bozzel, see all black people as drug addicts and crackheads. Nothing more. That is black humanity in their eyes. White pathology is real. Last week, Fox News proved that fact (again).

They are who we have always known them to be. Ugly. White. Racists. Do keep it classy Mr. Bozzel, for every time you sell your wares, you do the rest of us a favor.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas To You All: Enjoy Some Brother James Brown in Concert as Your Gift Giving, Gift Opening, Holiday Soundtrack

Happy holidays to you all.

No Black Peter this year, Stone Cold Steve Austin and Bobby the Brain Heenan do Santa, or exposes on the hellish experiences of a Christmas Story's black actors.

Nah. Just some JB.

The permed one is no longer with us, having departed five years ago on this date...could the Church of James Brown be making a return? The bass is rumbling in the background, his unintelligable utterances echoing closer, so who knows?

As you get ready to go out, have folks over for some yard bird, to watch Star Wars or Indiana Jones, or perhaps play some video games as a new family tradition, enjoy this concert from 2005 and get your good foot on.

Have fun, be safe, and I wish you all well.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Forget Braveheart, The Tea Party GOP Should Find Inspiration from The History of the World or Land of the Dead

I wonder if the Republicans in Congress also enjoy playing Darkon?

You can't make this stuff up. In a headline straight out of the Onion, the Republicans in Congress apparently watched the movie Braveheart in order to get the testosterone all hot and bubbling before their vote to deny the American people much needed tax cuts and unemployment insurance for next year.

When I was a kid, my friends and I would pretend to be the main characters in movies such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Rambo, Terminator, Legend, Flash Gordon, or Red Dawn. It was great fun. While we had to improvise and find roles for black and brown people like me, somehow it all worked out.

Those movies also contributed to my having some pretty deep nerd and geek "street cred" if you would.

As followers of WARN know, one of my favorite erotic memories was making love to a beautiful queen while I was dressed as a Jedi Knight; I have also ravished a goddess who was adorned as a very sexy and curvaceous Sailor Moon.

To paraphrase Conan the Barbarian, those are the things that are best in life.

But, for all of the inspiration that those movies offered me, I never, for once, believed that they were real. Cinema Paradiso: I was playing a role and enjoying a moment of dreaming and detachment.

As they stall, delay, and ruin the holidays for millions of Americans, the Tea Party GOP have not learned that lesson. In a gross misunderstanding of the actual history mirrored by Braveheart, the Republican Party, a club of millionaires, has apparently taken to watching movies in order to get the courage to deny the unemployed the means to eat.

In this postmodern moment gone wrong, the Tea Party GOP are heroes; those dastardly folks who want to help the middle classes, in a time when the plutocrats have free reign, are enemies of "democracy" and "freedom."

I am a student of the politics of popular culture. As such, I always return to a foundational concept. In these conversations, "culture" matters. Culture resonates because it helps to create a sense of community, belonging, identity, membership, and affirmation for those who channel, reproduce, and participate in it.

To point, what does their choice of Braveheart as inspirational fare (and also the second rate, Heat wannabe movie, The Town), reveal about the Tea Party GOP?

A surface reading would suggest that the Republican Party imagines itself to be a group of freedom fighters. In their machinations, drowning the government in the bathtub--and cutting off benefits necessary to stay one step ahead of homelessness--is a courageous act in the defense of "freedom."

The mental gymnastics necessary to sustain such a belief are beyond even my abilities.

I am also struck by the Tea Party GOP's borrowing of white ethnic identity in order to make their political points. Braveheart's Scots-Irish were the original White Trash in the United States who earned their "White" identity by owning black people as property. Doubling down, the Irish Southies, and Roxbury types in The Town, are a 19th and 20th century ideal-typical example of White Trash America.

In all, the Tea Party GOP's channeling of that type of Whiteness (as "authentic" American "New Ethnic" identity)--with its deep hostility to black and brown people--reveals a great deal about their mining of the politics of racial resentment in order to destroy Barack Obama's presidency.

The popular culture game is a fun one. The Tea Party GOP's love of Braveheart is misplaced because of their failure to understand what the text is offering them: ironically, Braveheart stands against the ugly politics of the The Tea Party GOP, and not in support of it.

As conservatives search for inspiration in support of their dystopian agenda, there are other more suitable film options available. What about Soylent Green, Robocop, or Rollerball? Those movies offer a Corporatist universe in keeping with the Tea Party GOP's dreams. The Road Warrior could fit neatly as well, for House Speaker John Boehner is a passable Humungous.

Wall Street would validate the Tea Party GOP's money over people ideology, and the lie that is trickle down economics. And of course, Blazing Saddles has a classic hostage taking scene that mirrors the Tea Party GOP's approach to governance.

But, if I had to suggest one film (and given my love of zombies, this allusion is an obvious one), the Tea Party GOP are right out of George Romero's Land of the Dead because they live cloistered away in the luxury of Fiddler's Green, while the rest of the world goes to hell in a hand basket.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A Nation of Men and Not Laws: Historicizing the Ugliness of Newt Gingrich's Plan to Arrest "Uncooperative" Judges

Newt Gingrich is an existentially ugly person. He cheats on women, who are unconscious, laying in a coma. Gingrich loves to get his mic checked, some brain, hot mouth, fellatio, kissing the bishop, from his mistresses because that is "not cheating." It is okay, Gingrich's Catholic faith has saved him from any moral condemnation or consequences for his ejaculatory improprieties. And of course, patriotism made Gingrich, he who is the "political bukkake king," share his hot love juice all over town.

He suggests that black people are lazy, and their kids ought to pick up brooms and mops to learn the value of "hard work." He rewrites history on a whim. Most recently,the Tea Party GOP front-runner is arguing that he would arrest "uncooperative" judges who do not kowtow to the Conservative, Right-wing agenda.

The Constitution cries again. For folks who wrap themselves in the holy robes of the Constitution at every opportunity, Gingrich, and his party of Tea Party GOP ghouls, certainly do rape her every chance they get.

Werner Herzog's Bear, historian, big booty mack daddy, Germanist, and expert opinionator, who is not coincidentally one of WARN's favorite guest commentators, sent this great essay along for your consideration.

Werner is on point again as he locates Gingrich's assault on federalism within its proper historical context.

Good stuff for the holidays.


When Chauncey kindly asked me to write about Newt Gingrich’s claims that if he were elected president he would use his powers to send out federal marshals to arrest judges who disagreed with him, he thought that my expertise as a historian of modern Germany would be relevant. It is, in fact, but in a different way than many folks might suspect. The German language has a wonderful and well-known precision, and one of its best words is Rechtstaat, one that is less known on these shores than Shadenfreude or Zeitgeist, but full of similar explanatory power. Rechtstaat literally means “law state,” but more precisely, it means “a state governed by laws.” The implication, of course, is “a state governed by laws, not by people.”

Germany’s admirably successful post-1945 democracy was founded as and has remained a Rechtstaat, something Germany had not been except for the sadly aborted Weimar Republic. Germany’s tragic history under those who did not respect the rule of law, be it the Kaiser, Hitler, or the Communist party (in the case of the former East) proved the perils of a government that failed to aspire to be a Rechtstaat.

That aspiration is fundamental to a functioning democracy, something that used to be better understood in this country. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s (the real one, not the Glenn Beck version) call for American independence, he savagely attacked the institution of monarchy for its tendency towards tyranny. Conversely, he wrote, “In America, the law is king.” Paine wasn’t using the term Rechstaat, but that’s exactly what he was talking about. For him, monarchy tended towards tyranny because monarchs refused to accept checks on their power; they wished to transform their own personal prerogatives into de facto law, any other limits on their power be damned.

This is where Gingrich comes in. He seems to ignore the idea of the rule of law when it comes to the authority of the judiciary. Instead of it being an equal branch of government with the executive and legislative branches, he claims that those two branches can agree to ignore the decisions of the Supreme Court. In essence, he is saying that if he is president and has a Republican Congress, he will simply intimidate the courts into rubber stamping his agenda.

When he made his outrageous statements, Gingrich tried to support them by saying that the courts should not be allowed to countermand the will of the people. That sounds all well and good, until you remember that the courts have long been a bulwark against the tyranny of the majority. Many of the great legal advances in the cause of equal rights in this country have been undertaken by courts who overturned prejudicial laws with majority support. A majority of Southern states would have voted to retain segregated education and bans on mixed marriages at the time of the Brown and Loving decisions, but majority support for the disrespect of a minority’s rights is still unconstitutional and injust, no matter how many people would vote for it.

We do not have the courts to protect the rights of majorities, since their political power in a democracy keeps them safe, yet in Gingrich’s conception, the right of the majority to discriminate, oppress, and mistreat minorities ought to be untrammeled. Make no mistake, that is the real subtext of what Gingrich is saying. The founding political generation of this nation, for all their faults and hypocrisies, had a healthy vigilance of tyranny and despotism, the very things Gingrich’s statements smell like.

Yet this begs a crucial question, namely, how can Gingrich and his ilk advocate a tyrannical abrogation of the judiciary and still claim to uphold the Constitution and the historical legacy of the founders? The answer is simple: Newt and his followers treat the Constitution and the historical record in ways akin to how fundamentalist Christians interpret scripture. Most fundamentalists do not get their beliefs from scripture, rather, they pick and choose scriptural references (often out of context) to prove their preconceived beliefs. 

For example, the Gospel of Wealth crowd simply ignores the numerous calls by Jesus to eschew riches and live a life of poverty, but will read and evangelize an entire book based on the obscure Prayer of Jabez from Chronicles because it asks God for riches. The Rick Perry types just love to pray in public, even though Jesus specifically tells his disciples that only hypocrites do so. A hundred years ago the Bible thumpers called for liquor to banned, despite the fact that Jesus used his miraculous powers to transform water into wine.

In regards to the Constitution, the Tea Party crowd loves to talk about the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, which says that powers not given to the federal government belong to the states, but have almost zero understanding of what powers the federal government does have. They are searching for something that tells them “states rights,” they have found it, and they will never see it as part of a much larger and more complicated Constitution.

The same goes for the historical record. Gingrich likes to call himself a historian, but instead he is more of a historical theologian. Historians try to understand the past on its own terms, Gingrich, like a good fundamentalist, sees history as a vast orchard to be cherry picked for isolated events to uphold his philosophy. Hence his use of Thomas Jefferson’s firing of judges over two hundred years ago as precedent for his proposal to abolish the Ninth Circuit Court.

Just like the religious fundamentalists who take passages from scripture and divorce them of their context, Gingrich does not ask how Jefferson’s decision fits with larger legal and historical precedents, or even the context in which he made his decision. Here’s the context: in the last days of his political enemy and presidential predecessor John Adams’ presidency, Adams appointed several new judges at the last minute (the so called “midnight judges.”)

 This was a pretty obvious attempt by Adams to put a Federalist stamp on the government even after he was gone, and so Jefferson was in fact responding to an act political malfeasance, not simply getting retribution on an established court, as Gingrich would like to do. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the midnight judges controversy and Jefferson’s attacks on the judiciary (he tried to have Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase impeached and removed from office) the concept of judicial review, as laid down by the great Chief Justice John Marshall in the famous Marbury v. Madison case, took hold.

 To put it more simply, the historical example Gingrich tries to use to justify his quest to remove judges actually shows how such actions were rejected over two hundred years ago, with two centuries of precedent to support the opposite of Gingrich’s opinion. If Newt were a real historian, who understood history as a process rather than a series of isolated, unrelated events, he might actually know that.

In sum, we have a situation where people like Gingrich, who proclaim their love for the Constitution, are those most likely to rip it to shreds because they revere it as holy writ that substantiates their faith, rather than a living, breathing legal document. It is time that more historians and legal experts sound the alarm, because Gingrich and his ilk would have a Rechtstaat where “the law is king” transformed into a state governed by an extremist political theology ready to destroy any legal or Constitutional checks that stand in its way.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Let's Play the Racial Referee: Honest Disagreement or Subtle White Racism?

Time to start our Monday with a mea culpa of sorts.

I missed a great conversation in the comments section a week or so ago. I would like to remedy that oversight.

As readers of WARN know, I bump comments up from time to time when the moment so merits. The following conversation about race, identity, and marriage that came following my post on James Earl Jones and "black racism," is very revealing.

A truism: talking across the colorline is difficult. Dialogue online is hard regarding most matters. Dialogue, when one cannot hear the tone of each other's voices, is even more plagued with challenges and shortcomings.

In this example, I will assume good intentions and honesty by all parties involved. Question: are the problematics surrounding "colorblindness" vs. "color consciousness" (and interracial "relationships"), really that great?

Here on WARN, I let folks do their own thing. We are a small and intimate group, and as such, I am not one to play the mean moderator, banning folks, or overly censoring comments. I like to allow people to fight it out when need be.

But damn, I totally missed this one. Too much Christmas shopping, writing, meditating, and being a sexy beast. I am only human. Consequently, I do apologize to you all.

There could something really wicked in the conversation that follows; alternatively, this could simply be folks of good intentions who are walking different paths, and yet, going towards the same goal(s). In all, much to do about nothing.

Your thoughts?

Let's do the forensics together.

As always, you make the call.


Anon wrote (with my excerpting/selective quoting noted):

As a white man married to a beautiful black woman I am proud to say I have prodcued four beautiful black daughters but here's the rub --- they have been the victims of Racism by darker skinned blacks alll their lives. I was so excited to meet my black wife and marry her. We planned to raise our kids as black. We went to all the cultural festivals in town and even celebrated Kwanza instead of Christmas. I found myself leaving as much as my irish german catholic upbringing behind as I tried to make sure my wifes black culture was upheld. As soon as the girls got into school the name callinng began- "you look white, you talk white, etc. " Soon we found ourselves moving the girls to private school. Their grades shot up but they found themselves with mostly upper middle class and rich white friends. When the dating began my girls would come home reporting how the black boys were saying "You will make pretty babies someday'there was also constant pressure to have sex. My girls were being treated like sexual objects by there own race. I was angry. I had always wanted them to find black men to marry.

In any case moving to current times my daughter just finished Dartmouth recently. She told us on one trip home she had found the man she was going to marry. When we went up there to meet him not only did I discover that he was White but English at that. He asked me for "her hand" which was very touching to me as a dad. I suppose as an academic I am still a romantic. I took out that time to ask him why my daughter. He said she was increadibly beautiful inside and out but then he went on to name the qualities any man would want in a wife, elegant, carried herself well, educated, frugal with spending and an increadible cook.

I credit that to my wife's mother from South Carolina teaching the girls Low Country Cooking when we would go down there in early summers. He loves and values her as a human not a sexual object. He does not have the hatred I see in so many of her own race mostly darker skinned. The wedding is this weekend my wife sits at our other home computer as I write this putting finishing touches on things. His parents arrive from England in two days. We all plan to be in London for the Olympics guests at our new inlaws home. My beautiful mixed race daughter has done me a man born of immigrant irish and german parents the first n his family to get a degree and graduate degree- real proud. I only wish memebers of the black race could value there own.

Maybe the next daughter will find a good black guy but I don't have my hopes up.I agree that the worst racism is in the race but I see it both ways I see dark skinned blacks as just as cruel , angry and vengeful as others. When my daughter moves to France with her husband (he has accepted a position there) I hope they will find a more balanced society.

Oh Crap rebutted:

Maybe the next daughter will find a good black guy but I don't have my hopes up.

Uh-huh. Your daughters are too good for Black men, and instead should end up with an impregnator/fetishizer like yourself. Right? What if they don't even like men? Who, then, smart feller?

And yet, you whimper and complain about "racism" from all us evil negroes.

You and whites like you are not only part of the problem, your whites-first mentality is foundational to the problem.

If you're ever in doubt why white supremacist impregnators o black women like yourself will never be trusted by us, just look over your post to see what it reveals about your attitude towards us.

Like all white supremacist bigots, you kid yourself that we're too dumb to perceive what is blindingly obvious.

Thrasher chimed in:

Thank you once again for your posts one wonders if anon black wife knows her hubby is a racist? I wish I could email her his comments and she could observe the bigoted who impregnated her...WTF

Friday, December 16, 2011

Help a Book Chapter Find a Home: "The Politics of Black Masculinity in Star Wars and Star Trek"

Help a brother out.

We have a rich and varied audience here. For me, part of the fun of We Are Respectable Negroes are the random folks that chime in from time to time (I learn much from you all, and the many lurkers here should certainly make themselves known too), and the range of readers that stop by the site on a daily basis.

If you are a professional writer you likely have many essays, short stories, novels, novellas, and the like that will never see the light of day. It is not all that different for those in higher ed who have to write articles, books, and reviews, as part of their professional obligations. Like the former, there are occasions where chapters and articles end up in the circular file.

It is a Friday. This is a day to indulge. To point: I have a chapter from a book project that was killed at the last moment by the publisher. Here, I explore questions of black masculinity in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, as well as their overlaps, tensions, and what they suggest about race in science fiction, and speculative fiction, more broadly.

Some of the sections include: "The Birth of the Cool: Star Wars, Mace Windu, and Lando Calrissian"; "The Cool of Star Wars vs. the Sterility of Star Trek"; and "Confessions of a Star Wars Baby."

I was looking through my files and this project lept out at me. Usually, you look at an article or chapter that was thrown down the memory hole, and say to yourself, "good riddance" (at least I do). But, this chapter is different. There is something here that should see the light of day; Following an instinct, I will throw it out to the universe for judgement (acceptance or rejection).

Academics, friends, countrymen, and others, if you know someone working on a book project where this could be of use (written in a tone suitable for an interested lay public as per the editors' request), please forward this one passage, a few paragraphs of the obligatory 25 or so pages, along. I will forward my vita and the full chapter once business, and identities, are confirmed.

Perhaps, all parties involved will find a mutually advantageous and beneficial resolution to a shared conundrum.

Ghetto nerds, please share your thoughts.

Surviving Jar Jar Binks and the Burden of Being Commander Sisko

The controversy surrounding the character Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace brought the question of race to the forefront of the Star Wars phenomenon. In newspaper editorials, magazine articles, and online, a range of cultural critics and others took aim at the character of Jar Jar Binks. He was savaged as a racial caricature, a modern day performance of digital blackface, a contemporary Steppin Fetchit that was nothing more than a tired, hackneyed, race minstrel.

In total, Jar Jar became a symbol of the latent racism present in George Lucas’s subconscious. When placed into the context of the other “racist” depictions in Star Wars, the jury seemed to be in: instead of being a harmless space opera, Star Wars was in reality a thinly veiled racist trope. My point here is not to arbitrate this claim (although I do believe that this charge lacks a deeper appreciation of Star Wars as a cultural text), but to reflect on how the Jar Jar Binks controversy illuminates the question of soul in some surprising ways.

Jar Jar Binks represents the antithesis of soul. Although, he is a cgi character “performed” by the talented Broadway actor Ahmed Best, Jar Jar’s energy humbles and lampoons black personhood. Here, he is a bumbling, “Jamaican” inspired “Patois” speaking alien who is dangerously close to the stock race minstrel character Stepin Fetchit.

The question of Lucas’s intentionality is moot: instead, of primary importance is how Jar Jar Binks represents a character archetype, that from at least the 19th century in the United States, onward, was specifically designed to demean the personhood of African Americans as being lazy, bumbling, incompetent, and not fit for democratic citizenship.

In contrast, Star Trek’s Commander Benjamin Sisko stands strong against these forces. This burden is a heavy one, precisely because of how the dominant script for representing black personhood in mass, popular culture, is so negative. As a qualifier, my claim here is a careful one. I am not arguing that Sisko is a response to Jar Jar Binks--as the two characters do not exist concurrently with one another (Deep Space Nine first aired several years before The Phantom Menace). What I am suggesting is that Commander Sisko exists in juxtaposition to Jar Jar Binks. Furthermore, Jar Jar Binks represents the types of cultural representations of African Americans which Avery Brooks, as Commander Sisko, is actively working to negate.

There were many responsibilities thrust upon Benjamin Sisko. As the principle character, and heroic protagonist, this was not unexpected. Moreover, the weight of the Sisko character was in many ways necessary for the narrative to “work.” But, even as judged against the lofty standards of leadership expected from Star Trek’s captains, Sisko’s responsibilities were outsized and exceptional.

He was a single parent raising his only son on a space station in an extremely dangerous, and strategically critical, part of the galaxy. Sisko was seen by the Bajoran people as an emissary--an almost god-like figure. And Brooks’ character was the first captain to be featured on the Star Trek television series during a full-scale intergalactic war. As a testament to his super-human responsibilities, Benjamin Sisko eventually leaves the plane of human existence and lives as one of the Prophets, a group of demigods with the power to alter time and space.

As compared to the other black characters on Star Trek, Sisko was firmly rooted in, and tied to, the history of his people (as both a citizen of Earth, and as a black man) and actively resisted any efforts to be “whitened,” made apolitical, or presented as being “post-racial” in the narrative. For example, Sisko boasted of owning one of the finest collections of African art in the galaxy; he traveled back in time to lead a revolutionary political protest movement during the 22nd century (events which helped to give birth to a unified Earth, and eventually, the Federation of Planets); and in one of Star Trek’s most powerful episodes, he lived the life of a genius black science fiction writer in Harlem whose work was rejected by a white, racist, publishing industry.

Sisko owned his history as a black man. He was also strengthened by it. This history also exacts a price for awareness: Sisko was denied the chance to remain blissfully ignorant of humankind's cruel realities, and how they shape the present and future. As tellingly highlighted by an exchange between Benjamin Sisko, and his soon to be wife (who is also African-American), the latter tells him that we can imagine the past (in this case a holographic adventure in 1950s segregated Las Vegas) as not being racist, because humanity has moved “beyond” the bigotry of its past.

Her implication is clear: Benjamin Sisko is limiting his own pleasure and joy by seeing Earth’s long history of racism and prejudice for what it actually was--as opposed to imaging the past as it should have been. While Sisko eventually surrenders to his fiance’s suggestion, Avery Brooks’ character remains unique among the captains on the various Star Trek series (allowing for Jean Luc Picard’s apolitical and race neutral fascination with the past) by drawing nourishment from his character’s relationship to a historically specific and grounded experience.

If Jar Jar Binks represents the antithesis of soul, Commander Sisko represents the burden of blackness at the site of the politics of representation. The latter is such an obligation that it robs Sisko of the relaxed, cool sensibility that Avery Brooks channeled in his previous role as the assassin and enforcer, Hawk, on the television series Spencer for Hire. In all, the sum effect of Avery Brooks’ obligation to offer a positive representation of black personhood is existentially confining for the character Captain Benjamin Sisko.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Land of Non-Surprise: Mitt Romney, Candidate for a Nativist Party, Channels KKK Slogan, to Win Over Nativist Voters

Once more, we have proof that there is no liberal media in the United States. There is only a corporate media, one that is vulnerable to hostage taking by the Right.

Mitt Romney channels a slogan from the Ku Klux Klan that "we" ought to "keep America American"  (or its more "polite" cousin, "Keep America, America"). MSNBC reports Romney's repeated use of this phrase. The Right-wing blogosphere cries "foul" and "unfair." Chris Matthews and Al Sharpton issue apologies to Mitt Romney for unfairly attacking his character.

There are two elements to this story that demand exploration.

First, the suggestion that a Republican candidate, one who is trying to sure up his conservative bonafides to a white populist base, would mine the rhetoric of the Klan (or deploy racially bigoted, xenophobic, and resentful sentiment and slogans more generally) is not at all a surprise. In fact, the politics of white racial resentment and white victimology have been central elements in Republican political strategy for five decades.

While folks are centered on the silly and distracting question--is Mitt Romney a racist or in the KKK--they should in fact be focused on the Republican Party's masterful use of a politics of white racial resentment, nativism, and disdain for the Other. Context matters. Consider the circus that is the Republican Party's presidential primary field for the election year 2012, and the policies they have endorsed.

1. Electric fences and moats to kill illegal immigrants;
2. Suggesting that black people are lazy, and their children should serve as janitors in order to develop a work ethic;
3. Wallowed in the filth of Birtherism, and indulged in rank, open bigotry against the country's first black President;
4. Suggested that Muslim Americans should be profiled (perhaps they should carry special cards? or wear a mark on their clothing?) because of their religion and a propensity to commit "terrorism";
5. Include a candidate who leisured at a family retreat named "Niggerhead" and grew up in sundown town;
6. Are beholded to the Tea Party, a faction and AstroTurf group which can trace its origins back to the white supremacist, white nationalist, John Birch Society (the former is also a group whose racist tendencies have been well-documented).

The Republican Party's rhetoric of "real America," "our America," "take our America back," and Romney's Klan-inspired slogan of "Keep America American" is based on a simple premise of "us and them." Patriotism and nationalism have almost always been infused with appeals to white racism. Given that America's history is one where to be American, meant that one had to be "white" in the eyes of the law, this ought not to be a surprise. Black folks have long been the anti-citizen, the group against which immigrants and others triangulate their belonging and group membership.

The symbolic racism indulged in by the Republican Party, especially as seen in their race baiting against Barack Obama, are dependent on a basic understanding that to be "American" one must first and most importantly be "White" (and to a lesser degree Christian). In the post-Civil Rights era, those appeals have to be hidden behind dog-whistles and coded speech.

The second teachable moment in Mitt Romney's channeling of the KKK's slogan is that historically, America is a profoundly racist country. In fact, there was no language with which to stigmatize such sentiments; "racism" was just "the law," or "commonsense," what was a "natural" way of doing things. For example, the Constitution of the United States is an explicitly pro-slavery, pro-white, herrenvolk, Apartheid document. With approximately 3 million members, the KKK was one of the most important civil society organizations in American history throughout the early part of the 20th century. Their "march on Washington" was one of the largest gatherings in the country to date.

The Civil Rights Movement, only four decades or so in the past, is a recent development. For most of the United States' history, to become a naturalized citizen a person had to be of demonstrable, and certifiable, "white ancestry" and "good stock." People of color, and "questionable" whites (Southern and Eastern Europeans), were not "fit" for American citizenship. In all, pluralist, Multicultural America, the one that elected Barack Obama, is a hiccup, a curiosity, and a very recent development in American history.

The nativism, xenophobia, and "polite" bigotry of the Republican Party, with its most recent appeals to white populism, are part of a larger pattern. In much the same way that the Tea Party brigands displayed posters of Barack Obama as a monkey or a gorilla, Mitt Romney may not even know the origins of "keep America American." But, it resonates with his audience.

More generally, Republican candidates who talk about "the pro-America parts of the country," and "real Americans," may not know about the deep relationship between nationalism, white racism, and the murder and exclusion of non-whites from the polity and public sphere. But, the words are warm and welcoming. The slogan excites them. It makes populist conservatives feel good about something; they belong to a community of "special" people, with privileged insight, and an elect commandment from on high; they are the sacred keepers of American exceptionalism and the Founding Father's prescient wisdom.

Ultimately, Mitt Romney's use of the Klan's slogan is not about responsibility: I could care less if he is a dyed in the wool racist or bigot; in fact, I suspect that he likely is not one.

And of course, how can one overlook the irony of a Mormon, a group none too popular with the KKK, channeling one of their most famous slogans.

However, the use of such language is important because of the questions surrounding causality, consequences, appeal, and sentiment. As we work through Romney's KKK turn of phrase, we cannot forget that White supremacy is part of the ether and air that all Americans, across the color line, inhale and breathe. It is part of the country's collective subconscious. An American can no more escape it, than a fish can water.

Consequently, the bigger and more important element here is the type of political work that such historically racist--but in the present--"race neutral" appeals do for Tea Party GOP candidates who are focused on destroying the United States' first Black President by any means necessary. As the late, oft-quoted, Republican political strategist Lee Atwater alluded to, Republicans most certainly cannot call black people "niggers" anymore and expect to win elections. However, Republicans can do everything to remind their white voting public, the conservative heart and soul of their party, that a President who happens to be black, most certainly, is not one of "them."

This is the truth, that MSNBC, in walking back the obvious connection between Mitt Romney, the KKK's racism and nativism, and the political gamesmanship of the Tea Party GOP, is afraid to make clear and transparent.

The Fourth Estate fails again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Lest We Pile On Too Much: What are Black Academics Doing to Help Poor Black Kids?

I try to engage in a bit of critical self-reflection whenever possible.

Gene Marks' exercise in white privilege and Internet trolling has been thoroughly demolished for its lazy thinking, arrogance, and deficit of empathy. But, in reading all of the rebuttals to the essay, I have been forced to ask myself a hard question: while it is easy to throw rocks at the town jester for his foibles, are those who are taking Gene Marks to the woodshed any better than he?

For example, I always try to reach out to first generation, low income students once they are in my classes. I have also devoted considerable professional time to grant funded programs which are tasked with improving the post-secondary and graduate school enrollment rates for first generation, low income, and under-represented students. But, is that enough?

The documentary Ebony Towers is a helpful entry point for this conversation. It deftly highlights the struggles to racially integrate colleges and universities in both the U.K. and the United States. While Ebony Towers does not sufficiently play up the role of organizations like the Ford Foundation in establishing Black Studies (a move that was part of a broader plan to deradicalize the remnants of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s), it is however quite sharp in highlighting how access to education has historically been a political act for black Americans.

While "Blackademics" and others are hating on Gene Marks for his piss poor article, what are they/we doing to improve the educational and professional opportunities for poor people of color in this country?

Yes, looking in the mirror can be hard; but, it ought not to be avoided for that reason.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

If I Were a Short, Balding, Mediocre White Man I Would Write an Advice Column For Poor Black Kids in Forbes Magazine

The President’s speech got me thinking. My kids are no smarter than similar kids their age from the inner city. My kids have it much easier than their counterparts from West Philadelphia. The world is not fair to those kids mainly because they had the misfortune of being born two miles away into a more difficult part of the world and with a skin color that makes realizing the opportunities that the President spoke about that much harder. This is a fact. In 2011.
Forbes magazine has posted a column by Gene Marks, a middle aged white guy, who wants to give advice to poor black kids about how to be successful in America. Of course, these young black kids read Forbes everyday and will internalize his wisdom. There is no poverty porn, noblesse oblige, white paternalism, compassionate conservative masturbation, navel gazing at work here. No. None at all.

Folks are all over his butt already. In fact, Gene Marks is about to become more popular than he has any right to be, both with the conservative, "blacks have bad culture crowd" (who will hold him up as a brave truth teller), and the anti-racist lecture circuit crowd (who is going to use his essay in Forbes as an object lesson in white privilege for years and years to come).

And like flies on shit, black conservative apologists will soon start hovering over Marks' essay as they instinctively rise to defend any assault on either people of color, or the black poor, by the white conservative establishment. Black conservatives are on retainer and are obligated to shuck, buck dance, and jive to earn their keep. Their appearance is imminent.
I am not a poor black kid. I am a middle aged white guy who comes from a middle class white background. So life was easier for me. But that doesn’t mean that the prospects are impossible for those kids from the inner city. It doesn’t mean that there are no opportunities for them. Or that the 1% control the world and the rest of us have to fight over the scraps left behind. I don’t believe that. I believe that everyone in this country has a chance to succeed. Still. In 2011. Even a poor black kid in West Philadelphia. 

It takes brains. It takes hard work. It takes a little luck. And a little help from others. It takes the ability and the know-how to use the resources that are available. Like technology. As a person who sells and has worked with technology all my life I also know this.

If I was a poor black kid I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible. I would make it my #1 priority to be able to read sufficiently. I wouldn’t care if I was a student at the worst public middle school in the worst inner city. Even the worst have their best. And the very best students, even at the worst schools, have more opportunities...
It is difficult to imagine oneself in the shoes of another person. Empathy and sympathy are difficult traits to practice even under the best of circumstances. I also do not know what Gene Marks' intentions were in writing his Forbes' essay. However, I am mighty curious about the intentions of Forbes' editors in publishing such a problematic piece of work.

Marks is likely a "nice" guy who is so awash in white privilege, class entitlement, and sexism (remember, discourses on poverty are almost always about both race and gender) that it is impossible for him to really imagine himself as the Other; yet, he is so arrogant that he imagines himself capable of understanding all people's experiences, at all times, and in all places. This is the crux of White privilege--a sense of gross universality and normativity, a racial heliocentrism that allows a white person to generalize outward with authority on all things.
If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code. I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online. I would study on my own. I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished.

Because a poor black kid who gets good grades, has a part time job and becomes proficient with a technical skill will go to college. There is financial aid available. There are programs available. And no matter what he or she majors in that person will have opportunities. They will find jobs in a country of business owners like me who are starved for smart, skilled people. They will succeed.
Predictably, Whiteness will also make Gene Marks into a victim, as "he is just trying to be helpful" and "how dare those liberals and race pimps tell him that he is wrong!"

Two truisms apply here. One, you should write what you know. As revealed by his Forbes' essay, Gene Marks does not know anything of the experiences of poor black and brown kids in inner city America. He has no access to their internal lives, his article also suggests a blinding ignorance of the realities of structural inequality in this country. Two, a fish does not know that it is wet. Despite his lip service to the concept, Marks does not really imagine himself as privileged (as he would have not written such a piece, in the manner that he so chose), or that the life experiences of a self-described mediocre technocrat, one who somehow found himself a columnist for Forbes and the NY Times, are in any way exceptional or unique.

As we saw with Newt Gingrich's ugly suggestions that poor kids should become janitors in order to teach those lazy blacks about the value of hard work, and Rush Limbaugh's observation that poor kids on school lunch programs are greedy street urchins, Marks is a singer in a conservative chorus whose message is simple: you are poor because you are lazy; moreover, poor people want to be poor; poor black kids born to crappy circumstances can do better if they just tried harder...and are smart enough to show some initiative.
President Obama was right in his speech last week. The division between rich and poor is a national problem. But the biggest challenge we face isn’t inequality. It’s ignorance.
I do wonder what Gene Mark's advice would be to lazy, dim, anti-intellectual, and entitled white kids (and those of the upper classes more generally) who were born on the 3rd base of life and think they hit a home run? Would his advice be the same for the white rural poor? What would Gene Marks tell the "new poor," those formerly middle class suburban types who are couch surfing, living in cars, tents, or hotels? What wisdom does he have to preach from on high?
Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids. Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.
Technology can help these kids. But only if the kids want to be helped. Yes, there is much inequality. But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.
I will let Gene Mark's closing comments stand on their own: they are ugly poetry in motion.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Where Silence Has Lease: "Massa" Rush Limbaugh Wants Black Politicians to Be Sure to Have Their Slave Passes

Rush Limbaugh earned his racist bonafides a long time ago. He is also an existentially and unrepentantly ugly person. Therefore, his suggestion that the head of the Congressional Black Caucus needs to get a slave pass in order to "get off" the Democratic plantation is not at all a surprise. Moreover, that there are millions of petit authoritarians who pray at his sick and twisted mantle of Angry White Male Conservatism, is also not a surprise. Their love is just a symptom of America's cultural rot, and a dysfunctional political discourse, one identified decades ago by the noted political scientist and historian Richard Hofstadter.

Ultimately, in the 1920s through to the 1960s, there was Father Coughlin; the last few decades brought us Rush Limbaugh. There is really nothing new in the game in regards to ugly talk that plays to Whiteness's greater devils, as opposed to its lesser angels.

Of course, I will never understand why any self-respecting black person (or person of color more generally) would get in bed with the racially resentful, and bigoted strain of populism, that is the Tea Party GOP. And that black Conservatives reproduce the language of white supremacy, with the idea that principled, reflective, and politically sophisticated, utility maximizing black people--who have decided that the Democratic Party is more aligned with their interests--are on a "plantation," is one part racial Stockholm syndrome, and two parts selling out for the sake of a well as the psychic wages of a pat or two on the metaphorical head from their overlords.

Abstractions are easy to use in a game where the scoring of cheap political points is the goal. The low brow rhetoric that passes for reasoned political discourse in the Right-wing echo chamber is masterful for its ability to provoke, use symbolically rich speech, repetition, moral clarity, as well as certitude. In all, the Eliminationists of the Right-wing are expert propagandists.

However, it is easy to invoke a thing, when one does not have to face the reality of it head on. A skilled rhetorician can paint a picture with words that move the crowd; but, their power can also be subverted when the gimmick is exposed--when the audience sees the literal thing that is being used as an allusion and metaphorical prop. The illusion is broken. The magic is gone.

Rush Limbaugh loves to talk about black people and slavery. It is a fetish of his. While we may not cure him of this obsession, nor break the Svengali-like hold that Limbaugh has on his cult members, we can examine an actual example of the "slave passes" he so casually evoked last week:

Transcription: My Boy Mack has my Permission to sleep in a house in Bedon’s Alley, hired by his Mother this ticket is good for two months from this date Sarah H. Savage Sep ber 19th, 1843

I wonder if the Right-wing populists who fawn over Rush Limbaugh would find such references so funny if they could actually see a slave pass with their own eyes, or read some of the actual handwriting that attempted to reduce grown adults into children, human property who were limited in the most basic exercise of their rights?

White populist conservatives would probably sneer and reverse this truth-seeking into some twisted claim of "white victimology," and "angry black people," who are "unfair" and "emotional." In fact, there are likely many conservatives, who in another decade would fancy themselves owners of human property, kings of the plantation, where the darkies knew their place, and everything was a Neo-Confederate, Southern GOP, Tea Party wet dream.

Their love of such abuses of history aside does not mean that we ought not to confront conservatives about their fictions at every opportunity, to hold them accountable.

Please indulge me some private-public talk for a moment. My black folks, we need to do a better job of protecting our history, the narratives that are generated about it, and how our struggle is made the fodder for political games by conservatives and liberals alike. No other group's freedom struggle and suffering (our Jewish brothers and sisters especially, are to be held up as exemplars for how to protect one's master narrative) is mocked with such ease, frequency, or with so few consequences.

These slave passes are not impersonal abstractions, curiosities of history, without meaning or weight. Slave passes were the naked and obvious demonstration of power by Whites, and the ability (or so they believed) to control black people--your kin and family--as human property from the cradle to the grave:

This is a slave pass and marriage acknowledgement from A. Greer to John Neely allowing the marriage of one of his male slaves to one of Neely’s female slaves, permitting that they do not let the marriage interfere with their work.

Where is the outrage? My people, my black folks, or are you so tired, the calluses so deep, that you have forgotten how to be upset?

History stares you in the eyes: Rush Limbaugh and his brethren slap you in the face every time they channel the glorious and proud history of black and brown folks, our sheroes and heroes, for their nefarious and dishonest ends. And you do nothing.

And some wonder, why in America, conservatism and racism are one in the same.