Saturday, January 14, 2012

Football Theodicy? Tom Brady is to Tim Tebow as Stone Cold Steve Austin was to Jake the Snake Roberts

Oh Mr. Tebow, I know that the faithful Christian Nationalist evangelical Dominionists who believe that you are favored by Providence--and that God intervenes in football games--will valorize your suffering as it is both epic and prophetic.

But, I simply could not resist: Tom Brady and the Patriots just kicked your ass.

This begs a question: does Tebow's humiliation introduce a theodicy problem for his zealous faithful? How do they reconcile an all knowing, all loving, omniscient and omnipotent god with the existence of football evil in the form of the unholy trinity that is Brady-McDaniels-Belichick?

Should Black Women Boycott Red Tails, George Lucas' Tuskegee Airmen Movie?

While we wait for the epic sonning that Tom Brady, the Hooded One, and Josh McDaniels are about to put on Mr. Tebow this evening (that trio sounds like a country rock group, no?) here is something to pass the time.

There is a good conversation on Clutch magazine's website about the interracial gender politics of Red Tails, George Lucas' upcoming Tuskegee airmen movie. One of the primary tenets for those who study the politics of popular culture is that audiences (or "publics") receive, process, interpret, and circulate ideas on their own terms. Of course, there are any number of corollaries and complications to this argument. But, the basic idea is that populism "matters"; once a "text" is out among the public, part of our work as critics is understanding the "why's" and "how's" of their investment (or not) in it.

I reviewed Red Tails months ago. There, I made mention of one aspect of the story--the romance between a black airman and a white Italian woman--that I thought was superfluous to the plot and could easily be left on the cutting room floor. I did not read this plot point as subverting the overall story, or as being deeply symbolic of the state of the family and love relationships in the African American community in the twenty-first century. Moreover, there were many love and sexual relationships between black GI's and European women in all theaters of World War Two. Given the "historical" nature of Red Tails, a wink to this fact would not be out of order. Ultimately, my observation was based on efficiency in story telling. It was not some deep aversion to the idea that a young man far from home would find comfort in the arms of a beautiful woman.

Populism can be empowering. It can also be confusing, distracting, and lead to any number of interpretations--some of these are cogent and compelling, others much less so. What strikes me the most about the comments on Clutch magazine's site is not how some readers (in a vacuum not having seen the movie) are making impassioned claims, but how short the leap is from Red Tails the World War Two action film, to "black women in Hollywood are misrepresented all of the time and hated by the mass media," to "black woman are unloved by black men and Red Tails reinforces this fact," to "Red Tails should be boycotted because there are no black female love interests."

It would seem that there is much pain in parts of the black community, where the seemingly trivial and benign are interpreted as the significant, the poignant, and the meaningful.

Thus, I must ask: Are matters really this dire?

From the peanut gallery:

AJ JANUARY 10, 2012 AT 3:14 PM

Will definitely not be seeing it. Typical hollywood spin of BM with WW, never a BW/Bm love story made with real money. when they put a love story with a BW on the big screen as the main story, then maybe. until then – NOT. The majority of the tuskegee airmen had BW for wives/girlfriends – why can’t we see a high quality, big budget romance between them? Please. And Lucas being with Melony Hobson means nothing, since she is past child-bearing age (and he is too, imho).

Jess JANUARY 10, 2012 AT 8:05 PM

@PINK: I know just what AJ is talking about. How about you do more than look at trailer snippets, and find out what more the movie is supposed to be about? YES, this movie does feature an interracial relationship between one of the Airmen and a white woman. And YES, I agree with AJ – why the pattern of almost all movies focusing on romantic relationships between Black men (particularly those of integrity and character) with white women? Why can we not get big budget films made like this where the love a Black man (or any man) has for a Black woman be showcased? Why must the IR thing be shoved down our throats. Think about your daughters. Ifthey are going to watch a film celebrating Black achievements, why are they discounted and pushed to the sidelines always for someone white? I don’t buy it, and call bull...

@Jess – You nailed it! Every war movie *except* those with black soldiers show the soldiers fighting to come home to their women (of the same race). This is true for every white war movie from the black and white era, to “Saving Private Ryan” and right on down to “The Dirty Dozen.” When it comes to black soldiers, movie makers find ingenious ways of leaving black women out! This trend even touched “A Soldiers Story.”And now black women, who are once again NOT shown as women worth fighting for, are supposed to bear the burden of supporting “Red Tails.”

Otherwise, we risk seeming ungrateful to Hollywood, unsupportive of black male actors, close minded to interracial themes or just plain too ignorant to see period pieces or anything that doesn’t have Tyler Perry’s name on it. But they keep missing the point: Show us some love and we will do the same for you!

AJ JANUARY 13, 2012 AT 11:26 AM

And it’s all about what is pushed to our youth – Lucas’ relationship is not being pushed to millions. His movie, on the other hand will go to millions, in full CGI with emotions on display. So BM can continue to believe in the goodness and sweetness of WW and others instead of their own. The youth are being taught, again and again by Hollywood, to believe we BW are not worth saving or anything else positive. Other than to be helpers and sidekicks. If this movie doesn’t show how the Airmen loved Lena Horne, and how she stood up for them it is not worth any little money I have.

Sure Lucas will make millions, and our community will continue to be brainwashed into hating BW and girls.Money talks, bullshit walks. He put ALL the money up for this, its obviously a labor of love for him. He wants this story told, and he wants to practice his art in film at the same time.Yet, that’s just not good enough for some of you. You want to yap about him not being married to his black girlfriend, you want to whine that there are no women’s concerns “represented” in the movie, you don’t want an action movie, you want a romantic comedy, where are the movies about black history before slavery, why should we go see a movie made by “Massa” about black people, etc.?

How did we get so good at complaining? Like I said, I don’t know how good the movie is going to be. But it’s got to be better and send out a better message than the next low-nutrition meal from Tyler Perry (which I believe is called, “Medea Gets A New Wig” or something like that). That steaming load of empty calories will be served up soon enough at a theatre near you. Get a grip, everybody!

Vertigo Schtick JANUARY 14, 2012 AT 7:16 AM


Alright looking at IMDb has confirmed the character Sofia (playing by Portugal native Daniela Ruah), is the Italian love interest of a certain main character–perhaps Terrance Howard. So I can kind of see where the outrage is coming from. Still, I’m not going to bash the movie unless they make her the star of the movie. I am upset (given that they, the Airmen did not marry interracially) that this new twist was added. But I figure that’s just a way of marketing to all audiences, as no one is particularly interested in seeing a movie about black love besides black people. Not yet anyway.Sigh, one step forward, few steps back :/
YeahRight 2011 JANUARY 13, 2012 AT 2:34 AM

Pilot is pretty much on the money with his/her comment. George stated his purpose for making the film “to give teenage boys role models” paraphrasing and by in large I like he meant black teenage boys. End of story. If black women want a movie that does this for black girls than I suggest we hit up these black actresses, singers, and talk show personalities to invest in an idea that doesn’t show grown women in a constant state of depression and anger (not over racism or injustice but over a freaking man). Black women played a huge role in the history of this country, its our responsibility to tell it.

Tiff JANUARY 12, 2012 AT 8:33 PM

I was happy about this movie. God knows we are desperate need some positive black movies outside of Tyler Perry. I was going to support this film too. Not going to support it after Kola Boof said on her twitter page last night that the main love interest in this film is a white woman despite the fact all the Tuskegee airman was married to black women. She also had seen the movie in advance.

I could care less that none of the main actors in the movie are married or dating non-black woman but what is mess up is Hollywood once again trying to erase the existence of black women yet begging for black women to support them economically. George Lucas who is dating a dark skinned black woman ought to be shame of himself for allowing this to happen, he should at least know better but guess not, he is willing to throw black women under the bus just to prove something to Hollywood. I know he funded the movie but the screenwriter of this film is Aaron Mcgruder who wrote Boondocks and I am sure some black women has some issues with him.

AI JANUARY 14, 2012 AT 8:21 AM

I respect you ladies desire to boycott a movie that doesn’t have a Black female love interest to the Black men. However, I doing so will not send the message: “Continue doing big-budget Black movies, but do it with Black love interests.” Rather, it says “Black movies don’t make money.” Money talks first. When it comes to Black films, studios don’t take the time to sift through what worked and what didn’t. They just say eff it, and do another Perry film or a “feel good” movie like The Help. When you convince studios that you are talking money, THEN you have the financial leverage to get folks that care in casting. I don’t say this to convince you to change your mind, bc your principles are admirable and just. Just to caution you that it won’t be effective.

LemonNLime JANUARY 14, 2012 AT 6:56 AM@Vertigo Schtick

– I would love to know. I have heard 2 arguments 1. is that the cast is made up of several men who date or marry non-black women and therefore shouldn’t be in it and 2. the love plot that is in the story is based around one of the airmen and a white woman (comment from people who supposedly have already seen the movie). If it is reason 1, I could care less let people live their lives. If it is reason 2, I just ask that it is historically accurate for the time period, even if it is brutal because if people are seeing a movie about history they should see real history. I just have a hard time believing any film were actual Airmen help create and tell the story would have a white woman as the main love interest. But that is just me. Other than that I say it is best for people to calm down until we’ve actually seen it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Laughter is Your Friend: Courtesy of Comedy Central, Do You Want to Win DVDs of Sinbad, Eddie Griffith and Patrice O'Neil?

I promised to bring the readers of We Are Respectable Negroes more goodies in the year 2012. I generally pass on promotions, but this most recent offer from the good people at Comedy Central was too good to let slip by.

This Sunday will feature the debut of comedian Kevin Hart's special "Laugh at My Pain." Dude has gotten lots of great press and you should certainly check him out at 9pm EST.

As a nice incentive to spread the word about his show, Comedy Central is offering up the following DVDs to all of you: Patrice O’Neil's"Elephant in the room"; Sinbad's "Where you been?"; and Eddie Griffin's "You Can Tell ‘Em I Said It."

We have 3 sets of DVDs to give away, so there is much goodness to go around.

As is our habit here at WARN, you need to put in a little work to win this great set of prizes.

Here is what you need to do.

In keeping with my ghetto nerd roots, I would like you to imagine that space aliens have finally made first contact with Earth. If you had to choose one comedian, either living or dead, as humankind's ambassador to the universe, who would you send and why?

This contest will run until next Wednesday night. Get creative, be reflective, make your case, and win a prize. Pretty easy, no?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Jar Jar Mea Culpa? George Lucas Discusses His Tuskegee Airmen Movie "Red Tails" on The Daily Show

George Lucas is making the rounds to promote his newest film Red Tails. I attended a screening of the movie several months ago and wrote my review here. On The Daily Show Lucas echoes my observation that Red Tails is a corny, over the top, jingoistic, 1940s era World War 2 movie--just one with black folks as the centerpiece of the story. In short, Red Tails is the World War 2 movie that The Tuskegee Airmen deserved and never received: it is their/our Flying Leathernecks.

I love Star Wars. I owe Lucas and his fantastic creation a great deal both personally and professionally. As such, I feel that I have earned the freedom to engage in some critical ghetto nerd talk about the prequels and Lucas' politics more generally. Dude is on the right side of so many issues, and his body of work signals to this fact, that (to my eyes at least) Red Tails makes up a bit of the ill will left over from the Jar Jar debacle that is the Prequels.

Lucas drops the shield with Stewart, engages in some self-deprecating humor, talks long term plans for the Red Tails franchise, and the reality that Hollywood will not finance black movies save for Tyler Perry's hot garbage new age race minstrelsy (notice how George bites his tongue, speaking very carefully about the coonery and buffoonery that are Madea and Meet the Browns).

I will see Red Tails again both to support the venture, and to see if the final edits improve on what was an already more than serviceable film.

Here is one of the real faces, the real voices, and real people who were the heroes known as The Tuskegee Airmen. This interview with Alexander Jefferson of the 332nd Fighter Group from the U.S. Army War College archives (an amazing resource by the way, one that I will be featuring more often) is worth a view.

Men like this are legends, elder gods:

An Inside Con Game? Why Would Cornel West Go On the Hannity Show?

Last night, Brother Cornel West appeared on "Brother" Sean Hannity's TV show. Lord. "Brother" Sean Hannity? Save me now. I cannot stomach Fox News; only a few seconds of viewing leave me spent and exhausted--their lies and distortions are that burdensome.

In all, this an entertaining interview. But, it left me with many head-shaking moments, and a few questions.

One, why would Cornel West go on the Hannity Show? Fox viewers are not going to buy his books, they see him as a crazy negro intellectual leftie Commie, so what is the point? Is Brother Cornel just putting his head in the lion's mouth for a cheap thrill?

Two, why would Cornel walk back his observations about Herman Cain being on "the symbolic crack pipe?" You are on enemy territory, why not go hard and stick to principles? And yes, it was fun to hear Hannity mentioning some of my talking points on Herbie Cornbread Imagine There is No Pizza Cain (once more, I had a moment when I regretted not going on Fox News those months back). One day, I will get my metaphorical hands around the throats of Hannity and company, I just have to wait for the moment of my own choosing.

Three, are the talking heads all in bed with each other? Is this a big charade that the true believers, marks, and the low information voting public don't realize is a sham? Left and Right need a good fight, just like boxers who feign hatred for each other to build up the gate. Is this a dynamic present in the Cornel West Fox News interview?

Fourth, do Hannity and the Conservative Jesus Christ hates the poor and loves the rich Christian Nationalist Dominion crowd really believe the crap they spew? I am not a "Christian," but the Right-wing prosperity gospel war monger types have always been the object of much fascination on my part. What mental gymnastics do they use in their biblical hermeneutics? Can their pastors, ministers, and other oracles be brought up on charges of biblical malpractice?

Finally, who the hell are the "so-called" rich that Hannity defends as an oppressed and aggrieved public? What leaps of faith are necessary for listeners to sustain a belief in, and adherence to, such Orwellian fictions?

The lie isn't even that persuasive, even for the most superficial and dim of viewers. Why does it have any traction at all?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Do You Want To Win a Copy of the New Book The Obamas?

I like giving folks goodies. To that end, I have been gifted with a few copies of Jodi Kantor's new book, The Obamas, to give away to the readers of We Are Respectable Negroes. Widely discussed in the press, a target of criticism by First Lady Michelle Obama, containing titillating gossip about Barack Obama's edict that a staffer must watch Barbershop 1 and 2 in order to learn about the sacred relationship between a black man and his barber, and with tales of ghetto nerd greatness such as an Alice in Wonderland themed party (with an appearance by Chewbacca) in the White House, The Obamas sounds more than intriguing.

Now, you all know that you got to earn your keep around here--no one gets a free ride from this respectable negro.

The election of Barack Obama was an amazing moment for the United States. We saw what was once thought impossible--a black man elected President in a country, where for a majority of its history, folks such as Barack Obama were held as human property. As I have written elsewhere, that moment, as well as the years which followed, were/are the stuff of science fiction. The unbelievable has now become mundane; but for many, there remains a warm glow surrounding the election of the United States' first black president.

Memories are malleable. They do not live like people do. For those of the Civil Rights generation, there is a tendency to exaggerate, lie, bend the truth, or simply "misremember" their role in The Movement. For example, my mother told a tall tale about being in the streets with Dr. King, staring down dogs, and marching for freedom. Moms maintained this lie for years. Under pressure, she later confessed that she had no taste for non-violence and would have gone to jail if a white cop had beat on her. Thus, no Dr. King marching and protesting for her. But, she held onto that creative reinterpretation of history because the story was "fun" (and it inspired her son).

In that spirit, tell me your personal story about the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

You can be creative and do a dry run of the myth which you will spin for your great grand kids when they ask, "where were you when Obama won? What did you do to help his campaign?"

Do you have a poignant story to tell, something so true that it must be shared for the benefit of all times? Or do you have a secret shame, one that you will need to change for the benefit of your legacy? Were you in jail? Indifferent? Overslept on election day or forgot to register? Secretly voted for McCain/Palin, but lied to everyone by telling them that you cast a ballot for then candidate Barack Obama? Did you engage in a post-election night of kinky rutting, one where you and your partner role-played as Barack and Michelle?

Unburden yourself. There is no judgment here--just a cool prize.

The two best submissions (as judged by me) will each receive one copy of The Obamas.

Have at it. The contest will run through Wednesday, January 18th, at which point I will announce our winners.

Good luck.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Melissa Harris-Perry on The Colbert Report is "the Strong Black Woman"

Damn right! Black women carry the burden for the absence of the black male in the African American community. We are indeed yetis. Some of us are even kinky koalas...inside joke.

The strength of the Colbert character is his honesty. He is so wonderfully flat and transparent that one can easily imagine that there are many such white male conservatives: they are self-entitled, narcissistic, and can't imagine a world outside of their own experiences. In all, they are not "bad" people. Rather, the Stephen Colbert's of the world are just ignorant of the great depths and magnanimity of their own ignorance.

[Talk about a turn of phrase.]

Melissa is good in this spot. Unlike some heavy hitters like the genius historian Nell Irvin Painter who crashed and burned on The Colbert Report, Dr. Perry plays the role nicely--she is not too serious and maintains a good sense of humor about the whole matter...while still keeping her game face on.

There is also a nice bit of self-deprecating humor as Melissa describes herself as a "strong black woman"--one who is black on most days.

In all this is some good stuff. And of course, congrats to Melissa on her new MSNBC show. She knows how to shine and get her hustle on. Melissa is also cool people who will most certainly bring some new voices (and faces) to the table at MSNBC.

I am looking forward to her debut. Are you?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Uncomfortable Worshipfulness Towards a Killer? Fox News Interviews Chris Kyle, Navy Seal Sniper With 160 Kills

Is it just me, or is there is something profoundly uncomfortable and unsettling about this interview?

I am a bit of a grognard. In my teens, I was more interested in weapons, machines, and things that go boom. With age, I have gravitated more towards military strategy, and am increasingly fascinated by soldiers' individual accounts of combat.

When I was 12 years old I would have found former Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle's account exciting. I would have taken his deeds in Iraq (where he killed at least 160 people), as some great display of "manhood." Some years later, now knowing several former and active duty military personnel, I possess a different type of respect for their service.

To the one, all of them have upset the stereotypes of soldiers as video game, heroic warriors, worshiped as two dimensional cartoon characters by many in the American public. Almost all of these veterans, especially those back from Afghanistan and Iraq, are critical of the policies which put them and their comrades in harm's way on imperial misadventures.

Chris Kyle was feted by Bill O'Reilly last week: his deeds were recounted, and killing admired by the Fox News faithful. There is an odd homoeroticism (or is it homosocial worship?) in this interview, where O'Reilly as an archconservative is channeling a deep fascination with the "how" of death, and a type of hyper-masculinity that is the bleeding heart of Right-wing authoritarianism. Here, O'Reilly reminds the viewer of why straight men enjoy watching the freakishly large penises that dominate much of American pornography. Hero worship, with no small amount of projection, is, and remains, the thing--it is the means for a visceral thrill.

I have read many accounts of the personal killing that is done by snipers. They hunt people. The most dangerous prey is their quarry.
“After the first kill, the others come easy. I don’t have to psych myself up, or do anything mentally — I look through the scope, get the target in the cross hairs and kill my enemy before he kills one of my people,” Kyle writes in his new autobiography, “American Sniper.”
I wonder what the intimacy of death experienced by Chris Kyle has done to his soul. While many would not frame killing during combat in these terms, soldiers who have to take a life are often damaged by the deed. They become "victims" of a sort. To my eye, it is curious thing that Bill O'Reilly does not ask such an obvious question about his guest's interior life.

As Dave Grossman and others have painstakingly documented, killing is an unnatural act. Moreover, most soldiers are highly resistant to killing, and thus increasingly sophisticated training techniques have been developed to overcome their aversion. In fact, historically, a relatively small number of soldiers have accounted for a disproportionate percentage of kills on the battlefield. These people are "natural" warriors; they exhibit sociopathological tendencies such as low affect, low levels of empathy, and an ability to distance themselves from the act of taking another life. Predictably, these natural killers gravitate to the most elite military units where their particular "gifts" will be of most use--and they will be more likely to get a chance to ply their craft.

This is not a claim that elite soldiers such as the Navy Seals, the unit which Chris Kyle was a member of, are "crazy," sociopaths, or are especially prone to violence outside of a combat situation. It is however, an acknowledgement that there are bad and dangerous men who are born that way. The training sharpens the edge.
The son of a Sunday-school teacher and a church deacon, Kyle credits a higher authority for his longest kill.
From 2,100 yards away from a village just outside of Sadr City in 2008, he spied a man aiming a rocket launcher at an Army convoy and squeezed off one shot from his .338 Lapua Magnum rifle. Dead. From more than a mile away.
“God blew that bullet and hit him,” he said.
For Kyle, the enemy is a “savage” — there’s no room for gray, only black or white.
America is a militiarized society. Warfare and martial culture are at the heart of the country's economy and entertainment. Militarism is also central to America's political culture as well. For example, onservatives such as Gingrich, Romney, Bush, Santorum, Perry, and others play the tough guy as chicken hawks who swagger in a phallocentric game and performance which titillates their populist base, even as the irony that all either avoided military service (or exaggerated their responsibilities) remains uncommented upon.

Much the same can be said of the flag wavers in Red State, Right-wing America, a group of people who love to talk tough about foreign intervention, but in a society where a relatively small number of people have gone to war, are likely to have never been in combat.

We also cannot forget that President Obama presides over a killing machine that is almost industrial in its efficiency. While his Tea Party GOP detractors paint him as anything but "aggressive," "manly," "strong," or "brave" on foreign affairs, as Commander in Chief, Barack Obama has stacked up "terrorist" bodies as if they were cord wood. He shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

In total, America is a violent society. We lack the maturity to discuss this fact in honest terms. Likewise, many avoid a mature reflection on what the consequences--psychological, emotional, material, financial, and spiritual--are for those young men and women who are sent off to maintain and expand the empire.

And then we have men like Chris Kyle, an example of martial skill, who killed by the hundreds while wearing the insignia of his favorite Marvel comic book character.
His Charlie platoon even adopted the insignia of the comic-book vigilante The Punisher, spray-painting skulls on their body armor, vehicles, helmets and guns. “You see us? We’re the people kicking your ass. Fear us, because we will kill you, motherf--ker,” he writes.
Maybe I have gotten old. Chris Kyle and his tribe should be respected, they should be given a pat on the back, and welcomed home as best we can. But, their skill at killing should not be celebrated. That is a minor distinction; it is also an important one.

A country needs its heroes, and who it chooses to elevate as exemplars of martial prowess says much about its national character in a given moment. World War One brought us Alvin York. World War Two gave us Audie Murphy, Robert Leckie, the Tuskegee Airmen, and the 442nd Infantry Regiment. Vietnam had Carlos Hathcock. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have brought us Leroy Arthur Petry and Chris Kyle.

Where do we go from here? And what do heroes such as Chris Kyle--dangerous men with kill streaks in the hundreds--tell us about ourselves and the country's future at the nadir of American empire?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Logical Fallacy of Defending Ron Paul's Racism or You Do Know That There Were Racist Abolitionists?

Ron Paul's non-answer about his racist attitudes towards black Americans during the New Hampshire GOP debate was a classic evasion. It was also a virtual admission of guilt.

Akin to a man on trial for murdering his wife--but who insists on talking about how he is a good father--Ron Paul is unable to explain away the racist screeds in his newsletters, opposition to honoring Dr. King with a national holiday, and belief that the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 should be overturned because black folks' freedom is an imposition on white people's liberty.

Ron Paul is also a beneficiary of a cult of personality. With such status comes a reservoir of good faith among his public. To their eyes, the libertarian messiah could not possibly be a racist, for that would involve some reflection about the relationship between libertarian approaches to government in theory, and how in practice said philosophy enables white supremacy.

In all, if Ron Paul were a private citizen this would be a non-issue: his name is on the masthead of a newsletter which has repeatedly featured racist editorials; he cashes the checks from the subscribers to this newsletter; he believes that Civil Rights legislation is tyrannical towards whites; white supremacists have endorsed his works; his son, also an elected official, shares the same attitudes about sacrificing the full citizenship of black Americans to a "higher principle."

Check and mate.

Ron Paul's defenders have twisted themselves into all sorts of knots as they try to white wash these inconvenient facts. Their most common claim is that because Ron Paul supports ending the ruinous War on Drugs (with its well documented racial disparities in enforcement, imprisonment, and punishment), that he is a believer in racial equality. This is a symptom of a larger dynamic at work in post-Civil Rights era racial discourse

Primarily, the bar for what constitutes racism has been set so high that even the most obvious examples of racial animus have to be couched in careful terms lest an "innocent" white person be branded a bigot. Second, the definition of what constitutes "racism" has been narrowed down to include only bogeyman and caricatures of White wickedness, White hate, White sheets, White race pride tattoos, White hands holding nooses, and White hands burning crosses. And as an auxiliary-enabler of post-Civil Rights race discourse, the lazy newspeak of "playing the race card" was invented precisely to serve as a defense mechanism that exists only to enable such specious concepts as "white oppression" or "reverse racism."

Of course, real life is much more complicated. Here, the argument that Ron Paul is not a racist because he wants to end the War on Drugs is a logical fallacy. Racist people can support policies that are "race neutral." Racists can be "good people." Anti-racists and progressives can be forward thinking in some areas and unrepentant bigots in others. And of course, while many are loathe to admit it, racism is a sin of both liberals and conservatives alike.

As I am so fond of saying, history is once more our greatest teacher. For example, there were abolitionists who wanted to end slavery and the vile trade in human beings, yet who also thought that black Americans were subhuman. There were abolitionists who urged blacks to rise up against the evils of the Southern slaveocracy, yet these same people thought that the presence of Africans in America was a problem to be solved by colonization because their presence was antithetical to white democracy.

Hinton Rowan Helper was one such figure. His 1868 work, The Impending Crisis of the South: How to Meet It, was second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin in its influence on the public imagination about the evils of chattel slavery. Helper was also an unrepentant white supremacist.

For example, in his compendium "The Negroes in Negroland", he included such observations as:
In every part of the United States, there is a broad and impassable line of demarcation between every man who has one drop of African blood in his veins, and every other class in the community. The habits, the feelings, all the prejudices of society, — prejudices which neither refinement, nor argument, nor education, nor religion itself, can subdue, — mark the people of color, whether bond or free, as the subjects of a degradation inevitable and incurable. The African in this'country belongs by birth to the very lowest station in society ; and from that station he can never rise, be his talents, his enterprise, his virtues what they may." — African Repository , Vol. IV., page 118.
Even more pithy, Helper included how:
"'The negro is not wholly without talents, but they are limited to imitation, — the learning of what has been previously known. He has neither invention nor judgment. Africans may be consid- ered docile, but few of them are judicious, and thus in mental qualities we are disposed to see a certain analogy with the apes, whose imitative powers are proverbial.'" — Burmeister's Black Man, page 14.
Or how about this gem of common sense race science:
"So great a difference of opinion has ever existed upon the intrinsic value of the negro, that the very perplexity of the ques- tion is a proof that he is altogether a distinct variety. So long as it is generally considered that the negro and the white man are to be governed by the same laws and guided by the same management, so long will the former remain a thorn in the side of every community to which he may unhappily belong. When the horse and the ass shall be found to match in double harness, the white man and the African black will pull together under the same re- gime. It is the grand error of equalizing that which is unequal that has lowered the negro character, and made the black man a reproach." — Baker's Great Basin of the Nile, page 195.
People are complicated. One can be an abolitionist like Hinton Rowan Helper and believe that black humanity and personhood are sub-par, well below that of whites, and that African Americans have no place in American society. Ron Paul can be right on foreign relations and government waste for example, but dead wrong on matters of race, justice, and civil rights.

Such is life. Despite the temptations, there are no easy answers. Some in the American public will see Ron Paul's racism as necessarily compromising his vision, ethics, and judgement more generally; it is a first order problem, not a mere inconvenience. For Ron Paul's supporters, attitudes about black people are secondary to his libertarian vision for the United States. How a person reconciles this matter tells us a great deal about their own ethics and values.

On questions of race and justice the personal is indeed the political. The challenge here--and for libertarianism more broadly--is how these personal choices become impositions on the full citizenship, full rights, and full personhood of other people. To this point, Ron Paul's version of libertarianism offers no satisfying answers for those who are not White, not privileged, and outside of the moneyed classes.

Is he a racist? I do not know. But the policies which Ron Paul advocates, and the philosophy which he subscribes to, are none too friendly to people of color. For me, that is enough of a disqualification.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Shameless Self-Promotion: Chauncey DeVega is One of the 50 Most Despicable People According to the Right-Wing Blogosphere

While flipping between the NFL playoffs and the Tea Party GOP New Hampshire debate (isn't Mitt Romney an amazing dresser? dude is dudded up for real) I was forwarded the following bit of news.

I am touched.

I would like to thank God, the Force, my fashion consultant, fish monger, the local bar frau, various muses, and the chicken wings from Joy Yee's Chinese restaurant for helping me muster the strength and inspiration necessary to win such a great honor.

I am also in good company, as I am on the enemies list right before President Obama and after Ed Schultz.

Good stuff:

25) You have what I call the ‘Get the N-word out of the White House party,’ the Tea Party…. At the end of the day, there’s a big bubble coming out of their heads saying, you know, ‘Can we just lynch him?’ — Sean Penn

24) What happened after 9/11 — and I think even people on the right know this, whether they admit it or not — was deeply shameful. [The] atrocity should have been a unifying event, but instead it became a wedge issue. Fake heroes like Bernie Kerik, Rudy Giuliani, and, yes, George W. Bush raced to cash in on the horror. And then the attack was used to justify an unrelated war the neo-cons wanted to fight, for all the wrong reasons….The memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned; it has become an occasion for shame. And in its heart, the nation knows it. — Paul Krugman

23) President Obama is going to be visiting Joplin, Missouri, on Sunday, but you know what they’re talking about? Like this right-wing slut, what’s her name, Laura Ingraham? Yeah, she’s a talk slut. You see, she was, back in the day, praising President Reagan when he was drinking a beer overseas. But now that Obama’s doing it, they’re working him over. — Ed Schultz

22) Herman Cain’s shtick is a version of race minstrelsy where he performs “authentic negritude” as wish fulfillment for White Conservative fantasies. Like the fountain at Lourdes, Cain in his designated role as black Conservative mascot, absolves the White racial reactionaries at CPAC of their sins. This is a refined performance that Black Conservatives have perfected over many decades and centuries of practice. — Chauncey DeVega

21) The issue here is not gonna be a list of accomplishments. As you said yourself, Steve, you know, I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, F.D.R., and Lincoln. — Barack Obama

Fame in a small and obscure corner of the Right-wing blogosphere is fleeting; I will enjoy it while it lasts.

Once more, thank you.

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Chappelle Skit in Real Life: Introducing Robert Traynham, Self-Hating Black, Gay, Former Aide to Rick Santorum

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Where do they find these people?

Here, we have a gay man who defends Rick Santorum, a man that is an open homophobe, theocrat, and bigot who compares gay and lesbian Americans to sex deviants that have intercourse with animals.

Here, we have an African American who defends Rick Santorum, a man that is a race-baiter who suggests that blacks are lazy parasites on White America.

Fanon would have so much fun with Robert Traynham.

Question: are folks like him just professional mercenaries who will take any position because it pays well? Or, and these questions may not be exclusive of one another, is Traynham just self-hating, working for a political agenda that devalues his personhood in a neat act of self-flagellating guilt?

In all, the human capacity for self-delusion boggles the mind. I do not know if Robert Tranyham is loathsome, tragic, or both.

Racial Resentment, White Novelty, and the Tim Tebow Phenomenon

ESPN has a great discussion on its website about the Tim Tebow cult of personality.

I am a Patriots fan. I loved watching Tebow get owned by Tom Brady. I also believe that Tebow is grossly overrated, and his popularity is a function of Christian Dominionist born again shtick and the "novelty" of a white quarterback with a "black" style of play. In many ways, Tebow is the Eminem of the NFL, with the latter being imminently more talented. Alternatively, we can suggest that Tebow is to black quarterbacks who play at HBCU's as white girls who are "thick" are to black women with the same physiques. One is "exotic"; the other is "ordinary" and "typical."

In all, the ESPN round table hits on a number of issues, and while they over read "racism" and "racial resentment" into the Tebow debate, the panelists are spot on in that a black quarterback who played like him would not get any of his shine.

Is Tebow the great white hope? And what does this tell us about race and sports--what should be the greatest of all meritocracies where none of these questions of identity ought to matter--but where the real world offers no such comforts?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Racial Misunderstandings: A Black Woman and a White Woman Sit Down to Talk About "Gone With the Wind" and...

In recent months, we have talked a good amount about historical memory and how race is a variable in our shared--yet often different--understandings of American life. For some, these matters are intensely personal, for others they are asides, and for many more, a cultivated naivete about the centrality of race in this country's long struggle towards full democracy is a luxury afforded only by white privilege.

I have alluded to the book a Country of Strangers on a few occasions. It is a good text, not particularly rigorous, but very readable, "journalistic," and full of great stories about how real people negotiate (or not) the color line in America.

With all of the back and forth about the Republican Party regarding its embrace of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause as a way to mobilize conservative white voters against Barack Obama, we must also acknowledge how this literal whitewashing of history by the Right would not be so compelling this process was gross and obvious in its bigoted hostility towards black and brown people.

While the Tea Party GOP uses dog whistles, and at times naked appeals to white racism to motivate their voters, electoral calculus in the post Civil Rights era demands some feigned effort at color blindness and race neutrality. As I have pointed out previously, conservatives who are motivated by racism in their hostility towards Obama, specifically, and "liberals" (as "race traitors," the imagined advocates for the interests of people of color) more generally, need some chaff, a convenient out, so that they can continue to feel like good people.

Few people want to be labeled as active racists--even if their political worldview and decision-making are animated by white racism on a semi-deep, yet not quite subconscious, level. The following exchange detailed in A Country of Strangers between two friends--one white and one black--about the movie Gone with the Wind captures the willful ignorance of the Tea Party GOP faithful on these matters.

Just as I suggested about Santorum's and Gingrich's public(s), Right-wing white populists are not necessarily pernicious racists. Rather, they simply subscribe to a type of common sense that is based on excluding people of color, and on the assumed superiority of Whiteness, White values, White dreams, White hopes, and White politics as the very definition of what it means to be "American."

Is the white woman in the following situation a "racist?" Perhaps, but only a "passive" one such that her assumptions, lack of asking questions about her own universal "I," and lazy thinking about a shared life experience with others who happen to not be white, is her shortcoming. However, this type of ignorance is a short stones throw away from the type of prejudice and bigotry that is the foundation for Birtherism, and all of the American exceptionalism, nativist, "Real America" talk that is the Esperanto of the New Right.

Do tell me. Am I onto something here? Or am I being too hard on an otherwise well-intended woman, one who is simply blinded by the gaze of much so that she is unable to see how race is central to the full personhood and humanity of people, even her close friends, who may not be white?

In all, this is an epic face palm moment:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Iowa and Beyond: For the Tea Party GOP "Common Sense" Racism is the Road to the White House

The 2012 Republican presidential field, a hydra which self-destructively feeds on itself, had one more battle royale in Iowa. Fighting to a standstill, Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul bloodied each other. While the Tea Party GOP is still a house divided, their leading candidates share a common, uniting, go to issue: hating on the blacks makes for good politics; it pays substantial political dividends.

As Iowa demonstrated, be it Gingrich's yearning to have lazy black and brown kids pick up mops and brooms as janitors in work houses, Romney's nativist Klan inspired opines to keep "America America," Santorum's appeals to a belief that African Americans find sustenance by stealing from hardworking white people, or Ron Paul's assertion that the Civil Rights Act (with its bringing down of Jim and Jane Crow) was an unfair intrusion on white people's "liberty" and "freedom," the Tea Party GOP remains addicted to the crack rock of dog whistle politics.

Decades after the founding of the Southern Strategy in the 1960s, the old school remains the true school. Ultimately for conservatives, demagoguing the negroes can still help stir up support among the white populist faithful.

Precision matters here. Research on public opinion and political behavior has demonstrated that not all conservatives are racist. However, racists are much more likely to be conservative--and to identify as Republicans.

Social scientists, historians, psychologists and others have developed an extensive vocabulary to talk about the lived politics of the color line. These terms include such notable phrases as symbolic racism, white racial resentment, the white racial frame, in-group and out-group anxiety, ethnocentrism, prejudice, realistic group conflict, colorblind racism, systems of structured inequality, racial formation, and front stage vs. backstage racism.

In thinking through the politics of race at work in the white conservative political imagination, this seemingly disparate terminology is connected by a common thread. Race and racial ideologies are ways of seeing the world, of locating people and individuals relative to one another, and are a cognitive map for making sense of social relationships. While shocking to outsiders, the type of racism played with so casually by Gingrich, Romney, Santorum, Paul and other conservatives is a type of "common sense" for their public.

For example, the audiences that cheer Romney's speeches about a country that is lost, one led by an anti-American usurper, are not necessarily "bad people." They are motivated by a sense of belonging, and made to feel special by virtue of being "real Americans," part of a special tribe anointed with unique insight and wisdom by their oracles.

Likewise, those who embrace Gingrich's habit of stereotyping "inner city blacks" as lazy, unmotivated, and criminal, probably identify as "compassionate conservatives," or "good Christians." There is no intended malice on their part. To them, "everyone knows" that these observations about black and brown people are "true."

Rick Santorum's Iowa speech on the nature of black people's greed and degeneracy is an especially instructive example of this broader pattern:
"It just keeps expanding - I was in Indianola a few months ago and I was talking to someone who works in the department of public welfare here, and she told me that the state of Iowa is going to get fined if they don't sign up more people under the Medicaid program," Santorum said. "They're just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That's what the bottom line is."
He added: "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
"And provide for themselves and their families," Santorum added, to applause. "The best way to do that is to get the manufacturing sector of the economy rolling again."
"Right," responded one audience member, as another woman can be seen nodding.
There are several elements at work here.

First, poverty in America is racialized. The image in the public imagination is of black welfare queens, or illegal aliens birthing "anchor babies" who live off of the government tit, profiting from food stamps and the generosity of the American people. The white poor rarely, if ever, enter the picture. Second, black people are in a parasitic relationship with white Americans (Santorum's "someone" else). In sum, black people are "lazy," and a dependent class, unable to take care of their families except for the generosity and benevolence of white people.

The most powerful part of Santorum's appeal to his white audience in Iowa is the implication that black people are receiving some type of "reparations." For Santorum and the Tea Party GOP, blacks are plagued by "bad culture" and are existentially prone to poverty. Therefore, in a country where labor, capitalism, and citizenship are inexorably connected, blacks are outside of the political community.

In the age of Fox News and the Right-wing echo chamber, one cannot forget how the conservative imagination is constituted as a dream world: it is a mature fulfillment of some of the most sophisticated propaganda in the post World War 2 period.

In this imagination, it does not matter that whites are the majority of America's poor.

It does not matter that most people on public assistance and welfare in Iowa are white.

It does not matter that there is a deep history which explains how conservatives have spun a fiction about black and brown poverty while ignoring structural economic inequality, and how many of the policies endorsed by the Tea Party GOP in the name of economic austerity and punishing people of color (who are coded as "the poor" or "unproductive citizens"), also disproportionately harm the white working and middle classes.

This local type of common sense helps to explain the feelings of defense, denial, and injury that many white conservatives exhibit when challenged about the racism of the Tea Party GOP and the Right-wing establishment. While the leadership and media elites from which they take their cues skillfully play the race baiting game, rank and file Fox News conservatives simply feel aggrieved at the suggestion that anyone would take their common sense understandings of the world to be racist, bigoted, or based on false understandings about the nature of racism and white privilege in the Age of Obama.

In the same way that a fish does not know that it is wet, the politics of nativism, an authoritarian-like embrace of the politics of us and them, and a fear of the Other, are so central to contemporary white populist conservatism, that they are taken-for-granted assumptions about the nature of the world.

Moreover, politics is essentially about the creation of an imagined community. The stump speeches about evil liberals who hate America, the cheering of dying cancer patients who lack insurance, the booing of gay soldiers, and the numerous fictions about the economy, science, the Constitution, and public policy more generally are taken as divine gospel. These fictions are standing priors for contemporary conservatives which help to mark out the boundaries of their political world.

During an election year, and as a function of a highly polarized 24 hour news environment, it is a given that the incumbent president will be the target of vicious attacks by the out party. By implication, the election of Barack Obama, America's first black president, has amplified all of these tensions. The election of a member of the racial out-group has made the stakes especially high for white conservatism. Obama is anathema to the Tea Party GOP soul, the living embodiment of a world turned upside down, for no man who looks like him could ever be leader of the free world, where whiteness is inseparable from being "American."

By implication, there is a short line from the white racial appeals of Gingrich, Santorum, Paul, Romney and others directly to President Obama. He has been called "the food stamp president" and a "ghetto crackhead." Obama is stained by the Birthers who say he is not an American citizen. The appeals to American exceptionalism are naked arguments that a black man like Obama cannot help but be outside of the "normal" political culture of this country. It has also been implied that President Obama is a perpetual "they," a member of a marginalized group who by association is lazy, anti-white, unqualified, and an "affirmative action baby" that somehow managed to steal a presidential election and win the popular vote.

Many may laugh at such a formulation. However, the Tea Party GOP, Iowa voters, and others who clamor to participate in the Republican primaries, would take such claims as common sense knowledge. For people of color, the outsider, the Other, and those who are not (in their eyes) "quintessentially American" (and thus have to prove their authenticity to the white conservative gaze), this is not your country.

You people may have built and improved this country, but it is not yours. For the Tea Party GOP and the populist conservatism of the present moment, you people are just guests. They will remind you people of that fact at every moment.

Why? Because it is common sense. Didn't you know that?

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Racial Futures Prediction Market Game: What Will the Black Misery Index be in 2012?

If it bleeds it leads.

Bad news is good news.

Who wants to hear the good news, when the bad news is so much more compelling?

While slick, sharp, coherent, professional, and emotive, Colorlines' "The Year in Race" makes me tired. Existentially. Yes, the stakes are high for people of color in the Great Recession. We have experienced proportionately greater losses in terms of employment, the housing market, wealth, life spans, and inter-generational social mobility, than have white Americans. This reality is a signal to the permanence of race in this country. It is also a reminder of how far we have yet to go as a people.

But, are things really that bad? Are there no high points, or moments of joy and success, to celebrate going forward?

I am not suggesting that we should engage in some pie in the sky, self-aggrandizing denial--as truth telling should always be our first commitment, "the prime directive"--but rather, that there must be room for positive thinking and balance in our perspectives.

Developing a metric for community happiness can take many forms. Some would use life chances and develop a mathematical model based on income, wealth, lifespan, and social capital. Others would talk to folks and do elaborate public opinion surveys where they ask respondents to describe their hopes for the future, and "if things will be better or worse in the years to come for your children?"

I am a dreamer. I also think there is something to be said for "soft" or intuitive measurements of happiness and progress.

My question: what do you predict the Black Misery Index (our "B.M.I.") will be for the year 2012?

If "1" is joyful bliss, and "10" is utter misery, where will Black America (and people of color more generally), rate in the upcoming 12 months? And if the truism holds that Black folks are the miner's canary, a barometer of sorts for the well-being of the United States at large, what is the calculi for how the Black Misery Index relates to that of the country as a whole?

Ultimately, is there a special rubric, an exception rule for Red State U.S.A. and the Tea Party GOP, where black and brown people's suffering means that everything is going right for Whiteness and the White Conservative Soul?

For example, I would suggest that those moments in the hellish prisons of Goree Island and in the slave ships of the Middle Passage rate a "10" on the scale. The moment of Barack Obama's election and his inauguration and swearing-in would score a "1."

The great and wonderful project known as Reconstruction would be a "6." Yes, on the surface one could rate it a "3." But, any accurate measure must account for how Reconstruction has been grossly mischaracterized in the public mind, as well as the pain of a radically inclusive democratic project born, and then too soon retroactively aborted, by white supremacy and its ugly violence. To my mind's eye, wonderful things temporarily earned and then stolen away require a special accounting.

In all, the prediction game/futures market is a wonderfully personal and imprecise science that reveals much about who we are as individuals and our ability to generalize (or not) outward to that of society as a whole.

Yes, the white gaze can be utterly disingenuous as its yearns to celebrate the end of racism, to inaugurate a post-racial America despite all evidence to the contrary, and to find a way to emancipate itself from the burdens of history (as well as the blood that it has on its proverbial hands in both the present and the past). This creates a natural, intelligent, well-founded, and reasoned tendency among people of color (and smart forward thinking white folks) to emphasize the challenges ahead, as opposed to the demons slayed, the victories won.

And of course, there is a Black racial misery and grievance industry--one that will exist for as long as there are people who are nominally considered "African American." We need the Black racial misery and grievance industry...even in the year 2012. As often as they are wrong, their clarion calls remain a useful and necessary alarm.

But for a moment, let the metaphorical hair down, and feel free to celebrate (or not) the successes of black and brown people in the year 2011

I know that you have it in you.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Some Queen for the New Year: Thank You and Well Wishes in 2012

One more year is past. I hope that all of you are happy, safe, relaxed, and sufficiently medicated--be it on life, Jesus Juice, or Red Stripe...the latter being my drink of choice tonight.

This has been one hell of a year, both good and bad. Let's lean on each other in the New Year, stay strong, and keep building.

Thanks for all of your support, helping WARN grow, providing me the opportunity to learn from our conversations, and a platform to engage other pursuits. More good things are coming, I feel it in these increasingly old bones.

But seriously, I love you all--in a cyber platonic way--and appreciate those voices who have been here from the beginning, those folks who have found WARN recently, and the good number of folks who lurk.

The average blog lasts only a few months. We beat that a long time ago, and while we have a long ways to go, the momentum keeps growing.

I have several goals for the year, and with your help, we will get there together. This is the time for resolutions: besides my "academic" goals, in 2012 I want to nail down a book contract for Chauncey DeVega and We Are Respectable Negroes, do more interviews, go on TV, and get a regular radio spot going. Lofty goals. I aim high. If I lose, it won't be for lack of shooting back or a lack of ammo.

Once more, I thank you all--friends and enemies alike. Together, you keep me on my toes, humble, and honest. Sometimes, there is a temptation to write for comments, dance for gold, and follow trends for attention sake. I try really hard not to do that.

As I said years ago, continue to say often, and will do my best to stay committed to going forward, I am me with the volume turned up. If you ever feel or think that I am following trends, "selling out," or getting lazy and betraying my commitment to Black Pragmatism, please call me out. Trust me, in this world the temptations are many, we need truth tellers to keep us on point.

May the force be with you.

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.