Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Boston Review and the Future of Black Politics: Irrelevance? Obsolete? Multiracial? Dead?

The Boston Review's January issue focuses on black politics. For those not in the know, the Boston Review is an amazing publication and is one of the last long form newspapers or magazines which brings together real experts to meditate on issues of public concern. In short, the Boston Review is a treasure for those who like to think and reflect on the topics of the day, and to get one step ahead of a very narrow, corporate media driven, news cycle.

The Future of Black Politics issue has the following question on its cover: Is Black Politics Good for America? My response to such inquiries has always been, "is white politics good for America?" As a student of black politics I am always suspicious when "our" concerns are racialized, and those of other folks taken to be "normal" or "mainstream." That assumption explains so much about the challenges which face black and brown communities in the 21st century. I remain puzzled that it has not been more thoroughly interrogated.

Michael Dawson, who I have referenced before and hold in the highest regards, is the editor of The Future of Black Politics series. He has brought together some great folks who are a who's who in political science, sociology, philosophy, and critical race theory. The bench is really deep. Each essay is more than worth considering on its own merits, but here are a few excerpts which are especially prescient given the conversations we have had here on WARN, and the types of puzzles that will have to be worked through as black political elites resolve their roles in an increasingly diverse America.

Michael Dawson, offers a great framework for the essays which follow his introduction. Dawson's following observation about "pragmatic utopianism" is particularly powerful and provocative:
We must “tell no lies, claim no easy victories,” Amílcar Cabral, the Guinea-Bissauan nationalist leader, said of the process of imagining new worlds. We need to understand the conditions from which we must build. So we need a pragmatic utopianism, which starts where we are and imagines where we want to be.
Pragmatic utopianism is not new to black radicalism. King and the civil rights movement combined a utopian image of a very different America, one they were repeatedly told was impossible to obtain, with hardheaded political realism and goal-oriented strategies.
Indeed, King’s Memphis campaign to support black sanitation workers, and, even more so, the Poor People’s Campaign that he was about to launch at the time of his death, were designed explicitly to take on what Walter Mosley has called the “voracious maw of capitalism,” achieve economic justice for all, and in the process build the interracial unity that had been, and remains, so elusive.
Dorian Warren, superstar that he is (I mean that with love), contributes a trenchant observation about the relationship between neoliberalism, vested interests, and black empowerment:
Incompatible and irreconcilable interests among blacks represent the fundamental challenge of 21st-century black politics. While black communities have always had a class divide, its sources have changed. Under Jim Crow segregation, black economic elites depended on black consumers, tethering black capitalists to the larger black community.
Drawing on a term Dawson uses elsewhere, that business arrangement created a sense of “linked fate.” Today, black economic elites not only have sources of income and wealth outside the black community, but their collective interests are at odds with those of the majority of black Americans. There is no going back.
I’m not as optimistic as Dawson about the chances that black political leaders will begin to represent all segments of black communities, particularly poor or LGBT people. It is equally likely that black political elites will continue to engage in processes of secondary marginalization. Indeed things could get worse. After all, black mayors and other mayors of color—in Oakland, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and elsewhere—have behaved no differently, and often worse, than their white counterparts in responding to Occupy protests.
Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres develop their previous concept of "political race" one step further and suggest that:
...In each of these cases, blacks and Latinos linked their fates with other disenfranchised groups who share similar economic and social status or worldview, but who are separated from them and from each other by the old scripts of racial division. The goal of these political-race projects is to build constituencies of accountability rather than constituencies for electability.
We applaud Dawson’s critique: the road to political power is not through the electocracy. Rather than focusing on electing more black candidates, black progressives should build political or social movements that assert their authority beyond the voting booth and offer a better vision of what this country could be. But we believe they cannot do it alone. Political race is necessary to change the wind.
Philosopher Tommie Shelby bring the heat with a claim about black political leadership that I am sure many of you will agree with:
Dawson insists that we need independent black organizations if we are to hold black leaders accountable. But black elected officials could be held accountable through elections if we had a more democratic system, one that didn’t give rich people and large corporations undue influence over elections and public policy. This suggests that blacks should join forces with those fighting for a fairer electoral system and campaign finance reform, regardless of their race. We of course need well-run organizations able to pressure government officials.
But again, these organizations can be racially diverse, with each member an equal. Self-appointed spokespersons for “the race” are obsolete—they don’t need to be held accountable; they need to be delegitimized...
Dawson rightly praises King’s pragmatic utopianism, and he recommends a return to the spirit and politics of King’s underappreciated Where Do We Go from Here. But Dawson seems not to have taken to heart the lessons from King’s trenchant critique of black power ideology.
Cultivating multiracial organizations and maintaining black solidarity within them strikes the right balance between utopian aspiration and political realism. Black politics need not be anchored in a set of organizations that blacks control. It can and should be rooted in blacks’ joint ethical commitment to protect each other and to fight for justice and mutual respect.
My thoughts on these matters are mixed.

On one hand, I suggest that we still need vibrant, strong, well-resourced black political, economic, and cultural organizations to argue for the particular, and in many cases, "unique" needs of the African American community given our history and present in the United States. However, to the degree that black folks are still possessed by the glare of the glorious 1960s and the civil rights moment, we are unable to shift gears and deal with current challenges where class often matters more than race in explaining deleterious life outcomes.

In the Age of Obama white supremacy is institutionalized. However, it operates in a race neutral fashion. Old tactics for dealing with racism in the neoliberal, neoconservative, global present are the equivalent of the Zulus charging British Gatling guns, or the horses of the Light Brigade charging headlong into Maxim machine guns. In all, you will have a great story to tell. However, the victory--if it comes--will be Pyrrhic in nature. The white racial frame, the white gaze, and white supremacy are adaptive. In many ways, they are among the greatest inventions of the modern age. Black and brown people, our allies, and others interested in the common good need to shift to full spectrum warfare in order to defeat those enemies. Nothing less will bring continued defeat.

Finally, I am also nervous about handing over the political interests of black people to the ambiguous umbrella term known as "multiracial" alliances. Cooperation does not preclude the pursuit of one's own narrow group interests. However, history has taught many lessons--among them how black folks are often at the vanguard of challenging the system and teaching others how to struggle--only to see African American political interests discarded in the interest of "political expediency" or the "greatest good for the greatest many."

Where do we go from here? You tell me.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Me Love You Long Time, Me So Horny: More than Dog Whistles, Republican Pete Hoekstra Embraces the Yellow Peril Strategy

Getting my feet back under me after the Superbowl.

It seems that at the nadir of the American Empire, the Tea Party GOP is more than desperate. They are using their racial air raid sirens to key in on every fear that white conservatives may possess--this is a good strategy as research suggests that conservatives do in fact have larger fear centers in their brains, and are more prone to hold racist attitudes and have low IQ's.

But, from Gingrich's janitor and lazy black people food stamp president meme, to Santorum's black parasites, to Ron Paul's "giant negroes," the Republican Party is going off of the deep end.

Michigan Senate Republican candidate Pete Hoekstra's yellow peril ad is more than failed satire. It is piss poor reasoning and raggedy argumentation. I am very concerned about the rise of China. I am doubly concerned about how the American people sold themselves out for boatloads of cheap crap from abroad. But, there are better and smarter ways to make such claims, and to develop long-term, intelligent, and nuanced policies to prepare the country for the de facto emergence of China's global power.

In keeping with the slave ship anti-Obama ad, Republicans who are lower on the ticket have apparently learned to dig deep in that old bucket of white racial resentment and anxiety to win voters. If the top tier candidates are wallowing in this mess, it just becomes a prototype for others to replicate. It becomes a political version of Moneyball, or the PSA where the kid learns to use drugs or smoke by watching his parents.

"I learned it by watching you!" becomes a catch-all phrase to legitimate toxic behavior in the public and political spheres.

In all, conservatives are in a state of existential angst. A black man happens to be President of the United States, and America is a falling power and not a rising one. Moreover, as cultivated by the Right-wing echo chamber, black and brown people are oppressing white folks. Consequently, many white conservative populists are at a total loss. A few decades ago black people stopped getting off of the sidewalk when whites approached; it is a slippery slope as such changes in social convention have led to all sorts of madness and upset for the White Soul.

Who knows where this will lead us? Next thing we know, perhaps the nativists and know nothings in the Tea Party GOP will be recycling Madison Grant's racist screeds and stripping Jews, Poles, Italians, and others of their recently earned full Whiteness. Perhaps the Tea Party will form patrols to raid opium dens and save white women from slavery at the hands of nefarious, evil, Fu Manchu Asians?

In the 2012 campaign season the Republicans are still fighting the Vietnam War; during the Age of Obama it would seem that the white racial frame is indeed back to the future.

So sad.

Funereal Solace, The New England Patriots Lose, and Casey at the Bat

The New England Patriots were defeated. They did not lose; they were beaten by a better team.

In the off season, the Patriots need to get a true deep threat, to strengthen their secondary, and acquire some game changers on defense. I did not cry tonight, for I did not expect the Patriots to win. In all, that is what happens when the magic wears off, the gold doesn't glisten as much, and your team is revealed as mortal.

There is a bitter aftertaste. But those millionaires will keep their money; the planet stays in her orbit; and the world keeps spinning.

The New York Giants are the Patriots', Belichick's, and Brady's nemesis. Enemies are good to have...until they consistently beat you.

The seasons are passing by at a steady rate, and the opportunities for revenge will come fewer and farther between. Perhaps, the Patriots and Tom Brady needed to be reminded of just how rare one Super Bowl appearance is for a team or a player. To have lost as many times as they have on the grandest stage of them all, is both an insult and reminder of greatness, as much as it is a slap in the face.

We tell our children fables in order to prepare them for times when all is lost, and life seems hopeless. To point, this evening, as a New England Patriots fan for now, and forever, I am reminded of Casey at the Bat, a story whose wisdom is timeless:
The Outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that -
We'd put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.  
But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.  
But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.  
Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they'd a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two."

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.

It rained today. It rained hard. It burns. And sometimes, you swing and miss.

Until next year.

Congratulations to the New York Giants and their fans.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Ghetto Nerd Obligatory Super Bowl 2012 Prediction with Vince Lombardi and the Jem'Hadar

Getting ready for the big game. I have the Popeye's Fried Chicken, some Sapporo beer, and a Chimay to open if the Patriots win (a celebration) or lose (a drink of lamentation).

Part of the fun of the week leading up to the Super Bowl is the sport media's efforts to mine every angle in search of a story. We have the obligatory how the Super Bowl reflects American politics stories, the how much more rich is Tom Brady than all of you story, and the human interest vignettes. My favorite, of the bit that I managed to digest, was the NFL network's sitdown with Bill Parcells in which he took out the old white board and dissected the Giants-Pats rematch. His conclusion as to who will win was anticlimactic and not very exciting (the team with the fewest turnovers), but Parcell's expertise is always awe inspiring.

My ghetto nerd New England Patriots fan prediction? Patriots 27, Giants 24. This game has many intriguing storylines: how healthy will the Gronk monster be? The hostility of the fans in Indianapolis, the presence of Peyton Manning, and how much luck he will bring his younger brother Eli. And of course, revenge for the crime of the football century when the Giants robbed the Patriots of a perfect season and championship back in 2007.

Whoever has the ball last is going to win this game. I hope it is Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. The Patriots enter the arena with nothing; now they have to claim their destiny as one of the greatest teams of the modern era. Good luck guys, you/we are going to need it.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The NY Times Probes the Existential Crisis of the Black Church; Eddie Long is Anointed as the King of the Ring

And you wonder why I have no use for the black church?

There are two immediate thoughts that come to mind in watching Eddie Sex Pervert Seduction of the Innocent Long.

First, the affect of the "Rabbi" who is whoring out "his" people reminds me of Tim Wise. I have the utmost respect for Brother Wise, so this is not a comment on any commonality in the substance of his message with that of the snake oil charlatan who anoints Eddie Long as a king. Simply, there is something frighteningly similar about their habitus and style.

Second, it has been said that in the black community the preacher and the pimp are the same cultural figure--they both have a cult of personality, drive expensive cars, exploit women, and wear garish clothing. Eddie Long would seem to prove the point as all he needs is a Bishop Don Magic Juan magical pimp cup to complete the transformation.

In all, the sheeple never fail to disappoint. From their belief that God manifests itself in rock star concert mega churches, to the ego gratification that comes with the cultivated narcissism of being "the chosen people" or "saved," I generally have no use for the mess that passes as religion. While I believe in a Prime Mover/Blessed Exchequer/Crom, the idea that anyone would put faith in a man, as opposed to going straight to the source, strikes me as so medieval. I will take my science is the mind of God, combined with a bit of mysticism and spirituality, and stirred with Richard Dawkins any day of the week, over the "approved" alternatives. But I digress.

On a more serious note, The NY Times has a nice series exploring the continued relevance of the black church as a political institution and social change agent that is worth checking out.

On a lighter, but still very illuminating note, the WWE's Royal Rumble was last weekend. Subsequently, it is fitting to remind ourselves that Eddie Long's shtick (like that of many others in churches, temples, and mosques around the world) is one big carnival act.

To point: Eddie Long's anointment as a savior and king is most evocative of how back in the 1980s, the Million Dollar Man Ted DiBiase rejected convention and fashioned a championship belt for himself. DiBiase's act of hubris further advanced his heel persona, drew even more heat, and got him fully over with the crowd.

Sadly, those fools who sit in the pews at Eddie Long's church, tithing away their rent money to a criminal, do not realize that they are marks. But then again, maybe the lost souls know that it is all a big con, as they derive some sense of community and belonging from their shared exploitation.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Featured Comment: "To align black people behind policies that are antiblack, in their support of a black president..."

As I occasionally do, there is a comment on my post "The Top 10 Racist Moments of the GOP Primary (So Far)" that merits further discussion. Nomad (who needs to claim his book prize) perennial critic of Barack Obama, and long time commenter here on WARN observed that:
Everything you say is true about the Republican assault on issues of concern to black people:

"the 2012 Republican candidates are stirring the pot of white racial anxiety, this is a means to a larger end—the destruction of the country’s social safety net, in support of vicious economic austerity policies, and protecting the kleptocrats and financiers at the expense of the working and middle classes."

What you fail to mention is that a Democratic president, who "happens to be black", is leading the charge. Clearly racism is being used in a novel way here; to align black people behind policies that are antiblack, in their support for a black president. Diabolical. The irony is hilarious. Tea party on one side of the political divide working against their best interests in their support for the super-rich; and black people working against their best interests in their support for a conservative black president.
I wonder if a similar list of racist moments, albeit intra-racially racist, could be compiled for the enigma in the white house? I'd nominate this moment.
This is a very sharp (and quite rich) observation. Partisanship colors--pardon my pun--how voters assess a given candidate's job performance and efficacy. Moreover, allowing for the historic and groundbreaking nature of Barack Obama's election, the white backlash he has experienced, his ability to code switch as he plays the black authenticity game, and given their long standing loyalty to the Democratic Party, African Americans' support of Obama makes sense. However, has that deep well of support paid any political dividends to the black community?

Certainly, Barack Obama has not engaged in the type of racial triangulation game that is typical of black conservatives like Herman Cain or Allen West (where they signal their acceptability to white people, and White political interests, by playing the exceptional pro-white negro), nor has Obama had a Bill Clinton Sister Soulja moment where he threw a black person under the proverbial bus in order to make white middle America feel comfortable.

[Well, one must ask: does the Reverend Wright exercise in realpolitik political abandonment count in that category?]

I never expected a Black radical to win the U.S. presidency--thus, my qualifier that Barack Obama is a "president who happens to be black, and not a Black president." I knew that he was a corporatist, who in another generation, would have been an Eisenhower-Rockefeller Republican.

So help me out, did folks actually believe that they were getting a black freedom fighter who was going to be the second coming of Dr. King with their vote for Obama back in 2008? And if the choice is between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, what is a better use of the black (brown, young people, poor, working class) vote strategically?

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The 10 Most Racist Moments of the GOP Primary (So Far)

One cannot forget that the contemporary Republican Party was born with the Southern Strategy, winning over the former Jim Crow South to its side of the political aisle, and as a backlash against the civil rights movement. This is a formula for a politics of white grievance mongering and white victimology; a dreamworld where white conservatives are oppressed, their rights infringed upon by a tyrannical federal government and elite liberal media that are beholden to the interests of the “undeserving poor,” racial minorities, gays, and immigrants.

In keeping with this script in order to win over Red State America, the 2012 Republican presidential candidates have certainly not disappointed. Both overt racism and dog whistles are delectable temptations that the Republican presidential nominees cannot resist. With the election of the country’s first African-American president, and a United States that is less white and more diverse, the GOP is in peril. In uncertain times, you go with what you know. For the Republican Party, this means “dirty boxing,” digging deep into the old bucket of white racism, and using the politics of fear, hostility and anxiety to win over white voters by demagoguing Obama.

Racism is an assault on the common good. Racism also does the work of dividing and conquering people with common interests. While the 2012 Republican candidates are stirring the pot of white racial anxiety, this is a means to a larger end—the destruction of the country’s social safety net, in support of vicious economic austerity policies, and protecting the kleptocrats and financiers at the expense of the working and middle classes.

Here are the top 10 racist moments by the Republican presidential candidates so far.

1. Newt Gingrich puts Juan Williams "in his place" for daring to ask an unpleasant question during the South Carolina debate. This was the most pernicious example of old-school white racism at work in the 2012 Republican primary campaign. Newt Gingrich, a son of the South who grew up in the shadow of legendary Jim Crow racist Lester Maddox, is an expert on the language and practice of white racism (in both its subtle and obvious forms). He has ridden high with Republican audiences by suggesting that black people are lazy, and their children should be given mops and brooms in order to learn the value of hard work. With condescending pride, Gingrich has also stated that he would lecture the NAACP--one of America’s most storied civil rights organizations--that they ought to demand jobs and not food stamps from Barack Obama.

On Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, under the Confederate flag, in the state of South Carolina, Gingrich defended his racist contempt for African Americans by putting Juan Williams, “that boy,” in his place. During the debate, Juan Williams had gotten uppity and was insufficiently deferential to Newt.

This dynamic was not lost on the almost exclusively white audience in attendance (nor on the white woman who congratulated Gingrich the following day for his “brave” deed). They howled with glee at the sight of a black man, one who dared to sass, being reminded of his rightful place at Newt’s knee. In another time, not too long ago, Juan Williams would have been driven out of town for such an offense, if he was lucky -- the lynching tree awaited many black folks who did not submit to white authority.

The symbolism of Newt Gingrich’s hostility to black folks, on King’s birthday, and the personal contempt he demonstrated for Juan Williams, was a classic moment in contemporary Republican politics. This was the “scene of instruction,” when a black man was a proxy for a whole community, a stand-in for the country’s first black president, as Newt Gingrich showed just what he thinks about Barack Obama, specifically and about people of color, in general. In that moment, white conservatism’s contempt was palatable, undeniable and unapologetic.

2. Herman Cain, in one of the most grotesque performances in post-civil rights-era politics to date, deftly plays his designated role as an African-American advocate for some of the Tea Party and New Right’s most racist policy positions. Most notably, in numerous interviews Cain alluded to the Democratic Party as keeping African Americans on a “plantation,” and that black conservatives were “runaway slaves” who were uniquely positioned to “free” the minds of their brothers and sisters. The implication of his ahistorical and bizarre allusion to the Democratic Party and chattel slavery was clear: black Americans are stupid, childlike and incapable of making their own political decisions, as Cain publicly observed that “only thirty percent of black people are thinking for themselves.”

Doubling down, as a black conservative mascot for the fantasies of the Tea Party faithful, Herman Cain also suggested that anyone who accuses them of “racism” (ignoring all available evidence in support of this claim) were in fact anti-white, and the real racists.

Herman Cain’s disdain was not limited to the black public. He also argued that undocumented immigrants should be electrocuted at the U.S. border by security fences, and that Muslim Americans are inherently treasonous and should be excluded from government. Perhaps most troubling, Herman Cain advocated for extreme forms of racial profiling in which Muslims would have to carry special identification cards.

Racism and anti-black sentiment know no boundaries. Herman Cain demonstrates that some of its most deft practioners are (ironically) people of color.

3. Ron Paul argues that the landmark federal legislation that dismantled Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s was a moral evil and a violation of white people’s liberty. Ron Paul’s claim that the rights of black Americans are secondary to the “freedom” of whites to discriminate, is an almost perfect mirror for the logic of apartheid. Ron Paul’s white supremacist ethic is more than a dismissal of one of the crowning legislative achievements of the 20th century: it is the endorsement of a principle that conveniently allows white people to hate and discriminate in the public sphere at will--and without consequence--against people of color. This “freedom” is the living and bleeding heart of white racism.

4. Rick Santorum tells conservative voters that black people are parasites who live off hard-working white people. Santorum’s claim that “I don’t want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's moneyis problematic in a number of ways. First, Santorum channels the white supremacist classic Birth of a Nation and its imagery of childlike free blacks who are a burden on white society. In addition, Santorum’s assumption that black people are a dependent class is skewed at its root.

Why? Santorum presupposes that African Americans are uniquely pathological and lack self-sufficiency, ignores the black middle-class, and directly race-baits a white conservative audience by telling them that “the blacks” are coming for their money, jobs and resources. There is no mention of Red State America’s disproportionate dependence on public tax dollars, or how the (white) middle-class and the rich are subsidized by the federal government.

5. In keeping with the class warfare narrative, and as a way of proving their conservative bona fides, Republican candidates have crafted a strategy in which they repeatedly refer to the unemployed as lazy, unproductive citizens who would “be rich if they just went out and got a job.” In fact, as suggested by Mitt Romney, any discussion of the wealth and income gap in the United States (and the destruction of the middle class), should be done in a “quiet room,” as such truth-telling stokes mean-spirited resentment against the rich.

Conservatives have an almost Orwellian gift for manipulating language. The financier class is reframed as “job creators.” Programs that workers pay for such as Social Security are equated with “welfare.” Americans who are victims of robber baron capitalism and structural unemployment are painted as dregs who want nothing more than to “live off of the system.” Despite all evidence to the contrary, unions are painted as bastions for the weak, the greedy, and those who hate capitalism.

Race is central here: Conservatives seeded this ground with their assault on the black poor. The invention of the welfare queen by Ronald Reagan became code for lazy, fat, black women who game the system at the expense of hard-working whites. The Right uses the same framing in order to attack immigrants as people who want to destroy the country and steal the scarce resources of “productive” white Americans.

Efforts to shrink “big government” are closely related to the Right’s observation that the federal government employs “too many” blacks. The Republican Party refined its Ayn Rand-inspired shock doctrine and disaster capitalism through decades of practice on black and brown Americans. The racist tactics that were once used to justify the evisceration of programs aimed at helping the urban poor are now being applied to white folks on Main Street USA during the Great Recession.

6. Mitt Romney wants to "keep America America." The dropping of one letter from the Ku Klux Klan’s slogan, “Keep America American,” does not remove the intent behind Romney’s repeated use of such a virulently bigoted phrase. While Mitt Romney can claim ignorance of the slogan’s origins, he is intentionally channeling its energy. In the Age of Obama, the Republican Party is drunk on the tonic of nativism. From remarks about “the real America,” to supporting the mass deportation of Latinos and Hispanics, a hostility to any designated Other is central to the 21st-century know-nothing politics of the Tea Party-driven GOP. Romney’s slogan, “Keep America America” begs the obvious question: just who is American? Who gets to decide? And should there be moats and electric fences to keep the undesirables out of the country?

7. Rick Perry’s nostalgic memories of his family’s ranch, "Niggerhead." You cannot choose your parents (or decide what your ancestors will christen the family retreat before your birth). You can, however, choose to rename the family ranch something other than the ugliest word in the English language.

The world that spawned and nurtured Rick Perry’s Niggerhead was none too kind to black people. Jim and Jane Crow were the rule of the land; it was enforced through violence, threats and intimidation. Moreover, Rick Perry grew up in a “sundown town.” These were communities from which blacks were banished by violence, and where white authorities made sure that African Americans would never again be allowed in the area. The whiteness of memory and nostalgia is blinding. While he has finally dropped out of the race, the Niggerhead episode is emblematic of Rick Perry’s obsession with states’ rights, and a broader fondness for the Confederacy and secession. These are traits he shares in abundance with the remaining Republican presidential candidates.

8. Former candidate Michele Bachmann suggests that the black family was stronger during slavery than in freedom. Her claim is not just a simple misunderstanding of history and the importance of family in the Black Experience. No, she is signaling to a tired, white supremacist, slavery-apologist narrative which opines that African Americans were/are not yet ready for freedom, and could only “flourish” under the benign guidance of the Southern Slaveocracy.

In a moment when states such as Arizona and Texas are outlawing ethnic studies programs, and when the Tea Party and its allies are leading an assault on educational programs that are not sufficiently “pro-American,” Bachmann’s claims are part of a broader effort to literally whitewash U.S. history.

When married to her belief in a willful lie that the framers of the United States Constitution were abolitionists who fought tirelessly to eliminate slavery (in reality, both Jefferson and Washington were slaveowners), and a defense of slaveholding Christian whites who “loved their slaves,” Bachmann’s ignorance of the facts transcends mere stupidity and slips over to enabling white supremacy.

9. The Republican Party’s 2012 presidential candidates' near-silence about how the Great Recession has destroyed the African American and Latino middle-class. This speaks volumes about just how selectively inclusive the Republican Party—which markets itself as the defender of the “American Dream” and of an “opportunity society”—really is. During the Ronald Reagan-Politico debate, the Republican candidates were asked what they would do to address the gross and disparate impact of the Great Recession on black and brown communities.

While whites are suffering with an official unemployment rate of almost 10 percent, African Americans have struggled with a rate that is almost two to three times as high. In addition, the black and brown middle-class has seen its income, assets and wealth gutted by the Great Recession, where in 2011, whites have almost 20 times the average net worth of African Americans.

As always, when White America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu…or worse. In that awkward moment, only Rick Perry chimed in and proceeded to recycle the same tired rhetoric about “growing the economy” as a vague cure for all ills. One must ask: how would the Republican candidates have responded if the white middle-class had been devastated in the same manner, and to the same degree, as the black and brown middle-class? I would suggest that for the former, it would be treated as a crisis of epic proportions; for the latter, it is a mere curiosity and inconvenient fact.

Politics is about a sense of imagined community. The Ronald Reagan-Politico debate made clear that while the African American and Latino middle-class is being destroyed, the Republican Party has little concern or interest in remedying such a tragic event. It would seem that the Republican Party’s “big tent” has no room for “those people.”

10. The echo chamber that is Fox News, right-wing talk radio, the conservative blogosphere, and Republican elected officials daily stoke the politics of white racial resentment, bigotry and fear. Ultimately, the Republican candidates would not use racism as a weapon if it were not rewarded by their voters, and encouraged by the party’s leadership. An army travels on its stomach; it needs foot soldiers and shock troops to advance its aims.

From the ugly, race-based conspiracy fantasies of Birtherism to the astroturf politics of the Tea Party to a news network whose guests routinely disparage Barack Obama with such labels as “ghetto crackhead” to the bloviating racist utterances by opinion leaders such as Rush Limbaugh, to the common bigotry on display at right-wing Web sites that use monkey, ape, gorilla, pimp, and watermelon imagery to depict the United States’ first black president and his family, it is clear that racism “works” for the Republican Party. To ignore the attraction of rank-and-file white conservatives to such ugliness is to overlook the driving force behind the Republican nominees’ behavior.

Occupy Wall Street: White Brother and Elder God Noel Ignatiev Comes Down from the Mountaintop to Share Some Wisdom

These Intertubes are amazing. One day I watch people win at slot machines and get the tingles from head to toe; the next moment I watch honorary respectable negro and white elder god Noel Ignatiev generously offer his wisdom to the folks at Occupy Wall Street.

For those not in the know, Brother Ignatiev is a truth teller who has influenced many students of race, labor, class and the color line in these United States. I remember discovering his book in the stacks and was smitten: academic love is not too common in my experience, as I don't often track down every citation, for I am a cynical by nature. How the Irish Became White inspired such a moment for me.

Both videos are worth watching. He is so measured, calm, and gracious. Noel Ignatiev also deals quite politely and humbly with the white privilege entitled douche who interrupts him at minute 12:50.

Brother Ignatiev has forgotten more than his heckler knows on this subject; but Brother Ignatiev treats said interloper with respect. Folks like Noel Ignatiev are relaxed, can marshal their evidence, and do so effortlessly and with great efficiency: these are models that all "experts" should work towards.

I am old school. When those who made the original sword in the fires of Mount Doom come down from the mountaintop to offer instruction, I listen intently and with great respect. Some will get that standing decision rule, others will not.

I also can understand some of the anxiety about this type of radical participatory democracy where accomplished men like Noel Ignatiev have to risk a moment of disrespect; it comes with the territory.

Ultimately, this is great stuff. Do enjoy it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

No One Hates Like Family: Are Black People a Group of Professional Naggers Towards White Folks?

Nagging—the interaction in which one person repeatedly makes a request, the other person repeatedly ignores it and both become increasingly annoyed—is an issue every couple will grapple with at some point. While the word itself can provoke chuckles and eye-rolling, the dynamic can potentially be as dangerous to a marriage as adultery or bad finances. Experts say it is exactly the type of toxic communication that can eventually sink a relationship.

Why do we nag? "We have a perception that we won't get what we want from the other person, so we feel we need to keep asking in order to get it," says Scott Wetzler, a psychologist and vice chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center in New York. It is a vicious circle: The naggee tires of the badgering and starts to withhold, which makes the nagger nag more.
No one hates like family...

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has been running a series on marriage and relationships. Generally, I am not a fan of such psychobabble pablum. This is not a rejection of the value for some to be gained by reading about how to improve one's love relationships; rather, for me so much relationship advice boils down to common sense. Treat each other well; follow the golden rule; and find an Adrian to your Rocky where you fill in each other's gaps.

However, the WSJ's "Meet the Marriage Killer" struck a chord with me. There is something wonderfully generalizable about its narrative. The essay sharply and efficiently captures the roles of trust, communication, power, acceptance, and ego in a relationship. For one party, nagging is just persistence, a cry for justice, help, and attention. For the other party, nagging is annoyance, pestering, and results in a lack of cooperation as he/she becomes increasingly intransigent as a means of self-defense against a perceived assault.

In all, that dynamic sounds a bit like that centuries long intimate relationship between blacks and whites in America. Does it not?

While the marriage analogy may not hold as a perfect metaphor or analogue, there is a deep relationship between blacks folks and their white "brothers and sisters." Historically, this (forced) marriage has been contentious, unequal, violent, dysfunctional, bloody, exploitative, parasitic, and destructive. This relationship has also been creative, productive, energetic, and synergistic. I would suggest that black and white folks can get along fine with each other on a micro-level as individuals; it is the messy business of social institutions, structures, and "who gets what, when, how, and why," that is the cause of so much upset.

There is so much codependency here. Thus, I must ask: as a group, do black people nag whites? In mass, are people of color a class of professional naggers?

This is not an over-simplification of complex dynamics. Moreover, it is not a rejection of the fact that nagging can result in positive change. For example, if Dr. King was anything at all, he was a professional scold...and a great one at that. Let's substitute some language in"Meet the Marriage Killer" and see where it leads us.


For students of the colorline, this passage should sound very familiar.
It is possible for husbands whites to nag, and wives blacks to resent them for nagging...And they blacks tend to be more sensitive to early signs of problems in a relationship. When women blacks ask for something and don't get a response, they are quicker to realize something is wrong. The problem is that by asking repeatedly, they make things worse.
Men Whites are to blame, too, because they don't always give a clear answer. Sure, a husband white people might tune his wife blacks out because he is they are annoyed; nagging can make him white people feel like a little boy being scolded by his their mother. But many times he white people don't respond because he they don't know the answer yet, or he white people know that the answer will disappoint her black people.
It is not a perfect match (because "marriage" presumes a level of mutual respect, and a shared investment in love and success). However, there is some resonance here. Black and brown folks (and the Other) are the miner's canary and conscience of a nation, a people who are simultaneously more sensitive to changes in society, precisely because they are most vulnerable to them. And what are "white guilt" and white racial resentment, if not feelings rooted in a profound sense of "annoyance," and for the former, a dual fear of disappointing and sense of (ironic) powerlessness?

This example is evocative of how conversations about race and racial justice in the post Civil Rights era almost inevitably recenter whiteness and white people as victims of reverse racism--a group who must be treated carefully lest claims of white victimology--and manufactured elephant tears--fly fast and furious.

Ultimately, Whiteness imagines itself as benign and vulnerable. Be careful or you could hurt its feelings:
Ms. Pfeiffer decided to soften her approach. She asked herself, "How can I speak in a way that is not threatening or offensive to him?" She began writing requests on Post-it notes, adding little smiley faces or hearts. Mr. Mac Dougall says he was initially peeved about the sandwich note but did show up at Home Depot that evening smiling.

Ms. Pfeiffer sometimes writes notes to him from the appliances that need to be fixed. "I really need your help," a recent plea began. "I am really backed up and in a lot of discomfort." It was signed "your faithful bathtub drain." "As long as I am not putting pressure on him, he seems to respond better," Ms. Pfeiffer says. Mr. Mac Dougall agrees. "The notes distract me from the face-to-face interaction," he says. "There's no annoying tone of voice or body posture. It's all out of the equation."
"Meet the Marriage Killer" concludes with a list of tips and guidelines for breaking the nagger-naggee cycle. These include "calming down," "understanding each other's perspective," and "managing expectations." If black folks are indeed a class of professional naggers, I would suggest that we do none of these things. Our holding to these principles has gotten us few rewards in recent years. But then again my advice is quite suspect, as I have the recurring habit of finding myself in unhealthy relationships.

Fear of a Black President? Love of the Confederacy? Explaining the Tea Party GOP and the "Southern Religion"

The New Right, Tea Party GOP is fixated on the Old South of the Confederacy. It is a nostalgia which they want to make real; it is a dreamworld that motivates their policy positions; a polite yearning for Jim Crow and "the good old days" are a litmus test for a resistance by any means necessary to the Age of Obama, and what Barack Obama's presidency embodies as a living nightmare--a world turned upside down, one in which a person who happens to not be White can be the Chief Executive of the United States of America. For the Tea Party GOP this is a world most foul.

We have lots of good folks who follow We Are Respectable Negroes. One of them is Glenn Feldman, historian, and professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

His essay, "Exporting 'The Southern Religion' and Shaping the Election of 2012," is a great meditation on the relationship between race, history, nostalgia, and the allure of the CSA for the Tea Party GOP faithful. I thank him for his generosity and sharing. And of course, do check out his new book Painting Dixie Red: When, Where, Why, and How the South Became Republican.


“The Southern Religion” is comprised of more than just theology. It is (and has long been) a powerful cosmology made up of faith, economics, a reflexive and unquestioning brand of martial patriotism, and the socio-political ramifications that result from this combination. It will affect in a large way what happens politically in America in 2012. Indeed, it has for some time now.

To be specific, The Southern Religion is a blend of Calvinist theology; a rightist economic creed that exceeds libertarianism to regard the proper role of government as the guarantor or state prop of private profit-making; an understanding of civic duty as a knee-jerk bellicosity without the weakness or pause that comes from rational reflection or critical analysis of the intrinsic justice of or what it is “we” are fighting for; and, of course, the most callous type of social indifference. Such apathy has bled over, repeatedly, into an appetite for the subjugation of the “other” in southern history, most markedly black people.

The Southern Religion has not been with us forever but, rather, its principal formative elements came together, piece by piece in the colonial and antebellum periods. Rural, agrarian isolation associated with the farm and plantation, and a cultural, religious, and ethnic homogeneity relative to other parts of the country, buttressed the nascent southern creed in colonial and early America. Insulating tendencies all—into which the regional, religious-based, conservative defenses of slavery, secession, war (and later, lynching and segregation) would only breathe more life—as well as a regional predilection for the unreality that so often characterizes cultural bubbles. The three basic elements—Calvinist theology, Yankee materialism, and Social Darwinism—exported to the South from the New England colonies, joined over time to set in motion a chain reaction that would eventually “blow up” in the post-Reconstruction South and create, “Big-Bang style,” a unique and enduring Southern Religion.

In the economic, material, and psychological desperation that defined the New South, the stressors of civil war, massive economic destruction, occupation by a “foreign” power, and black and “radical” Reconstruction rule exacerbated the cataclysmic labor, property, and racial changes brought on by military defeat. This atmosphere—pressurized to an unprecedented point in American history—fused the more basic elements of Calvinist theology, economic fundamentalism, and a rejection of social responsibility to produce an explosion that created a uniquely Southern Religion.

But if the core trio of elements came southward from the North (New England to be precise), why did the same pattern not follow north of the Mason-Dixon? Chiefly because a succession of factors (not present to any significant degree in Dixie) ameliorated, mitigated, and liberalized the Northern experience. In the North (and the West, at least until the 1880s) religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity found abolitionists, Transcendentalists, and various reformers challenging the original orthodoxy. Quakers, Jews, Catholics, and Unitarians smoothed out the rough edges dictated by the Calvinist doctrine of predestination: namely the ceaseless quest for material success and moral superiority as tangible “signs” of election. Immigration, urbanization, and the development of a complex economy diversified the culture. Military victory sterilized the Old Testament predilection for bloodshed and war, and made foreign Dixie’s fixation with proving its patriotism on the battlefield—first to the Southland and, afterwards, with a disproportionate participation and support of every U.S. military engagement since the Spanish-American War.

Being on the right side of history over the questions of slavery and civil rights further ameliorated any Northern need for the hyper-defensive siege mentality that has so often characterized Southern history, from the Confederate to the religious right—the view of region as “victim” that has produced such a striking amount of sectional intolerance of dissent.

All of these factors, and more, geometrically multiplied the number of molecules available to diffuse the power of the original trio of forces—thus preventing the chain reaction that took place in the New South or the creation of a Northern Religion along the same lines as the Southern.

In New England, for example—home to Puritan and Congregational Church Calvinism with its emphasis on worldly success, as well as Yankee materialism—such forces competed with, and were mitigated by, a powerful New England commitment to the commons, the commonweal, and the public good. A devout interest in public education and an acceptance of taxation stemmed from this commitment to the commons: ideas all alien to the South or stamped out in their infancy by the region’s growing reliance on cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco culture, black slave labor, and its attendant racism. A stunted sense of the common good, a deep hostility to taxes, and an overt antipathy to public education as a liberal nursery to threaten white supremacy and class privilege took root instead.

Since then, due to a number of factors—including a technology and media revolution, a vast amount of funding, organization, and foundation work, and the emergence of religious-right involvement in politics—the ramifications of The Southern Religion have become increasingly national in scope and profound. They have been especially influential in shaping the tenor and direction of modern American political discourse, and—unlike more innocuous forms of the “southernization” of America (NASCAR, country music, and Chick-Fil-A), they have produced results decidedly to its detriment. The effects are on full display now in the Camusian absurdism that is the 2012 Republican primaries and the Tea Party movement—as they were earlier in the more deadly serious Reagan-Bush revolution, the “Southern Strategy, George Wallacism, “massive resistance,” the “Dixiecrat Revolt,” and race-based, conservative opposition to FDR and the New Deal.

The Southern Religion—today exported to a large national audience—is replete with those things that typify most any religion: gods, apostles, disciples, creeds (e.g., laissez faire), rituals, demons, (taxes, the big gov’mint Devil, Yankee labor unions, public employees, those who reject preemptive war), martyrs, and a stubborn and enduring imperviousness to rational thought, fact, or argument whenever an article, or a leap, of faith is available. Present also is a tension the South increasingly shares with its partner in Red America, the mountain and plains states of the West and the rural (and even some parts of the declining) urban Midwest: an internal conflict between the cherished myth of rugged individualism and the stark reality of disproportionate sectional reliance on the federal government and its tax dollars. Perhaps most tragically, The Southern Religion‘s going national has led to the current preference among too many Americans for a faith-based world over one based on reality and facts.

For there is no way other than religion to understand the present-day existence of the habitually ill 70-something woman (subsisting on Medicare, Social Security checks, and the occasional charity of relatives) who insists on taking every opportunity to lambast Barack Obama, the unwashed “thugs” of Occupy Wall Street, godless liberalism, and socialism—all one and the same. Or the senior citizen, his hands trembling from his own recent hospital stays, as he locates the sources of his discontent in Obama as a Muslim or anti-Christ waging a war on religion, Democrats as the enemy of god-fearing Americans, and government itself as an abomination—all the while complaining that his Social Security and VA checks are late, his Medicare benefits insufficient, and himself rendered jobless and obsolete by the economy. This carnival of illogic is capped off when the spectacularly proud and self-described rugged individualist asks you (a virtual stranger) for $20 in gas money to make it out to his suburban mega-church for another evening of liberal-bashing religious services.

What other way, besides a regional religion, is there to account for the proliferation of southern, white Catholics who glibly and routinely reject the teachings of the Vatican on war, the death penalty, unions, economic fairness, and the preferential option for the poor only to obsess about homosexuals and abortion, and cheer lustily our bloody incursions into Iraq, police crackdowns on the “socialists” in Occupy, and the deep-rooted Southern appetite for capital punishment?

Sadly, these examples are not cartoons or figments but living, breathing, flesh-and-blood reality in today’s white South. If you don’t believe it, simply come on down and stay a spell. And there is no way to understand the uniform insistence on blaming liberals, Democrats, minorities, and, above all, a black president, as a disconnect so unreasonable, so irrational, so vastly counter to established fact as to comprise something that categorically transcends mere political thought. These are the markings of a religion: The Southern Religion to be exact. Gradually, since the extremist hi-jacking of the Republican Party in 1964, it is a religion that has gone increasingly national. Church services for 2012 have already begun.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Brother Cornel West Brings the Ruckus at the "Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity" Conference

I love a good performance. An admiration of a great performance does not take away from its meaning, weight, teaching, or importance.

Brother Cornel West brings it in this keynote address at the "Remaking America: From Poverty to Prosperity" conference.

Truly he does. Dr. West's lecture is sharp, enlightened, multi-leveled, nuanced, and entertaining. Make no mistake, Cornel's speech is well-practiced; yet, it proceeds forward by marshaling the illusion of improvisation and inspired spontaneity. Trust, his speech is practiced, deftly so, and repeated and refined (over and over and over again).

For lunch, I am going to eat a Quizno's sandwich, drink a Coke, and study up on what Cornel West pulls off here. I love great emcees; I admire great workers in professional wrestling; one day, years in the future, I would like to be able to channel a small percentage of Cornel West's oratory skill.

Entertainment can equal education. In combination, they are "edutainment." It is okay to indulge. Intellectual sugar highs are fine...if you follow them up with a trip to the archives and some deep reading to get to the root of the argument.

In all, Brother Cornel is hot on the set here.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Racism Chasing? Republican Mark Oxner's Campaign Ad Features a "Slave Ship" the USS Obamaboat

I will let you all arbitrate the semiotics of this ad.

At least Mark Oxner's people had the good sense to make sure that the enslaved children on Obama's "ship of state" (with its upside down U.S. flag and crossed out "United States Constitution") were a diverse group. We can count that as a small measure of progress in the post-racial age.

In a political moment where campaign commercials have featured Islamic terrorists, demon sheep, and gangster rappers who penetrate white women with their guns, this ad is par for the course.

Is race an element here? I am not sure. This anti-Obama campaign commercial could be one more example of the "benign" myopia that is common to the white racial frame ("how could anyone be offended by a boat, an allusion to slavery, and a black captain whipping his crew? How shocking!). Alternatively, the racial ideologies at work here could be more sinister, as any reference to "white slavery" has historically done potent political work from the Revolutionary War to the present (with the Tea Party faithful using that very same phrase to oppose the Obama administration and play on white racial resentment and anxiety).

I am hoping that there will be an expert on naval history who is also a racism denier that will post a defense and explanation of Mark Oxner's ad. That could be good fun.

I will sit this one out and see if any of you want to put on the racism chasing shoes this evening. Who knows? Perhaps, the ghosts of Jack Johnson and the Barbary Pirates will show up and give us a real seminar on white slavery and poor Billy Budd.

Connecticut Keeps it Classy: Eat a Taco for Civil Rights; Marine Goes Free After Murdering Iraqis

It is always a pleasure to see my home state featured in the national media.

There are many tragedies in America's long war. While some are upset about Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan (and of course are not asking the more important questions about the efficacy of the policy that put U.S. soldiers in harm's way, or if peeing on dead bodies is worse than incinerating innocent people with bombs), there are many other shameful moments that will eventually come to light from the long wars abroad.

To date, we have seen "dead pools," assassination squads, rapes of children, racially motivated fratricide, and all sorts of descents into madness by U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American people choose to either turn away, remain blissfully ignorant, or wrap themselves in childish nationalism as a defense mechanism. When blowback inevitably comes they can shake their heads and ask "why do they hate us so? Is it our values? The American way of life?" Some pandering politician will avoid all real talk and instead answer a resounding "yes" to all three questions.

Frank Wuterich, a United States Marine from Meriden, Connecticut has been found not guilt of murdering more than a dozen innocent non-combatants during a punitive raid in Iraq. His punishment? Nothing significant, he was slapped on the wrist for "dereliction of duty" and sent on his way. If Vietnam brought the barbarism of the Tiger Force, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are going to spit forth much fodder for books and movies that will make the Abu Ghraib scandal look like a resort town.

The mayor of East Haven, Connecticut also kept it classy this week. Following a series of civil rights abuses by his police, Joseph Maturo publicly announced that he would eat tacos as a way of supporting the Latino community--a group which has been subject to racial profiling and harassment in his city. Post-Civil Rights era race discourse has really reached a new level of sophistication has it not? Reparations through the gesture of taco eating. Priceless.

There is a deeper element here that is worth exploring. How do certain spaces, towns, and communities come to be hostile to "outsiders" who are not the "right" ethnic or racial group.

I grew up in New Haven and Hamden, Connecticut. As such, I am very familiar with East Haven. It had the greatest Toys R Us in the area, and every Sunday I would nag my mother to drive me up I-95 (or on the surface streets) to East Haven where upon arrival at the store I would grab the newest G.I. Joe or Transformer. Years later, I would also spend a good amount of time at East Haven's bowling alley--they had a great pro shop, really easy lane conditions, and lots of "action," i.e. money games between some of the best scratch players in the area.

Those spaces were very integrated. However, there was always this lingering white ethnic anxiety in the air as we black and brown folks knew not to hang around too late in the area as anything (harassment by the police, a fight with some locals who would drive by in their Monte Carlo SS's, Ford Thunderbirds, or Corvettes--watch Jersey Shore and you will get the joke--and yell "nigger" or "spic" at you for a cheap thrill) could jump off. If you were a brother dating a white woman, you most certainly knew not to take her to one of the late night diners in East Haven. "No shoes, no service" would be the least of your worries if some of the local "Itals" didn't like that one of "their" women was with one of "those people."

Like many other rustbelt suburbs and cities of the Northeast, in East Haven there was/is racial anxiety about lost economies, ethnic transition as a proxy for the wages of whiteness gained (for those who could move out to places like Branford, Cheshire, or northern Hamden) or lost (those Italians, Poles, Greeks, and others who couldn't because of financial or familial reasons leave the neighborhood), and nostalgia for the "good old days." These dynamics are difficult for many white ethnics of a certain generation to reconcile as formerly white spaces became black, and then Hispanic and Latino.

My adopted Scots-Irish grandfather would tell me stories about the neighborhood of his youth in New Haven. During the 1920s and 1930s Irish cops would ride on bicycles and hit kids in the head with a stick for sport, to put some fright in them, or to break up groups of "undesirables." Apparently, the latter was more common when the group was "mixed" than if one "kept to your own type."

My father grew up in the same area and would jokingly talk about the local neighborhood cliques that would in turn form the basis for the semi-pro football teams in New Haven county. He could "pass" if he so chose. Thus, my father had many white ethnic friends and could navigate the various Irish, Jewish, and Italian neighborhoods in relative safety if "he walked really fast and kept a hat on." Like my adopted grandfather, he too had stories about how space was bounded by either the police, or the gangs of young toughs who lingered on the borders of each ethnic and racial neighborhood. No one got killed. There would be tussles to keep everyone honest--fights more akin to The Wanderers than Boyz in the Hood. Over time you earned some respect, and eventually could earn a pass to either walk on certain streets, or go into certain stores.

The mayor of East Haven's epic fail is an entry point for thinking about local history and geography. Teach me a thing or two. How did East Haven become so hostile to Hispanics and Latinos, and non-whites more generally? Does anyone have an insight into the local history? What are the towns, cities, and areas where you know that as a black/brown/white person that you had best avoid? Sundown towns are no longer enforced by "law," yet they still exist.

Ultimately, are places like East Haven, and larger cities like Providence and Cranston, just experiencing metaphorical hangovers from white flight, deindustrialization, and realistic group conflict, dynamics that play themselves out through racial profiling and harassment?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Not All Slave Owners Were Rapine Beasts: Ron Paul's Musings on States' Rights and the "Tragedy" of the Civil War

Over the last few days, I have watched this interview with Ron Paul several times. Something about his tone of voice just doesn't sit right with me, the detached indifference rubs me the wrong way.

It is easy to flatten history, in doing so to generate stories of evil men, barbarous and incomprehensible deeds, and frothing at the mouth villains. This is true when the history is personal and your people would have been the vanquished, the oppressed, the conquered, or the exiled. Ironically, the need to hold on to a fiction of two-dimensional monsters and evildoers is also true of those who are the present day descendants of the dominant, the winners, the exploiters, the "in-group," and the conquerors.

By painting "those people" into a box where only the most wicked were racist, prejudiced, genocidal, chauvinist or the like, a safe distance is created between the present and the past. Cartoon versions of the past are very comforting for those on both sides of history's accounting sheet: nuance is a shared enemy for those seeking simple and validating stories.

For example, it is easy to imagine all white slave owners as rapine beasts who crawled into the beds of black women and girls, using them as their personal sex toys, where inevitably these same white men would either sell off their own mulatto sires for a profit, or throw them into the fields as "free" labor. Likewise, we can envision the babies of newly arrived African slaves being smashed on the ground, killed during the seasoning process that the human cargo of the slave ships endured upon arrival in the New World.

In black masculinity's shared collective memory there exist memories of wives and loved ones taken before our eyes, we being rendered powerless to intervene by the barrel of the gun or the edge of the blade, and where inevitably the lustful eyes of the white slave owner, his sons, and friends turn to us as objects to sate the wickedness of their reckless and violent libidos. This is a secret pain, one little discussed in the shared history of blacks and whites together in the Americas and elsewhere. And of course, every overseer was an evil debased man like Mr. Covey of Frederick Douglass' famed autobiography, a degenerate piece of poor white trash who, like many of his class, lived for nothing but the sadistic pleasures that came with "breaking" black slaves as he made them suffer under his whip, ax handle, cat of nine tales, scold's bridle, or branding iron.

But, what of the white slave owner who struggled to reconcile his "Christian faith" with the owning of human beings, and in a fit of guilt, convinced that he would go to hell because of his wickedness, freed his human property? How do we make sense of the white slave owner who manumitted the children of slaves on his plantation, or the feelings of loyalty and closeness that some slaves felt for their "white family?"

Perhaps, most troubling for a two dimensional version of American (and Atlantic) slavery is that plantations were run like factories. Of course, there were yeoman whites who owned one or two slaves, and lived in close intimacy with them, as privations were shared, and struggles (if not successes) were experienced in common across the colorline. But the plantations that occupy American memory, The Gone with the Wind version of history, were in reality, based on detached principles of labor efficiency. The owners of these business enterprises exchanged journals, notes, and theories about how to improve the yield of their crops. Therein, rubrics about the relationship between the ideal amount of punishment (the whip) and selective incentives in order to produce the maximum amount of productivity were divined and ciphered.

For the most profitable slave-owning whites, chattel slavery was a business. In many instances, it was a very impersonal one (where on some plantations the owner would never dispense punishment personally as it was a distasteful act and would make his slaves resent and fear him, while on other plantations it was only the head of the house who could wield the whip or the lash--overseers were not to be trusted to act judiciously or fairly). In all, African American bondsmen and bondswomen were entries on a ledger sheet; they were "workers" whose productivity had to be maximized by any means available.

There is an odd intimacy here. On one hand, slavery on the largest plantations was business and never personal. As a practical matter, slavery could never be anything but the latter.

It is not Ron Paul's piss poor understanding of the historical underpinnings of the Civil War and chattel slavery that is most disturbing. No, it is the idea that in his detached musings, I can hear in my ear the whisper of the assassin doing a hit, or a slave owner assessing the value of his latest purchase on the auction block, that this is "business, never personal," just before they pull the trigger or sign the check.

As we have seen in other moments throughout his campaign, there is an utter lack of human empathy (and sympathy) for black personhood in Paul's speech to his Redemptionist, white racist, Neo-Secessionist public that yearns for the states' rights narrative. This is the root of my disturbance.

Ron Paul's counter-factual about gradual or compensated manumission (where the freedom of blacks held in bondage was purchased as a means to end chattel slavery) is problematic on a number of levels. Primarily, it ignores the significant psychic wage that whites invested in the personal owning of black bodies, their attachment to a society that validated white superiority over people of color, and where even though a majority of whites did not have bloody hands from the direct business of chattel slavery, they could aspire to one day own slaves as a sign of upward mobility and success.

Ron Paul's musings about the civil war as an avoidable conflict, save for the desire of the North to impose its will on the poor South--and thus violating states' rights--is also ahistorical. We do not need to hypothesize about why such proposals as compensated manumission did not come to pass on a wide scale in the United States. It is not a mystery or puzzle. There is a rich historical record which details the many failings of such a scheme, and slave owners' rejections of it in the name of perpetual white supremacy.

In all, Ron Paul's desire to frame the Civil War as a tragedy for the South at the hands of a villainous North, a federal force that only wanted to take away the liberties of white people, is an ideal-typical example of libertarianism's failings on matters of race and justice. Ron Paul does not seem to identify slavery--the owning of black people by white people in perpetuity--as a de facto state of war and tyranny. If libertarians were to find a historic freedom struggle to claim as their own, one would think that abolition, accomplished by any means necessary, would be at the top of their list.

Second, Paul places his principle of "non-interference" over the rights of African Americans (and others) to be treated as full and equal citizens. Whites have the freedom to discriminate against, violate, and terrorize black people. The latter's liberty and freedom are secondary to those of the former. By virtue of that most basic standard, Ron Paul is a polite white supremacist who enables and supports a herrenvolk Apartheid America in theory, if not fully in practice.

The detached manner in which Ron Paul valorizes the Confederacy as "the victim" of federal tyranny, is to my eyes at least, one of the most frightening faces of contemporary, "color blind" white supremacy. Here, black people are secondary to his principles; slaves do not really enter into the calculus because as a privileged white man he cannot imagine himself as existing in such a state of existential duress and oppression.

In keeping with the universal "I" of whiteness, the "normal," the race-neutral "we," the African American held in bondage is secondary to Ron Paul's higher order principles. "We the people," and "the states' rights" apparently do not include the will of African Americans to not be held as human property. Ron Paul's whiteness is blinding, deafening, and utterly transparent in this regard. It is ugly. I dare say that there is something evil about it.

I thought long about that last statement of moral and existential judgement. I own it. I believe it.

Just as the plantation owner entered profits and losses, births and deaths, crops and yields, in his ledger, we can all take comfort in the fact that Ron Paul's particular version of white racism is "business, and never personal." That makes it okay, doesn't it?