Saturday, May 24, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says: On Liberal Racism and the "Lynching" of Michelle Obama

I can laugh at anything. But, I cannot laugh at this. It seems that someone at the self-consciously "hip," "sharp," and "snarky" liberal website The Daily Kos thought this insightful and ironic. It is not. Simply put, photoshop trickery evocative of the book The Clansmen does not reach the minimum threshold for good taste or whit.

Humor is one of the most important of human gifts because it allows us to deal with the challenges, difficulties, and disappointments that come with our day to day lives. I consider myself lucky because I can harness my sense of humor to deal with just about any disappointment or life challenge. However, there are moments, real moments which demand that we drop the mask of humor-and it is a mask we people of color wear out of necessity-- and to show our true and real selves, to feel pain, to feel and express anger, and to be vocal in our disappointment.

As our readers know, I, me, being Chauncey DeVega in both the "online world" (we all want to be internet celebrities, don't we?) and in the "real world" am usually able to snicker, to mock, to have what I like to call an "Incredible Hulk moment" when confronted by the various absurdities of American life.

When I happened upon this picture and its accompanying story at The Root and at What About Our Daughters, I really tried to go to that place where humor and irony provide insight, comfort, and a bit of protection. I desperately wanted to find some sharp popular culture reference that would symbolize my feelings about the (not) closeted racism on display by our (liberal) friends at The Daily Kos. I simply couldn't go to that place. Certainly not now, and absolutely not in regards to this most blatant of offenses against good taste and common decency.

My friends and I have shared a long running conversation about liberal racism. It is a peculiar beast. Conservatives, who are the most frequently tarred, and with good reason, by the label of being "racist," display a variant of white supremacy born of a willful historical myopia that couches white racism as being a mere "inconvenience" or historical oddity (when in fact white supremacy is the dominant historical narrative in the modern world).

By comparison, liberals are hyper-conscious of race and racial inequality. "Progressive" attitudes on race are central to liberal-left identity. However, this race consciousness does not immunize them from being active racists or from holding beliefs that are deeply informed by a premise that people of color are inferior, or perhaps stated in a more benign fashion, are merely "different." Here, difference becomes a signifier of a compelling and curious Other. This Other needs saving, this Other needs to be understood, and this Other needs help. He is pathological and cannot escape the myriad of limited life choices that await him. She is damaged by the dual oppressions of white racism and black male sexism. They cannot overcome racial adversity and white supremacy without our help.

The danger of this paternalistic attitude is that for some self-consciously progressive members of the Left, they, like their conservative nemeses, are also afflicted by a myopia that works to preclude self-reflection. These good liberals believe they have a pass which excludes the possibility of racist thought, speech, or action. Ultimately, these good liberals are incapable of being racists because they are the friends of the poor coloured folk of the world. These good liberals are supposedly our most erstwhile allies.

Ultimately, the image of Michelle Obama being lynched and raped is sickening because there is no humor in the image. It is utterly "real." Because it is "real" there is no possibility of irony. In its utter "realness" it speaks to an ugly reality. In turn, this truth lacks even the barest possibility for humor because it lacks both insight and subtext.

Moreover, I believe it is important to write Michelle's name because it removes the protection and insulation offered by historical abstraction (read: black people were lynched; read: black women were lynched; see how this is different from writing Michelle Obama was lynched?). She is a human being, a real person being threatened with murder and violence. This threat, a threat through implication and historical allusion is no less hurtful, real, or shocking--notice I did not say surprising--than one made through active speech in the present. And thinking through this example, an inability to make this connection perhaps speaks to an even more troubling and deep disconnect between the races in this country than we dare to acknowledge.

The image of Michelle Obama's defilement speaks to the particular grotesqueness of America's racial order, and how for some three hundred years, systematic, State sanctioned, violence denied an entire class of human beings their rights as human beings and citizens. I emphasize again, the violence of Jim Crow, of slavery, of lynch law were not anomalies. The semi-permanence of America's racial order was enforced by murder. It was enforced by rape. America's white supremacy did and does the work of political and economic exploitation and exclusion: to deny this fact is to deny a central truth in American history. This racial regime ruled by terror and enforced its order through the willingness of white citizens to support a "natural order of things" where they benefited from the psychic and material wages paid by white supremacy.

Imagine if you will, the public spectacle of lynching where whole white communities, often numbering in the thousands (as in the oft cited lynching of Sam Hose) would celebrate the murder of innocent black men and black women. Their bodies would be burned and shot. Body parts would be cut off and sold as souvenirs. Genitalia would be mutilated. Photos would be taken and sold; postcards mailed; train schedules modified as to allow the largest number of attendees possible; fairgrounds equipped and provisioned; the spectacle of racial violence would initiate white children into their future roles as adult enforcers of white supremacy; white men of all classes would be further elevated and their bond as social equals and brothers in the service of American democracy reinforced (even as capitalism tore at this exaggerated sense of common interest); and white women would be further "protected" and "elevated" as literal vessels for white men's honor. And of course, this wanton violence taught black people "to know their place."

How simultaneously grotesque (because no other word so precisely captures the feeling of spiritual ugliness encapsulated by this spectacle) that a truly, national, American commercial and popular culture, was in many ways born through this ritual of blood and violence.

I anticipate that my detractors will argue in quite typical fashion that this was a moment in history, and that black people (and others of good taste) are merely being overly sensitive. The KKK is irrelevant. Racism is dead. Violent racism is in the past. We may elect a black president. This is a colorblind society. In fact, for arch-Conservatives, in a perverse deployment of Martin Luther King Jr's vision of a just society, may argue that "reverse-racism" is the social evil most worthy of spirited confrontation.

Rather than unpack the errors in both fact and reasoning displayed by these predictable responses, I would rather turn to the question of memory and relate it to the basic premise that racism is real, active, and alive in the present.

What has astounded me about the white public's response to the Reverend Wright debacle was how it laid bare the clear divergences in the historical and lived experiences of black and white Americans in this country. In a similar vein, the surprise which greeted the reality that large segments of the white public will not vote for a black president (as demonstrated by Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia) inspired a similar moment of head-shaking consternation. Interestingly, the racist vitriol directed at Obama's campaign workers, and their accompanying surprise, only prompted a half-smile on my part at the depths of their naivete.

You see, America is a sick society. We are all deeply afflicted by white supremacy. Black people, white people, brown folk, all of us, have internalized and reproduced this social order. Some of us are more conscious of it than others. A rare few try to speak truth to power so that we can overcome this debilitating social ill by bringing it to the light, by exposing it, and by challenging it whenever we see it. This divide in experience, how white supremacy impacts us differently, operates in our lives, structures our memories, and gives some more voice than others--and by doing so simultaneously precludes both empathy and sympathy (note the difference) from the empowered towards those less so--is how white supremacy operates as a lived system in this country.

The label of Conservative or Liberal does not make one immune from this sickness, it merely filters and shapes how it is expressed.

As brother Malcolm said, liberals are also invested in this system of inequality and they should own and confront it:

And they wonder why we are so angry?


The Roving Reporter said...

I feel that liberal racists have this idea that just because of their political ideology, they can't be viewed as racist. They seem to have this idea that racism is synonymous with conservatism.

I'm consistently amazed by some of the things my liberal white "friends" say to me when it comes to racism.

Anonymous said...

Hear hear!

Trance Gemini said...

I'm not black, but being 3rd generation Indian (from India) in Canada I've learned a lot about racism from my direct experience and that of my forefathers.

You expressed my feelings exactly in your discussion here on the differences between liberal racism and conservative racism.

This is a concept I've tried very hard to get people to understand (irrespective of color) and irrespective of color it falls on deaf ears.

Keep up the great work and I'll be following your blog with interest.

Best to you all