Friday, August 15, 2008

Gordon Gartrelle says: The End of Black Politics? Or a Return to the Paper Bag Test?

I have to agree with Zora that a title can be misleading. When I heard that the Times piece was called “The End of Black Politics,” I dismissed it outright. Not very open-minded, I admit.

The title evoked two books that rub me the wrong way (no Johnny Gill): Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Debra Dickerson’s The End of Blackness. The former is an incredibly popular piece of international relations political theory about how the fall of Soviet Communism marked the end of large-scale ideological global challenges to Western capitalist democracy; the latter is an occasionally amusing polemic about the death of the Civil Rights era notion of blackness.

I pegged the Times article as another tired argument about how Obama’s success proves that race (that’s code for “blackness”) is no longer relevant in American society, and in American politics more specifically. The article isn’t that, for the most part-the author doesn’t make the ideological argument that the end of racism obviates the need for black politics; he instead makes the practical argument that Civil Rights-era politics are no longer viable on a national stage in light of the successes of a new breed of “post-racial” black politicians.


I agree with most of the points my colleagues made, but I want to focus on something else in the Times’ article: the role the author’s black Ivy (and near Ivy) graduate fetish plays in his depiction of the new post-racial black political over-class. Consider author Matt Bai’s examples: Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law), Alabama Rep. Artur Davis (Harvard, Harvard Law), Newark Mayor Cory Booker (Stanford, Oxford), Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (Penn), Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Harvard, Harvard Law), NAACP President Benjamin Jealous (Columbia, Oxford).

To the right, these Ivy-League-educated negroes are simultaneously typical and atypical. They’re typical in the sense that they’re nothing special; in the conservative mind, black Ivy grads are black people of average ability (well, average in comparison to black people, below average in comparison to whites) who merely had the benefit of affirmative action. Black Ivy grads are atypical, according to conservatives, in that their lives don’t represent the stereotypical black struggle. For this reason, these “elite” black folks have no grounds on which to ally themselves with the black underclass (recall the common conservative judgment that if a black person has a nice home and a high salary, she cannot complain about discrimination). Conservatives often resent liberal Ivy negroes’ infiltration into what was once a “pure” system of white moneyed elitism; however, conservatives love the idea of black Ivy grads because their existence proves that racism is dead.

To the left, Ivy-educated negroes are the new black. It’s not at all surprising that white liberals’ have starry-eyed crushes on these elite negroes. Most white folks are extremely uncomfortable with our society’s racial history, and positing a new kind of black political actor-one who doesn’t remind white people of slavery and Jim Crow-is a way to alleviate some of that discomfort. Bai goes out of his way to note that all of the aforementioned new post-racial politicians grew up with physical and/or cultural distance from average black folks. He makes sure to mention that Jealous and Booker were Rhodes Scholars (lest anyone think these two were unqualified diversity admissions). Bai is effectively marking this new batch of post-racial politicians as “different from the others,” and not just ideologically.

Think about the fact that Detroit Mayor (and soon-to-be convicted felon) Kwame Kilpatrick is noticeably absent from the new-negro-political-elite list. The fact that he’s a coonish crook might have a good deal to do with it, but the author would likely agree that Kilpatrick doesn’t count because he doesn’t have broad appeal (code for “acceptance from white people”). Kilpatrick lacks several qualities-honesty, decency, shame, competence, to name a few; one thing he doesn’t lack, though, is blackness. His unmistakable blackness-his Steve Harvey zoot suits, his “black” speech patterns, his BET-Uncut-style stripper parties mark him as “traditionally black,” thus, he doesn’t fit the profile. Plus, he went to an HBCU (FAMU), not an Ivy.

Also, compare Kilpatrick’s photo with those of the new breed:

Notice anything about their hue?

I realize that light-skinned privilege is nothing new (Chauncey, you El Debarge-colored bastard, I’m looking at you!), but the light, Ivy-educated, post-racial, “universal appeal” associations don’t sit well with me, regardless of whether it comes from white folks or from bougie, Talented Tenth touting, paper bag test-giving black folks.


Anonymous said...

Damn, I'm light-skinneded (I get "high yella" and "red" or "redbone" a lot)... you mean if I'd have gone Ivy for college I could be a much ballyhooed politician or black leader? I was just talking to my wife about how I can leverage Obama's success for my yella achievement.

Kit (Keep It Trill) said...

Racial progress in this country is measured in inches, not miles, and we have so far to go.

The Maven said...

This will be a hot button discussion for years to come. What I find interesting is the "hush" over the crowd with regard to Senator Obama's quest for the big house. We finally decided to come together for a cause. There's a lot of "shut up and be quiet" going around, because nobody wants to F this up for him. Aside from Rev. J. my very own Rev. W (yes, I am a Trinitarian), and a few Fox "tom" pundits, everyone has fallen in line and seen the bigger picture. It really is time for change, and we finally have a cultural representative who probably won't put the race to shame and can rebuild our country's rep around the world.

Yes, we have a new breed of black, highly-educated politician, but what did folks expect? Once our parents began to push for us to have lives and opportunities better than their own, this was bound to happen. We're gonna win some and lose some.

As for "Mayor" Kilpatrick, I am slightly disappointed, but never surprised. It just seems to me, he should have known better. He drank way too much Kool Aid. Obviously grape.

Anonymous said...

So glad to have found this site.
Not all of us yella folks have the pedigree that Lawrence Otis Graham writes about in his books.
Progress has costs. People prepare their children for a different world than they inhabited. Our children walk new paths but most of them don't forget and when they do life has a ways of catching up to and reminding them.

As for the Detroit mayor - a lot of the Black populist (and other populists too but they ain't who I'm writing to) put too much faith in people's verbal skills and promises-promises than in their actual track record show. You usually get who you voted for.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

@can can

We like complements, lots them, and we have some fun things in store. Nice to hear from you, I know Gordon will be chiming in...he is busy being upwardly mobile and successful, but I thought I should respond because i am a stay on the internet slacker who watches too much tv.

I like your point on preparing our children for this new world. What should we be doing? What should we be doing more of?


Nice to hear from you miss south side. It is a small world so we may know each other. Jimmies? Bar Louie, The ghetto chess player infested Borders book store?

You said, "we finally have a cultural representative who probably won't put the race to shame and can rebuild our country's rep around the world." I hope so, but you know, he is a certain type of "black" candidate and the scary thing is that even in his ethnic negritude, divorced from slavery, harvard u of c black self, he may still be too black for the joe q public heartland voter mouth breathing electorate.

just thinking aloud,

chauncey devega

All-Mi-T [Thought Crime] Rawdawgbuffalo said...

where would i fit in in this litany is my query

not to mention they say in write intellectual and literary fiction

rikyrah said...

This is an interesting article. But, is this anything new? When did we get away from the colorism? Just asking. Rev. Al and Jesse Jackson are about the darkest ' so-called' leaders that we've had. We do go around the spectrum in the CBC.

Mayor Trifling of Detroit is a bad example - on any level.

The Maven said...

Chauncy, that's the scary part, the fact that we feel we've FINALLY gotten someone viable and respectable, and still, in 2008, its not good enough. However, its gonna have to be good enough, because the time is hear, like it or not.

Bar Louie, for sure. Polk, Randolph, or both? That Border's, not so much. Jimmie's, of course. :)


Colorism will always be prevalent in sociey, unfortunately. However, for the author to tout the educational achievements of black Ivy graduates is silly. As your article stated, many (both black and white) will think that Obama's nomination to the White House will be the end of black poltics, but in actuality, it is only the beginning. We need highly educated revolutionaries that help shape our world, and make it more easier for black folks to maneuver in it. Is Obama the answer? Hopefully...but he can't do it on his own.

Furthermore, I'm so sick of this "universal appeal" bs as you are. Black folks, educated or not, need to remain true to the cause of disadvantaged peoples and not be so daggone concerned with appeasing white folks--and yes, that goes for Obama as well.