Friday, November 16, 2012

Eric Liu's "After the White Establishment" is a (White) Wolf in Sheep's Clothing: "The Emerging Coalition of Color Needs to Recommit to Americanness Itself"

It’s not just that a president was elected against the express wishes of a majority of white Americans; after all, that happened twice with Bill Clinton. It’s that we chose to keep a black man in the Oval Office. And the “we” who did that included more nonwhites than ever recorded in an American electorate
But the question now is what we do — and who “we” are. Whites in America, like Americans in the world, may still have more power in absolute terms than anyone else. But they have less power than they used to (like Americans in the world). This moment in history, and its accelerating demographic shift, could give us zero-sum politics fueled by white status anxiety.  Or it could give us the opportunity to at last detach Americanness from whiteness... 
At the same time, the emerging coalition of color needs to recommit to Americanness itself. There’s a civic creed at the heart of this country, a culture of democracy and inclusive self-government, that’s worthy of commitment. It’s time for people of every color to reclaim and redeem that universal, unifying creed: to identify first as Americans so that the full diversity of our identities can flourish...
Race is a dance. It is also a set of relationships and norms. Race is also a ritual--one which often follows a predictable script.

In post civil rights America, color blindness is a civic virtue. The politics that were brought into existence with the difficult and forced birth of multicultural democracy at the end of the civil rights movement involved a consensus of sorts: both white people and people of color were equally capable of racism. White supremacy, as well as Jim and Jane Crow, were simply byproducts of poor decision making and a maladaptive "Southern" culture; they were separate and apart from any deep reflections on either the nature of White Government, or of Whiteness itself.

This was a pragmatic decision that was driven by the needs of elites in the context of the Cold War who wanted to put the national embarrassment of formal white supremacy behind them. They found a practical solution that was forced by the bravery and courage of the foot soldiers, men and women, children and adults, black folks and our allies, in the Civil Rights Movement and the long Black Freedom Struggle.

The descendant of this consensus is a multicultural America that is possessed by a lie of false equivalence. Here, public discussions of white racism, and the semi-permanence of the color line, fall into a trap where justice claims by people of color--or simply matter of fact, sharp, and real observations about the nature of white identity politics and racism--are met by a need to defend, protect, and recuperate Whiteness.

[See the hysterical response to Reverend Wright's truth telling and astute reading of American history during Obama's first presidential campaign.]

Racial discourse in the public sphere is dictated by a commandment that white folks as a group must always be allowed the option of being shown in a kind light (even as the dominant culture views white racism as abominable, anachronistic, and shameful).

For example, critiques of the clear and open politics of white racial resentment, dog whistles, and overt racial appeals by Mitt Romney's campaign were met by silly editorials about "black racism" because the latter group made a calculated choice to support Barack Obama as the Republican Party's policies were so nakedly hostile to them.

In popular culture, the stories about black people fighting white racism in such films as Mississippi Burning and Glory revolve around white saviors. Black Americans have their agency removed; our agency and role in taking back freedom is conveniently "white washed." The Help is another horrid example of the white savior narrative where a story about black people's struggles are told through the eyes of a white main character, and white racists--the majority of the population during American Apartheid--are painted as caricatures and outliers.

Spielberg's epic Lincoln commits the same sin wherein black people are depicted as two dimensional characters, mere observers in our own Emancipation struggle. And the soon to be released "42", which is about the life of Jackie Robinson (I was among the first in the country to see it Wednesday night here in Chicago), while a very good movie, also falls prey to the need for Whiteness to recuperate itself through conspicuous characters whose only function is to show how not all white folks are/were racist.

The postmortem of Mitt Romney's defeat by President Obama, and the demographic suicide facing the country's White Political Party (otherwise known as the Tea Party GOP) adheres to the same script. The pundit class has begun a healthy, although ahistorical, discussion of what the "browning" of America will mean for the country's politics. But, in a search for a triumphalist theme, these same observers are, for the most part, ignoring how White identity politics still won Mitt Romney the majority of the White vote.

The media's dominant narrative is focused on how a coalition of young people, racial minorities  women, and "enlightened" white men, brought down the white male plutocrat, he who would gleefully smite the 47 percent. The white people who voted for Mitt Romney, and by implication endorsed his racist politics of white victimology and racism, are framed as throwbacks or outliers. They are still "good" people; their fears and anxieties were a function of being mislead by the Right-wing media; moreover, "we" should be sympathetic to "them" as the country's demographic changes are challenging for all of "us."

Eric Liu's Time magazine essay After the White Establishment, What's Next? is for the most part a solid piece of analysis. Moreover, it echoes much of what I suggested in my own open letter to angry white conservatives. Consequently, I am largely in agreement with his claims. However, Liu falls into the common trap of racial false equivalency in the post-civil rights era. His sharp claims about how whiteness must be decoupled from what is existentially means to be "American," is followed by an observation which dances with a dangerous suggestion that tries to find some equivalency between white racial immorality and the Black and Brown freedom struggle.

Liu's points in this regard merit re-emphasis:

"It’s time for people of every color to reclaim and redeem that universal, unifying creed: to identify first as Americans so that the full diversity of our identities can flourish..."

Black Americans are the moral conscience of the nation. People of color more broadly through our blood struggles, sacrifices, and deep faith in the promise of American democracy helped to recuperate a political culture that was truly rotten and sick with racism and bigotry, and where separate but equal was the law of the land.

Black Americans, as a people brought here in bondage, have a unique relationship with freedom. We gifted the country with our presence and have made a singular and unique contributions to helping to force the Constitution, a document stained by the birth defect of slavery and formal white supremacy, to live up to its potential.

Liu's slippage is profoundly dangerous because it works, in a seemingly benign manner, in a service to hegemonic Whiteness. While suggesting otherwise on the surface, After the White Establishment, What's Next? is a work of conservative, Right-wing colorblind ideology that equates "hyphenated" racial identities as "treasonous" or somehow outside of the American political and cultural tradition.

Like others who are writing about Romney and the Republican Party's "white problem," Liu's claims are devoid of historical context: while suggesting that people of color need to "identify first as Americans," he accepts a premise that our citizenship is somehow secondary and inauthentic, that we need to prove otherwise to white people, and that having a "raced" identity is something that black and brown folks opposed to having it forced upon us by dominant White American society.

When viewed in total, After the White Establishment, What's Next? reinforces Whiteness as the norm, and suggests that our full personhood as black, Hispanic, Asian or Native Americans must be denied or made secondary to what it means to be a "real" American. Nowhere in Liu's conceptual schema is there an understanding that our identities as "hyphenated" Americans are inseparable from the full complexity of our citizenship, communities, life experience, patriotism, and humanity. While decrying White identity politics, Liu normalizes Whiteness.

To be black is to be a quintessential and authentic American. This is a basic claim which frightens many on both the Left and the Right, who despite their ideological differences, are deeply invested in Whiteness as a cultural, social, political, philosophical, and economic norm. Liu, and the editors of Time which published the following essay in 1970, would greatly benefit from reflecting on Ralph Ellison's genius What Would American be Without Blacks where that visionary American wrote:

Materially, psychologically and culturally, part of the nation’s heritage is Negro American, and whatever it becomes will be shaped in part by the Negro’s presence. Which is fortunate, for today it is the black American who puts pressure upon the nation to live up to its ideals. It is he who gives creative tension to our struggle for justice and for the elimination of those factors, social and psychological, which make for slums and shaky suburban communities. 
It is he who insists that we purify the American language by demanding that there be a closer correlation between the meaning of words and reality, between ideal and conduct, between our assertions and our actions. Without the black American, something irrepressibly hopeful and creative would go out of the American spirit, and the nation might well succumb to the moral slobbism that has always threatened its existence from within. 
When we look objectively at how the dry bones of the nation were hung together, it seems obvious that some one of the many groups that compose the United States had to suffer the fate of being allowed no easy escape from experiencing the harsh realities of the human condition as they were to exist under even so fortunate a democracy as ours. It would seem that some one group had to be stripped of the possibility of escaping such tragic knowledge by taking sanctuary in moral equivocation, racial chauvinism or the advantage of superior social status. There is no point in complaining over the past or apologizing for one’s fate. 
But for blacks there are no hiding places down here, not in suburbia or in penthouse, neither in country nor in city. They are an American people who are geared to what is, and who yet are driven by a sense of what it is possible for human life to be in this society. The nation could not survive being deprived of their presence because, by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom.

If the "White Establishment" is in a crisis post-Romney, said state of affairs is fully a product of white folks' decisions. Black Americans, and people of color more generally, have already done enough--and without thanks--to salvage American democracy. Now, it is time for progressive thinking and self-interested white Americans to drain the swamp of the racists and racial reactionaries among them who voted for Mitt Romney.

White racism hurts white people. The fact that so many white folks, a majority of them, were willing to support a craven plutocrat and Ayn Randian capitalist who views half of the American people as parasites and surplus stock because they are so easily moved by White identity politics to despise the country's first black president should give full pause to any claim that class interests--and common sense--trump racial chauvinism for tens of millions of white voters in the Age of Obama.

The white voters who helped to elect Barack Obama need to turn to their less evolved and informed brethren and help them along into the future. It ain't black and brown folks responsibility to uplift the white masses; we have done more than enough heavy lifting over the centuries.


nomad said...

"Black Americans are the moral conscience of the nation.."
No. We WERE the moral conscience of the nation. Now we are solidly behind grotesque imperialism. Perhaps we will be again when we denounce the Obama regime and it's continuance and amplification of the policies of George Bush. Into 2008 we were duped. In 2012 we are accessories to high crimes and misdemeanors. That is probably the saddest part of Obama's deployable legacy.

SouthernGirl2 said...

The white voters who helped to elect Barack Obama need to turn to their less evolved and informed brethren and help them along into the future. It ain't black and brown folks responsibility to uplift the white masses; we have done more than enough heavy lifting over the centuries.

chaunceydevega said...

@Nomad. I love the Paul Mooney joke about people who were upset at Obama winning, he said they blame everything on him. If their butt hurts it's "Obama's fault." Rain outside? "That damn Obama." I must count you in that camp. Is there anything positive at all about the President? Symbolically? Practically?

Or are unelectable 3rd party candidates, who themselves would be very constrained and changed by the system too, the only choice? What would make you happy Nomad? Is that even possible?

The Sanity Inspector said...

Re the race issues on celluloid: Have you ever noticed that every episode of Roots has one sympathetic white character? This was in order to appeal to the mass TV audience most of whom were white. Otherwise fewer people would have watched it, and it wouldn't have turned a profit for the creators & networks.

nomad said...

"Is there anything positive at all about the President?"
You tell me. What could be positive about electing a social safety net slashing war monger fostering police state policies? I'm not mad at Obama because he won. You think I would have preferred Romney? I'm mad at him because he can do the things Bush and Romney would do with no opposition from people like you. Bush=evil. Romney=evil. Obama= evil unchecked.

"Symbolically? Practically?." No. Nothing. Having a black president who works against the well-being of his constituency does nothing for me. Especially a black president who was not nurtured in the black experience. Having a black president whose policies oppress black people, despite his lying rhetoric, is worse than have a white president who does the same thing. You yourself would be crying bloody murder if a white president did the kinds of things that Obama does. (Feel free to look up the litany of those things. I'm not going to try to enumerate them.) Barama's depredations go unchecked by people like you, out of some misguided race loyalty. I mean skin color loyalty. Lawd knows if you were loyal to the race you'd be speaking truth to Obama's power. Instead you enable his depredations. The poor are suffering. And Barama's literally getting away with murder.

rikyrah said...

thanks for this post. you brought out a lot of good stuff.

A. Ominous said...

"What would make you happy Nomad? Is that even possible?"

CdV: why blame Nomad for Reality's bleak picture? Will things get better if Nomad starts ignoring the obvious and kicking his heels in the name of being "positive"?

What would have made anyone (decent) happy in Germany c. 1939? (And before anyone screams that that's a hyperbolic comparison, there's a whole range of years, along a continuum, to choose from any making any "Nazi" comparison to The America of Now... switch "Jews" for "Arabs" and factor in domestic surveillance and police oppression and I think "1933" is a pretty good starting point. Let's see if things go as far as "1944").

To dial it down a bit, a slightly pertinent story: a guy who attended my high school made this video to help get BHO in the door the first time around; I got a mass-mailing about it (I actually met Stone over *here* way back in 2002-ish via common film biz friends) and I checked out the video and thought: "Whatever I think of the mysterious, silver-tongued, chameleonic Mr BHO, this is some *effective* propaganda!"

(And it looks like he did it on his own initiative, out of his own pocket).

Cut to 2012: Google "Charles Stone iii" + "Barack Obama" and things went pretty quiet for 2012; as far as I know, Stone didn't do a video for the second campaign. Now, I wonder why?

Well, did BHO even send him a handwritten thank-you for the first "Wassup"? I hope so.


nomad said...

LOL. Never saw that. Never has this phrase been more fitting: The more things change, the more they remain the same. And that goes for that changing demographics story on the other thread. Whites don't have to be in the majority to maintain white supremacy. Anybody ever hear of South Africa? What ever minority is in the majority, white supremacy marches on.

A. Ominous said...

Nomad: here's the joke about South Africa: the Whites basically told the Blacks: you can have "political power"... and we'll just keep running the Banks. K?


nomad said...

Stop it, Steven! You're killing me! :)

A. Ominous said...

I got a million of 'em!

Downtown Dave said...

I'm a Chicago-based urban, liberal, white school-teacher. I thank you, Chauncey, for the very thoughtful article, which spoke a lot of truth about race relations in America.

Chauncey you're once again 100% right. The smaller group of white folks who are aware of their ugly history DO need to speak to our so-called "brethren," although I suppose I might quibble a little about the terminology there.

These aren't really my brothers, no thank you.

That said, the better angels among us ALWAYS need to speak the lessor demons. I don't find that trait to be culturally-specific, although it's quite possible, I'll admit, that I have some sort of racial "blind spot."

SouthernGirl2 said...

rikyrah said...
thanks for this post. you brought out a lot of good stuff.

I couldn't absorb it all at once. I had to savor the moment and then go back and read it again.

Keep up the good work. Mad props!

chaunceydevega said...

@Downtown. Good to hear from a fellow chitown resident. Teach your "brothers". Perhaps you can save a few?

@Rikyrah. Always love for you. Thanks so much for chiming in.

@Southern. Only as good as the folks who comment. Do keep coming back.

Razor said...

Superb CD.