“Obama Receives High Marks for Race Speech”

The New York Times reports a CBS poll which says 70% of respondents believe Obama “did a good job talking about race relations.” By the same margin, those questioned also felt he adequately explained “his relationship with Reverend Wright.”

Interestingly, while 6 out of 10 agreed with what he had to say about race in the U.S., the Times reports a decrease in the number of voters who think he would be a president who “unites” the country. “Just over half of registered voters now say he would be that kind of president, down from two-thirds who said so a month ago.” The figures are interesting, and illustrate some of the difficulties related to discussing “race” in this society.

A popular view in the U.S. is that the mentioning of “race” is a bad thing. To acknowledge “race” is, inherently, not being “colorblind,” and such a stance has been equated with racism. In many ways, the popularization of snippets from the writings and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. is, at least, partially to blame. In his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, King communicated a vision of a future where people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” These words have been used to mobilize for varied forms of political movement: from civil rights to anti-affirmative action crusades. [See the arguments in favor of California’s historic anti-affirmative action ballot measure Proposition 209, passed in 1996.] Taken out of context, they suggest an idealization of a “colorblind society,” a world where people ignore each other’s “racial differences.”

But King and others were not so naive. They recognized that one’s experience in a white supremacist system had much to do with “race.”   Accordingly, the “content” of a person’s “character” has as much to do with “race” as with anything. From this position, to not acknowledge and consider “race” is to contribute to the maintenance of a system of oppression. As poet Pat Parker wrote so many years ago in her classic “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend”:

The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.

I suppose that is my point today. One of the forces that nurtures “racism” (which I use to describe ideologies of racial prejudice when insinuated into systems which allocate power) is a cultural inability on our part to properly acknowledge and discuss “race.” A speech like Obama’s is seen by many as invoking “race” when it need not be invoked, because their day-to-day existence relies on not recognizing “race” and its many roles. People of color want society to recognize the ways their consciousnesses and experiences are shaped by “race” in myriad ways, and yet few want to be reduced to that alone.  Colorblindness isn’t just a c0-opted idealization of Martin Luther King; it is a distinct strategy to leave facets of our selves and our world uninterrogated.

What we need are new ways of talking about race and racism, when it relates to us as well as when it relates to others.  Obama isn’t anything new on this point. We’ve always needed new ways to think about and analyze “race.” Our inability to do so isn’t just a fad, an unwillingness to discuss the past, or a societal limitation. It is the work of racism itself. Racism works by naturalizing its constructs and making invisible its processes. The L.A. Times ran an interesting story today that, unwittingly, displays some of the persistent and endemic shortcomings of our society on this front.  We don’t want to talk about “race” because when we do, it exposes all the raw emotion and confusion people feel as a result of it.  When we do, we don’t know how.

I will await to see what the final effects (if any) of Obama’s speech will be. Certainly, the mere speaking about these kinds of issues risks political power. More importantly, I wonder if people are ready to engage these issues in humble, empathic, and critical ways.

Obama and the Week of “Race”

To put it simply, Barack Obama blew me away this week with his “race speech,” delivered on March 18th.  As a person who works as a historian of race and ethnicity in the U.S. past, I can honestly say that no major presidential candidate or elected official has ever spoken so candidly and maturely about the issue of race in this country.  As a person of color who cares deeply about the prospects of what Obama called the “more just, more equal, more free, more caring and more prosperous America,” his words excited me beyond belief.  For the first time I feel like there is the possibility of electing a president who “gets it.”

Most of the news coverage of the speech I saw seemed to prove his underlying point.  Race is a complicated force in this nation’s past and present.  Imbued into the fabric of our national ideologies, and serving as the backbone to many of our institutions, the complex sets of meanings associated with it have been layered onto hierarchies of power for generations.  This result–racism–is as mystifying to the American public as it is well-known.  What serves the cause of racism, allows it to persevere over the centuries and weather its evolutions and transmutations to remain, in some form, in tact, is a nurtured inability for us to recognize it, to analyze it, and to work through it.  Tantamount to this multifaceted process is our shared inability to “talk race” in a way that is illuminating and constructive, healing and forward-looking.  Pundits largely missed this and, in their inability to hear what Obama was saying, relied on what they knew, flawed and problematic as it is.

Last Tuesday, Obama showed how a serious person could acknowledge the racist past and present of this country and not make it about whether or not this country is good or bad.  He demonstrated empathy in his ability to call the racist and racist and yet understand how their “truth” can be forged in daily life in this land.  And he provided a road map out of this mess: the need to begin a sustain a discussion that it messy, honest, painful, and still constructive.

The week ended with Obama receiving the endorsement of  Bill Richardson, the first Latino to seek a major party’s nomination for president.  As the nation’s only Latino governor, and as a respected former member of the Clinton administration, the endorsement is noteworthy and, perhaps, significant.  As a superdelegate with some clout, Richardson’s voice may have the ability to help sway others.  The Clinton campaign’s active dismissal of the endorsement is one indicator they are aware of this potential as well.

With all the exciting news, however, I still find myself a little bit saddened.  I’m not so sure that this nation, in any meaningful measure, heard Obama’s speech in the way it needs to be heard.  I am not sure that the issue of race is not slipping us back to where it like us to be, in the safe, dark corners of the past.

But, some did hear it, no?  And how many people does it take to make a forward step?  I’ll keep my fingers crossed.

“Why are you stealing our jobs?”

March 11, 2008. Boulder, CO. Authorities arrested two teenagers who physically assaulted a Latino male named Ivan Ponce De Leon-Najera. The teens confronted the man outside of a local convenience store, began calling him racist names, and then began pushing and punching him. As they beat him, reports recounted that they asked “Why are you stealing our jobs?” See the story here.

March 17, 2008. Washington, D.C. George W. Bush addresses the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for the last time as president. [View a full transcript of the speech here.] He praises Hispanics for their “entrepreneurial spirit.” He also laments the failure of a comprehensive immigration bill to reach his desk, saying he is “confident that the day will come when a President signs an immigration bill that secures our borders, respect our laws, and treats people with dignity.” He then transitions to the focus of his address, a discussion on trade. He frames it as both an issue of remaining competitive as well as being altruistic, saying it “adds to our prosperity, but as importantly, it adds to the prosperity our trading partners.” He defends NAFTA, while extolling the as-yet-to-be-ratified trade agreement with Colombia. He says:

Look, I know a lot of folks are worried about trade. There’s neighbors worrying about neighbors losing jobs. People say, well, trade causes us to lose jobs. And I fully understand that. Sometimes trade causes people to lose jobs.

Race and the 2008 Election

Recent events have seemed to focus attention on the ways “race” is a factor in this year’s presidential election. In particular, pundits and analysts are looking to race as a divisive and potentially volatile issue in the remaining months of the Democratic primary process.

Today’s Los Angeles Times, for example, features an article titled “Race returns to fore in Democratic contest,” quoting some who say of the Democratic contest: “This is a virtual race war, politically.” At the same time recent analyses of the Mississippi Democratic Primary highlight the profound differences in the vote both Clinton and Obama received along racial lines. Whites voted for Clinton by a margin of 72 to 21 and Blacks chose Obama by a margin of 91 to 9.

It is important for us to keep in mind that “race” has been a part of every presidential election in United States history. Even when the candidates have all been “white men,” ideas framing who is an appropriate choice for the office have been informed by racial ideologies. For more than two centuries, executive power and “whiteness” have mutually constituted each other, where what is “presidential” has had as much to do with race as it had to do with gender.

Framing the candidacy of Obama as a historical event injecting race into U.S. presidential politics is, simply, inaccurate. What his candidacy does do is expose the unacknowledged and historically contingent ways race (namely, “whiteness”) has been a force in shaping leadership and power. By not meeting a “traditional” criteria of leadership, Obama’s mere presence subtly exposes the tension between the ideals of a colorblind society and the harsh realities of two centuries of the exact opposite.

Geraldine Ferraro is a Racist

Geraldine Ferraro’s comments concerning Barack Obama are causing a flurry of political discussions today. Some are calling them”racist,” others “insensitive,” and both are pretty on point. I’d like to suggest that, at heart, they are mostly ignorant. What they fail to understand is exactly what racism has been in this country’s history and, further, continues to be in this preseidential election.

Ferraro expressed her views in a March 7th article in a small southern California newspaper, the Daily Breeze. The article reported the exchange as follows:

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position,” she continued. “And if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.” Ferraro does not buy the notion of Obama as the great reconciler.

“I was reading an article that said young Republicans are out there campaigning for Obama because they believe he’s going to be able to put an end to partisanship,” Ferraro said, clearly annoyed. “Dear God! Anyone that has worked in the Congress knows that for over 200 years this country has had partisanship – that’s the way our country is.”

Yesterday, Ferraro defended her views with a charge of “reverse racism.” This article reported:

“Any time anybody does anything that in any way pulls this campaign down and says let’s address reality and the problems we’re facing in this world, you’re accused of being racist, so you have to shut up,” Ferraro said. “Racism works in two different directions. I really think they’re attacking me because I’m white. How’s that?”

Today, in an interview broadcast on ABC, she clarified her words by suggesting they were taken out of context, while simultaneously standing by them. [See ABC News.]

What the former Vice Presidential nominee fails to see is the way race has operated in United States history. Historically speaking, the United States has been a white supremacist nation. Simply put, “white”–a shifting and ellusive term in many ways–stood as the standard of what was right, acceptable, superior, and, most importantly, normal and natural.

Suggesting Obama is where he is today is, simply, in the candidate’s own words, “patently absurd.” It is ahistorical, denying the way the concept and designation of whiteness has operated in this nation’s past. Most importantly, it denies the ways race and whiteness worked to define leadership and legitimate power. If anything, it is far more true to say, historically, Hillary Clinton and every other “white” elected official is where they are today due to race. “Whiteness” has been the unspoken, unacknowledged prerequisite for power in this nation’s history. Any nonwhite person who has achieved status in such a system has done so despite or in acquiescence of that fact.

Is Ferraro a racist? Of course, it depends on how that word is defined but in my usage, yes. She is reflecting the grossest form of “white privilege”–the primary byproduct of a white supremacist system. She suggests that the system is oppressing “whites” by creating higher standards, special exemptions, and cosmetic (and fundamentally baseless) valorizations in favor of nonwhites when, in reality, all it is doing in struggling (in spite of itself) to undo the chronic shortcomings of its history. She may feel and think this, millions more may also share her perspective, but they, too, are trapped in the hangover of the past.