Last week, former President Jimmy Carter asserted that at least some of the opposition to Obama is motivated by racism, saying of the disrespect shown to the President: “Those kind of things are not just casual outcomes of a sincere debate on whether we should have a national program on health care. It’s deeper than that.” The Obama White House made a special effort to disagree. “The president does not believe that that criticism comes based on the color of his skin,” Press Secretary Gibbs said.
Columnist Gregory Rodriguez wrote an opinion piece in yesterday’s LA Times rationalizing how and why the Obama camp seems unwilling to share Carter’s opinion (when Rodriguez and others do). “Obama’s shunning response to the racism debate” provides a provocative, if not personal, analysis.
Let me offer two ways of thinking that help to make sense of both the primary issues at hand: whether or not “racism” is at play in the swell of criticism of Obama; and why the Obama camp doesn’t (and maybe shouldn’t) talk about it.
Part of the difficulty with the first point lies in our collective misunderstanding of race and racism in U.S. history. If you read this blog regularly, you know this is one of my scholarly crusades. Since I usually spend a semester engaging students’ preconceived notions of race and racism with the growing body of scholarship that helps us think differently about these topics, I won’t try to explain it all here. But I will summarize some results: formally, the U.S. has been a “white supremacist” nation for most of its two centuries; and “racism” is most commonly understood as a personal, individual defect–a pathology.
“White supremacy”–the version of racism with which we grapple in this country–was not about the ways people thought as much as it was about the ways ideas structured society. If white people hated black people and that was it, we wouldn’t have had the problems we had and have. The problems came when the ideas of difference–ideas of superiority and inferiority–became the rationales of systems which allocate power.
Before you think this is “academic talk,” just think of things like slavery; the theft of Indian land with their accompanying forced removal; Native American genocide in California; educational segregation; policies forbidding Federal Home loans to nonwhite; policies banning Japanese from owning land; and so on. “Racism” in these cases–the ones most fundamental to our understanding of the past of inequality and inequity–isn’t about some people hating others. It’s about practices, SANCTIONED BY LAW, which created a class of people with more power, wealth, and privilege because of how ideas defined their “race.”
That isn’t to say “personal racism” isn’t important. The classic case of a person not hiring another because of their race shows that these things suck even when there aren’t laws commanding the deleterious actions. In a racist society, however, the laws also work to protect these acts. Ultimately, the ideas we have about each others’ fitness and inherent possibilities shape how we support (or don’t) the laws which constitute a racist society.
So…when we say is racism the cause of the anti-Obama groundswell, we’re asking the wrong question. We’re debating whether or not the people who oppose him hold beliefs of racial superiority and inferiority. But who cares? What we need to ask is HOW race is involved. In a system where race has figured into our allocation of wealth, power, and privilege, it also shapes our understandings of what is right and wrong, good and bad. This in unavoidable. We need to better understand how race shapes the collective debate, from what is said to what is heard, by moving our understanding of its presence as something that is due to individual deficiency. It isn’t about individual’s beliefs as much as it is about what shapes our shared understanding.
A “nonbeliever” might dismiss what I have said by accusing me of being “convenient,” creating argumentative structures which are hard to prove and make it hard to disagree with me. Let me assure you, though, the proof is there. That you don’t know it is part of the problem. I’d also say that the accusation you;d be making is the same I am making of you. Who benefits most when we think of racism as just a thing some people “believe” instead of as a formal system that shapes who we are?
On the second count, if race is involved in a negative way in this debate, Obama CAN’T speak out against it. The fundamental structure of racism will discount what he has to say on it since it would only support what a white person says. I don’t know if Carter knows this. But he is the right kind of person to do what he did. US racism is “white supremacy.” If it is going to end–I mean really die–then “white people” are the ones who are going to have to make that decision. People of color can demand change, and even work for change, but until the system is no longer in tact, we can’t make it happen directly.
It’s like being in a room with no door and no windows while me and everybody else is outside. Inside of this room you have a wrecking ball. Outside of it we have nothing. We can demand to get in, and you can even hear us, but, ultimately, you inside are the only ones who have that power. Our access is predicated on your active decision to make it so. That isn’t right; it is the nature of the structural reality in question.
There are places in our larger social and political system where racism has died. Those are places of possible change, often ones that have been seized. But the final death knell has not been sounded for our racist past. Obama’s silence–to me–is a reflection of this. As is the current debate against him.