There’s a lot to “take away” from the past few days of news and politics. The overriding lesson, for me anyways, is this:
The word “terrorist” is journalistic & political shorthand for a “nonwhite” person who perpetrates an act of political violence.
Jared Lee Loughner has been effectively defended left and (largely) right for two days now. Talking heads are chastising anyone who dares use the word “political” when referring to the assassination of a federal judge and attempted assassination of a member of Congress. Others are arguing anyone who does such a heinous thing can’t be of “sound mind,” invoking a level of compassion for him that is shocking considering the sentiment’s absence from most political discourse.
Yes, even the fantastically guilty enjoy the greatest of American privileges:
Earlier this month, I came across the article “What happened to post-racial America?” by Politico’s Roger Simon. You can find it here.
I’ve been reading the article a bit here and a bit there for the past week or so, finding it useful to a small project I’m writing for a foreign audience. At first read, I found it to be reflective of the kinds of thinking that (I feel) predominate in mainstream, liberal, political discourse. It was naïve, but clear about how some of that naïveté was constituted. It was focused on a simplistic measure of “racial reconciliation,” but also a simplistic measure of the facts of its nonexistence.
It wasn’t until tonight that I thought it might also be read as a small step for one political Liberal in his course of individual liberation from what was famously termed by one author as “personal whiteness.” Roger Simon writes the following in reference to the famous July 2008 cover of the New Yorker:
The cover succeeded (at least to me) in being so absurd that it poked fun of the people who believed the Obamas were dangerous, traitorous or foreign. As David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, said at that time, the cover “combines a number of fantastical images about the Obamas and shows them for the obvious distortions they are.”
Today, those “obvious distortions” plus new ones get serious hearings on talk radio and cable TV. Today, posters mysteriously appear on the streets of Los Angeles depicting Obama as the white-faced Joker from Batman with the single word “socialism” beneath his face.
Simon’s reflection here is a good sign of progress. While he doesn’t demonstrate any profound measure of empathy—a form of critical thought that would have initially necessitated understanding, first, how others might have objected to the cover back in July 2008—he does show the same consequence. Here, as in other sections, he portrays race and racism in the U.S. as more complex than simple.
While his final measure of equality still revolves around the seductive “representation” (the problem that constitutes the very question he asks in the title to his piece) the fact of the limits of racial justice in the present moment could have a positive result was satisfying.
It’s sad people have to see what people of color have known for a long time; but it’s nice more people are once again seeing it.
One of the consequences of Barack Obama’s election is “talk about race” in the United States. From local diners, to bus stops, to classrooms, to offices, to the family dinner tables, Americans are starting to talk about race with a frequency perhaps unheard of since the climax of the Civil Rights Movement.
No matter what he does as president, Obama’s very high-profile position is beginning to force a reckoning with small elements of America’s racial past. [I am being very deliberate in the language I am using here. I do NOT believe that the election of Barack Obama is, in itself, racial healing, or proof of this nation “getting past” it’s history of racial oppression. It can be, but I am less than optimistic that it will be. That said, his election is–almost unavoidably–framing a process that can lead to something better.] Obama just being Obama makes it difficult for “everyday Americans” to ignore race, which is not only something we have become expert at doing but also (contrary to the skewed interpretation of MLK’s “colorblind society”) stands as one of the biggest problems we continue to face as a nation.
This segment from NPR is a wonderful demonstration of this process. The topic of discussion is Obama’s choice to call himself an “African American” instead of a “biracial” person. Reflective of the ways his mere presence picks at some of the long-held racial assumptions of our national culture, these kinds of discussions can be huge steps forward toward better understanding ourselves, each other, and our common social bonds.
This particular issue interrogates ideas which are so deeply engrained into our collective ways of knowing. Namely, it helps to expose the inconsistencies between our traditional notions of race (as a fixed and biological “fact”) with the historical evidence of it (as a set of socially constructed meanings we encounter). On more personal level, it also helps to frame an inquiry into the politics of naming–the choices people of color make for themselves in representing their experiences and identities as well as the ones “others” choose for us.
The end result of discussions like this one are not preordained. We are actually far more likely to retreat into the dysfunctional belief systems of the past, preserving the current incarnation of global white supremacy because, like all dysfunctions, it is comfortable and familiar. But, if we learn how to work at it, we could also be moving, collectively, to a brighter day with respct to race and equality. We’ll see.