Through the Past, Darkly, With Muse Machine

Something about July 26 just brings out those ruminations on race. . .

GatesGate: Are We Still the Prisoners of Race?

Posted on July 26, 2009

With the Performing Daughter in a big show downtown this weekend, and relatives in town for the occasion,  I’ve been too busy playing tour guide and bottle washer to  blog about GatesGate. I’m definitely late to the party, but a few post-mortem thoughts:

1. Obama’s premature lurch into GatesGate  during his press conference last week was a classic case of what old friend and fellow blogger TheFabSage dubbed ETSOTTGO(eht-SAHT-go), one of my favorite acronyms. It stands for “Easier to Stay Out Than to Get Out,” and man, was that true with Obama.

How easy it would have been for him to stay out by  saying  something like, “I’m troubled by what I’ve heard, and I have great  respect for Professor Gates, but I want to hold off commenting for a while until I can get more details about this incident.”  Period.

2. Alas, Obama’s insistence on going to bat ASAP for his fellow member of the Talented Tenth led him into a real swamp in which he seemed to be doing two objectionable things: A) Presuming that a member of his own class cohort could not share any blame  in the matter, which shows us that Good Ol’ Boys’ Clubs exist among all kinds of people, and B) playing into the creaky but still nastily alive party line about White Oppressors fighting to  keep Black Victims down forever.

It seems I’m always pointing this out, but one of the most curious phenomena of our time is the Paradox of the Powerful Victim. Why do minorities who wield enormous power via wealth, celebrity, or position  reflexively, dishonestly behave as if they are illiterate Alabama  sharecroppers in 1949, cowering before ol’ white Massah?

We see it with Sonia Sotamayor,  when she was on  the power path at  Yale Law School, embracing “the Third World Community” on campus. We saw it in the recent death of Michael Jackson, with Al Sharpton and others trying to portray “Nothing Strange” Jackson, a hugely powerful man in his own right,  as the victim of a vampiric white tabloid press. And now we see it with Gates, who, the day after the incident, uttered these tragically misguided words:

“What it made me realize was how vulnerable all black men are, how vulnerable all people of color are, and all poor people, to capricious forces like a rogue policeman, and this man clearly was a rogue policeman.”

For a man of Gates’ accomplishments, privilege and power to say this is just heartbreakingly cynical.   I don’t do much gazing into people’s souls, but I’d be astonished if he actually believes that. (Though, alas, many impressionable young blacks may believe it.)  I think Gates knows that he lost his cool and  provoked an ugly national incident, and instead of accepting a chunk of the blame, he  decided to go all in with the scorched-earth race rhetoric, knowing that at least he’d please “the base” among professional rights activists and the black talk-radio cadre.

3.  Can we get a happy ending? Yes. Obama’s suggestion  that the three men have a beer at the White House is a nimble recovery and a  super idea–a fine gesture of reconciliation that can be done without investigating committees, marches, and lawsuits.  The three of them can get together and  acknowledge that, like everyone else, they’ve made some mistakes. Maybe Gates can at least hint that life in America is a wee bit better now than it was during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955.

And how about a handshake on the White House lawn? Hey, if Rabin and Arafat can shake, I bet these guys can work it out.

Ain’t That Black Enough?

Posted on July 26, 2007

A lingering question about a question from Monday’s YouTube/CNN debate, when Sen. Barack Obama was asked why some voters don’t seem to think he’s “black enough.”

What in the world do people mean when they ask this? Is there some Platonic ideal of perfect Blackness by which we can measure and evaluate someone according to how closely they approach the ideal?

If so, what/who  is the ideal? Who is a sufficiently authentic black, and how does he/she differ from Obama? I’d love to see a thoughtful African-American writer dissect this matter, but fools rush in where angels fear to tread.

To this pale Caucasoid, the whole business seems weirdly old-fashioned, refracted through a long-outdated view of blacks.

Perhaps during the heyday of Jim Crow, before the Civil Rights movement, there might have existed, in the minds of most white people at least, some monolithic idea of the “black” person. Any such simplistic image, of course, would have been possible only because so many white people had such limited experience with black people, and many of the blacks they were likely to meet were poorly educated and in  subservient positions.

Today, with so many avenues of advancement open to African-Americans,  the reality is much more variegated.  There are dozens,  hundreds of black images.   Is Puffy Combs black? Colin Powell? Randall Robinson? Leonard Pitts Jr.? Barry Bonds? Oprah Winfrey? Spike Lee? Ron Kirk? Chris Tucker? Shelby Steele? Seal? Henry Louis Gates? Michael Vick?  Louis Farrakhan? Joe Morgan?

Are they saying Obama is way more educated than most black folks? He is, yes. (He’s also way more educated than most white folks.) Are they saying he’s got much more money than most black folks? (ditto whites).

I’m guessing here, but I wonder if some of the “black enough?” questioners have a limited and pretty negative idea of the black experience they believe Obama has not shared.  Are they saying he hasn’t suffered enough of what they take to be, even in 2007, the oppressive racial reality of blacks? Obama seemed to pick up on that aspect of the question when he half-jokingly said he’d had trouble hailing cabs in Manhattan–thus establishing solidarity with poor and middle-class blacks who’ve been similarly dissed.

Is he being forced, unfairly, to define his essential  life experiences downward (I’ve been racially profiled by cabbies, like you) rather than upward (Uh, yes, I was the first black editor of the Harvard Law Review)?

The next time this question comes up, and it will, I wish Obama would just say, “What are you talking about? Explain. Define this Ideal Black.” Then we could all get in on the discussion.


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