Sunday, March 30, 2008

Lebron as King Kong?

Is this an ironic critique of racialized American pop culture, or just another example of semi-cloaked forms of contemporary racism?

Are black folks being too sensitive, or are whites not being sensitive enough? This is a version of how every single five-minute segment on CNN or FOX frames the debate. Of course, that is exactly the WRONG question, which is what I try to explain in my new book, Racial Paranoia, an essay asking for a new set of assumptions about how race/racism actually functions in contemporary America.

Historically, magazines like Vogue could have quoted scientific "experts" who made careers out of proving that Blacks were closer to apes on the evolutionary ladder than whites. Indeed, the 20th century's most popular forms of print culture (magazines, journals, newspapers) are littered with such testimony. But now we live in a world where explicit racial ideas, assumptions or unexamined presuppositions are shunned--and can get the expert into some serious hotwater. So, we have a much different kind of racial dance we do with one another these days, a new configuration to America's racial dance floor-cum-minefield.

The point isn't about whether or not Vogue's superstar photographer is a racist. It is about recognizing that in a world where explicit forms of racism have been banned from the public sphere (especially for mainstream publications) such imagery operates like a kind of spectacular return of America's repressed racisms--regardless of the photographer's intent or the lack of any conspicuously hanging noose, the racial equivalent of a smoking gun.

If America is, in fact, "post-racial," all this means is that we've gone from a moment of explicit/public forms of racial distrust to potentially trickier and more perniciously privatized/cloaked demonstrations of racial misgivings. Of course, none of this is to assume that the Vogue cover was "meant" as a racial dig, but the meaning of any bit of communication is never completely controlled by its sender. That's Communications 101.

To think that racialized interpretations of the cover are merely the mis-readings of zealots (or the demagoguery of race cardists) is to mis-diagnose the very center of America's contemporary racial problem. Moving beyond the impasse (of debating whether or not an image is really "racist") demands recognizing that proving the other dug-in camp wrong might make your own choir sound sweeter, but it won't open up the doors to the church, at least not wide enough to make other folks feel welcome--the church, as Obama reminded us, being one of the most racially segregated hours of any American's week.

Even if Vogue wasn't trying to invoke the history of American fears around Black male/white female miscegenation (one foundational reading of the King Kong narrative itself), even if Lebron LOVED taking part in the shoot and the final shot that adorns the cover, completely pooh-poohing more skeptical racial readings, dismissing them out of hand, is a naive (or disingenuous) attempt at magic-wanding racial differences away.

I can understand the desire, but a healthy and diverse political community requires more than some kind of color-blind witchcraft to reproduce itself in the 21st century. We need fewer "no spin zones" and more spaces where people actually try to understand why racialized arguments get spun in the first place--and it isn't always just because Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton might be in the building.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Reference to the new book in a Finanical Times op-ed by Christopher Caldwell


Towards the end of his speech about race on Tuesday, Barack Obama made an observation that was raw enough to knock any attentive American listener out of his chair.

Mr Obama was talking about one of his campaign volunteers, a white woman in her 20s, who as a girl had proclaimed that her favourite food was mustard sandwiches, in the hope of making her single mother feel less bad about being poor. This girl had kept her faith in other people, Mr Obama said, even though “perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother’s problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work”.

All Americans have heard such talk; no recent politician has ever been remotely brave enough to allude to it, even when quoting a hypothetical third party. It is not clear whether Mr Obama’s 37-minute address will help or hinder him on his road to the White House. But it is potentially a great service to his country. For one morning at least, Mr Obama left off trying to inspire and chose instead to explain.

Sceptics would say that this is because Mr Obama had a lot of explaining to do. The pastor of the church he has attended for 20 years, the Rev Jeremiah Wright, has been captured on video preaching angry sermons, some of them true but impolitic (the US was built on ideas of “white supremacy and black inferiority”), some anti-American (the attacks of September 11 2001 were America’s “chickens coming home to roost”) and some nutty (the US developed the Aids virus as a means of curbing the black population).

No one has demonstrated any political affinity between the two men. Rev Wright described himself to the Christian Science Monitor last year as more a sparring partner than a mentor. Mr Obama has dropped Rev Wright from his campaign. Yet voters, with good reason, remain worried.

Mr Obama has chosen to reassure them not by minimising the meaning of Rev Wright’s anger but by maximising it, showing it to be part of a widespread subterranean current. “That anger,” Mr Obama says, “may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table.”

While attacking Rev Wright’s harsher sermons, Mr Obama defended him as a man, described him as “like family” and portrayed his views as the by-product of a broader social failure in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, one that afflicts both blacks and whites.

“I can no more disown him,” Mr Obama said, “than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street.”

This use of his own grandmother as a prop in a wider argument has led many to attack Mr Obama as simplistic and cynical. What is the equivalence between a grandmother’s fear of black crime, for which statistics give some grounds, and a preacher’s free-floating ideas that the US government is engaged in germ warfare against its own citizens?

But this is actually where the subtlety of Mr Obama’s argument lies. It explains why he chose to strip his speech of customary euphemisms. The cornerstone of all his policies on race has been that black progress, as he said on Tuesday, “means binding our particular grievances – for better healthcare, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans”.

Obviously, this means that blacks need to know what the aspirations of other Americans are.

Under the present system of race relations, that cannot happen. A very interesting book published this week shows why. In Racial Paranoia (Basic Books, $26/L15.99), the University of Pennsylvania anthropologist John L. Jackson Jr suggests that extravagant theories of white racism – from the widespread Aids rumour to Louis Farrakhan’s allegation that the US actually blew up the levees to cause the deadly New Orleans floods during Hurricane Katrina – have their roots in the decorous language that mostly white leaders have invented for talking about race.

The US has not managed to eliminate racism, Mr Jackson thinks, but it has succeeded in eliminating racist talk. Remarks the slightest bit “insensitive” draw draconian punishment. White people, because they feel thoroughly oppressed by this regime, assume that it must be some kind of “gift” to minorities, especially blacks.

It is not. It is more like a torment. It renders the power structure more opaque to blacks than it has ever been, leaving what Mr Jackson calls a “scary disconnect between the specifics of what gets said and the hazy possibilities of what kinds of things are truly meant”. If the historic enemies of your people suddenly began talking about you in what can fairly be called a secret code, how inclined would you be to trust in their protestations of generosity?

This is the core of the problem Mr Obama aims to address. Bringing subterranean racial narratives into the light of day, where they can be debated openly, is a risk. Although the early news coverage of his speech has been positive, polls appear show that what Americans most want from Mr Obama is a simple demonstration that he is not like Rev Wright.

That is not exactly what they got. But they did get something better: the offer of a more intimate relationship among the races, a less instrumental use of them by US politicians and a breaking of the monopoly on interracial dialogue that has until now been held by elite censors. Americans ought to take him up on it.

The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard

By Christopher Caldwell

Sunday, March 23, 2008

A Dream Defeated?

As an urban anthropologist who has spent the last ten years listening to African Americans talk directly and unflinchingly about racism, Wright’s fiery sermon, so critical of contemporary American politics and culture, didn’t seem all that anomalous to me—or anti-American. In many ways, Obama’s current controversy, the one that demanded a truly historical address to defuse, represents something similar to the brouhaha that erupted in 2002 when the Ice Cube film “Barbershop” caused such a stir by scripting the kinds of irreverent conversations that often define informal public discussions in the black community, conversations that are sometimes hyper-critical of black and white Americans alike. The film demonstrated that nothing is sacrosanct and beyond criticism in such contexts—not Martin Luther King, Jr., not Jesse Jackson, not Rosa Parks—no matter how much they might otherwise be cherished.

The real versions of those fictionalized “Barbershop” comments aren’t self-evident examples of racial self-hatred any more than Wright’s homily is an open-and-shut case of anti-patriotism. Instead, both instances provide examples of the complicated and refreshingly self-critical impulse of vernacular African American cultural criticism. Of course, this might not play as well “politically” as Mitt Romney’s head-scratching inability to come up with a single thing wrong with America, but it is decidedly more honest.

Of course, African Americans don’t corner the market on such tough-love self criticism, on the desire for honest public conversations. And they don’t want to be.

In my new book, Racial Paranoia, I argue that it is essential for Americans to strive for honest and open public discussions—especially around questions of race. Anything else just reinforces serious race-based skepticisms. While conducting ethnographic research in Harlem, New York, in the 1990s, I was always struck by how many African Americans expressed (somewhat playfully) a longing for old-fashioned Southern racism. At least, the argument went, racist white southerners traditionally let you know where you stood.

Up to this point, Obama has been trying to avoid any explicit invocation of race in this campaign, even as he gets subjected to ongoing efforts to reduce his candidacy to his racial identity—the definitional epitome of racism (Ferraro’s heart-felt protestations notwithstanding).

In many ways, Barack’s ability to continue listening to conversations that make him uncomfortable or even angry has always been his strength. Whether it’s an iconoclastic overturning of America’s boastful tables in an urban black sanctuary or the more intimate stings of a grandmotherly race-based paranoia, Obama seems to insist on not giving up on America—even at its worst. That isn’t the same thing as pretending not to see what’s wrong—or just accepting it.

Of course, none of this is to say that Obama’s speech will catapult him past the Republican spin-doctors who want to win an election. In fact, he might have to fall on his sword on this one, get us talking about an issue we don’t want to discuss (at least not in mixed company) in spite of the fact that it will cost him the Presidency, an ultimate political sacrifice.

This emphasis on Obama’s guilt-by-association has turned the election season into a referendum on the very possibility of a viable black presidency—ever. Indeed, if the powerful undercurrents of race drag Obama down, there probably hasn’t been a black person born in this country, man or woman, who could swim fast enough to get away. And given their segregated social networks, their self-critical and racially skeptical family members and friends, there probably never will be.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Paranoid Americana

Most African Americans saw this Barack Obama moment coming. They may never have lived in Chicago or heard of Jeremiah Wright before late February. They might not even have been all that excited by Obama as a candidate, but they'll tell you that they knew his candidacy was vulnerable from the start, fated to be sacrificed on the altar of America's racial history—and its contemporary manifestations. Such paranoia pervades American politics, a paranoia that isn’t just coming from Black America.

Right-leaning pundits’ responses to Obama and Wright’s relationship also put white racial suspicions and paranoia on full display. In fact, white Americans are just as paranoid about race as Blacks, only the details change. If Black people fear the utter inevitability of white racism rearing its ugly head (maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but at some point), whites tread lightly around questions of race, because they are afraid of eventually being labeled a ‘racist’. And Jeremiah Wright’s comments, they claim, just makes it all the more impossible for them to talk openly about any of this stuff—at least not with Black people, the ones defending Obama in the press or responding to Wright’s sermon with a chorus of Amens. Cynicism meets cynicism. Paranoia trumps paranoia. Check and mate.

Both sides are probably right. And that’s the real heart of the racial ‘stalemate’ that Obama invoked in his historic speech. But how should we respond to that fact, especially if we want to move the country forward in healthy and productive ways?

One thing that probably doesn’t work (even though it is usually the option of choice for most of us) is simply trying to prove to the other side that they are less profoundly right—or just plain wrong. Everyone is so dug-in and defensive that few people will really change sides—no matter how reasoned or heart-felt the other’s argument might be.

The only chance we have to resolve this impasse starts with an interrogation of our personal commitments, taking the time to forge personal relationships with people who reside on the other side of America’s racial tracks. That is what allows Tiger Woods to dismiss Golf Channel TV anchor Kelly Tilghman’s lynching comments about him. It explains Black comedian Paul Mooney’s ability to shrug off Michael Richards’ racist diatribe. They have personal relationship with these people, substantive inter-racial contact that mitigates the mutual estrangement and social distance that heightens our racial fears. Of course, such relationships shouldn’t just be one-way streets. They can’t only be about Blacks letting whites off the hook for insensitive jokes. But people can better work through those moments when they have built social connections that are solid and real.

Many Americans live the most intimate parts of their everyday lives—at home with family, relaxing alongside close friends, and attending their houses of worship—in racially segregated worlds. We are polite in mixed company, but we don’t necessarily build robust relationships across racial lines. And that too, I’d argue, is about a kind of racial paranoia, fear of what might happen–to us and them—if we tried, if our commitment to colleagues and acquaintances of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds went beyond just a nervous smile and a purposefully innocuous conversation about the NBA season, if it entailed more than just a passing discussion on a street corner somewhere about the new department store that opened up downtown.

Of course, we might get rebuffed. Or we might do something initially that seems to miss its mark. Probably. But if we push through those initial missteps, if we are committed to fixing our collective racial problem by opening up our most precious social networks, we’ll keep going forward. If we do, we’ll find that people who really know us, who really care about us, who think of us as more than a just a recognizable face on the way to the bank or the employee cafeteria, are usually more than willing to forgive an unintended faux pas. The key, however, is to cultivate real bonds across social difference—strong ties, not weak ones.

This isn’t a smoking gun for all of America’s social problems, but it is one important first step. And it could move the dialogue beyond accusation and counter-accusation, toward real intimate conversations that have long-lasting impact—personally and politically. If nothing else, we’ll be able to take America’s collective racial paranoia and knock it down a peg or two.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Racial Paranoia is in bookstores EARLY...

...and good thing. Obama's race speech yesterday is a kind of cheat-sheet for some of the book's central arguments.

It is uncanny how much he hints at the unprecedentedly complicated equation of race and skepticism that Racial Paranoia describes. If I didn't think certain spin-doctors could jump on it, I'd make a joke about the possibility that Obama might have read an advance copy of the book and cribbed some of its points.

All jokes aside though, the speech is a great opening for the discussion about race-based cynicism/skepticism that needs to be addressed--not just dismissed and wished-away. I just hope folks interested in the Obama issue get a chance to read the book and think about its implications.

Over the last few days I've been (mostly) trying to avoid queries about the Wright-Obama flap. I'm probably going to work on a short op-ed that lays out my position--and that might explain just how the book helps to decipher some of Obama's historic speech. I'll let you know if anyone picks that up.

Of course, since Clinton and Obama are both in Philadelphia, things are hectic here. I was in Ohio a few weeks ago (when Bill Clinton gave a talk at the University of Pennsylvania), but I won't have any major trips between now and the Pennsylvania primary.

As an urban anthropologist interested in the connections between electoral and cultural politics, this is an important place to be for the next few weeks. I even changed my party affiliation (from Independent to Democratic) this past weekend, just to ratchet up (and personalize) my investment.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Just back from Ohio...

I gave a talk at Miam-Ohio University this past Thursday. The title, "What Dave Chappelle can teach Michael Richards about American history," comes out of the first chapter of Racial Paranoia. Anthropologist Melissa Hargrove, who is writing a book based on her ethnographic research among the Gullah community, engineered the visit, and her students were amazing--at points, even inspiring. Several departments helped to make the trip happen, but their Center for American and World Cultures, run by Mary Jane Berman, another anthropologist, went out of its way to make my trip memorable. Thanks.

While I was in Ohio, I got a chance to catch some of the TV ads currently on offer from the two democratic candidates. They were running at something like a 6 to 1 clip (in Obama's favor), at least on the stations that I happened to be watching. Who'd have thought that so many of us would be following all four quarters of this political contest, just about from the opening tip, and not just the last two minutes of the game in late October and early November. Is this just another version of our current Reality TV fixation?

Since political scientist Melissa Harris-Lacewell is so convincing (and one of the most sophisticated analysts around on this stuff), I find myself inching, ever so slowly, to the Obama camp. If nothing else, the Kool Aid probably has more sugar than the versions pouring out of McCain's or Clinton's political pitchers.

On another note, folks have been asking me to explain the entire anthroman thing, doll and all. I'll get on that in a bit...I promise.