Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Logic of Racial Expectations: Skip Gates and the Cambridge Police

The folks I follow on Twitter (yeah, I’m still experimenting with that seemingly useless social networking tool) have been raging over the past day and a half about Skip Gates’s recent altercation with the Cambridge Police Department, an altercation that began in his own home, spilled out onto his front porch, and eventually landed the iconic Harvard professor in jail.

I’m hunkered down at home right now trying to finish a short “afterword” for the paperback edition of my most recent book, Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness, but I just wanted to take a quick break to weigh-in on the entire affair.

At this point, I’m sure that most interested parties have gotten the details: the phoned-in tip about two Black men apparently breaking into a Cambridge home, the cop who arrives to confront Gates, already safely in his living room despite a jammed front door, and then Gates allegedly lighting into said officer, chalking the indignity of being asked for ID in his own home up to the logic of racialized expectations, an officer being suspicious for no good reason. Because “I’m a black man in America’‘ is how Gates supposedly put it. Of course, the cop would probably maintain that race had nothing to do with it.

Two quick ironies before I get back to work.

First, the book for which I’m currently writing that aforementioned “afterword” tries to explain just how such a scenario could have gone down in the first place. It attempts to connect dots between Gatesian accusations (of race-thinking) and a cop’s defense (of colorblindness and racial neutrality).

The Gates exchange isn’t really all that very different (in some ways) from the cases I highlight in my book (for instance, comedian Dave Chappelle walking out on his successful TV show or Cynthia McKinney accusing a DC officer of cloaked racial bias).

So, I’m currently working on the paperback edition of a book that is an extended riff on just how such a blow-up between Gates and the officer could have happened in the first place. And I try to explain why Gates could have been angry enough to scream at the officer (as the police report claims) instead of just shrugging it off and going on about his business (or even being thankful to the cop for checking on his place). Gates’s response isn’t crazy or irrational. It is a direct byproduct of America’s relatively recent racial successes.

The second irony: Gates was generous enough to write a blurb for the dust-jacket of the hardcover version of Racial Paranoia, which only makes me feel that much more invested in getting the word out about its argument.
Readers don’t have to agree with my conclusions, but I do believe that my claims provide some useful terms for any potentially productive conversation about the reconfigured realities of race in a supposedly post-racial world.

As an aside, I remember my first day up in Cambridge, MA. Almost a decade ago now. I had defended my dissertation the morning before, rented a U-haul, and drove myself (along with all my earthly belongings) some four hours north from Harlem, New York, to Everett Street, just across from Harvard Law School. I was about to spend my next three years in Cambridge on a postdoctoral fellowship. But the truck had only been parked in front of the building for a couple of hours on moving day when a well-meaning pedestrian bounded up to it, a red-headed white woman in her twenties, and asked me how much I charged to move people. (She actually walked right past the person helping me, a friend of mine who happened to be white, and asked me her query. My assumption was that she thought he was moving in and that I was the hired help. Of course, that might not have been the case at all. But such ambiguities, I argue in the book, have very real existential value in questions about race in a politically corrected world. Looking for the iron-clad ground of certainty in contemporary discussions about race/racism sometimes means setting yourself up for failure.) I told the woman that I was moving myself into my own apartment and that I wasn’t actually a professional mover. She apologized and headed up the street, but a logic of racial expectations, similar to the one Gates negotiated yesterday, had probably overdetermined that little Cambridge exchange, too. (And, as my potential critics would add, from both sides.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Pat Buchanan's America and Sotomayor

I've been watching the Sotomayor confirmation hearings pretty faithfully since Monday, and one thing jumps out about the entire affair. Obama might get his nominee confirmed, but the Republicans soundly won the week anyway.

Conceding their relative powerlessness to stop the Sotomayor train from eventually reaching its final destination (the chambers of the Supreme Court), they turned the hearings into a very dramatic lesson on "the perils of reserve racism." On the white man's newest burden: being victim par excellence of a newfangled American racism.

Their sessions with the nominee were less about Sotomayor's judicial record or her professional readiness for the highest court in the land and more of a public referendum on Affirmative Action and the logic of racial rhetoric today. And the Senators did a masterful job pummeling Affirmative Action at every single turn.

Not only did two of the firefighters take part in the closing act (Ricci and Vargas), sincerely voicing their anger and frustration at the 2nd Circuit's Summary Judgement on their case, which they read as dismissive and indifferent, the Republican Senators spent the bulk of their time lecturing Sotomayor on why there shouldn't be any governmental recognition of race at all--or questioning the nominee about whether or not there should be double-standards (one, say, for Latinas and African Americans and another for working class Whites) in discussions about race and racism in America.

Her now-infamous invocations of that "wise Latina woman" took center stage all week. And they asked her the same questions obsessively. What did she mean by that comparison? How could she have said it in the first place? Does that explain her response to Ricci? Why did she think she could/should get away with that when none of the White men questioning her could have invoked their racial masculinity in the same way without being tarred and feathered?

They completely controlled the terms of that discussion.

It has already started to go viral, but in case you missed it, Pat Buchanan was on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show last night, and he almost seemed to be caricaturing the Senators' position, providing a less cloaked rendition of what detractors understood the Senators to be doing all week: defending the White working class against undeserving Affirmative Action babies. (The YouTube clip is above. Please take 10 minutes and watch the entire thing.)

Buchanan argues that White people built America (without help from anyone else) and that that explains why over 99% of the Supreme Court judges in this country's history have been white. Whites, he proclaims, were the only ones who died at Gettysburg or signed the Declaration of Independence. To invoke racism as an explanation for their dominance on the Court, he declares, is as ridiculous as arguing that black athletes only dominate America's olympic track team because of discrimination against White runners.

In many ways, the Republican Senators who questioned Sotomayor seemed to be implying something similar in their attacks on Affirmative Action and the logic of New Haven's attempt to determine why no Black firefighters passed the test for promotion. Those Black firefighters just didn't study hard enough, the senators believe. And they might be right. But where was even the gentlest Democratic push back against the wholesale lack of curiosity or conversation about the Black firefighters' collective failure? Maybe a Wise Latina Senator would have pointed out that palpable silence.

Crossposted at The Chronicle of Higher Education's Brainstorm Blog

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Pailin Calls it Quits

It is one thing not to seek re-election, but why would Palin resign? And before her first term is even done?

I have to admit, most of the answers I've heard to that straightforward question don't sound particularly compelling, not even her own, the one she offered up at her press conference last week.

So, why did she call it quits?

It is ostensibly not because of any soon-to-be-announced federal indictment, contrary to what some news outlets had been speculating.

And if she wanted to end the media feeding frenzy on her personal life, making such a move seems like the exact opposite of what she needed. Finishing the term without incident and riding off into the Alaskan night would probably have been more effective.

Of course, there is also all this talk about her need to cut loose of Alaska altogether so that she can run free (and raise her profile) in the lower 48s. But again, why the urgency? She'll still be in demand in a couple of years, especially with a successful (even if it were just a successfully uneventful) stint as governor under her belt.

Could she really be contemplating a 2012 presidential bid? I find that the least plausible guess of all. She got mauled in 2008. So, why would she come back for more?

There is also all this talk of her doing a Huckabee and getting some kind of television show on FOX or something. Again, FOX isn't going anywhere. She could have waited, and probably even raised her asking price in the meantime. So, what gives?

If she was doing this to save Alaska money (to the tune of $2,000,000 for the paperwork that it had/has to produce as a function of investigations into her conduct), it seems that she could have made that a clearer talking point in the news conference.

But that also doesn't sound quite right. Has anyone heard an explanation that seems more plausible than these? What is Palin thinking? And will it work in the end?

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Khadijah White on The First Lady's Sacrifices

"When Men Should Learn from Michelle"
by Khadijah White

She’s the perfect woman, right? Tall, good-looking, well-educated, stylish and endlessly devoted to her family. Michelle Obama is The Cosby Show's Clair Huxtable personified.

Especially important to the public’s obsession with Michelle Obama is her relationship with husband Barack. Between the couple’s affectionate photos on the cover of various magazines and the love story that warmed our hearts on the campaign trail, it’s hard to avoid getting wrapped up in the bigger-than-life fantasy of idealized Black coupledom that the Obama union seems to represent. But while people are falling all over themselves to tell Black women how to land a man like Barack, I rarely hear anyone talk about what Michelle had to give up to be with a man like Barack. What would make her eventually tell her highly coveted husband, "You only think of yourself... I never thought I’d have to raise a family alone"? For all the single men looking for their own Michelle, the answer to that question might help reduce any of their Barack-sized expectations.

Michelle was working for a law firm in Chicago when her future partner arrived as a summer intern. Barack often talks about how hard it was to get Michelle out on a first date. No surprise there. She was a young, Black female lawyer in a corporate firm, and a colleague that she had been assigned to mentor was pursuing her as a romantic interest. But we know how that story ends. At some point, Michelle accompanied Barack to a community organization meeting and quickly fell in love.

Soon after they started dating, Barack went into a superior’s office and announced he was going—and taking Michelle with him. Despite the pay cut, her move to work in the public sector would be extremely helpful in establishing important political networks for Barack’s career. His continued influence upon her professional life became clear when Michelle subsequently applied for a position in the mayor’s office. Before accepting the offer, she had to get her fiancee’s approval and set up a face-to-face meeting for Barack and her prospective employer. With his consent, Michelle began her new post.

Once Malia and Sasha arrived on the scene, the Obama marriage was in a tense state. By this point in time, Barack was a State Senator and spent three days a week away from home much of the year. Michelle was both the primary breadwinner and caretaker in the Obama family. She was exhausted, and angry and resentful towards her career-driven husband who, in return, thought of her as "cold and ungrateful." It was Michelle who dressed, fed, bathed, chauffeured, and read to Sasha and Malia every morning and night, even while serving as an extremely successful director of a nationally recognized community service group during the hours in between. Somehow, she had become both a married woman and a single parent at the same time. "What I notice about men, all men," Michelle would later tell a reporter, "is that their order is me, my family, God is in there somewhere, but me is first….And for women, me is fourth, and that’s not healthy."

On inauguration night, Michelle dressed up like a Princess and danced with her husband to Beyonce’s melodic rendition of “At Last” at the inaugural ball. And, in a way, Michelle had become a fairytale princess in a manner that mirrors the most paternalistic aspects of Disney's tradition. She had met a man, left her job, moved into his castle, transformed herself into a beauty icon and began an unpaid gig as a White House debutante and spouse premier.

"Michelle and Barack" may be an ideal in some ways, but let’s be truthful about what sacrifices she has (and he hasn’t) made along the way. Black women, no matter the education or accomplishment, are still shouldering way too much of the responsibility in the Black family. In recognizing Michelle's sacrifices and struggles, Black men should consider very carefully what it means to be a life partner, in every sense of the word.

White is a PhD student and Fontaine Scholar in the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Previously, she worked as an Associate Producer at NOW on PBS.