Friday, September 18, 2009

Either/Or Racial Analysis

On the train ride back from Washington to Philadelphia this morning, after catching the U.S. premiere of filmmaker Haile Gerima's new feature film, Teza, I read the David Brooks NYTs op-ed, "No, It's Not About Race." Brooks does a compelling job historically contextualizing the "populist backlash" against Obama's policies. The partisan media, on the Left and Right, is making racism the story, Brooks says, but the real causal truth lies elsewhere.

"[Obama] has fused federal power with Wall Street, the auto industry, the health-care industries, and the energy sector," Brooks writes, and there is a long history of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian resistance to "the fat cats and the educated class; for the small towns and against the financial centers." All this, coupled with the fact that the tea-party demonstrators mingled peacefully on September 12th with thousands of African Americans out that same day for a Black Family Reunion Celebration, gives Brooks confidence that racism has nothing to do with the anti-Obama protests, even at their most hostile and high-pitched (seemingly secessionist) levels.

I have already tried to argue, in my recent book on "racial paranoia" in contemporary America, for the substantive difference between, say, purchasing a hot dog on the street from someone of a different race, having an innocently fleeting conversation with a racial stranger, and forming substantive ties across racial lines. The former is the problem when it is not reinforced by the latter. Did members of these two groups (the Tea Partyers and the Black Family Reunioners), as a function of the happenstance of their unrelated public events, exchange phone numbers and start lasting relationships? Or did they simply perform the self-conscious dance of anxious racial politeness that our post civil-rights assumptions about public civility demand, especially across racial lines?

Indeed, I also want to push back a bit against this zero-sum-game kind of public analysis about race and racism, this all-or-nothing rhetoric that says either racism is the definitive cause of something (a smoking gun still hot to the touch and smelling of ash) or completely irrelevant, relegating anything more nuanced and realistic to the dustbin reserved for the politically useless: what can't be dismissed or demagogued in a single sound bite.

In some ways, Haile Gerima might offer a more compelling take on the issue than Brooks. Gerima's new film, Teza, is a powerful epic tale of an Ethiopian medical scientist and would-be revolutionary who returns from Germany, where he did his studies, to find an Ethiopia torn asunder by the socialist dogma that he once espoused. Gerima's most ambitious and powerful film to date, Teza is also a story about what do with race/racism as a factor in social life.

Without giving too much of the film away, Gerima decides on a both/and model. Just when you think that he's offering a view of Ethiopian politics that pivots exclusively on ostensibly nonracial ideological concerns, he tries to remind us that racism is always there, less a smoking gun than a smoldering fire that continues to burn, slowly and faintly, even after we think we've stamped it out. And if not carefully minded and fully doused, Gerima claims, it can always find a way to burst itself back into flame.


Conseula said...

Great post--this reminds, in some respects, of the discussion today in my Intro to African American lit class. We've been doing New Negro texts and were discussing today Hughes' "Theme for English B" and Hurston's "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." I was trying to get students to grasp the, I think, really nuanced ways both authors are talking about difference, the ways they were both attempting articulate "difference" as something defining *and* inconsequential at the exact same time. My students are having some difficulty with the idea because what they want to know is did Hughes (or Hurston) argue for color-blindness or not. It's definitely an either/or proposition for them.

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