A “post-racial” America?

July 27, 2009

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor looks at what the arrest of African American scholar Henry Louis Gates--and the resulting uproar when he dared to protest that he was a victim of racial profiling--says about racism in the era of Barack Obama.

OF ALL the Black people in America they could arrest to put the lie, once and for all, to the absurd notion that the United States has conquered the "race question," the Cambridge, Mass., police force made a revealing choice.

Harvard professor and African American intellectual luminary Henry Louis Gates was busted for being BWAH--Black While At Home. Or was it BWOBD--Black While Opening Your Back Door?

Whichever, it only confirmed what most African Americans already knew--that whether or not Barack Obama is president, racism is alive and well in the U.S.

But the U.S. political establishment, from right to left, only exposed its ignorance about the question of race in the Obama era.

As soon as news of Gates' arrest emerged--he was cuffed and led away by officers who responded to a neighbor's call that "two Black men with backpacks" were trying to get in the back door of Gates' home, and was arrested inside, after he had shown ID to the cops--cable TV commentators jumped to the defense of police, suggesting that the already world-famous Gates was only speaking out about being racially profiled to get publicity.

A photo, taken by a neighbor, of Black scholar Henry Louis Gates led out of his own home in handcuffs
A photo, taken by a neighbor, of Black scholar Henry Louis Gates led out of his own home in handcuffs

The uproar hit top volume after Obama replied to a question about the arrest at a press conference. Obama was roundly denounced, not only by conservatives but liberals, for giving his opinion--the most "controversial" point of which was to say that racial profiling by law enforcement is an established fact--without "knowing the full story."

The pressure was too much for the president of the United States. Obama backed down and apologized personally to the Cambridge officer who arrested Gates.

THE HIGH-profile harassment and arrest of Gates is significant for two reasons. One, if an Ivy League superstar like Gates, who has access to both Obama and Oprah, can be arrested in his house for essentially being "uppity" and talking back, then what on earth happens to the average Black man on the street who has the nerve to question the cops' right to arrest him? We had some clue already about the answer to that question given the 1 million African Americans who currently call prison home.

Second, the Gates case also brings racism back into the spotlight of U.S. society. Formal politics in the U.S. regularly denies the existence of racism. And when racism can't be denied--for example, in the unemployment statistics showing an unemployment rate of 15 percent for African Americans--Blacks and Latinos are rendered invisible; despite the havoc in the lives of African Americans by the recession, there has been very little discussion about this particular impact of the crisis.

Yet the uproar around the case shows how polarized discussions about race in the U.S. still become.

At his press conference, Obama responded to the Gates case as an African American man who has surely felt anger and humiliation at being wrongfully stopped and questioned, or at least suspected of some wrongdoing, for no other reason than being a Black man in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Uncharacteristically for a politician who has avoided the issue of race, Obama intervened, pointing out the long history of racial profiling by police. He even joked that if he had been mistaken for breaking into the White House, he would have been shot. And he said the Cambridge police acted "stupidly."

Protests of the president's words erupted immediately, from the right and from Obama's liberal supporters.

For its part, the Fraternal Order of Police demanded an apology from Obama for referring to the arresting officers as stupid. Conservatives correctly sense that Obama is loath to enter into any discussion about race that doesn't involve a public admonition of the Black poor, so they attacked--calculating correctly that Obama, in a moment of sheer gutlessness, would back down and concede that maybe "Gates overreacted."

Obama tried to laugh it all away by inviting both parties to the White House for beers. But that doesn't wipe away the wider point: Frank discussions about racism have become so anathema in American politics that even in the most obvious case in the world--a well-off and universally respected Black man arrested in his own home because he talked back to a white cop--racism is still denied.

The Gates case underscores the vast difference in the understanding of race and racism today versus four decades ago on the heels of the Black liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Then, even the federal government acknowledged, in the famous 1968 Kerner Commission report:

Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white--separate and unequal. Segregation and poverty have created...a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.

What white Americans have never fully understood--but what the Negro can never forget--is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain, and white society condones it. Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it.

One could see for a brief second the impact that Obama could have on racial discourse in the few hours when he actually defended Gates. Newspapers across the country took up the issue of racial profiling, interviewing African Americans to see if this was, in fact, a common experience.

Imagine the impact if Obama spoke out emphatically against racism in other aspects of U.S. society. Unfortunately, all too often, Obama and others in the Black elite, along with liberals in the Democratic Party, avoid discussing race and racism, even when it is evident and obvious.

OTHER EVENTS of the last month highlight the point--most of all, the bizarre circus surrounding the confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor, and the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the claim of white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., that they were victims of "reverse racism," a perverse concept if there ever was one.

Sotomayor is attempting to become the first Latina, the third woman and only the third non-white person ever to serve as a justice on the Supreme Court. Given the changing demographics of the U.S., with a growing number of Latinos and people of color threatening to overcome the numerical white majority within a generation--the notion of having a Latina on the Supreme Court should be common sense.

Instead, the hearings were a spectacle of racist caricature, character assassination and absurd theatrics staged by a coterie of neo-Confederate white politicians chastising Sotomayor for letting race to color her world view and perspective.

Even before the hearings, Sotomayor was called a racist by Republican Neanderthal Newt Gingrich--because she had the audacity to comment that as a Latina, she might have more insight into some cases because of her ethnic and class background. For Gingrich and the rest of the Republican creep show, this was the smoking gun needed to prove that Sotomayor a racist and some kind of "Latina nationalist."

That Gingrich would refer to anyone as a racist is baffling. This is coming from a man who, in a screed against bilingualism in U.S. society, described Spanish as "the language of the ghetto."

The Republican opposition at the confirmation hearings was led by a white supremacist sympathizer, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Sessions knows a thing or two about the confirmation process for federal judges--since his bid for a seat on the federal bench was nixed in the early 1980s when word got out that Sessions was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan, and had claimed that the NAACP and ACLU were "anti-American" and "Communist-inspired."

But it wasn't just Gingrich and the other white men from the Republican Party who were the problem. There was also the backtracking and hedging by the Obama administration that had nominated Sotomayor in the first place--accepting that somehow she had made a mistake when she said:

I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.

She also unremarkably said:

[O]ne must accept the proposition that a difference there will be by the presence of women and people of color on the bench. Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see. My hope is that I will take the good from my experiences and extrapolate them further into areas with which I am unfamiliar. I simply do not know exactly what that difference will be in my judging. But I accept there will be some based on my gender and my Latina heritage.

Republican hypocrites like Gingrich and Sessions deny that race should play any role in the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court--and they use Sotomayor's innocuous statements to accuse her of being the race-conscious one.

That willfully ignores the long and sordid history of the U.S. Supreme Court as the institution in American society that has done probably more than any other to promote slavery, racism and discrimination, from its inception as the preserve of Southern slave owners to its present day attack on affirmative action.

But beyond the ignorance of the Republican right, it can't be forgotten that the Obama administration made no public defense of Sotomayor's right to see race as a lens through which to empathetically view the facts in a given case. Instead of defending her comments, White House officials said Sotomayor used poor judgment in making them, and backed away--which had the effect of throwing blood into the water as the Republicans worked themselves into a frenzy.

THE DEFENSIVE posture adopted by the Democrats underscores their continued reluctance to affirm that racism is a defining characteristic in American society--even while the Black president of the United States acknowledges this to be the case. As Obama said in his heralded speech to the NAACP on its 100th anniversary:

[W]e also know that prejudice and discrimination--at least the most blatant types of prejudice and discrimination--are not even the steepest barriers to opportunity today. The most difficult barriers include structural inequalities that our nation's legacy of discrimination has left behind; inequalities still plaguing too many communities and too often the object of national neglect.

This is certainly an improvement over many other public speeches by Obama that tended to focus exclusively on issues of personal responsibility, and have all too often sounded like he was blaming poor Black people for being poor.

But despite this recognition that structural inequality continue to "plague" Black and Latino communities, the White House had no real comment on the U.S. Supreme Court's most recent attack on affirmative action.

The decision in the case Ricci v. DeStefano could have far-reaching implications for affirmative action. As Leela Yellesetty wrote at SocialistWorker.org:

The Ricci case revolves around the New Haven, Conn., Fire Department, which decided in 2003 to base promotions primarily on written exams. Of the 41 applicants who took the captain exam, eight were Black; of the 77 who took the lieutenant exam, 19 were Black. None of the African American candidates scored high enough to be promoted. For both positions, only two of 29 Hispanics qualified for promotion.

As the city attorney pointed out, promoting white firefighters based on these results would almost certainly incur a lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits workplace discrimination. Minority candidates in similar situations have successfully sued on the basis that a test that has a disparate impact on a particular racial group must be specifically job-related in order to be legal.

Fearing just such a legal challenge, the city of New Haven decided to drop the exam results entirely. Instead it was hit with a lawsuit by white firefighters claiming that they were being discriminated against because they weren't promoted on the basis of the test.

The absence of any real defense of affirmative action by the Obama administration in this important case because of the fear that his presidency will become caught up in racial "wedge issues" has given a free pass to the right wing of the Republican Party to attack, with little fear of a high-profile response from a Black president--currently, the most famous beneficiary of affirmative action policies of the past.

But this reluctance to debate and argue about race isn't new with the Obama administration. The same unwillingness has marked the Democratic Party since the heyday of domestic liberalism that climaxed with Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs of the 1960s.

AS THE Black struggles against racism in the 1960s and '70s went into retreat, the right successfully changed the terms of debate by invoking the idea that the U.S. had transitioned into a nation of "colorblindness." Conservatives claimed that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s removed the remaining barriers to Black success in the U.S. If Blacks could not succeed, then it was their own fault.

Ronald Reagan championed this mantra and then proceeded to dismantle the social programs created in the late '60s--gutting them in the midst of a vicious recession that saw official Black unemployment reach as high as 20 percent. The growing ranks of the Black poor and unemployed were blamed on a "culture of poverty" endemic to the Black population alone.

In the new age of "colorblindness," outright racism would not do. So a new lexicon of coded speech emerged to refer to issues of race. From the talk of a "culture of poverty" to "welfare queen" to the need for a "war on drugs," African Americans were the real targets.

The attack didn't just come from the right. Liberals and the Democratic Party were just as instrumental in perpetuating the notion that racism was no longer the problem--or, as they like to put it, the "only" problem--but personal responsibility, or lack thereof, was, too.

Bill Clinton's administration that drove this point home by deliberately ostracizing the African American base of the Democratic Party. Three "high points" of Clinton's 1992 campaign were his public rebuke of Jesse Jackson, his promise to "end welfare as we know it," and his trip back to Arkansas in the midst of a heated campaign to oversee the execution of a Black man whose mental retardation was such that on the night of his execution, he saved the dessert from his last meal to have later.

Open displays of racism were no longer tolerated, and in fact, were frowned upon. But the race-baiting of African Americans increased with the focus on personal responsibility under the Clinton administration. And among those condemning the Black poor were other African Americans.

Throughout the 1980s, while most African Americans were working harder for less, a growing class chasm developed in Black communities as a small but significant layer of elite Blacks gained new levels of wealth and prominence--and increasingly turned on their less fortunate brothers and sisters to point the finger.

Whether it was the ascendance of Black mayors and political figures put in the position of managing austere urban budgets on the backs of their Black supporters, or a growing group of Black academics who turned the study of African American poverty into a cottage industry, the divisions between the Black haves and the Black have-nots widened and sharpened.

The most obvious example of this phenomenon was comedian Bill Cosby, who made a new name for himself accusing poor Blacks of betraying the Black community, and blaming them for their own poverty. But while Cosby was the most visible antagonist among the burgeoning Black bourgeoisie, many Black political figures, from liberals to conservatives, accepted and perpetuated the arguments that African Americans who had not "made it" had themselves to blame in some form or another.

Today, the quintessential example of this twisted logic is, in fact, Barack Obama. Obama recently complained to the Washington Post that the media always focus on the calls for personal responsibility in his speeches, and not his calls for government accountability as well. Maybe if Obama wasn't always chastising poor African Americans for everything from dropping out of school, to serving their kids fried chicken for breakfast, to being boys and not men, the media wouldn't have so many opportunities to quote him.

Obama has also--in his most recent speech to the NAACP and his campaign speech on race in Philadelphia in 2008--invoked a history of racial violence and structural racism to explain the disparities between African Americans and whites.

But the problem is that he and others of the Black elite regularly disconnect the structural reality of racism from the contemporary social crisis that consumes Black communities. It's not good enough to say that schools in African American communities do poorly because they are overcrowded and underfunded--and then in the next breath say that's that's no reason to drop out of school or get bad grades. That makes no sense because it disconnects the causes from the inevitable result.

And when you're the most powerful political figure in the Western world, it does nothing to acknowledge the poor state of public education, housing, jobs and health care, all while chastising the victims of these circumstances to try harder and do better, despite the conditions that make this impossible.

Rather, this logic helps to further the idea that poverty is the result of lifestyle choices. Whatever intentions Obama or any other Black elite may have, the continued reliance on this twisted logic further diminishes the discussion about the institutional racism that keeps Blacks and Latinos trapped in poverty, bad schools, debt, poor health, prison and the criminal justice system, and all the rest of it.

Obama and a section of his generation of African Americans, who reaped the benefits of civil rights legislation and affirmative action, believe that they are living proof that American capitalism can work for all people, including Blacks.

But the current 15 percent of African Americans who are unemployed (according to understated official statistics), the millions of Blacks who lost their homes because they were targeted by predatory mortgage lenders for subprime loans, the millions of African Americans who are without health insurance, the 1 million Black men and women whose lives are wasted in prison, the millions of young Black men and women who are disproportionately contracting the AIDS virus tell a different story. They highlight the degree to which capitalism is still a system in which the racially oppressed suffer more, and live in worse conditions.

THE ONE-sided and defensive discussion about American racism over the last 30 years has obscured these facts. A more honest look at reality shows the need for more affirmative action, not less. It shows the need for more welfare, more health care programs, child care, food stamps, rent assistance and community clinics--and in Black neighborhoods in particular, because we are the ones bearing the brunt of this economic depression.

The plight of Black Americans has nothing to do with personal responsibility. That is an obscene statement coming out of a system that allowed Wall Street bankers to crash the economy, continued to pay the banks trillions, and still sits idly by while these crooks collect bonuses and make record profits.

More than anyone else, African Americans know the impact of crime, failing schools and low-wage jobs, because their communities are hardest hit by these realities--not the political figures who use these situations as background material for photo opportunities.

We need less rhetoric and exhortation about what the poor and the working poor in African American communities should be doing despite their poverty--and more in the way of real programs and funding that would actually do something about the conditions that create the social catastrophe engulfing Black communities.

We need less fingerpointing at the victims of American capitalism--and more accountability from the institutions and political figures that helped cause the crisis in the first place.

But what we need most won't be found inside the Washington, D.C., beltway. We need more than ever a new anti-racist movement that understands the history of Black oppression in the United States--from slavery, to legal segregation, to the emergence of the prison-industrial complex, and more.

That movement needs to fight today for more programs to stem the impact of the crisis in our communities. But also needs to link the persistence of racism and discrimination against non-white people in America to the system of capitalism itself--and that system's need for the oppression of many to ensure the profits of the few.

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