Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A portrait of hypocrisy in black and white.

Apologies in advance to those who sometimes chide me for straying too far from my self-help roots, but I must say I've about had it with this whole "race thing," awakened anew by quotes attributed to Senate majority leader Harry Reid in this season's blockbuster political tell-all, Game Change. If you haven't yet heard (and frankly I don't know how you would've avoided hearing), Reid was caught in an unguarded moment during Campaign 2008 musing about Barack Obama's electability; he characterized the future president as a "light-skinned" black man with "no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one." The senator admits the remarks and has apologized for them. Obama says he accepts Reid's apology for the observations, which the president dismisses as "inartful" but "not mean-spirited." Also in recent days we have defrocked Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, otherwise known as The Walking Gaffe Machine, drawing fire for claiming that he's "blacker" than Obama. That was Blago's inartful way of alleging that he faced many circumstances growing up that were more financially and socially challenging than what Obama himself faced.

For my part, I think it's time to do one of two things. Either forge
t about race as a conceptfrom this day forward, as I've argued before, there is no such thingor apply the concept and everything it entails in an unflinching, no-holds barred manner. Pick one approach. Or pick the other. But this nonsense of trying to do bothinvoking race when it's advantageous or politically correct to do so but acting as if race doesn't or shouldn't matter at other timesjust isn't getting it done.

Let's examine the Harry Reid remarks for their accuracy, shall we? So: Is Barack Obama light-skinned, or not? I think he is light-skinned. Is he a Negro*? Actually, no, he is not. He is mixed-race, half-white (which, co
me to think of it, may account for the light skin). And let's not forget that this whole discussion took place in the context of electability; Reid was not in any way passing judgment on Obama or speaking of him in a patronizing manner. He was simply commenting on political realities, on whether America was "ready" for a black president and, in that regard, whether Obama might make a more viable candidate than someone who looks like Sonny Liston (shown) and/or speaks like Flavor Flave.

Secondly, are we really supposed
to pretend that there's no such thing as "a black dialect"? If so, then somebody better tell, among other people, Will Smith; the (black) actor has long crusaded for young blacks to drop the familiar "ghetto-speak" and learn how to converse in proper English. Bill Cosby has done likewise. Somebody better also tell black filmmakers like John Singleton, Spike Lee and Tyler Perry; the main characters in their films almost universally speak in the down-home fashion that Reid no doubt had in mind when he made his offhand remarks. (In fact, if and when a character appears in such movies who sounds like Obama, he's usually being played for laughs.) Is anyone going to proposewith a straight facethat you can't generally tell when you're talking to a black person on the phone (just as, I suppose, black people can't tell when they're talking to a white person)? As for the "unless he wants to" part, look, I supported and voted for the guy, but anyone who says that Obama didn't fall into certain cultural cadences when in front of a black audience that were somewhat different from those he employed in talking to white audiences is living on another planet. Hate to tell you, folks, but I think I would know from his voice that Barack Obama himself is black, had I never seen him. Hell, I could make a phone call right now to at least three of New York's five boroughs and probably tell you, with 96% accuracy, whether the person on the other end of the line is Italian!

Incidentally, the attempt to legitimize stereotypically black speech patterns (thereby, in part, enabling black kids to speak and write in a familiar way without being penalized for it in school) was the whole rationale behind the Ebonics movement, was it not? So why all the fuss when Harry Reid says it?

Then we have Blago spewing mea culpas for his remark about being "blacker" than Obama. Was it really so long ago that iconic (black) novelist Toni Morrison, writing in The New Yorker, dubbed Bill Clinton the "first black president" in tribute to his humble beginnings, empathy for the poor and overall appeal to black America? Besides, are we somehow implying that no white man could ever have it as "black" in life as a black man? I suggest that anyone who feels that way take a little drive into Appalachia, or certain ultra-rural precincts of Mississippi where, believe it or not, some very, very poor people live who actually happen to be white.

Finally, on last night's Larry King Show (guest-hosted by Soledad O'Brien), several black commentators lamented the fact that you see black commentators on TV only when issues like this come up. We'll know we've made true progress, they argued as one, when we also see black commentators called on to analyze healthcare policy, and defense, and ecological issues, etc. I agree that this situation exists...but excuse me for asking, Whose fault is that? You can't entirely hang this one on White America. For two generations now, black activists and social critics have been single-issue voices who ostensibly cared only about securing additional social benefits for blacks and minorities. These leaders and role models, for the most part, have defined themselves by race. Even today, when was the last time you heard Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton call a press conference to issue a strong statement that didn't have specific reference to the so-called black experience?

In our collective pursuit of the promised land of true equality, it would help mightily if black commentators begin to see themselves as more well-rounded people, and stopped evaluating every issue based on one criterion: how it affects blacks.

* I grant you, the word is archaic and has connotations that some may find off-putting. I don't think that's the point.


Jenny said...

Hi, Steve. Me again! A frequent SHAMblog reader. I like it when you talk about race because it is, as you say, one of those things we ought to either "forget about ... as a concept—from this day forward, ... or apply the concept and everything it entails in an unflinching, no-holds barred manner." I could say many things, but most of them come down to the fact that I love how multiculturalism plays out, in general, and also specifically, personally.

I filled out a form recently, an application to take a state licensing test, and was asked to check off my "ethnic origin." The choices given were: African American, Native American, Asian American, Caucasian, Hispanic, Multicultural, and Other. I cringed as I checked Caucasian and wondered whether I should have instead checked Multicultural, or even Other (just because). I told my almost 19-year-old daughter of mixed ethnicity (her father is Arab American and I am, well, ... more on that later) my thought process about the application and she said Caucasian is accurate and that, in her opinion, I had filled out the form correctly.

But still, my opinion is that if more "Caucasian" people would start checking off the Multicultural box on such forms (after all, it is accurate, too), we would advance ourselves further into the kind of society where we really can "forget about race as a concept."

As for my ethnicity, it is mixed-breed European: English, Danish, French, and Spanish. Definitely multicultural, I'd say.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny: I think that's a very good idea (the "other" box). I'm sure you're aware that for many years you would've been penalized for checking the "Caucasian" box, as many civil-service jobs (and other jobs being offered by "socially conscious" employers) awarded extra points for being of a "diverse" origin. This is less true today--thankfully--but is still the case at, e.g., some universities: All things being equal (or even close), the nod goes to the non-white (and/or non-male) candidate.

Mary said...

I am in the same boat as Jenny. I always mark "other" when filling out those forms. I am French, German, Portuguese, and Native American. I do not have enough Native American (1/16) blood to be considered part of the tribe. My husband is Persian (Iran) American and he never has a box. We do not know what to mark for our children.

Elizabeth said...

When it comes to Reid's inelegant remarks, most of the "outrage" I see and hear seems manufactured by the (white) GOPers, salivating at the prospect of a cheap political "victory."

Anonymous said...

In my hometown, there are at least 15 discernible dialects, some black, some white. There are also blacks and whites who speak with no discernible "accent," i.e., who speak television broadcast dialect. I once mentioned this to my then-boyfriend (a white guy previously married to a black woman), and he attacked me for implying that there were such things as "black" accents. I was amazed and appalled. I hadn't been making a racial judgment, I've simply always been amazed at how easy it is for people to proclaim that there's a single "Southern" accent when there are probably thousands, and ditto for the rest of the country. As more of us speak "TV English" and these regional dialects and vocabularies are lost, I think we lose important diversity and multicultural richness even as we gain social "acceptability."

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: I agree that the subject is far more complex than many assume. I also agree with your argument that merely noting a dialect does not, in itself, imply judgment of that dialect. that's an important point that many seem to miss in today's ultra-PC society. But I do think we need to be clear in making distinctions between a certain characteristic way of sounding when you talk--like, say, the Harry Connick cajun twang--and the failure to adhere to standard rules of basic English (like, say, Ebonics). The former is one thing, but the latter, taken to extremes, makes efficient communication all but impossible, while also elevating corruptions and mistakes to the status of "an alternative language."

But returning to the point you make here, yes, I think it's almost as silly to deny the existence of cultural voices as it is to deny the existence of gender voices--i.e., to imply that you can't usually tell, over the phone, whether you're talking to a man or a woman.

rarchimedes said...

Referring to Ebonics as a corruption of the language is prejudicial in highest form. I don't particularly enjoy listening to the various black versions of the language any more than I enjoy listening to the Louisiana or Brooklyn versions, but I don't usually find them difficult to understand, though Brooklynese is occasionally unintelligible just because of accent and speed.

I know that most white folks and even some hispanics would like to forget about racism, because they can sort of blend in, but black folks usually cannot, and that is where the problem continues. Until we all achieve cafe au lait homogenization, blacks will be identifiable, and identifiable means instant xenophobic reaction unless that reaction is suppressed by good sense, knowledge, and exposure(the reason why integration is absolutely necessary).

Then, there are the practical considerations. Blacks typically have far few familial assets than whites, making them vulnerable on an ordinary day and highly vulnerable whenever the economy is under stress. Their identifiability also makes them targets in those times of economic stress, as those who were formerly in the middle class sink into poverty and competition. It's fun to watch and hear about those middle class experiences as they sink into poverty. Having formerly had challenging jobs, they are sorely abused by the attitudes of those who have been in those dead end jobs for most of their lives. Given time, and that sometimes means a generation or two in poverty, their attitudes will adjust, but the shock of entry is high, and the faces they see are more often black or of other colors, again causing shock for those who are largely used to mostly white with a few faces of color, albeit few speaking Ebonics.