In a speech from which Nation of Cowards derives its title, Attorney General Eric Holder argued forcefully that Americans today need to talk morenot lessabout racism. This appeal for candid talk about race exposes the paradox of Barack Obama’s historic rise to the US presidency and the ever-increasing social and economic instability of African American communities. David H. Ikard and Martell Lee Teasley maintain that such a conversation can take place only with passionate and organized pressure from black Americans, and that neither Obama nor any political figure is likely to be in the forefront of addressing issues of racial inequality and injustice. The authors caution blacks not to slip into an accommodating and self-defeating "post-racial" political posture, settling for the symbolic capital of a black president instead of demanding structural change. They urge the black community to challenge the social terms on which it copes with oppression, including acts of self-imposed victimization.
About the Author
David H. Ikard is Associate Professor of English at Florida State University and author of Breaking the Silence: Toward a Black Male Feminist Criticism. His blog "Nation of Cowards" (nationofcowards.blogspot.com) takes up contemporary racial topics and engages a wider intellectual and activist community.
Martell Lee Teasley is Professor and Chair of the Department of Social Work at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
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Nation of Cowards
By David H. Ikard, Martell Lee Teasley
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2012 David H. Ikard and Martell Lee Teasley
All rights reserved.
The Teaching Moment That Never Was
Henry Louis Gates, Barack Obama, and the Post-Racial Dilemma
WHEN DISTINGUISHED black Harvard professor Henry Louis "Skip" Gates was arrested at his Cambridge, Massachusetts, residence for disorderly conduct on July 16, 2009, by James Crowley, a white police officer, the story seemed at once familiar and unique. Familiar in the sense that African Americans in general and African American men in particular have a long and ugly history with the police force and judicial system, dating back to slavery. Unique in the sense that the black man, Gates, in this familiar racial theater was wealthy and possessed "real" power and agency to fight back on an individual level. (It also didn't hurt that Gates had friends in high places, including the first black president of the United States.) Indeed, it is highly likely that many, if not most, black men today older than twenty-five have at least one police brutality or mistreatment story to tell. What made this instance unique, then, was not the fact that it involved a rich and powerful black man who was up against a status quo police force, but that when push came to shove, as the black colloquium goes, Gates was able to wield his considerable influence to gain a public hearing on the matter and pressure the Cambridge judicial system to drop the charges without having to, say, organize a mass demonstration or go on a hunger strike.
Though in the national race narrative Gates has often been characterized as what John McWhorter calls "a professional racebaiter," those of us who are familiar with Gates's scholarship and political outlook recognize that nothing could be further from the truth. In "Skip Gates and the Post-Racial Project," Melissa Harris-Perry rightly notes that despite residing over the preeminent institution of African American studies Gates "is no race warrior seeking to right the racial injustices of the world." Rather his modus operandi is to "be a collector of black talent, intellect, art, and achievement" (online). Noting Gates's tendency to compare himself to "race man" and intellectual giant W.E.B. Du Bois, Harris-Perry asserts as a matter of clarity that Gates resembles Du Bois only to the degree that he emphasizes the importance of studying black culture. Characterizing Gates favorably as the embodiment "of a kind of post-racialism," Harris- Perry contends that Gates is "enamored" with the "American [racial diversity] project," not disillusioned with it as some popular media outlets have claimed. Gates, in other words, is no race man or activist-scholar. He has been popping his "post-racial" collar for quite some time. Even the black neoconservative John McWhorter has come to Gates's defense. In his essay, "Gates Is Right—and We're Not Post-Racial Until He's Wrong," McWhorter writes that the "idea that [Gates] should have exhibited 'deference to the police' [even though he was rightfully justified in being upset by the interrogation] ignores the totemic status that black men's encounters with the police have in the [public consciousness].... There's a reason Gates told the Washington Post ... that what happened to him was part of a 'racial narrative,' and that awareness surely informed his angry conduct. The relationship between black men and police forces is, in fact, the main thing keeping America from becoming 'post-racial' in any sense" (online).
What appeared obvious to a good many African Americans who followed the public controversy, including President Obama, was that even if Gates was "unruly" and "hostile," as Crowley claims in his police report and which, for the record, Gates vehemently refutes, he had good cause to be. Gates, who essentially was minding his own business at his residence, became the focal point of police suspicion in large part because of his race. The exclusive, upper-class Cambridge neighborhood in which Gates resides is predominantly white. While it is not difficult to imagine why President Obama felt compelled to wade into this controversy, it almost goes without saying that he grossly underestimated the limitations of his ability—even as a self-branded post-racialist—to openly condemn institutional racism. Given that he had only recently been able to turn the racial controversy involving his relationship with his former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright, an unapologetic race man, and Trinity United, a progressive black nationalist-leaning church, into a bonanza for his campaign in his now famous "race speech," one can imagine that Obama felt confident in his race-mediator-in-chief status. This is not to say that Obama acted without weighing the political cost of intervening. Obama only entered the fray after the Cambridge police department dropped all charges against Gates. Moreover, the president was defending the "Barack Obama of black studies," if you will. As previously noted, Gates was no lightning rod on race matters. If anything, Gates has taken heat within and beyond black intelligentsia for his post-racialist perspectives on a wide range of race matters. It appears, then, that President Obama was banking that Gates's reputation as a post-racialist and race relations mediator and, no doubt, his own cultural clout on similar grounds, would neutralize any political blowback and perhaps even foster a productive dialogue on racial profiling and policing. He was clearly mistaken.
To borrow journalist Ellis Cose's terminology, we continue to live in a "race-obsessed" society; our very notions of reality and even who qualifies as human are refracted through a dominant prism of race. Thus, in this chapter we will concentrate on the various ways that race defined and dictated the political and social terms on which these issues could be legitimately engaged in the public sphere. The pressing question for us is not if race mattered in this national fiasco but rather how race mattered. Moving from the general to the specific in terms of how African Americans can productively navigate such complex and ever-changing race-obsessed thinking, we consider the ways that Obama's decidedly post-racial postures overdetermine black agency and box him in politically on matters of racial inequality. The fact that Obama, a former community organizer and social advocate for the black poor, so grossly underestimates the explosive (white) outcomes of his comments on Gates demonstrates in dramatic fashion the pitfalls of post-racial postures in a race-obsessed society.
TEACHABLE MOVEMENTS ON RACE IN AMERICA: FOR BLACKS ONLY?
Fielding a question about the Gates/Crowley incident during a press conference touting his new healthcare reform initiatives, Obama opined with light humor, interspersed with his customary measured and conciliatory tone, that the circumstances were regrettable and that, without having all the facts at his disposal, he couldn't speak to "what role race played in" Gates's arrest. He then added famously:
But I think it's fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two, that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home. And number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African- Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That's just a fact. (Chicago Sun-Times, my emphasis)
Reminiscent of the skewed fixation and parsing out of Eric Holder's "nation of cowards" comment, the media locked in on Obama's characterization of the Cambridge police as having "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates after determining that he was the rightful occupant of the home and not a burglar. Virtually overnight, the national narrative shifted from a focus on Gates, Crowley, and racial profiling to Obama's (mis) handling of a sensitive national racial matter. Indeed, a Pew Survey taken at the time revealed that 79 percent of the public was aware of Obama's comments on the incident. The poll data also revealed that Obama's "approval ratings fell among non-Hispanic whites over the course of the interviewing period as the focus of the Gates story shifted from details about the incident to Obama's remarks about the incident" (Pew). Before the story shifted to Obama's remarks, his approval rating among non-Hispanic whites was 53 percent. Afterwards, it fell to 46 percent. And, even though the nation was largely split about who was at fault in the Gates/Crowley incident as noted above, "more people disapprove (41%) than approve (29%) of the president's handling of the situation. And by a margin of about two-to-one, more whites disapprove (45%) than approve (22%)" (Pew).
While technically Obama never apologized outright for making his remarks, he initiated a public relations campaign, booking interviews with all the major television networks, wherein he voiced regret over his choice of words in characterizing Crowley and the Cambridge Police Department as having "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates. He also dramatically shifted gears on assigning blame, noting that both men probably overreacted. Retreating back to his hallmark colorblind racial discourse, Obama—via a suggestion by Crowley—invited both men and their families to the White House to iron out their differences civilly over a beer. The media- branded "Beer Summit," which Obama represented (this time from the familiar position of race mediator rather than race instructor) as the teachable moment to the nation, amounted to little more than a public relations gesture to tamp down the media frenzy. Vice President Joe Biden even made a guest appearance, an appearance that was described without irony in the New York Times as "add[ing] balance to the photo op" ("Over Beers, No Apologies, but Plans to Have Lunch").
Let's begin our examination of the racial challenges of Obama's presidency and the problems of his post-racial thinking and politics by harkening back to the rousing speech on black self-determination that he delivered to the NAACP Centennial Convention in New York the very day that his friend Gates was arrested. Obama urges his mostly upscale and affluent black audience to abandon victim-centric narratives that tie our present socioeconomic crisis to historical patterns of white oppression. Of particular note is a segment of the speech in which Obama veers from his prepared text and launches into a black preacherly cadence, admonishing the NAACP and African Americans to revamp their mindsets about combating structural inequality. Signifying culturally on the longstanding African American belief that the federal government is chiefly responsible for righting the historical wrongs of white oppression against blacks, Obama sermonizes:
Government plans alone won't get our children to the Promised Land. We need a new mind set, a new set of attitudes—because one of the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we've internalized a sense of limitations; how so many in our community have come to expect so little from the world and from themselves. We've got to say to our children, yes, if you're African American, the odds of growing up amid crime and gangs are higher. Yes, if you live in a poor neighborhood, you will face challenges that somebody in a wealthy suburb does not have to face. But that's not a reason to get bad grades ... that's not a reason to cut class ... that's not a reason to give up on your education and drop out of school ... No one has written your destiny for you. Your destiny is in your hands—you cannot forget that. That's what we have to teach all of our children. No excuses ... No excuses. You get that education, all those hardships will just make you stronger, better able to compete. Yes we can.
To parents ... we can't tell our kids to do well in school and then fail to support them when they get home.... You can't just contract out parenting. For our kids to excel, we have to accept our responsibility to help them learn. That means putting away the Xbox ... [and] putting our kids to bed at a reasonable hour....
We need to go back to the time, back to the day when we parents saw ... some kid fooling around and it wasn't your child, but they'll whup you anyway.... Or at least they'll tell your parents.... That's the meaning of community. That's how we can reclaim the strength and the determination and the hopefulness that helped us come so far; helped us make a way out of no way. (online, my emphasis)
At first glance, Obama's tough-love, sermonic meditation on black self-determination and empowerment seems productive, if not altogether self-evident. Given the crumbling state of the black nuclear family, the low academic achievement rates compared to whites, and the high rates of black male incarceration, who can argue against the pressing need for black folks to identify and correct self-destructive behavior, especially in regards to parenting and education? The problem with Obama's portrait of Black America and his rousing racial call-to-action is, to borrow Lani Guinier's phrasing, "history does matter" when examining structural inequalities and developing strategies to combat them. Though on its face, Obama's speech seems historically grounded (in the early part of his speech he recalls the social obstacles of slavery and Jim Crow segregation) his narrative pivots on a familiar suffering-makes-you-stronger refrain that obscures the myriad obstacles to black self-determination, on the one hand, and lets whites off the hook for past and present black oppression, on the other. The notions of black self-determination that Obama advocates for in his speech, describing them as a "new mindset" and "new set of attitudes," are, in fact, longstanding ideas about racial uplift rendered through a conservative framework. It is not inconsequential, then, that Obama's "new" mindset and attitudes beckon that we return to a romanticized cultural moment "back in the day" when we supposedly placed a higher premium on community and moral values and helped raise and discipline each others' children. Crucially missing from this romanticized portrait, of course, are the socioeconomic factors like the common experience of overt racism that pressed disparate classes of black folks together out of political and social necessity, culminating into the twentieth-century Civil Rights Movement. Obama's nostalgic rhetorical gesture here, which also subtly plays up the skewed notion that the current "hip hop generation" of African Americans are largely to blame for failing black communities, shifts the debate over black self-determination from the historical and social domain to that of the personal. Consider the ways that Obama describes the mindset of black self-defeatism. He writes, "the most durable and destructive legacies of discrimination is the way we've internalized a sense of limitations" (Sweet, my emphasis). Rather than acknowledge that whites have historically fortified this mindset via slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and other orchestrated forms of oppression, Obama shifts the blame rhetorically onto African Americans. In his formulation, only African Americans are raced and have the responsibility to alter the course of history. Whiteness and, indeed, the causality of white oppression are ultimately rendered invisible as if whites have no racial history or a direct stake in maintaining the structural inequalities linked to slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and the like.
Excerpted from Nation of Cowards by David H. Ikard, Martell Lee Teasley. Copyright © 2012 David H. Ikard and Martell Lee Teasley. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Is America a Nation of Cowards or Has Attorney General Eric Holder Lost His Mind?
1. The Teaching Moment that Never Was: Henry Louis Gates, Barack Obama, and the Post-Racial Dilemma
2. "I Know What’s in His Heart": Enlightened Exceptionalism and the Problem with Using Barack Obama as the Racial Litmus Test for Black Progress and Achievement
3. The Audacity of Reverend Wright: Speaking Truth to Power in the 21st Century
4. Setting the Record Straight: Why Barack Obama and America Cannot Afford to Ignore a Black Agenda
5. Pull Yourself Up by Your Bootstraps: Barack Obama, the Black Poor, and the Problems of Racial Common Sense
What People are Saying About This
A clarion call to our nation's conscience. Free from overly academic jargon, but full of powerful wordplay and brilliant juxtapositions, this book is a fascinating tour de force from start to finish. Those seeking a clear and concise explanation of the state of African America and the ongoing need for a 'black agenda' during–and even after–the administration of the first African American president need look no further.
Nation of Cowards offers an analysis of the Obama administration is as thorough as it is compact. Here are the hard questions that must be asked of the first black presidency and an insightful draft of how history may regard it. Ikard and Teasley are well ahead of that curve.
A smart and energetic book that unravels the political grammar of hesitancy around questions of race in the United States. It walks us through the political minefield, revealing what appears to be a 21st century debate between Booker Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois, around jeremiads for personal responsibility to structural analyses of systematic racism, between thrusting the blame for disparity on the poor to pointing fingers at the immense theft of social wealth by the rich. A thoughtful book that will be a useful guide in a divisive election year.