PAINT THE WHITE HOUSE BLACK
Barack Obama and the Meaning of Race in America
By Michael P. Jeffries
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2013 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.
THROUGH THE FOG
There would be no great problem if, when the things changed, the vocabulary died away as well. But far the more common situation in the history of ideologies is that instead of dying, the same vocabulary attaches itself, unnoticed, to new things.... In this they resemble those creatures of horror fiction who, having neither body nor life of their own, take over the bodies and lives of human beings. —Barbara J. Fields
On December 18, 2006, months before Senator Barack Obama formally announced his intention to seek the presidency, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Diane McWhorter discussed the obstacles to electing a black president in the United States. The primary barrier, according to McWhorter, was whites' reluctance to give up white privilege. She explained, "[during the civil rights movement] one of the reasons that the whites were so obstinate about giving into any quote, 'demands'—as they called them, quote, 'Negro demands'—was that, you know, the expression was if you give them an inch, they'll take a mile. To me, the primitive fear of white people is that, if you have an African-American as the leader of the free world, that they're going to give away white privilege—you know, that we are going to have to give up something that we have taken for granted."
"White privilege" is a slippery phrase. McWhorter's understanding is rooted in measurable economic and political advantages. As a group, white people sit atop the unjust racial and economic hierarchy, and they collectively benefit when people of color are mistreated or denied opportunity. But white privilege is not just about quantifiable economic advantage and clearly identifiable acts of injustice. The other piece of McWhorter's explanation deals with the things that are "taken for granted." This is the idea at the core of white privilege: it is a collective, implicit acceptance of whiteness as virtuous, normal, unremarkable, and expected. The same goes for male privilege; all of humankind is conveniently reduced to "mankind" rather than "womankind," because maleness is thoughtlessly accepted as a baseline standard. Up until 2008, when instructed to imagine a nameless, faceless American president, without any race or gender prompt, most of us would have imagined a white man, because that is what we are socialized to expect. Given this definition, Obama's rise seems like a massive blow to white privilege and the existing racial order—the impossible has happened.
When examined from another perspective, however, the racial order appears unchallenged by Obama's rise. He was only the third black person elected to the Senate since the end of American Reconstruction in 1877. Drastic racial and ethnic inequalities, prejudice and stereotyping, and the marginalization of nonwhite people from positions of power persist today. Rigid residential segregation and the unprecedented expansion of the prison state have literally locked disadvantaged black and brown people into neighborhoods and behind bars without any chance to climb into the more stable middle class. The justice system repeatedly fails to prevent the physical destruction of black and Latino bodies; stories of brutality, harassment, and malfeasance litter the airwaves and front pages in every region of the country.
America seems lost in the fog, lurching forward and drifting backward, goaded by winds of both progress and decay. For every voice that hails Obama as the living embodiment of "hope" and "change," a dissenter insists that Obama's rise has either halted the march towards social justice or depleted our collective tolerance for even thinking and talking about race. This state of confusion, where Obama's America weeps race- heavy tears of joy from one eye and anguish from the other, is the starting point for this book, yet its aim is not to reach a definitive conclusion about whether race relations are getting "better" or "worse." Rather than measuring our racial state, we have to understand what race is, and we cannot understand race through dictionary definitions alone. Instead, we have to deal with race in action, drawing on concrete examples from our own lives that provide common ground for discussion and, eventually, understanding. President Obama's rise is an invaluable teaching tool because Obama is part of our collective experience. Scholars and journalists have studied the president to gain insight into his thoughts and actions, but this book focuses on Obama to understand how racial meaning is generated and how we might think about race more clearly.
Thinking and Talking About Race
Howard Winant writes, "The 2008 election was the first to have a viable Black candidate, but it was hardly the first U.S. election to be about race. In fact, every national election is about race." From slavery to Jim Crow and civil rights, to the Southern strategy, to terrorism and immigration reform, racial politics have played key roles in candidates' campaigns and electoral outcomes. Events during Obama's campaign and first term, such as the Jeremiah Wright controversy, racial epithets and threats cast by anti–health care reform advocates, Justice Sonia Sotomayor's confirmation process, the resignation of Shirley Sherrod from the Department of Agriculture, and a host of other incidents, make navigating racial controversy a part of Obama's job description, even if addressing the ongoing catastrophe of mass racial inequality remains beyond the ill-conceived purview of contemporary presidents.
"Race" is rooted in false beliefs about the validity of observed physical differences as indicators of human capacity or behaviors. Human beings build categories and make distinctions naturally. But there is no biological basis for racial categories and no relationship between classification based on observed physical characteristics and patterns of thought or behavior. Humans do not have separate subspecies or races the way some animals do, and genetic traits like skin color are inherited separately from other physical and mental traits, such as eye and hair features, blood type, hand-eye coordination, and memory. The company line among academics is that "race is socially constructed," meaning that it is an idea produced by human thought and interaction rather than something that exists as a material fact of life on earth. Social imperatives change racial categories and meanings over time, as political, cultural, and scientific developments force us to reconsider what once seemed certain. No matter the time and place, race is intimately bound with the distribution of rights and resources, and racial ideas are manifest in social inequalities.
The danger in affirming race as a social construction is that this understanding is easily distorted into the false belief that race does not exist or does not matter. This problem is compounded by exalting "assimilation" as part of the moral quest to achieve a color-blind society, where people's attitudes and behaviors are completely liberated from racial thinking and everyone is treated equally, regardless of color. The impulse towards color blindness, combined with the belief that racism is a thing of the past, results in "racism without racists," as the institutional foundation for racism remains intact despite a reduction in attitudinal antipathy towards racial others. Even if individuals no longer affirm racist beliefs, the institutions that order our social lives, such as banks, schools, and the criminal justice complex, utilize practices and policies that maintain and strengthen white social dominance. Eduardo Bonilla- Silva documents a plethora of strategies employed by those who defend themselves against the moral charge of racism, but whose actions do not interrupt institutional racism and whose beliefs clearly support the unjust racial order. Those of us who are interested in racial problems walk a difficult line, explaining that although race is a product of our own making and classic, explicit racism has diminished, the United States remains in the midst of a crisis of white supremacy and racial hierarchy.
It is daunting enough to face the harsh reality of race in small word counts, let alone wade through hundreds of pages of racial pontification. Talking and writing about race in everyday life is difficult, in no small part because we do not want to face the glaring racial divisions and racism right under our noses. Michael Taussig writes,
This reconfiguration of repression in which depth becomes surface so as to remain depth, I call the public secret, which, in another version, can be defined as that which is generally known, but cannot be articulated.... This "long knownness" is itself an intrinsic component of knowing what not to know, such that many times, even in our acknowledging it, in striving to extricate ourselves from its sticky embrace, we fall into even better-laid traps of our own making.... Knowing it is essential to its power, equal to the denial. Not being able to say anything is likewise testimony to its power.
There is significant and useful ambiguity in Taussig's phrasing when he writes that the secret "cannot be articulated." First, this inability to articulate may refer to fear of repercussion or social disruption. In other words, we have the language to tell the secret, but we dare not do so. We may see something wrong and feel the urge to scream, "I am the only black person on this crowded commuter train to the Boston suburbs, and the only empty seat in the whole car is the one next to me! It's racism!" But we refrain out of cowardice, or because it is impolite, or because it might be misconstrued in some way. Especially in white-dominated spaces, we often avoid race-talk out of courtesy and prudence, but silence betrays us as a path to justice. Eviatar Zerubavel asserts, "The careful absence of explicit race labels in current American liberal discourse [sic] is indeed the product of a deliberate effort to suppress our awareness of race. Ironically, such deliberate avoidance may actually produce the opposite result." Even when we neuter our language for the sake of an ostensibly worthy political goal, such as the elimination of racial bias or the prevention of racial insult, we suffer self-inflicted moral and political wounds by remaining quiet; and race stays on our minds.
One step removed from complete racial silence, race baiting and implicit appeals tell the "public secret" about nonwhite deviance, generating racial meaning without explicit hate speech towards people of color. Tali Mendelberg explains that the social norm of equality (color blindness) creates a national political climate that is hostile to overtly racist appeals and racial language. Instead, the injection of race into political contests takes place "under cover," as white candidates attempt to influence voter behavior in their favor by implicitly priming racial fears about nonwhite opponents. During the 2012 Republican presidential primary season, Newt Gingrich unleashed a series of rhetorical attacks designed to prime white voters' racial fears and resentments. First, he homed in on the American poverty crisis by focusing on black teenage unemployment, proposing that inner-city schools hire their own students as janitors. According to Gingrich, this plan would help the students learn work habits "so they didn't have to become a pimp, or a prostitute, or a drug dealer." Weeks later, during Gingrich's march to victory in the South Carolina Republican primary election, he described President Obama as a "food stamp president." These invocations of black ghetto pathology are launched into the public sphere in lieu of direct statements about blacks' inherent laziness, sexual deviance, and violent tendencies. But the racial meanings of prostituting, drug dealing, and welfare scamming are unambiguous, because the speaker attaches them to black people, rooting them in the black body, whether that body resides in the White House or the ghetto. Gingrich won the South Carolina primary, and Mitt Romney tried to reestablish the fallacious Obama/ welfare connection during his 2012 presidential campaign, which demonstrates the situational effectiveness and political allure of race baiting without explicit racism. By contrast, when people are made aware of these cues, the effectiveness of implicit priming is diminished, and race-based mistreatment can be recognized and addressed.
An alternative reading of Taussig's public secret posits that the secret is "long known" but untellable because we do not have the language necessary to tell it. That is, our language is directly tied to power, and hegemonic language cannot be used to rearrange power relations; in Audre Lorde's terms, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." Toni Morrison explains the perils of living without language that falls outside the bounds of hegemony, as "one is obliged to cooperate in the misuse of figurative language, in the reinforcement of cliché, the erasure of difference, the jargon of justice, the evasion of logic, the denial of history, the crowning of patriarchy, the inscription of hegemony; to be complicit in the vandalizing, sentimentalizing, and trivialization of the torture black people have suffered."
We are not simply banned or scared away from talking and writing about race altogether. Racial meaning is not solely engendered through silence and racial coding. The power of race lies in the fact that even when we attempt to address it, our efforts are undermined and obfuscated by everything from rampant misinformation to imprecise terminology, to ideas about polite conversation and appropriate settings, to a lack of conversational entry and exit strategies. In short, much racial analysis is neither epistemologically adequate nor likely to lead to insight or political progress. As Stuart Hall notes, "there is always something left unsaid about race," and Evelyn Higginbotham explains that this is because race acts as a "metalanguage" that "not only tends to subsume other sets of relations, namely gender and class, but it blurs and disguises, suppresses and negates its own complex interplay with the various relations it envelops." This is akin to Taussig's warning that "even in our acknowledging it, in striving to extricate ourselves from its sticky embrace, we fall into even better-laid traps of our own making."
"Metalanguage" is a metaphor, and I do not mean to convey that race abides by a clear set of grammatical and syntactic rules, or that it is activated solely through verbal exchange. Race is not a language; it is commonly understood as a system of social classification, and it has material effects on people's lives. However, race does not act like a stable system of classification. Instead, echoing Hall, Higginbotham, and others, I insist that race operates like a language, because it produces and covers up meanings both simple and complex; because it signifies things beyond the obvious; because it is flexible, adaptable, and dependent on context. As Hall tells us, "race can never be finally fixed, but is subject to the constant process of redefinition and appropriation." Race is not only subject to this process; it actively shapes other knowledge systems: race redefines and appropriates vocabulary itself.
Consider the following example: On March 2, 1996, college basketball analyst Billy Packer, who is white, referred to Georgetown University star Allen Iverson as a "tough monkey," in reference to the pint-sized guard's fearless play. Iverson is African American, and Packer was criticized for what many viewed as a racist characterization, despite the fact that he intended the remark as a compliment. Many of Packer's friends and colleagues including Georgetown's legendary (and African American) coach, John Thompson, rushed to his defense, denouncing the notion that "monkey" should be interpreted as a slur. Packer met with the Reverend Jesse Jackson in an effort to mediate the controversy and understand why people had taken such offense. Describing what he learned from Jackson, Packer offered the following: "'Naïve' is probably a pretty good word, because ever since I've been a kid I have never looked at people in terms of black and white. I'm absolutely not a racist, and anyone who has ever been involved with me knows that."
The problem is not the word "monkey" itself; it is that the meaning of the word cannot be derived simply from immediate intent. Packer may harbor no conscious antipathy towards black people, but is there something about Iverson's blackness that makes Packer more likely to call him a "monkey," even in praise, than he would a white player? Insisting that Packer is "racist," or obsessing over questions of intent, misses the point. The metalanguage and public secrecy of race take over the meaning of the incident. Packer's defensiveness and complete denial does not result in exoneration, as race remains an active social force and the comment is contextualized by a history of similar remarks.
Excerpted from PAINT THE WHITE HOUSE BLACK by Michael P. Jeffries Copyright © 2013 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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