Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Racial Stereotypes Alive and Well in Democrats' Battle

The debate on racial progress in America's taken some strange twists and turns lately.

It was just two weeks ago, on the 40th commemoration of the death of Martin Luther King Jr.,
when some commentators argued that the slain civil rights leader's words revealed not a nation living out the true meaning of its creed, but rather a country of implacable, irredeedable racism, a country mired in a system of hopelessly hierarchical minority oppression.

This, of course, is a dishonest misrepresentation of the King legacy, and the debate's not over.

Now, after a weekend in which Barack Obama's faced a massive political crisis over his intemperate claims of "bitter" middle Americans "clinging" to guns and bibles, it turns out that at base, it's all racism again!


Well, listen to David Shipler tell it
at today's Los Angeles Times:
Whether by calculation or coincidence, Hillary Clinton and Republicans who have attacked Barack Obama for elitism have struck a chord in a long-standing symphony of racial codes. It is a rebuke that gets magnified by historic beliefs about what blacks are and what they have no right to be....

This could not happen as dramatically were it not for embedded racial attitudes. "Elitist" is another word for "arrogant," which is another word for "uppity," that old calumny applied to blacks who stood up for themselves.

In a country so changed that a biracial man who is considered black has a shot at the presidency, the subterranean biases are much less discernible now than when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. They are subtle, unacknowledged and unacceptable in polite company. But they lurk below, lending resonance to the criticisms of Obama. Black professionals know the double standard. They are often labeled negatively for traits deemed positive in whites: A white is assertive, a black is aggressive; a white is resolute, a black is pushy; a white is candid, a black is abrasive; a white is independent, a black is not a team player. Prejudice is a shape shifter, adapting to acceptable forms.

So although Obama's brilliance defies the stubborn stereotype of African Americans as unintelligent, there is a companion to that image -- doubts about blacks' true capabilities -- that may heighten concerns about his inexperience. Through the racial lens, a defect can be enlarged into a disability. He is "not ready," a phrase employed often when blacks are up for promotion.

When Clinton mocked Obama for the supposed emptiness of his eloquence, the chiding had a faint historical echo from Thomas Jefferson's musings in "Notes on the State of Virginia" that "in music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears for tune and time," but "one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid."

This slander that blacks had more show than substance was handed down through later generations as a body-mind dichotomy, with physical and mental prowess as opposites. Overt "compliments" -- they've got rhythm, they can dance, they can jump -- were paired with the silent assumption of inferior intellect.
That's a pretty long stretch - if you ask me - from arguing that Obama's out of touch with Americans of the rustbelt, to suggesting he's of shortened mental comprehension.

It was just last year when people were talking rapturously about how far equal protection had advanced in a nation where the top Democratic Party contenders were a black man and a white woman.

Now we're being told that the grim, ghostly legacy of white supremacy has risen from the depths, casting a pall of "racial resonance" across the land.

I think folks should take a step back. What's happening is the natural interest groups battles of the Democratic Party are building to a climax.
As Jerry Bowyer noted the other day, identity politics is now "playing out as both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama battle for votes among Democratic Party factions."

Perhaps this is good. Maybe we're seeing the kind national conversation on race that we failed to have during the 1990s-era of post-Cold War political retrenchment and DNC political moderation.

But this reactionary racial resonance line's taking things too far. Barack Obama's previously stressed themes of education and personal responsibility as the key avenues of black upward mobility in the 21st century.

If we can ever get the Democratic nomination battles settled, perhaps the Illinois Senator can return to the themes that put him in the national spotlight in the first place.

The moment won't come too soon.