Friday, September 18, 2009

Who Are We, Anyway?

This post came together from several sources:  a Newsweek article reviewing a study at the University of Texas on the reactions of very young children to people of other races (See Baby Discriminate); Maureen Dowd's column in the New York Times about Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina (may his giblets wither) calling Pres. Obama a liar; and a post on a blog called Religion Dispatches called "Fear of a Black President," by Jonathon L. Walton, assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. 

Start with the Texas study, which explored the attitudes toward race in a group of Caucasian families near Austin.  The article is fascinating.  Most of the parents in the study couldn't, literally could not, discuss race with their children, beyond mouthing platitudes like, "Everyone is equal."  (I loved the 7 year old who eventually asked his mother, "What does 'equal' mean?")  In the total absence of guidance from their parents, children concluded that:  white people were nicer than black people; black people were more likely to be mean than white people; or (to generalize) "people like them" were better than "people who aren't like them."  This is pure tribalism; frankly, this attitude is what drives much of the conflict in Afghanistan.  In families where the parents did discuss race frankly with their children, the children concluded that skin color didn't matter much.

If you don't talk about something with your children, the conclusions they draw on the subject may not be what you expect.  Note, parents, that this applies to sex, too, but that's another post.

Maureen Dowd, of course, drew the obvious conclusion that a Southerner like Rep. Wilson, when he shouted, "You lie!" at President Obama, implicitly followed it with the time-dishonored epithet, "boy!"  Her column concluded (reluctantly, she says) that the screaming objections to Obama and his policies really are racial.

Of course they are.  As the U.Texas study found (remember, Texans are generally considered Southerners), children form racial attitudes very very early.  Children raised in the American South more than 40 years ago (including my late father, and also Joe Wilson, who is 62) were openly taught that black people are by nature inferior to white people in all ways.  So if you were a small town failure with a small job, whose high point was a couple of beers with the boys on Friday night, you could still reassure yourself that you were better than "them," just because you were white.

It's very hard for Bubba to defend that position when the representative of "them" is Barack Obama.

"Fear of a Black President" begins with this comment:
Ever the statesman, and often candid to a political fault, President Jimmy Carter asserted this week that much of the animosity directed toward President Barack Obama is “based on the fact that he is a black man.”
God bless Jimmy Carter, who speaks his mind.  And he's perfectly right.  Prof. Walton's point, which I strongly recommend you read in full, is that the real problem isn't so much that the ranters can't tolerate Obama's blackness, as that they can't tolerate any change in their personal perception of their own superiority as white men:
President Obama can’t win with these folks because they are blinded not just by his race but also by an uncritical devotion to their own. His pigmentation rather than his policies cut against the grain of what these persons wrongly consider “natural” or “American.” More specifically, his very being is a haunting rejoinder to such white Americans of what they are not—indeed what they have never been. This African American man with an Arabic name has dared to usurp all of the cultural and cognitive tropes that white supremacy has historically claimed for itself. He is calm in the face of their unrestrained emotion. The more illogical they act the more rational he comes across. And, of course, the more eloquent and erudite he presents himself, the more he provokes the Joe Wilsons of the world to mindlessly blurt out, “You lie!” 

I've been slapped down before for suggesting that we'll never move forward as a country until we can learn to judge and react to a person (thoughts, actions, ideas), and not a skin color - and that includes our judgements of ourselves.  I still think it's true; the hysterical reaction to President Obama confirms it.  What I don't know is how we get there.  But I suspect racism is like alcoholism - you can't quit doing it until you admit you have a problem.


  1. I shall dare to disagree with you here, at the risk of seeming (unconsciously, I presume you may think), in fact, to be "racist" myself.

    There has grown up in this country a notion, buttressed by French philosophical principles (intuitive nonsense, really), that there must be a separate "reality" called "black" cultural paradigm (for want of a better term), which has all the integrity of clear thinking, but is just expressed through what to Americans (read "normal" educated people) "sounds like" a sophisticated form of "jive," on an equal footing with traditional Western thinking and language.

    Americans have watched as a bankrupt "black" culture has foisted off a repulsive musical and literary "revolution" of peremptory crassness and deliberately self-conscious and aggressive "uppitiness" which we're encouraged to think of and accept as a valid alternative to rational thinking, and social fairness.

    Blacks who don't subscribe to this paradigm are de-facto "Uncle Toms" and are only fit to shill for neo-Conservatives. Any Black person who speaks literately and sensibly must be compromised, must be deeply corrupt and disloyal to his racial priority.

    Anyone who criticizes a Black person--whatever the context, whatever the occasion, whatever the means--must by definition be a racist, just as anyone who calls for control of our Southern borders must be definition be a racist (against Hispanics).

    This is so entirely naive and ridiculous that it hardly bears repeating, but it does.

    Obama's ideas and policies are entitled to the same unbiased criticism and scrutiny as any white President man's. Or any white or Black woman President's. Period. Unless someone calls him "nigger" or "darkie" or something other than "man" or "Mr. President" there is NO RACIST CONTENT on its face. Words do matter! Let's be concise. Let's be rational. Let's not get mystical.

    The jerk who blurted out "You lie" was just being rude, just being an idiot. He should probably be suspended for two months. As if he'd smacked his third grade teacher with a ruler.

  2. Obama is an accidental black. He rarely even talked to a black person growing up in Hawaii much less related to afro-americanism.

  3. So, can I be an accidental white? How do you be accidentally a race? Can you show me a deliberate black? Someone who, I assume, chose to be black?

    What nonsence. Race is absolutely irrelevant to who you are and what you can become. White people are not born with certian "inherited" attitudes and idea's any more than Black or brown or yellow. The only thing that matters is the choices you make, what you make of yourself.

  4. RonW's comment is totally off point. My post dealt not with Obama's blackness, but with white people's attitudes and response to their own whiteness, and their stereotypes of what blacks are or aren't.

    Curtis is also somewhat off point. I wasn't considering the existence or lack of same of a "black" culture. I actually think there is a certain amount of "reverse racism" in the black community, leading to the charges of "Uncle Tomism" that Curtis mentions (remember the flap when Bill Cosby got up and said what he did?); but that isn't my point.

    My point is that a sizeable part of the flap over President Obama - all the flaps over President Obama - stems from the fact that, for a lot of white people, his very existence is a challenge to stereotypes and attitudes they're not even really aware they have, or don't admit they have.

    And Stephen - right on, as we used to say in the Sixties.

  5. hedera:

    Let's try this one more time:

    You said:

    "Her column concluded (reluctantly, she says) that the screaming objections to Obama and his policies really are racial.

    Of course they are."

    I don't know which "screaming objections" you're referring to here, but people are entitled to get exercised over any policy they disagree with, whether that policy is promulgated by a Black or a White executive or legislator. The cooked-up Tea Party and Town Hall demonstrations aren't about race--I haven't seen that reported at all. They seem purely "political"--i.e., they're about disagreements based on budget, social policy, etc. They are anything but "racial."

    "Of course they are."

    No, they're not.

    Even Obama himself has grown weary of this line of thinking, and has attempted to redirect debate back to the real issues. That sounds like common sense to me.

  6. Stephen, even today in Hawaii there aren't black neighborhoods, much less five houses next to each other that are lived in by blacks, and this was even more the case when Obama was growing up. Does Obama even talk like any black that you know of?

  7. He talks like ANY well educated, intelligent person I know, regardless of skin color. That is my point. I have heard inner city black kids talking their slang, I have heard rural white kids talk theirs. The only difference is in the words they use, not their attitude or their ignorance. I have seen those same kids, regardless of skin color, "put away childish things" when they grew up and gained an education. Heck, for all you know, I'm black.

    We need to break away from trying to require people to behave a certain way based on their color, that is my point.

  8. Anonymous3:48 PM

    I don't know, Curtis. If we're trying to see who can set the bar lowest regarding crassness, I'd offer up Tucker Max's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell against nearly any rap vid.

    I had doubts about whether Joe Wilson's comment was racist or just disrespectful, until someone reframed it as, "Would he have said that if it were a white man standing at the podium speaking?" And I don't think Bill Clinton, despite similar politics and a general lack of respect from the Repub power brokers, would have been treated the same way.

    And Ron, seriously? "Does Obama even talk like any black that you know of?" Do you have any idea how limited that remark makes you sound?

    I think what the Newsweek article tried to get across was that while race differences can be overcome, it won't happen simply by osmosis. Some effort needs to be made, especially to take the next step.

    ~Aunt Sam

  9. Aunt Sam, I'll let my remark stand on its own.