Monday, March 24, 2008

"A More Perfect Union" and the Sober Debate on Race

When Obama delivered “A More Perfect Union” in Philadelphia last Tuesday, he offered a challenge to the American Public. Stinging from his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama seized the moment to highlight the problem of race in America:

“race is an issue that I believe this nation cannot afford to ignore right now. We would be making the same mistake that Reverend Wright made in his offending sermons about America — to simplify and stereotype and amplify the negative to the point that it distorts reality.”

Obama explained how Wright’s anger and paranoia are representative of feelings within the black community; that there is a reason for these feelings; and America ignores the cause of the Jeremiad at its own peril:

“The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we've never really worked through — a part of our union that we have not yet made perfect.”

He went to describe the history of segregation and Jim Crow, as well as its legacy today, from residential and school segregation to racially disparate wealth and incarceration. His message was that race is a political issue that manifests itself across policy issues from education, to criminal justice, to development; and that we must acknowledge racial disparities and attend to racial problems, not merely for the sake of the black community, but for the country’s general welfare.

The speech resonated with Americans across political lines. On the left responses were largely glowing, and Democratic primary voters seemed satisfied that Obama had addressed the problem of his association with the outspoken Reverend. The right’s response was more surprising. Opponents could not settle on a coherent critique of the speech, except perhaps that Obama was uncharitable to his grandmother. But several notable figures dissented and endorsed the speech as a remarkable and important contribution to contemporary political discourse. Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, concluded a lengthy debate with his colleagues at The Corner with this appraisal of Obama: “the other day he talked about race in ways that no other major politician has tried to do, with a level of honesty that no other major politician has dared, and with more insight than any other major politician possesses. Not bad." Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal “thought Barack Obama's speech was strong, thoughtful and important. Rather beautifully, it was a speech to think to, not clap to” (WSJ). Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow John McWhorter found that “For a light-skinned half-white Ivy League-educated black man to repudiate, in clear language and repeatedly, the take on race of people like Julian Bond and Nikki Giovanni is not only honest but truly bold” (TNR).

The impact of the speech has resonated within conservatism as Doug Kmiec, Professor of Constitutional Law and vocal pro-life advocate endorsed Obama for President, and Fox News anchor Chris Wallace confronted his colleagues on the airwaves for misconstruing Obama’s remarks on the “typical white person" (the video is well worth a watch).

The speech appeals to conservatives as much because of its mood as its content. As Andrew Sullivan has previously noted, Obama has a conservative “temperament” which makes his liberal politics appealing to the Burkean ear. In “A More Perfect Union,” this temperament is evidenced in Obama’s account of history. Obama sees the past as a reservoir of good and bad meanings that we cannot separate ourselves from. He employs William Faulkner’s famous observation that “the past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” He recalls the wounds caused by progress, as perceived preferences for black advancement inspired anger and resentment among poor and middle class whites. And he explains his refusal to entirely disavow Wright as a matter of loyalty, commitment, and culture: “I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community… These people are a part of me. And they are part of America, this country that I love. ”

Obama’s unwillingness to reject the historical and cultural moorings of his own personality mirrors the tragedy of the south, where many people are unable to reject the legacy of the Confederacy, even while acknowledging the evils of slavery and Jim Crow, because they find essential cultural capital invested there. In this way, Obama makes the conservative case for the discussion of racism, as an element of our past that is lived in the present, that cannot neatly be separated by the many glories of American history. While conservatives may get off the boat when Obama describes the social policies and expenditures he proposes to address these problems, this disagreement over remedy need not undermine the underlying consensus that race is real and its manifestations are problematic.

In opening a conversation on race with rhetoric that appeals to conservatives as well as liberals, Obama has highlighted an existing cleavage in America’s political sensibility. He has carved out a distinction between two conflicting perspectives that cut across party and politics, conventionally understood. There are those who think we ought to think about race when discussing and forming policy, and those who don’t. Among those who don’t, count Bill Kristol:

“The last thing we need now is a heated national conversation about race.

“What we need instead are sober, results-oriented debates about economics, social mobility, education, family policy and the like — focused especially on how to help those who are struggling. Such policy debates can lead to real change — even “change we can believe in.” “National conversations” tend to be pointless and result-less.”
- Bill Kristol, “Let’s Not, And Say We Did,” NYT

It’s tempting to reject Kristol tout court for his hypocrisy. A man whose career has been built upon justifying the War in Iraq on the grounds of neoconservative ideology, and in spite of all the available evidence, should hardly be taken seriously in asking for “results oriented debates” on any subject. But, like every other canned Kristol column, this one sums up the conventional wisdom in conservative circles on the topic at hand. In this case, Kristol takes up the color blind cause. We shouldn’t talk about race, he argues, because things are getting better for black people, and talking about race either won’t make a difference or might even make thing worse. So instead we should have serious policy debates, which will result in better times for everyone.

But how, Mr. Kristol, shall we have a sober debate about social mobility without talking about severe disparity in median net worth between white families and black or Hispanic families? How shall we have a sober debate about education without talking about the fact that schools are now more racially segregated than they were a decade ago; that there are fewer black males in college than in prison? How shall we have a sober debate about family policy without talking about how incarceration (or, in the opinion of conservatives, welfare) has broken black families? How shall we have a sober debate about financial regulation without acknowledging that the numbers of subprime loans and foreclosures are disproportionately high in minority communities? A policy debate in any of these arenas would have to be black out drunk not to address the racial dimensions of our predicament.

Discussions of race are dangerous distractions for men like Kristol. They “shudder” at the thought of a national conversation on race. They cannot entertain these sober debates because they would be pressed into a dilemma. If Kristol were confronted with racial disparities in income, wealth, education, and incarceration, he could either assert that these disparities were caused by an innate or cultural racial inferiority, or he could assert that they were caused by the obstacles and disadvantages minorities confront. He would have to choose between defending the racism of social Darwinism and acknowledging that white privilege and systemic racism are real. If we have a conversation on race, we must stake out our positions on this question. For men of Kristol's politics, this choice is disastrous. Either they must accept the gospel of racism, or they must accept that society has a share of blame in racial disparity.

With this choice, between endorsing racism and accepting social culpability, Americans can honestly stake out their position on the nature of race. For those Americans who are not racists, who believe American society is responsible for racial disparity, the policy debate comes next.

Liberals may ask for comprehensive community revitalization projects for low income minority communities. Conservatives may acknowledge the existence systemic racism but protest that past “solutions,” such as urban renewal policies, cause more harm than good. Liberals may respond by suggesting a more flexible schedule of public investment that places government funds in the hands of private foundations that have spent decades refining best practices.
A mature and sober conversation on race and policy is therefore possible, and it is necessary.

Obama has afforded the American public the opportunity to pivot on race in this way, and apply the energies of the radical negative to a transformative policy agenda. But those liberals concerned with race should not fool themselves that liberal policies will necessarily address racial disparities. If we do not always ask ourselves what racial issues are implicated in policy questions and what policy innovations could address those issues, racism will go untreated, and Martin Luther King’s dream will be deferred. It is an open question what happens to a dream deferred. But none of the possibilities are welcome.

Monday, March 17, 2008

"God Damn America": Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Radical Negative

The media have pounced on Obama for his pastor’s inflammatory rhetoric. Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s words in 2003 sermon have received particular attention:

“The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes three-strike laws and then wants us to sing God Bless America. No! No No! God damn America—that’s in the bible--for killing innocent people. God damn America for threatening citizens as less than humans. God damn America as long as she tries to act like she is God and supreme.”

To this, National Review Online and Fox News have responded with a flurry of condemnations and prognostications that Obama’s association with Wright will be a mortal blow for his campaign. John Derbyshire of NRO predicted, “the man is toast,” while his colleague Lisa Schiffren predicted that the Wright affair had made the election “McCain’s to lose.” Sean Hannity of Fox News called for Obama’s resignation from the Senate. On the liberal end, concerns about the impact on Obama’s campaign have likewise been dire. Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo posted commenters who described Wright as “cancer,” and Obama’s connection to him as a “death blow” for his campaign. One TPM blogger, Flyonthewall, summarized the resulting political imperative: “Obama himself will need to forcefully and clearly reject the logic of Wright's claims, the tone of his remarks, and the words that he used. Then he has to take the most painful step - he needs to distance himself from Wright.” Obama took this message to heart, as he rejected Wrights remarks, and Wright stepped down from an official role in the campaign.

The narrative at work is that Obama succeeded by not being branded “black,” with all of the associated stereotypes of anger and victimization; and now that the public has seen video of his long time pastor displaying those very stereotypes, Obama is doomed. His campaign can’t be a transcendent embrace of Americans across color, because he is now associated with cries for racial justice; he can’t preach the “audacity of hope” when his minister, who coined the phrase, preaches the gospel of racial despair.

Reverend Wright’s sermon, and the public’s encounter with it, is therefore exemplary of my claim that “race is the radical negative in America.” By radical negative, I mean to draw a contrast to GWF Hegel’s dialectical negative. The dialectical negative is at the service of the positive, as when immoral acts serve as the foil for moral standards; or when bloody revolutionary war destroys despotic government and brings about liberal democracy; or when Jesus dies to save the souls of humanity. The dialectical negative is the destructive engine of progress that brings change and renews possibility. The radical negative, by contrast, is not absorbed back into a positive narrative of progress and redemption. Rather, the radical negative is a threat to the continuity of such narratives.

I call race the radical negative in America because it continually underscores the bankruptcy of liberal principles in their application. In the American Dream, race is a phantom whose maniacal grin we interpret as benign, in hopes of staving off the lurking nightmare. But sometimes, as when there’s a race riot in L.A., or when the New Orleans levies break, or when the public hears the anger of a black reverend at a country ruled by “rich white people,” the force of the radical negative is stronger by its cognitive or bodily proximity. Wright’s speech takes up the voice of this radical negative. To the common call “God Bless America,” Wright answers “God Damn America,” turning the ultimate will from positive to negative; from blessedness to damnation.

Race is the radical negative because it explodes the notions of liberty and equality upon which we pride ourselves. While there are many metrics of severe racial disparity—from health, to income, to wealth—the starkest is incarceration. As a recently published Pew study shows, America is far and away the world’s leading incarcerator (NYT - "U.S. Inprisons One in 100 Adults, Report Finds"). The country which is supposedly the world’s shining beacon of democratic liberalism puts a larger portion of its population behind bars than any other. And who does the state put there? Whereas blacks constitute only 12 per cent of the U.S. population, they account for 45 per cent of its prison population (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Prisoners in 2002). This grave disparity is a consequence of black poverty, the war on drugs, segregated schools, and general urban neglect, all of which have maintained the roots of racial hierarchy even after its legal appendages had been hewn.

It is in this context that Reverend James Wright’s remarks are comprehensible. NRO contributor Stanley Kurtz would have us believe that “from the standpoint of deconstruction and postcolonial theory (and only from that standpoint), Wright’s remarks are undisturbing, and in fact most welcome.” Kurtz can only imagine pomo leftists being sympathetic to Wright, since the only standpoints he considers are the theoretical positions of elite academics. But, plainly, Wright’s words are welcome to the congregation that applauds his words. And plainly they are welcome to the African American community, whose support for Obama has only risen since news of Wright’s incendiary sermon broke (h/t KLo).

Wright’s words are emphatically not welcome to whites and other Americans who are comfortable with an historical narrative of progress and a discourse of individual responsibility, merit and opportunity. In a country where life, even as a white man, remains indisputably difficult for many, suggestions of white privilege and racial oppression grate on sensitive nerves. Faith in the integrity of America’s basic justice defends popular sentiment against deeper satisfaction with social and economic inequality. This faith acknowledges racism as the negative in an always upward moving dialectic, in which slavery is followed by emancipation, and Jim Crow by desegregation. But when race intrudes as a radical negative, untempered by reconstruction and reform, it threatens the American faith with the reality of a society where a man’s race is often more predictive of his success than his personal merit.

Obama’s approach has been to champion an understanding of race as a dialectical rather than a radical negative. He highlights the stories of abolitionists and freedom riders—all positive, shining examples of human action that have been called forth by the abnegating evils of racism. But this recent outburst from the media over Wright shows how the radical negative intrudes: so long as there is deep racial inequality, its white beneficiaries will recoil when confronted with the anger of the underprivileged. If the public’s reaction to Obama’s association damages his prospects, it will be the work of the radical negative. Or if, in the event he is elected, the racial backlash forces him to deny issues of racial inequality altogether, then the feeling of pride we feel for our multiculturalism will be accompanied by that same smiling phantom.

But there is a third way. Obama can perform the transcendental feat of uniting American identity in his person, while pivoting on the radical negative of race as the defining project of his candidacy. Pivoting on the radical negative would not mean adopting Wright’s voice, preaching the social gospel, or taking slave owning Founders off of the currency. It would mean that the questions of racial disparity and racism would always be asked in any policy matter from health care to the war in Iraq, and that every viable opportunity to address racial disparity would be taken. It would mean, in short, an end to color blindness. It would mean an unerring engagement with problems of race until those problems cease, or have become so different in kind that they must be grasped by other conceptual handles. To neutralize the radical negative, we must recognize the political imperative it foists upon us.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Feminism's Race Problem

“If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color), he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.”

- Geraldine Ferraro, first female vice presidential nominee, prominent Clinton supporter, and (now) ex-Clinton-campaign-finance-committee member.

Ferraro’s nonsensical assertion reads like the whine of every bitter white male high school student who didn’t get into an Ivy League school and blames it on his black classmate who did. In short, this is an anti-affirmative action meme: black people get all these advantages, and, as such, successful black people only got where they are because of their race.

Given Ferraro's background as the first female vice presidential nominee and her ties to the Hillary Clinton, the first viable female presidential nominee, her remarks reflect poorly on the feminist establishment's grasp of issues of race and racism. But Ferraro's rhetoric is not an isolated case. On the contrary, she is a prime example of feminism’s recent complicity in anti-affirmative action discourse. Other instances are not so direct, damning, or egregious; they imply and connote rather than emphatically state. Today, for example, Feministing noted Catherine Orenstein’s laudable Op-ed Project, which aims to increase the representation of women among op-ed writers. As Orenstein describes it, the Op-Ed Project is

“an initiative to target and train women experts across the nation to project their voices on the op-ed pages of major newspapers and other key forums of public discourse, which are currently overwhelmingly dominated by male voices, and to connect them with the editors who need them. This is a media democracy project, designed to promote diversity on the op-ed pages and beyond. The premise of this project is not “women’s affirmative action” — in fact, it is not a “women” project at all: It’s an everyone project. The lack of diversity on the op-ed pages deprives the public of robust, democratic debate, especially important in this space, which is intended to showcase divergent opinions.”

Orenstein is careful—eager, even—to dissociate her project from affirmative action programs. By stating that the program is not “women’s affirmative action” she seems to imply that "regular" affirmative action does not benefit women; that its scope is limited to race. But, on the contrary, as African American Policy Forum executive director Kimberle Crenshaw frequently points out, the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action are white women. Orenstein nevertheless insists that the Op-ed Project is not some women’s version of (black) affirmative action; that it is something far nobler and less fraught with identity politics.

If we interpret her meaning somewhat more charitably, Orenstein could be simply acknowledging that there are affirmative action programs for women, but that the Op-ed Project is not one of those. In either case, she seeks to divorce the project from affirmative action.

But the Op-ed Project is an affirmative action project—a very worthwhile one at that. The impetus for the project, as she describes it, is exactly the same as that of affirmative action: “the lack of diversity on the op-ed pages deprives the public of robust, democratic debate.” In the same way, academic affirmative action seeks to create a “critical mass” of minority students on campuses in order to foster intellectually stimulating cultural diversity, and prepare students for life in a multicultural democratic society. And, like the Op-ed Project, affirmative action is an instrument to address white male power structures which have systematically excluded minorities and women.

So why is Orenstein running as fast as she can from the label “affirmative action” in defining the goals of her project? She’s running because she wants the project unsullied by race.

Conservative think tanks have successfully crafted a public image of affirmative action as a remedial program for black folk. And in policies where black folk are concerned, the public is always quick to suspect that they have been given preferential treatment. Since the Civil War, Americans have had an underlying sense that we’ve sacrificed enough already for the Africans we brought here as slaves; that we apologize too much; that they’ve taken a mile for every inch we’ve given. Orenstein is conscious enough of this stigma to reject, in her one paragraph summary of the Op-Ed project, any commonality with affirmative action. She knows that the label "affirmative action" has a stink to it. And that stink emanates from the public perception that affirmative action gives blacks preferential treatment. These are the humors of racism, and though I doubt it was her intent, Orenstein has become complicit in confirming public perceptions of affirmative action as unjust, and black people as unfairly advantaged. By obliquely signaling her sympathy to the critique of affirmative action as an unjustified preference for racial minorities, Orenstein seeks to defend the Op-ed project at the expense of affirmative action, and transitively, at the expense of racial minorities.

This unfortunate ploy is all too common in feminist discourse. The movement has a troubled historical legacy in dealing with the competing interest of racial equality. Elizabeth Cady Stanton allied herself with racist southern Democrats in exalting women’s rights above the rights of black men. Because black men won their right to vote before white women, feminists pitted their interests against those of racial justice, as suffragettes disparaged blacks for women’s gain. As Stanton herself put it, "This republican cry of manhood suffrage created an antagonism between black men and all women.”

This antagonism, I argue, is at the heart of Orenstein’s disavowal of the affirmative action label. Because the public perceives affirmative action as a remedial program for African Americans, Orenstein feels she must dissociate her project from it. In reality, there is no difference between her program and the affirmative action agenda as a whole, except that the Op-ed Project is limited to women, whereas affirmative action benefits both women and minorities. Orenstein must nevertheless take pains to state that her program is not affirmative action, because that program benefits blacks, and programs that benefit blacks do not sit well in the public mind. It’s not that Orenstein has it out for black people. Rather, she realizes on some level that racial prejudices would cast her project in an unsavory light, unless she specifically rejects any connection to programs which people believe give black people preference. As a consequence, Orenstein plays into a gender-race antagonism in which affirmative action is maligned and misunderstood as the unearned privilege of blacks.

This same antagonism has reared its head in the Democratic Primary, as Barack Obama faces off against Hillary Clinton. And the conflict has been filtered through the same terms that conservatives have set for the debate on affirmative action. First, Gloria Steinem, in her New York Times Op Ed Column, “Women are Never Front Runners,” argued that Obama had been beating Clinton because racism is less of a problem than sexism. Faced with Clinton’s diminishing popularity, she charged that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” Here, again, a Feminist leader defined oppression of women against the oppression of African Americans. She sees Obama’s success as part of an “historical pattern of making change” in which black men always get theirs before white women; in which the preference always goes to them, from emancipation to affirmative action. “Black men,” she notes, “were given the vote a half-century before women of any race were allowed to mark a ballot.” She fails to note that black men and women were prevented from exercising that right with poll taxes, literacy tests, and lynchings up until at least 1965 when the Voting Rights Act was passed. But in Steinem’s mind, the verdict of history is clear: American women have been short-changed because of the competing equity claims of African Americans; and Obama, and African Americans in general, do not deserve the preference they have been shown.

The gender-race antagonism of the campaign then reached new heights with Ferraro's "affirmative action candidate" screed against Obama. It bears repeating: “If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color), he would not be in this position.” Like Stanton, she allies herself with racist whites in her disdain for perceived racial preference. The Clinton campaign has in this way reinforced existing prejudices about black people and about affirmative action, all to win the votes of racist Democrats in Pennsylvania.

These attacks underscore that racism and condescension to blacks is not a partisan disease. Many liberals are eager to nominally address African American interests so long as African American power and African American leaders don’t undermine the existing liberal establishment and its agenda. The parental and possessive attitude of the Clintons towards blacks is symptomatic of a racial hierarchy that operates across party lines; and their backhanded pandering to racist whites is a bleached shade of the Democratic Party’s historical colors as the champion of slavery and Jim Crow.

It is time for the Democratic Party to shirk this legacy once and for all by rejecting Clinton’s race baiting politics and denying her the nominiation. And it is time for feminism to shirk the race-gender antagonism of Stanton, Steinem, and Farraro, and take up the intersectional approach to gender championed by Kimberle Crenshaw and Eve Ensler and Jessica Valenti.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Obama, Race, and Identity (American and Personal)

In the wake of Barack Obama’s win in Iowa, the condition race and identity in the American Republic have been thrown into relief. Yesterday, Thomas Edsall at Huffington Post noted the Clinton campaign's frustration with the appeal of Obama's message and symbolism:

“In private, some of Clinton's supporters are deeply disdainful of Obama. 'He is the candidate of the "identity left"', said one, dismissively.”

Today Matt Yglesias noted the obvious implication: “and by ‘identity’ we mean ‘black people.’”

On the sentimental surface, the Clinton campaign is expressing its contempt for a young, black politician who is not waiting his turn; who is challenging the interest of the party establishment; who is not so grateful to the Clintons for all they have done for African Americans as to carry Hillary’s luggage into the White House; and, finally, who blasphemously proposes that racial equity might this time trump feminism in the priorities of liberal progress.

But there is a deeper late modern undercurrent to the derisive claim that Obama’s candidacy has to do with identity politics. The dismissive Clinton supporter Edsall quotes is right that the Obama campaign is about identity. Specifically, it is about the effort to preserve and exalt personal identity through national identity in the face of the racial meanings, dynamics, and structures that fracture both personal and national identity. The self-identity of the individual, upon which citizenship, responsibility, and rights depend, is put into question by the radically non-identical character of race. The Obama candidacy is therefore centrally a contest about race and the deeper disorders of the American political self that race reveals.

Today in the Republic, personal identity is bright and in sharp focus. Because it appears so clearly, its intrinsic blurs and faults are more visible. As the presidential election develops, the public confronts the ultimate elevation and interrogation of the concept of personal identity. In an election where a black candidate is a serious competitor, personal identity becomes yet more crucial in the national discourse, and yet more fragile.

Every candidate is assessed for at once their character, their symbolism, and their representation. They are seen as either possessing or lacking the requisite personal qualities to hold the office, and as symbolizing certain ideas and aspirations, and as also representing certain interests and populations. So the contest between individuals for the presidency imbues the identities of candidates with popular and unpopular traits, symbols, and associations. This process calls into question identity as real or achievable. Where the character, symbolism, and representation of each candidate are not conceptually or thematically aligned, it belies the notion that we are electing a unified personality to the office. Rather, we are electing a set of potentially incongruent identities, predicated of a single body, and, in particular, a single face.

To the extent that presidential politics betrays the lack of identity in candidates, it reveals a more profound unraveling of what it means to be an American self. “One ever feels one’s two-ness” (or three- or four-ness), as Dubois put it, because the meaning of personality in America has multiple and conflicting valences. We are each something in terms of our characteristics, something else in terms of what others take us to symbolize, and something else in terms of what groups and histories we represent. Only in outliers are these three valences of self-definition congruent. For most, identity is fractured and refracted between the way we act, the way our action relates to collective imageries and imaginations, and the way our acts are taken to represent a certain species of American life.

This fracturing of identity has many causes. Empirical science has placed personal identity under close experimental scrutiny, gradually vindicating—experiment by experiment—Hume’s contention that personal identity is a mental fiction created from the continuity of different impressions. At the same time, capitalist law, which creates legal persons in corporations, undermines the notion that identity is a personal quantity, or that legal recognition of personality is coterminous with the rights and obligations pertaining to human bodies. Finally, with race, the fractures of identity are deepest. As personal identity is defined and contested by multiple understandings of racial meaning, the unity of the self is threatened by universal categorizations that supplant the supremacy of identity with an understanding of individuals as instantiations of general racial designations.

Because Barack Obama is a black man, the contest to attach characteristic, symbolic, and associative predicates to his identity is therefore fiercer and more revealing of the racial dynamics at play in the Republic. Obama’s own personal history makes him representative of multiple racial and cultural meanings: his mother was a white Christian from Kansas and his father a non-practising black Muslim from Kenya; he was born in Hawaii; he attended a public school in Indonesia with a majority Muslim student body; he converted to Christianity. Andrew Sullivan, who himself has a troubled grasp of racial identity, describes the complexities of Obama’s racial identity aptly:

“In Dreams From My Father, Obama tells the story of a man with an almost eerily nonracial childhood, who has to learn what racism is, what his own racial identity is, and even what being black in America is. And so Obama’s relationship to the black American experience is as much learned as intuitive. He broke up with a serious early girlfriend in part because she was white. He decided to abandon a post-racial career among the upper-middle classes of the East Coast in order to reengage with the black experience of Chicago’s South Side. It was an act of integration—personal as well as communal—that called him to the work of community organizing.

“This restlessness with where he was, this attempt at personal integration, represents both an affirmation of identity politics and a commitment to carving a unique personal identity out of the race, geography, and class he inherited. It yields an identity born of displacement, not rootedness. And there are times, I confess, when Obama’s account of understanding his own racial experience seemed more like that of a gay teen discovering that he lives in two worlds simultaneously than that of a young African American confronting racism for the first time” (Andrew Sullivan, "Goodbye to All That," Atlantic Monthly).

For Sullivan, Obama’s fragmentary construction of a racial identity mirrors his own difficulties in assembling a unified self from the sexual structures that confront him. Obama’s racial identity is therefore not merely significant for determining the meaning of race in America. It is also significant for determining the meaning of identity in America. For race is akin to all other identities, except its fractures are deeper and its impact is more remarkable and more harmful. So when we confront the meaning of racial identity, we confront the problems of identity writ large.

Everyone’s racial identity is fractured because racial designations are imprecise and insensitive to nuance. But because of his biography, Obama particularly highlights at once the incoherence and the power of race as political and personal fact. With everyone from the right to the left agreeing that Obama’s significance as a candidate has to do with race, commentary and criticism often takes on the dismal shades of racism. But it is a racism which reveals the unstable meaning of racial identity. Bob Kerrey, a Clinton supporter, for example threw the race card at Obama with an underhanded though obvious appeal to racial anxieties:

““The fact that he’s African-American is a big deal. I do expect and hope that Hillary is the nominee of the party. But I hope he’s used in some way. If he happens to be the nominee of the party and ends up being president, I think his capacity to influence in a positive way . . . the behavior of a lot of underperforming black youth today is very important, and he’s the only one who can reach them.”

Kerrey continued: “It’s probably not something that appeals to him, but I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There’s a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal.”

It’s a “big deal” to Kerrey that Obama is African American and related to Muslims: a big deal that he’s African American because African American youth are out of control, and won’t listen to any white people; a big deal that his mother was Muslim because there are a billion Muslims on earth and lots of Muslims are terrorists. So Obama, the black Muslim relative is important because blacks and Muslims are out of control. Kerrey thus intended to associate Obama with perceptions of racial threats from blacks and Muslims. In the tradition of Norman Podhoretz and Frank Salvato, Kerrey sought to link perceived threats from blacks at home to perceived threats of Muslims abroad through Obama’s personal identity. But it is only because Obama has an ambiguous racial identity that this equation is possible: black violence is associated with Muslim violence through a person associated with both blacks and Muslims (thought not violence).

Obama’s lack of definable racial identity in this way becomes a playground for racial attribution that at once raises the profile of the debate about race and increasingly blurs racial distinctions and racial meanings. Whereas Andrew Sullivan argues that Obama represents the end of a the racial culture war that has gone on since the sixties, Jonah Goldberg of the National Review suggest that black people will riot if Obama loses, and white liberals will vote for Obama out of fear of social unrest. Bill Bennett applauds Obama for not playing the race card, thereby himself affirming the legitimacy of race as a political “card.” (Glenn Greenwald “Jonah Goldberg and Glenn Reynolds Worn of Social Unraveling if Obama Loses," 1.5.08). Steve Sailer of the Washington Times contests this assertion by claiming that Obama has a “lifelong fixation with proving himself ‘black enough.’” Obama is the end and the beginning of race riots; he is absolved of race and a race peddler. In short, the ‘Obama’ that pundits have constructed embodies the condition of race in America: denied and avowed; shunned and embraced; feared and loved.

The message of the Obama campaign is that the fractures of identity that race reveals can be healed through the identification of a national we, represented and instantiated in Obama’s person. Since his historic speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, entitled “Out of Many, One,” Obama has sought to dissolve difference in unity:

“For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga. A belief that we’re all connected as one people. …

“E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

“Now even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes.

“Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America — there is the United States of America. There is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America — there’s the United States of America."

The hope of Obama is that we can be united in the shared disunity of our persons, and in our effort to somehow reconstruct the pieces; that we can supercede interpersonal and intrapersonal difference with national unity. This effort might occur in any case. But such attempts at unity would necessarily wring hollow without Obama--a candidate with a black face and an identity entangled with racial ambiguity. Race is too deeply embedded in the cavities of personal and national identity to be bracketed again, as it was in the Constitutional convention, in the interest of the union. Without Obama, the racial fissures in American identity would be ignored, and therefore would persist. With Obama, the reality of race must be confronted, in all its complexity, contradiction, and multiplicity.

Friday, December 14, 2007

LA Times Homicide Report: Race and the Situated Specificity of Death

The Los Angeles Times blog Homicide Report, by Jill Leovy, documents homicides in Los Angeles with brief accounts of the victim, the murder, and, where applicable, the investigation. A couple of the entries struck me:

“Adam Blount, 28, a black man, was shot and killed Thursday night, Dec. 6, at about 11 p.m. in the 1600 block of W. 36th Street. west of Normandie Avenue in South L.A. He had just left the recreation center at Denker park and was walking to his home, which is near the murder scene. His assailants caught up with him as he walked on the sidewalk. There was gunfire, and Blount was taken to California Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. He was single, and had no children. When detectives arrived at the murder scene, no one was around, and it had begun to rain.”

“Jeffrey Sinclair, 17, a black youth, was shot multiple times at 825 W. 54th Street in LAPD's 77th Street Division at about 9:15 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20. He was taken to California Hospital, where he died at 9:45 p.m. His mother was incarcerated; he lived with his grandparents. He had been on his bicycle just before he was attacked. The bicycle fell near him at the homicide scene.”

These reports are unusual and poignant because of the specificity they give to the circumstances of the murder, and the victim. When the police arrived to find the body of a black man, who they would learn was named Adam Blount, it began to rain. Jeffrey Sinclair, the black son of an incarcerated mother, was found dead beside his bicycle. The reports begin with general facts that situate the murder, and then descend into particularities, ending with a detail that grounds the account in the unique then-and-there of the crime scene.

This situated account of death is an admirable and compelling way to appreciate the weight and significance of isolated human events in a large nation where powerful and pervasive forces are at play. Martin Heidegger would counsel us that death is special for the way it separates us from commitments to other thing and people. The situated account, on the contrary, posits that death is unique in that it places us, forever, in a circumstance that is entirely our own, while at the same time connecting that circumstance to the structures, identities, and histories that brought it about.

Race is at the forefront of this context. As you read down the entries of the blog, almost all victims are black or latino. Each of these deaths is therefore unique and tragic, but at the same time representative of the social reality of race. If Leovy merely described a boy dead beside his bicycle, or officers arriving as the rain fell, the death would appear tragic and senseless, but it would appear innocent of political or social causes. On the other hand, if we merely list the statistics of racial disparity in homicide rates, we are confronted with only a mass of color coded data unrelated to particular violations of human worth, which entail moral and political responsibilities. In combining facts about race and racial disparity with the radically specific and human circumstances of death, Leovy’s Homicide report makes an important contribution to a discourse about criminal justice that refuses to be colorblind. Leovy herself aptly described the need for a racially sensitive account in her post: "Why does the Report talk about race?"

“The Homicide Report recognizes the peril of dehumanizing victims by reducing their lives and deaths to a few scant facts--particularly racial designations which provide only the roughest markers of ancestry and history. But given the magnitude of difference in homicide risk along racial and ethnic lines--and the extremity of suffering which homicide inflicts on subsets of the population--we opt here to present information which lays bare racial and ethnic contours of the problem so conspicuous in the coroner's data. The goal is to promote understanding, and honor a basic journalistic principle: Tell the truth about who suffers.”

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Voter Suppression and Diminished Political Reality

The Bush Administration's assault on minority voting rights pushed on today as the Justice Department, in an unusual move, submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in defense of Indiana's voter ID law. As I noted in "The Return of the Racial Aristocracy in the New American Century," Indiana's voter ID law has been shown to disenfranchise disproportionately poor, elderly, and minority voters (Barreto et al.). While the law is supposedly intended to reduce voter fraud, there is scant evidence that voter fraud is actually a problem. Rather, the false alarm of voter fraud has provided a plausible justification for voter registration requirements which disenfranchise groups who tend to vote for Democrats. The true victim of this maneuver, however, is not the Democratic party, but minorities and poor people who have lost their constitutional rights by virtue of their political association.

The Indiana voter ID law is not an isolated case. With the advice and leadership of of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division, and officials like Hans von Spakovsky, Florida has passed a law which requires voter registration information be checked against (error ridden) drivers license and social security databases. The result has been the rejection of 43,000 voter applications, with black applicants over six times and hispanic applicants seven times as likely as white applicants to be rejected.

Such laws thus employ the faults, discrepancies, and delays endemic to bureaucratic processes to disenfranchise poor and minority voters, who are more likely to be the victims of database errors, and most vulnerable to registration complications. Similarly, voter ID laws rely upon the imposition of unwarranted bureaucratic burdens to accomplish voter suppression.

These programs represent a broader effort to call into question the political reality of poor and minority citizens. When poor and minority communities are prevented from expressing their interests at the polls, their reality in the calculus of political campaigning and the making of policy diminishes. Beyond this, the deeper implication of voter ID laws is to equate minority and low income suffrage with fraud, and by extension, to suggest that the reality of minorities and poor people as citizens is suspect. These laws capitalize on the histories of descrimination and the circumstances of low income life, which make it less likely that individuals within minority groups will be recognized and accurately accounted for by the bureaucratic and institutional instruments that locate and define the status of citizens.

Such instruments are instances of political thought: they are ways of attaining knowledge of the reality of the selves who constitute the Republic. But when this thought is brought to bear on the law, it ceases to reflect an existing political reality. Instead it shapes the political reality to reflect its accurate or inaccurate assesments. Whereas it may have been an error, in the first instance, to fail to document the residences of poor and minority citizens, when this erroreous data informs voter registration rejections, such citizens truly become diminished citizens with diminished rights. Techniques of of bureaucratic obfuscation are thus not merely instruments towards the end of Democratic voter suppression; more, the techniques underscore and employ ambiguous data about minorities and the poor so as to engender and confirm the suspicion that, politically at least, these people are somewhat less than real.

State laws which disenfrancise convicted felons, who are disproprotionately hispanic and black, likewise aim to associate minorities, via criminality, with severely diminished political reality ("Uneven Justice," The Sentencing Project: 2007). As these instruments of disenfranchisement succeed, and poor and minority influence diminishes at the polls, this association of criminality, minorities, and suspect citizenship will be confirmed in reality by minorities' absence from the national discourse and natural conscience. The Bush Administration's techniques of voter suppression thus cunningly exploit the state's powers of definition, authentication, obfuscation, and incarceration to bolster the racial and economic aristocracy in a republic turned empire.

h/t: Talking Points Memo.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Black Folk Behind the Veil: The Racial Blindness of Political Liberalism

“Then it dawned on me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil.”

--W.E.B. Dubois, The Souls of Black Folk.

In 1903, when The Souls of Black Folk was published, the veil took many concrete forms, such as poll taxes, which blinded the electoral chambers to Black interests, or, legal segregation, which kept Blacks out of the sight and out of mind for the white public. But even with the removal of these institutional barriers in the 1960s, the racial veil remains as a limit on the scope of our political reason. John Rawls’ employs the imagery of a veil explicitly in A Theory of Justice. There, in arguably the most adequate defense of contemporary liberalism, Rawls uses the notion of a “veil of ignorance” to describe the conditions for determining principles of justice. When we consider these conditions in light of our racially disparate reality, we find that the veil serves not as the instrument of justice, but as an instrument for the preservation of injustice. Rawls’ use of the veil therefore betrays political liberalism's morally fatal ignorance of racial injustice. Political reasoning behind the veil necessarily yields color blind norms because it requires citizens deliberating over justice to ignore the question of race. As a consequence, Rawls' mode of political reason is wholly unequipped to recognize the contemporary reality of racism, and conceive of justifiable norms for political redress.

Rawls aim in A Theory of Justice is to articulate universal and public principles that would establish fair terms of social cooperation, serving as the “final court of appeal for ordering the conflicting claims of moral persons” (Rawls 1999: 117). To accomplish this, he suggests that we reason from an “original position,” in which the facts we have access to in reasoning will be restricted in order to minimize partiality. Here Rawls employs the notion of the “veil of ignorance” to describe the justifiable conditions of political reasoning:

“Now in order to do this I assume that the parties are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

“It is assumed then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one know his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets or abilities, his intelligence or strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life… More than this, I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its economic or political situation, or the level of civilization and culture it has been able to achieve" (118).

Rawls’ veil is fairly opaque, excluding the parties’ knowledge of their cognitive, social, economic, of cultural circumstances. It leaves so much off the table because it intends to produce consensus between self-interested individuals over principles of social cooperation by denying them knowledge of their particular circumstance. When reasoning over the structure of a just society, parties must imagine that they could be any citizens within this society, such that the rules are, hypothetically, fair from the perspective of any citizen.

Rawls never mentions “race” as a circumstance that should be excluded from deliberations over questions of justice. The closest he comes to addressing race is his exclusion of “social circumstance.” The idea of considering race in questions of justice is too remote for a liberal like Rawls even to consider. But presumably, if individuals must be ignorant with respect to their social circumstance when deliberating over principles of justice, they must be ignorant of their race as well.

What, then, do the parties to this convention of justice know? “It is taken for granted…that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology.” Leaving aside the question of what “general facts” we have on these particular topics, it seems that no “general facts” about race could be introduced, because there is no public or scholarly consensus on race: whether it is or isn’t, and if it is, what it is. Because race is an ambiguous, complex, empirically ungrounded, and historically produced concept, it cannot be among the general facts that inform the priniciples of justice.

Because of the way Rawls understands "general facts," and their relation to reasoning, race simply cannot factor in to deliberations about justice. In Rawls' understanding, general facts serve as boundary condition that informs what kinds of social structures and principles would be plausible in the context of social psychology and human nature. So if Rawls were to allow parties to consider a "general fact" about race, that fact would therefore structure resulting principles of social organization to confirm that fact. For example, let's say parties to the convention of justice admit as a general fact that societies tend to assign unequal values and unequal opportunities to different people depending on their physical characteristics and ethnicity. This fact then plays the same role as facts like egoism, or moral sympathy, or scarcity of resources: it is an assumption built into deliberations about society which the principles that derive from deliberation will not only take for granted, but also actively confirm. If you create social structures that assume egoism, then those structures will (re)produce egoism. Likewise, if you assumes that people hiearchically order individuals according to race, then the society you create will tend to hierichally order individuals according to race, in order not to resist supposed facts about human tendencies. There is no possibility, in Rawls, that certain general facts, as opposed to particular facts, could be fundamentally unjust facts, deserving not merely consideration, but active negation. So race must be excluded as a general fact at the outset, because its inclusion would undermine the objectivity of facts that underlies Rawls' scheme of political justification.

Because the inclusion of race as a fact, unlike the inclusion self-interest or material scarcity as facts, raises explicit moral questions, and does not square with liberal universalist intuitions, race does not appear in Rawls' understanding of liberal reasoning. The inclusion of race would challenge the relation between facts and norms in liberal thinking, and the whole liberal scheme whereby reality is filtered and normalized through the universal categories of thought. To include race as a consideration in matters of justice would be to pollute the universality of liberal principles with a fact that derives its very force from the segregation and differential valuation of universality. And so, in the same way that the Founding Fathers felt they needed to ignore the question of slavery in order to preserve the fledgling union, Rawls' species of liberal political reason ignores race in order to preserve the justification conferred by the universal dictates of reason.

Rawls’ principles of justice, and the whole order of value they designate, are thus colorblind. They treat race as a historical fiction and curiosity, divorcef from the general, social scientific facts that are relevant to political considerations. The universal principles of justice are advertised, nonetheless, to entail just arrangements for all members of society, irrespective of race. For Rawls, reasoning behind the veil of ignorance yields too basic principles:

“First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others. Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all” (53).

When these color blind principles of justice confront the reality of American society, they are woefully unprepared to redress racial inequality. Race, after all, was excluded as a fact for consideration in the genesis of the principles of justice, so the glaring facts of racial disparity in income, wealth, health, education, or incarceration do not seem like facts at all. They are figments of our partial imagination, which we gratefully forgot while in the original position. Through a willful exclusion of the question of race, the principles of justice emerge as the universal arbiters of fairness and equity.

Newly armed with these unimpeachable principles, Rawls suggests that we can wipe away the vestiges of racism, and embrace a legal system that treats everyone equally regardless of their race. Rawls’ principles would thus champion anti-discrimination law and forbid de jure segregation, since these would trammel on individuals “most extensive scheme of basic liberties,” and prevent positions and offices from being open to all. But because “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties,” policies that aimed to ameliorate disparity by placing new burdens and restrictions on individuals would be forbidden tout court. We could not have mandatory busing programs that aim to achieve racial balance in public schools; we could not allocate public resources to programs designed to ameliorate racial disparity; we could not have affirmative action programs, in public universities at least; and we could not in any case put demands for racial parity on institutional or corporate bodies. Any of these would place a demand for racial equity above the right of individuals to set their own course. And given the universal right to the most extensive scheme of liberties, even if we acknowledged a compelling public interest in racial disparity, the fundamental principle of equal and maximal liberty would trump that interest.

The only avenue for racial redress in the Rawlsian scheme would be to treat racial disparity as its own kind of social inequality, and then argue that racial disparity is not to everyone’s advantage. But here the racial justice Rawlsian will meet with blank stares from his liberal compatriots. They would say that unlike income inequality, social organization, or political affairs, race is not among the “general facts about human society” around which the principles of justice is defined, since race is not a fact but fiction. From the perspective of justice behind the veil, racial disparity is not a recognizable form of social inequality. Inequalities may appear to have a racial correlation, but the only real inequalities, the only inequalities relevant to political justice, are the unequal circumstances between individuals, which are defined not by skin-color, but by legal and social, and economic metrics. In the liberal view, to consider race in political reason is to employ an illegitimate category, and so to reason incorrectly. Race, so understood, is an ideological relic of social structures that violated principles of justice, so the consideration of race can only serve to perpetuate those structures. As Avery Gordon and Christopher Newfield put it, liberalism “treats the categories through which racism operates, is felt, and is addressed as conceptual errors” (Gordon and Newfield, Critical Theory: 1994). In the liberal’s reasoning, the best and only available political remedy for racial disparity is to eschew race consciousness and laws that explicitly employ the faulty concept of race. With the abolition of the irrational category, racial disparity may or may not dissipate, but in either case it will not matter, because we will not think of fairness in terms of race.

The veil of ignorance thus blinds the principles of justice to questions of racism beyond explicit discrimination or de jure segregation. The color blind policy which Rawls’ political reason mandates does not serve to eliminate racism, but only serves to inoculate the conscience of justice from the fact or racial disparity. It creates a circumstance where one of the most glaring aspects of our political in social reality becomes completely irrelevant to considerations of fairness. And so the question of race is bracketed permanently, and Black folk remain behind the veil as the theoreticians consider the merits of our society.