Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Tepid Brew

"The New Black (The Old Black) – What Has Changed and What Has Not With Race in America,” edited by Kenneth W Mack and Guy-Uriel E Charles, 2013

If you thought the election of Barack Obama threw a bomb amongst the racists and bigots – you should read what it did to the non-white academics!  However, this is no “Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.”  This is more like ‘grind out another article for my CV.’ Scholars write in a peculiar opaque and dull language, full of academic jargon and cliché’s, micro-issues and cagey ass-covering.  So I’ll get right to it.

When academics think that black people are a ‘race’ we’ve already made concessions to the racists.  There is only one race, the human race, and pretending that blacks or Latinos or Asians are different races is like pretending that schnauzers and poodles aren’t dogs, but space aliens from different planets.  Reference: Ashley Montagu. 

Of these 11 essays, only two are a bit radical and only one actually points to ‘class’ as a real construct.  The rest choke on their own obscurity or ordinariness.  The one that takes that particular cake is written by a Latino Harvard law professor.  It describes how Justice Kennedy, the swing justice on the Supreme Court, holds the future of the ‘Second Reconstruction’ in his hands.  Really?  Really?  He’s the guy?  Another was about the notorious arrest of famous black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates on his own front porch, even after he’d shown his ID to a Cambridge cop.  This incident is to serve as the prime example of police ethnic profiling.  Another essay by a Latino professor debates whether a ‘civil rights’ or a ‘law enforcement’ approach is appropriate to deal with undocumented immigrants, and settles on a blend.  That’s it?  Nothing else?  Another, which could have been written at any time in the last 30 years, is about unconscious bias against black Americans among many white people.  Another is whether Obama is a ‘free black man’ or not.  Question mark.  Or whether Obama is ‘post-black’ or not.  Another question mark.  Lots of questions, lots of vagueness. 

Of personal interest was a story of growing up in a black army family in an upscale neighborhood in Birmingham, AL, and whether the author’s family had been some kind of civil rights pioneers in the Army. (Maybe…maybe not.)  Not sure what this had to do with the main theme, but interesting nevertheless.  A factoid post by an Asian professor explains that many ‘independents’ are actually minority people, not whites as is the stereotype - only 60% are white, and 40% non-white.  This he claims explains part of the shift of independents towards Obama in the elections.  Independents now make up a bit more than 40% of the whole electorate, which shows that allegiance to either party is eroding.  However, these factoids are not followed to their logical conclusion. 

The thread running through all these essays is:  With the election of Obama, are we in a color-blind, a ‘post-racial’ society, and hence a post-civil rights period in the U.S.?  After all, the increases in the non-white middle class, non-white politicians, non-white soldiers, non-white entertainers and sports heroes are the fruits of the civil rights movement.  Even government hiring benefited from that movement, which lessened hiring discrimination.

One essay definitely says no to the first part and ‘yes’ to the second part of the question.  Ethnicity still matters … and a civil rights approach is no longer sufficient.  This essay by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres insists that ‘black’ is not a measure of skin color any more, but is a measure of class position in society.  The ‘new blacks’ are those at the bottom, no matter their color.  They cite the large white membership in a prison NAACP chapter in Maine as an example.  They cite the continuing presence of mostly black and Latino people at the bottom of society as proof.  They quote Andrew Young to the effect that the SCLC in the 60s had no interest in economic issues.  Hence they imply that just concentrating on issues of ‘law’ or ‘rights’ is not sufficient in a capitalist society to assuage the oppression of minorities.  Another essay by Glenn Loury maintains that Obama is not a ‘prophet’ but a politician, and he does what politicians do, not what prophets do.  And black folks still need prophets.  OK, pretty oblique, but we get it.  Prophets don’t aid Wall Street, don’t send out drones or conduct military ‘surges’ in foreign countries, don’t ignore poverty, don’t mass arrest immigrants, don’t promote the NSA, don’t ignore unions, don’t bust weed dispensaries.  And they don't approve bills to cut food stamps or promote pro-corporate trading plans like the Trans Pacific Partnership - 'NAFTA on steroids' or approve the Keystone XL pipeline. 

Bloomberg had an editorial this week by one of their editors titled, "Obama Hijacks Republican Agenda."  The jist of it was that almost every program being pursued by Obama had its origins in prior Republican policies.

Obama is a political bomb that has been thrown into the midst of people whose outlook is primarily ethnic or ‘nationality’ based. The whole Democratic Party and Republican Parties electoral appeal is secretly and not-so-secretly based on this slant, not class.  The Republicans try to represent ‘whites’ and non-whites who want to get ahead, mostly petit-bourgeois businessmen or their wannabes.  The Democratic Party claims to represent a vague ‘middle-class,’ various sectoralist ethnicities and non-white middle-class professionals.  For instance, they figure as long as they run a Latina in a somewhat Latino neighborhood, that is all that is necessary.  She may be an ally of the real estate industry, but that doesn’t matter.  This sectoralist tactic has been the Democrat’s tactic since Tammany Hall.  Of course, in New York it was Irish or Italians or Poles in Chicago.  Now it might be Latinos, Somalis or Meong. 

Yet if these non-white ‘progressive’ professionals still believe in civil rights AND economic rights, not just nice words, then they have been disappointed repeatedly by Obama and his administration.  Evidently having a mixed-ethnicity president from Harvard Law School does not deliver us to the promised land.  This is the conundrum that runs through these essays, which most of them cannot answer. 

This volume mentions John Hope Franklin quite a lot.  He was a leading black historian of slavery and black people whose most eminent work was “From Freedom to Slavery.”  Franklin was not a leftist, but stood by W.E.B. Dubois when he was being red-baited.  He seems to be one of the first in the academic community to interweave black and American history into one story – when prior to him it had been two stories, one almost invisible.  At the time this was certainly a progressive achievement.  Now it is not such an outlier.  Perhaps this fading inspiration is why most of these scholars cook such a tepid brew.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
January 29, 2014

1 comment:

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