The Progressive Problem With Race

Over the past several years, since Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency — and indeed even before that, during his candidacy — we have seen a lot of hand-wringing, particularly among progressives and in the press, about race. Early hopes of a fanciful and long-heralded “national conversation” about race quickly gave way to dark accusations that, in the words of former President Jimmy Carter himself, “… an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American.

Indeed, according to Carter

When a radical fringe element of demonstrators and others begin to attack the president of the United States as an animal or as a reincarnation of Adolf Hitler or when they wave signs in the air that said we should have buried Obama with Kennedy, those kinds of things are beyond the bounds.

Carter’s outrage, alas, seems to have been fairly selective, to say the least, and represents the weaponization of race in the progressive discourse. It would, of course, be a great error to ignore the plain fact that people like this do indeed exist (link not necessarily work-safe). That being said, we have all, by now, grown used to hearing about the various “code words” used by crypto-racists in their dog-whistle politics. Some, like the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd just started inserting the code words themselves. In the wake of Congressman Joe Wilson’s infamous “you lie!” outburst during the President’s State of the Union Address, Dowd wrote:

Surrounded by middle-aged white guys — a sepia snapshot of the days when such pols ran Washington like their own men’s club — Joe Wilson yelled “You lie!” at a president who didn’t.

But, fair or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!

“Fair or not,” indeed. At other times, we’ve been told that how people perceive President Obama’s race has affected how he has dealt with disasters like the Deepwater Horizon spill. All of that is to say nothing of the avalanche of commentary about Tea Party racism, some of it legitimate and some of it bordering on the hysterical. And then there was the outcry over the Obama/Joker poster that made the rounds a few  months ago. It too was denounced as racist, until it came out that a Palestinian Arab living in Chicago was the person behind it.

In any case, the point here is not to illustrate every example of how racism — or accusations thereof — has infected our political discourse. I merely bring it up because I think it provides a useful context for examining progressive attitudes toward race, which I believe are often rooted more in cynicism and political opportunism than in any genuine concern about the problem of racism.

This becomes especially clear when discussing black conservatives. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has probably been the most longstanding target of racialized ire from the left. Most recently, progressive protesters at a “Common Cause” rally suggested “stringing him up” and “putting him back in the fields.” Alternet has described Thomas as the “anti-black,” “a hit-man against his own people,” and a “crybaby — demented and consumed by a huge reservoir of perceived assaults that make him appear like a Black, stocky, middle-aged version of the pitiful-but-pathological character Gollum, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.”

Indeed, Time once ran an article called “Uncle Tom Justice,” a title that leaves little to the imagination.

The most disturbing thing about Thomas is not his conclusions, but his twisted reasoning and bilious rage. In his written opinions, he begins with premises that no self-respecting black would disagree with, then veers off into a neverland of color-blind philosophizing in which all race-based policies, from Jim Crow laws designed to oppress minorities to affirmative-action measures seeking to assist them, are conflated into one morally and legally pernicious whole. He delights in gratuitously tongue-lashing the majority of blacks who disagree with him on almost every civil rights issue.

Note here the implication, also present in Alternet’s characterization of the man as a “hit-man against his own people,” that Clarence Thomas’s primary loyalty should be to his skin color and those like him — other blacks. Instead, according to the author, Clarence Thomas, a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, is no “self-respecting black” by dint of his ideological deviations. When smug white protesters at Common Cause rallies talk about sending him “back to the fields,” they don’t mean it literally; instead, they are expressing their discomfort at the idea of a black man leaving the progressive plantation.

As two aging white Baby Boomer women expressed to me at an anti-war rally in early 2003, when asked about their views of Colin Powell, “We fought so hard for his rights, and he went and became a Republican.” Powell was also excoriated by none other than Harry Belafonte for being a “house negro,” with Al Sharpton gleefully piling on.

Indeed, the “Uncle Tom” accusation is one that is routinely deployed against African-Americans who break ranks with the left. Michael Steele, for instance, who served as the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, has also been accused of selling out to Mr. Charlie, as it were.

More recently, Republican Presidential hopeful Herman Cain has been derided by one “Chauncey De Vega” (a pseudonym)  as a “black garbage pail kid.” De Vega writes that

Herman Cain’s shtick is a version of race minstrelsy where he performs “authentic negritude” as wish fulfillment for White Conservative fantasies. Like the fountain at Lourdes, Cain in his designated role as black Conservative mascot, absolves the White racial reactionaries at CPAC of their sins. This is a refined performance that Black Conservatives have perfected over many decades and centuries of practice.

Elsewhere, De Vega calls Cain a “political coprophagist” and “a victim of racial Stockholm syndrome.”

All of this might be excusable as the execrable ranting of some crank on the internet, but De Vega’s bio reveals that he is “editor and founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes, which has been featured by the NY Times, the Utne Reader, and The Atlantic Monthly.” Far from just being some bilious, race obsessed blogger, Mr. De Vega in fact seems to be a bilious, race obsessed blogger whose views have been featured in a number of respectable venues.

Indeed, after his attacks on Cain, he was given space on Salon to defend his accusations of “minstrelry.” After throwing in a couple by now required-for-progressives jabs at the Koch Brothers, he trotted out a few standard hobby horses:

In addition to the raucous applause they received CPAC, Cain and Allen West, a conservative black Republican who was elected to Congress last year, both legitimated a deep hostility to President Obama that is rooted in “birtherism” and crazed paranoid narratives about the tyranny and terror supposedly unleashed by America’s first black president.

As I and others have suggested elsewhere, these are narratives that are premised on a belief that a black man who happens to be president is de facto illegitimate. And, of course, there’s no shortage of black conservatives who make a living among the pundit classes as human parrots for the right –popular for their novelty and unwilling to offer sustained critiques of policies that may, in fact, be deleterious to communities of color and the common good.

Once again, as in the cases of Clarence Thomas and Colin Powell, the problem with Herman Cain seems to be that he poses a challenge to progressive ownership of the “race” discourse in America. For an African-American to be “authentic,” regardless of their background or their struggles, they must be a Democrat. This explains why Barack Obama, who enjoyed a comfortable middle class upbringing, can escape the charge of “minstrelry,” while Herman Cain, who had far more direct experience than Obama with Jim Crow racism and discrimination, cannot.  If Herman Cain, in De Vega’s words, is a “race minstrel” and a “mascot for the white conservative imagination,” then much the same charge could plausibly be leveled at Obama — or indeed De Vega himself — vis-a-vis the “white liberal imagination.” After all, much of Obama’s appeal in the 2008 election was that he seemed to offer whites in particular an opportunity to absolve themselves of racial guilt.

And yet progressive epistemology would seem to hold that such an accusation against the President is unthinkable, while charges of “sellout” and “minstrelry” against black conservatives are so common that they are almost unremarkable at this point.

The goal here is not to defend Herman Cain — I find his views on abortion and gay rights nauseating and his ideas about Muslims insane and dangerous… in short, this man will not make a good President — but rather to take issue with the notion that the left gets to dictate the terms of the “race discourse.”

Indeed, the notion that blacks — or gays, or women, or Hispanics, or … — belong to the left — if they stray, of course, they’re sellouts or suffering from “false consciousness” and just don’t know what’s good for them (read: progressive politics) — is redolent of the paternalistic worldview that allowed racism to metastasize in the first place. The cynicism that underlies this narrative is laid bare the moment that criticism of a Hermain Cain or a Clarence Thomas takes on an explicitly racial tenor which, as we have seen here, it frequently does.

Despite the fact that many on the left assume an air of pious self-righteousness regarding issues of race, the only recourse for some, when confronted with the reality of people of color who won’t accept their political patronage, is to respond with some version of the phrase “race traitor.”

So much for the “national conversation.”


2 Responses to “The Progressive Problem With Race”

  1. 1 Erotische Geschichten von Frauen und Männer
    December 4, 2012 at 9:19 pm

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  2. May 26, 2013 at 8:52 am

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