Race in the race

By | September 15, 2008

Kevin Alexander Gray, Guest Commentary

– Barack Obama’s stump line is: “They will try to scare you about me. They’ll say he has a funny name.., and they’ll say, ‘Oh by the way, he’s black.’” John McCain says he “plays race” with the line (to gin up black votes, prick white liberal guilt and tar the opposition as racist). Where I’m from, we call McCain’s charge “flippin’ the script.”

Obama’s stump line is his bind. Just to say “he’s black” or “I’m black” says something. It says he’s not white.

It implies that being white has added or positive value and black, negative. And being mixed-race is not a neutralizing factor. It’s like the line from a Big Bill Broonzy song written around the 30s or 40s, “white is right, brown stick around black git back.”

It was never just gonna be about an old guy versus a young guy as if it were just two white guys running against one another.

Growing up in the South decades ago, we saw skin privilege in a crude way. And as far back as the Civil War, the belief in white supremacy spurred many poor, Southern farmers to fight against their interest on the side of rich, plantation owners. Placing skin color above economic interest has persisted, as some whites commonly say: “You may be poor, but at least you’re not a nigger.” Today, rapper Trick Daddy puts it this way: “…World champions and you M.V.P — you a nigga. 4 degrees and a PhD — still a nigga…,” The politically correct can replace the words nigger or nigga with black.

As a native Southerner, I immediately knew what Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland meant when he recently called Obama “uppity.” And I knew that the word that usually follows right behind it is nigger. I could be wrong, but I believe the movie “Roots” had the term “uppity nigga” in the script. Kunta Kinte was an uppity nigger. Toby wasn’t – after he had a forced name change and half a foot cut off. When a black calls another black uppity it means they’re snotty, snobby, “hankdy,” “biggity” or, they think ‘they’re better than you.’ We also sometimes call it “acting c[s]ee-ditty.” For whites, the epithet is reserved for a “Negro, Colored or black who steps out of place” as it relates to them. In the days of the black lynching epidemic, it’s safe to suspect the two words were probably the last words a black man heard before he was hung.

The race card is played, taken back and recast. Obama foes don’t have to use “uppity” again. Calling him “elitist” has the same affect. Some may argue, ‘That can’t be true. John Kerry was called an elitist.’ Doubtless, the word implies being ‘remote’, ‘aloof’ ‘urbane’ ‘know-it-all’ or, apart from or above the people. But elitist can also mean “liberal do-gooder” as code for “nigger-lover.” That labels stands even taking into account the contorted and exploitive poses that blacks and white liberals take with each other when guilt and race collide or merge.

The race stuff isn’t new.

Race was the blueprint for the Dixiecrats, Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon, Harry Dent, and Lee Atwater. They used it to create the “Southern Strategy” employed by neo-conservatives and ‘neo-Confederates today. It’s why Ronald Reagan traveled to Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980 – the site where civil rights activists Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman were killed and buried in the sixties. The race split created Reagan Democrats. It’s why Jesse Helms and Dick Morris ran their notorious ad with the white hands of an actor crumpling up a job application that he lost because of “racial quotas.” It’s why Republican politicians make the pilgrimage to the fundamentalist Bob Jones University and promote ‘states rights’ as their mantra. It’s what Trent Lott was conveying when he told a Strom Thurmond birthday gathering, “You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.” It’s what George Bush Sr. did with his “Willie Horton” ad. And it’s what Bill Clinton did when he denounced Sister Souljah. It runs through what Obama calls “Karl Rove style politics.”

There are more ways to play race than one can easily imagine. Today, there’s the raw, obvious racist punch in the face like the Georgia restaurant owner’s promotional t-shirts with Obama in the likeness of Curious George, the monkey, on it. And there’s the racist caricature of Obama in the “waffles” boxes that were being peddled at the recent Family Values Summit.

Then there’s innuendo. Questions are tossed in the air like, “who is he?” and, “is he one of ‘us’?” “He maybe (or is) Muslim,” or ‘he maybe like or secretly tight with those other or “angry” blacks like Jeremiah Wright or Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan.

It’s why Obama can’t go to a Tavis Smiley race forum but Hillary Clinton can.

McCain went to Memphis on the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death. Obama was a no show. Critics charged he didn’t want to come off as appearing “too black.” His defenders countered that he had less to prove on race than McCain. I suspect he didn’t want his opposition to get a snapshot of him, Al Sharpton and Martin King III together. Or to be in the same town as Sharpton, King and, Jackson. Doubtless, a photo of him with two or three “angry” black men would be used against him as is the case with the picture of him and Jeremiah Wright in happier days.

Both candidates addressed the National Urban League and NAACP Conventions. McCain promised little but little was expected. His win was showing up. Yet Obama scolded his black audiences about “personal responsibility,” which is a race-coded appeal to whites, as if to say, ‘I’m not like them, I’m like you.”

Obama got high marks by the media for his Bill Cosby-styled swipes on blacks. Talk of post-racialism and a generational shift from the “angry old black men” to the young accommodationists filled the air. The New York Times magazine capped off Obama’s ‘kick em (his minister, church and ‘old-style,” elder, “angry” black politicians) under the bus” period posing the headline question: “Is Obama the end of black politics?”

Obama and his campaign are doubtlessly aware of the depths of racism.

As Time magazine’s Joe Klein put it, “They [the Democrats] had to spend their convention on the biographical defensive: Barack Obama really is “one of us” they insisted. Running mate Joe Biden offered, he could “vouch” for Obama [as being “one of us”].

Yet, being “one of us” posits “us” as “white.” It also comes off as an abandonment of racial identity and limits Obama to speaking on race as a white person would speak on it. It blocked Obama from uttering Martin Luther King’s name in his nomination acceptance speech while a couple of nights before a defeated Hillary Clinton could invoke Harriet Tubman and stake her claim to the women’s or feminists’ movement.

Think back on the day of Obama’s acceptance speech. Sure, Marty King was given an early speaking role. Who better to speak on the 45th anniversary of the “Dream” speech than King’s namesake? What better way for Obama and the democrats to avoid having Jackson (or even Sharpton) at the podium? Or, to counter criticism that he had “no appreciation for the civil rights struggle? ” Or, that he “talked down to blacks?” The trick was in scheduling. The plan – insert race early in the program so that it’s not central to his evening speech. Then, who could criticize him for not mentioning King by name but only as a “country preacher from Georgia.”

That’s why he’s done all he could to play up, as he did at the Democratic Convention, the role his white mom and white grandparents played in raising him, and the “Kansas”—read “white”—values he grew up with.

That’s why he stresses how absent his black father was, since he understands that much of white America disparages the black community in general because many dads aren’t present.

At McCain’s noticeably very white convention he once again flipped the race script on his rival. McCain’s convention video offered a positive image with the words security and family in the same frame as a black father and his daughter. Before his convention Obama took on minority teen pregnancy. With McCain, enter Bristol Palin.

The obvious race bombshell was tossing Sarah Palin and her entire family into the jumble. As with Obama, “only in America” could a small town mayor be plucked from obscurity to land at great heights by extension cast her as “Mrs. Smith goes to Washington.”

Still, in race shorthand the Palins became the visage of the average “white” American family.

So now, Obama is running against McCain, Sarah and “First Dude” Todd Palin. McCain got “two (Palins) for the price of one” reminiscent of what Bill and Hillary once said about their partnership.

It’s even race risky whenever Michelle Obama is added to the stew. She’s smeared as the modern-day “Sapphire,” a moniker of significance in racists’ cosmology (which by extension cast her husband as “Kingfish”). She’s “too black,” not a “proud American,” “angry”, “terrorist fist bump[ing]” (aka ‘finger-wagging’) black woman rolled into the ‘satirical’ New Yorker magazine caricature. And Todd Palin? He’s cast as a union man, fisherman, oil worker, ‘pipe-laying,’ snowmobile champion, macho man.

With Palin, McCain has slowed Obamamania a bit among whites. Among blacks though, there’s little Obama has to do as blacks are arguably in the midst of an economic depression. His not being a republican is enough for most of them. This doesn’t stop some Obama faithful from comparing him to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. While in Denver, I encountered folk selling t-shirts on the streets with Martin Luther King and Obama’s head where Malcolm’ Xs head is supposed to be. As if Obama wouldn’t “repudiate” or “denounce” both men if they were still alive. Nah, he wouldn’t denounce King. He’d undermine—he’s Adam Clayton Powell, not Stanley Crouch.

Obama and Palin get a pass on experience. Experienced people, in the eyes of many, have led the country “in the wrong direction” or, “off-track” as Obama puts it. Besides, such talk is easily blunted by exploiting the fantasy of “American exceptionalism” or the “only in America” line. One of my favorite flicks is Kevin Klein’s 1993 movie “Dave.” Dave is a ‘community organizer’ of sorts who happens to be a dead ringer for a mortally ailing president. He secretly replaces the president and end up doing a better job of governing even using his friend and personal accountant to balance the federal budget. Hollywood aside, in theory, or per the Constitution, the only criterion for the job of president is to be 35 years of age and a native citizen. Then again I keep close a pamphlet by Trinidadian writer C. L. R. James called ‘Every Cook Can Govern.’ I believe that not all political leadership comes from the same place – the reality of money and incumbency notwithstanding. And, there are the real life examples of a young Bill Clinton or John Kennedy that makes the age and experience charge moot.

But here’s my beef with Obama. Rightly or wrongly – I expect McCain to protect white hegemony and empire. It’s what he was doing when he was dropping bombs on civilians in Hanoi. Yet being a product of that time I remember Muhammed Ali’s line: “No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger.” Even so, McCain is cast as a war hero for his POW status and allowed to essentially recast the Vietnam War like conservatives often do – as a war lost because of “unpatriotic”, “un-American” “liberals and long-haired radicals” as opposed to it being a racist war and a fools’ errand.

For me, opposing the mindset of empire and race hegemony lies at the root of real change. Anything else is just putting “lipstick on a pig.” Yet Obama’s bending over backwards reached its most awkward moment at the Service Forum at Columbia University to mark 9/11. Obama was asked, “What would you do to counter the problem of soldiers not re-enlisting?” He replied, “I would increase the size of the military.” That is not a traditional view in the African American community, and it is certainly not one that Martin Luther King, who denounced U.S. militarism, would have uttered. Worse still, Obama went out of his way to mention that the “rural areas of the country have contributed more than their share to the war effort” and efforts must be made to recruit more people “from urban centers.” Not enough black soldiers are dying?

Some say, “If he [Obama] would just stick to the issues he can win.” Yet if it were about issues the contest wouldn’t even be close given the high economic and social anxiety and war wariness that most Americans are feeling.

Some believe Obama may be “shining,” which in race terms means he’s saying to white people what he thinks he has to say to get elected. Others hope that his complexion is an indication that he understands skin bigotry and even what it’s like to be on the bottom or from an “oppressed class.” The reality maybe that he’s just what he says he is – a guy with “American” or “Kansas” values who plays the game like McCain plays the game or, as two whites guys would play it. The problem is his skin keeps getting in the way.

But when one of the biggest issues in the race is race itself, it is unclear that he can win. And it’s also unclear how low he will go to try, haplessly, to nullify that issue.

Kevin Alexander Gray was the South Carolina coordinator for the 1988 presidential campaign of Jesse Jackson & 1992 southern political director for the presidential campaign of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin. He was a founding member of the National Rainbow Coalition in 1986.

  • Skip

    I know Obama must be doing something right he gets criticized by you for selling out and the right wing for being too radical. And I am disputing a couple of points that you made:

    * When Obama mentioned rural areas contributing more than their share to the war effort and the need to recruit more from urban centers, you automatically assumed that rural meant white and urban meant black. But that is your racial obsession, and the reality is that millions of black folks live in rural areas and millions of whites live in urban centers. Obama was referencing class more than race, because more upscale persons of all races tend to avoid military service, and most of them gravitate to urban centers.

    * You stated that Obama may be just a guy with “American” or “Kansas” values who plays the game like McCain or as two white guys would play it. Obama is much more complex than the simplistic character that you describe. He grew up in Hawaii, one the most mutti-racial and multi-cultural places on earth, so he connects with people from many backgrounds. He also lived in Indonesia for three and a half years, went to college in Los Angeles and New York, and then went to work as a community organizer in the struggling black community of the South Side of Chicago. His life long search for his place as an African American ended in a dynamic black community that is the home base of national black leaders Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan and many black leaders in business. After achieving honors and acclaim at Harvard Law School, he turned down big time job offers to go back to Chicago and married a strong and intelligent black woman from Chicago. I know many brothers who talk that talk but can't deal with strong and intelligent black women. During this historic presidential campaign, I hope we can finally put to rest this notion of “not black enough” and accept the diversity of our people. In this election, most black folks already have.

  • Skip

    I know Obama must be doing something right he gets criticized by you for selling out and the right wing for being too radical. And I am disputing a couple of points that you made:

    * When Obama mentioned rural areas contributing more than their share to the war effort and the need to recruit more from urban centers, you automatically assumed that rural meant white and urban meant black. But that is your racial obsession, and the reality is that millions of black folks live in rural areas and millions of whites live in urban centers. Obama was referencing class more than race, because more upscale persons of all races tend to avoid military service, and most of them gravitate to urban centers.

    * You stated that Obama may be just a guy with “American” or “Kansas” values who plays the game like McCain or as two white guys would play it. Obama is much more complex than the simplistic character that you describe. He grew up in Hawaii, one the most mutti-racial and multi-cultural places on earth, so he connects with people from many backgrounds. He also lived in Indonesia for three and a half years, went to college in Los Angeles and New York, and then went to work as a community organizer in the struggling black community of the South Side of Chicago. His life long search for his place as an African American ended in a dynamic black community that is the home base of national black leaders Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan and many black leaders in business. After achieving honors and acclaim at Harvard Law School, he turned down big time job offers to go back to Chicago and married a strong and intelligent black woman from Chicago. I know many brothers who talk that talk but can't deal with strong and intelligent black women. During this historic presidential campaign, I hope we can finally put to rest this notion of “not black enough” and accept the diversity of our people. In this election, most black folks already have.