Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Fake Outrage of Typical White Persons

Those looking for a hook on which to hang fake outrage have found this statement by Barack Obama convenient:

The point I was making was not that Grandmother harbors any racial animosity. She doesn't. But she is a typical white person, who, if she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know, you know, there's a reaction that's been bred in our experiences that don't go away and that sometimes come out in the wrong way, and that's just the nature of race in our society.
What is Barack Obama, who is half white, declaring to be typically white about his grandmother?

That when she encounters an unfamiliar nonwhite person on the street, she has a fearful reaction. That this reaction is, quite naturally, a product of her experiences -- which is to say, actual past encounters with unfamiliar nonwhites, and mediated past encounters with unfamiliar nonwhites i.e., encounters from films, tee-vee programs, newspaper accounts, books, and so on.

He does not suggest she is controlled by the fearful reaction.

He does not exclude the possibility of neutral or positive reactions in addition to the fearful reaction.

To say that white people are typically averse to encountering unfamiliar nonwhites "on the street" (which implies an unfamiliar or semi-familiar setting) is to say what every white person would freely admit in every circumstance save one, that one being the circumstance of trying to make a self-serving point about race relations. Show me a white person who is bragging of his willingness to walk through a predominantly black part of town at any time of day, and I'll show you a white person who is trying to deny that racial distrust and animus still exists in America.

And that is false. The racial animus is less than it was in the past, as Obama has stated clearly in his recent statements on race relations. But to wish it away -- to locate its corpse in the dried ink of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation or the majority decision in Brown vs. Board of Education or Lyndon Johnson's signature on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or a handwritten manuscript of Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing -- is to play a very old and familiar game of pretend. Things are better, but problems remain.

I grew up in a household in which the "n-word" was common, and among friends and schoolmates and a broader community for whom it was commonplace. (I do not suggest it was every third word spoken, but anyone who says it was not commonly spoken, especially in whites-only settings, in North Central Oklahoma circa 1970-1988 is simply lying, or was running in very charmed circles to which I was never exposed.) I used the word -- with all its intended diminishment if not malice -- for the first 18 years of my life, and it would be a lie to say I last spoke it in anger at age 18.

I'm not proud of it, but that's the truth. I also don't cry myself to sleep over it every night -- that, too, is the truth. Am I "throwing myself or others under the bus" by saying these things? No. I am acknowledging the truth. That's what grownups do, and that's what Obama's recent statements on race have challenged us to do.

We are creatures of habit and impulse as well as reason and morality. The habits and impulses almost always assert themselves before reason and morality temper them. Barack Obama's grandmother sounds typically white to me in the following sense: whatever racist impulses may first seize her, she is able to override with better judgment. This is how I take his comment that she harbors no racial animosity but isn't necessarily eager to find herself in a random spot in Detroit at 11pm.

Can't we all just get along? Not if we lie to ourselves and pretend.


George Junior said...

"Things are better, but problems remain."

That's for sure - you only have to read some of the comments on the blogs to realize how deeply in denial some people are.

Slavery ended years ago, Jim Crow is no more and we've legislated against discrimination. So everything's supposed to be rosey. But everyone knows it isn't.

The problem for Obama is he's running for President not setting up a Truth and Reconciliation Committee (which is maybe what we need) and every time he deals with the issue of race, he's going to get misinterpreted and slapped down by sections of the media. The more that happens, the more the white voters his candidacy depends upon will slip away.

He's in a hole and he needs to start digging up. I can't see how he's going to get away from this issue (which is absolutely in need of discussion) but IMHO he's going to have to find a way to step around it if he wants to make headway in the general.

Dale said...

George Jr, that's a fair point. If the election becomes a ballot on the state of race relations in America in any sense, Obama won't win. The next stage of this contest will be along these lines -- Clinton then McCain trying, by hook and by crook, to turn it into a referendum on race (while blaming Obama for that focus), Obama trying to change the subject. He has definitely taken a political gamble here, but it's hard to see how he could have avoided this in the end.