As a person of color, the fog of racism surrounding this president is obvious to me. While I believe that he has not done nearly enough to address racism and has done all together too much in the way of ignoring human rights, I also see that he doesn’t get some of the credit he deserves because his record is distorted, both by detractors and by those who unfairly hold him to a higher standard because of his race.
But, as an Asian American, I also see how comments that suggest that black people are especially irresponsible play out in other communities. Among Asian Americans, many of whom have internalized the lie that says that Asians have done well in the U.S. based solely on being exceptionally responsible, the effect can be especially powerful. Too many of us overlook the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery in the U.S. We don’t understand how different that experience is from that of Asian Americans, much less the way Asian Americans have benefited from the Black civil rights struggle. And we’re not alone in that. The irony of internalizing negative racial stereotypes amongst a community targeted by negative stereotypes only brings into stark relief a much wider spread and growing problem of anti-black racism that our president singling out blacks for lectures about personal responsibility only serves to feed.
We are still both separate and unequal by race. In 2012 the New York Times reported that 43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of blacks attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white. And the poorer the students, the worse the segregation. Meanwhile, due in no small part to Roosevelt-era federal programs that excluded blacks as they invested in building the American middle-class, a persistent and worsening racial wealth gap between blacks and whites continues to plague black families. This presents an unfair and often insurmountable barrier to opportunity in a society in which the most powerful indicator of success is your parents’ financial status. Yet, too many of us, more all the time actually, believe that the problem of black poverty is black irresponsibility.
The president’s comments worsen this problem. Why? Because they aren’t just heard by or meant for black people. They’re also acts of political theater, meant to play in public. And to the broad public, our liberal black president singling out blacks for lectures on personal responsibility undermines the credibility of legitimate black complaints of persistent racism, even as it feeds the damaging stereotype that there’s a particular problem of irresponsibility in black communities. And, as I said before, those stereotypes are strongest amongst those of us who aren’t black, and that can cause people who should be allies to become enemies.
What we now know as Memorial Day began as “Decoration Day” in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. Civil War. It was a tradition initiated by former slaves to celebrate emancipation and commemorate those who died for that cause.
These days, Memorial Day is arranged as a day “without politics”—a general patriotic celebration of all soldiers and veterans, regardless of the nature of the wars in which they participated. This is the opposite of how the day emerged, with explicitly partisan motivations, to celebrate those who fought for justice and liberation.
The concept that the population must “remember the sacrifice” of U.S. service members, without a critical reflection on the wars themselves, did not emerge by accident. It came about in the Jim Crow period as the Northern and Southern ruling classes sought to reunite the country around apolitical mourning, which required erasing the “divisive” issues of slavery and Black citizenship. These issues had been at the heart of the struggles of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
To truly honor Memorial Day means putting the politics back in. It means reviving the visions of emancipation and liberation that animated the first Decoration Days. It means celebrating those who have fought for justice, while exposing the cruel manipulation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members who have been sent to fight and die in wars for conquest and empire.
At the R’s main blog, The Feminist Wire’s Tamura Lomax and I chat about, among other things, the morphing stereotypes of Black women and the shifting ideas of what a PhD confers as far as expertise in this digital era.
In this second part of the interview, Tamura and I talk about the (dis)connections between African Americans and Black Britons and, relatedly, should Idris Elba be the next Bond.
I’ve read your incredible bio, namely that your research area include Black British and US Black Culture Studies. How did you get interested in studying that and where do you think the conversations are regarding these parts of the African Diaspora?
I was drawn to the study of race, gender, and media in graduate school. While my PhD is in Religion, I always knew that I wanted to study religion differently. I wasn’t interested in questions of faith or belief. I was interested in the operation of race and gender in religious ‘media’ like self-help texts, novels, music, advertising, sermons, films, etc. (varying cultural sites of meaning and meaning making). I want to explore how what we deem as religious operates and gets consumed in pop culture, for example the religious performance and functionality in Tyler Perry films, particularly that which undergirds his deployment of certain tropes.
Truthfully, I’m still trying to establish a place for this kind of work. With these interests, particularly in terms of the functionality of ‘media,’ I was naturally exposed to cultural studies. Trust, reading those sources and schools of thought awakened something within. This may sound totally nerdy but unraveling the process of turning a ‘raw’ event into a ‘story’ with a message—one that is ultimately encoded into the narrative, mass-produced, appropriated and consumed by the public—is exciting to me! I’m very interested in how ‘medias’ function to do this sort of work. Needless to say, I spent much of my time in graduate school peering through scholarship by cultural theorists.
In terms of where the conversation is going, I’m not sure. A key tenant of cultural studies, especially the black British school, is plurality. No one person can lead the discourse so it’s always moving in multiple different directions. Still, a significant move in the discourse was Stuart Hall’s work on representation, the turn toward how meanings get produced via (re)presentations and other signifying practices. I’m still in the discovery process there. The discourse may have moved on. I haven’t. Cultural theorists are incredibly dense writers. It takes years to peel back the layers, I think.
Some light questions: where did you grow up, your favorite books/TV shows/movies, do you think Idris Elba should be the next James Bond?
First things first, I’d love to see Elba play the next James Bond. However, I’m not convinced society, particularly North America, is ready for a black man to assert his sexuality in the way Bond characters typically do, which I have to problematize for a moment because the Bond franchise is simultaneously seductive and Orientalist. Bond is always looking to both penetrate and dominate. There’s this general tendency toward sexual and economic exploitation. I don’t think we’re ready for this side of the representation. Sure, Elba is foine and many of us want to see his aesthetic in action. This doesn’t mean that we’re actually ready to consume a black man in this way, particularly one with access to power, propensities toward dominance and sexual conquests, military intelligence, white women and weaponry. This is a lot to take in. Still, some complexities and contradictions are worth exploring.
I have several favorite books, however, Plum Bun by Jessie Redmon Fauset and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass remain at the top of my list. Both articulate narratives of everyday triumph within contexts of turmoil. In terms of television shows, I am afraid to admit my televisual interests. However, I will say this, I am a fan of reality TV. I’m drawn to the most ratchet of ratchetery, especially if black women are involved. That said…Basketball Wives, [The Real Wives] Housewives of Atlanta, and Love and Hip Hop are my favs. I know we like to critique these shows (and we should!), however, many black women and others are drawn to them because, let’s be honest, we sometimes identify with the foolery. I definitely have a grotesque fascination with black women and ratchetness. No favorite movies. However, my all time favorite television performance is Diana Ross Live at Caesars Palace in 1979. Oh my. HOT!!
I’m from all over. I was born in Atlanta, GA. I moved to East Orange, NJ, when I was about two. We moved to Syracuse, NY, at five. I spent many summers in the Boogie Down Bronx with my grandparents during my adolescence. We moved to Mill Valley, CA, when I was fourteen. I moved back to Atlanta, GA, for college in the early 90s. My family and I moved to Nashville, TN, in 2005. Today we reside in Richmond, VA.
Anything else you want to add?
I love Racialicious. Seriously. It was one of the influences for The Feminist Wire.
Indeed, with the exception of a graph showing “African Americans are more likely to experience downward mobility” on their Civil and Workplace Rights page (which is noticeably posted without any accompanying report or announcement of a campaign agenda) and some mention of the impact of the foreclosure crisis on African American homeowners, there is little acknowledgement on the AFL-CIO website that African Americans are in a state of economic crisis. That Blacks work, seek jobs, and belong to unions is barely recognized when in fact, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Blacks are still disproportionately more likely to be members of unions than whites or Latinos. Related, there is little mention of the impact of racial profiling and criminalization on African Americans’ employment status. This is extremely curious given that the AFL-CIO openly opposes voter disenfranchisement, which involves addressing the impact of felony convictions on African Americans’ right to vote in many states and works with the NAACP, who has pushed for felony reentry policies conducive to employment opportunities.
In hopes of pushing the AFL-CIO to expand its agenda, we want to address here why the two issues of police targeting of African Americans and Black (un)employment are intertwined. This is more than a theoretical exercise given the aforementioned Black unemployment rate—which is higher in each state than the overall rate—and the fact that African Americans have a higher arrest rate, a higher imprisonment rate, and a disproportionate number under some type of community supervision than other racial groups. While the AFL-CIO is of course not the only labor organization in the United States, we purposefully address our concerns to the federation as it involves 56 national and international labor unions representing 12.2 million people in a country with only 16 million people represented by a union (those who are union members or have jobs covered by unions or employee association contracts). Thus, the AFL-CIO is one of the largest and most powerful labor organizations in a country and world experiencing one of the worst financial crisis in decades.
Sadly it’s a recurring theme in our four centuries of being Africans in America. We African-Americans make any minor, major or groundbreaking progress and it’s ‘too much ’ for whites and whiteness to handle.
After it occurs, you have the inevitable panicked rush of white supremacists to roll back that progress or work to create barriers to prevent further advancement for my people while stirring up resentment in the huddled masses of low and middle income white people. When we overcome that latest created barrier or painfully get back to the previous point we were at evolutionary wise in terms of our development as African-Americans, the rush by whiteness to create a new way to roll our progress back begins anew.
The fact you have people of color routinely doing things ‘they’ don’t think we should be doing such as running Fortune 500 corporations, winning Nobel Prizes, walking fashion runways, winning major golf or tennis tournaments, being the governor of a state or living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue along with the news that whites will be a minority population in the United States by 2040 has made whiteness uneasy.
The election of Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008 has sent the bigots into a frothing at the mouth frenzy and doubled down on pimping the dog whistle message of GOP=white leadership. When the GOP gained control of several state legislatures in the wake of the 2010 midterm elections one of the first things those Republican legislatures did was pass voter suppression laws designed to depress the turnout of African-American voters in the runup to this 2012 presidential election..
And the irrationality of the Massive Resistance 2.0 strategy the Republican party has deployed in order to deny him a second term speaks volumes to the level of racism in the GOP. They are willing to bankrupt and destroy this country just to oust one Black man and his family out of the house at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave my people built with their unpaid labor.
Of course, we could run down Professor Blair L.M. Kelley’s academic bona fides: she graduated from University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in History and African and African American Studies, obtained her master’s degree and Ph.D. from Duke University, and currently serves on the North Carolina State University.
But those things trained her for what she does best: taking that history and giving to us and those after as a form of a love, of helping to put back together what racism pulls apart. Her post on the Dred Scott and his case and the Birthers demanding POTUS Obama’s proof of US birth shreds me almost a year later. She does an impeccable job explaining the history of Scott’s case itself. Then she, as old Black church folks, brings it to today:
Dred Scott decision meant that to be black in America in the late 1850s was to live in a land that said you did not have a future. You were living in a country where, whether free or slave, you would never be a real American. The Dred Scott decision was devastating to black America. On what terms could they appeal to the Supreme Court when the history of black citizenship, and even the black presence in America had so thoroughly been washed away? How could the fight to end slavery and to win black rights be won in such a bleak context? It is this despair of black America of the 1850s that reminds me of the disappointment of the past few days.
The hardened historian in me wasn’t surprised, but I was struck by the sick theatre of a sitting president making special appeal to the state of Hawaii in the effort to prove not only that his election was legitimate, but that his citizenship is valid. I was struck by the tearful vlog response of Baratunde Thurston and by the rage of my friend Elon James White on his podcast Blacking It Up. I was struck by the profound disappointment of the Obama generation at the state of black citizenship. I was thinking about horror of the president having to show his papers, echoing with the millions of migrant workers, documented and undocumented who have to show papers everyday and are never pre-supposed citizens.But I know that African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Latino, Asian Americans, we are formative of this American nation. I know that citizenship was only positively and affirmatively defined in the US Constitution for the first time when black people were freed and citizenship was granted in the 14th Amendment. I know that the labor of those black and brown people built the infrastructure and institutions of this nation. I know that our labor fed and still feeds the nation and cares for her children. We carry her mail, run her banks, and write her history. And I know that only through a coalition of black and brown and white folk did we achieve the amazing feat of electing the first African American president. I know that the 2008 election proves that those who would argue even today that “it is too clear for dispute, that the…African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration… .” are wrong. I know that we made them, through the simple practice of democracy, feel small, frightened, and vulnerable. But I want them to know, it’s okay, they are still welcome in our America. It has always been all of ours, all along.
To paraphrase Toni Morrison, Professor Kelley is a friend of mind, the kind that looks at the wreckage of living in this racist system, assures you that it’s gonna be all right, and helps you put it aright. That’s why—among other reasons—we crush on her so hard.
At every turn, Buchanan has blamed the same groups of people - immigrants, LGBT people, Jewish people - for, in his mind, sullying his idea of what America should be. During his political career, the press at large gave giving Buchanan a wide berth, according to Slate:
Since Buchanan first ran for president in 1992, the press has largely treated him as a legitimate candidate rather than an extremist canker on American politics, á la David Duke or Louis Farrakhan. Part of the explanation for this is that he’s one of us. Though few journalists have any sympathy for Buchanan’s views, some find it hard to reconcile evidence of his bigotry with the friendly guy they know. For those covering his campaigns, there are other disincentives. Once you brand him an anti-Semite, a racist, and a fascist, it’s not much fun riding around New Hampshire with him in a minivan. What’s more, there is a dimension of self-conscious theatricality to Buchanan’s performances that makes his views easier to dismiss. He’ll uncork a zinger about not buying any more chopsticks until the Chinese quit dumping cheap imports, and then cackle at his no-no. You can write this kind of thing off as just Buchanan tomfooling around and building his brand for TV, rather than dyed-in-the-wool bigotry.
And that column was written in 1999, three years before MSNBC and Griffin gave him a national platform, where he would go on to claim that America "has been a country built, basically, by white folks;" that “only white men” died in the Battle of Gettysburg; and so on.
So what changed? According to an InsideCableNews column at Mediaite, it sure wasn’t Buchanan - it was the platform around him:
On the other hand, MSNBC has changed. It openly courts Progressive views and news. It puts out job ads asking for candidates with a progressive news background. Its pundit host class is all progressive and the network lets them show up en masse at the White House for off the record get togethers. The network is openly and aggressively courting the African American viewing audience so much so that it now notes how big it is in African American viewership in its releases.
Add all these things together and you now have a scenario where MSNBC, which used to be able to handle a Pat Buchanan and his intransigent controversial views, can no longer afford to do so without alienating core constituencies it covets.
The theory makes more sense now than it would have a few years ago: even after Keith Olbermann’s acrimonious departure, MSNBC has rebuilt a good portion of its’ talk show brand around Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, and Chris Hayes, and has added Melissa Harris-Perry, even if it keeps Joe Scarborough around in the morning.
Read more of what Arturo García said about why Buchanan was, essentially, fired.