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.
I can’t even begin to state how much I adore this week’s Crush, Janet Mock, and how much I loved interviewing her!
While I calm my happy ass on down, please check out the first half of the interview at the main blog, then come back for this second part, in which Janet and I talk about socio-racial politics in Hawaii, what she’s planning to avoid this summer, and her love for Mad Men.
You’re from Hawaii. And you’ve seen how some conservatives constructed Hawaii as practically a foreign country in regards to demanding POTUS Obama’s birth certificate from the state. What other images/stereotypes do “mainlanders” have about Hawaii that’s divisive to progressive politics?
Like the people of the “mainland,” the people of Hawaii are not a monolith (we don’t all surf, we don’t all dance hula and we are not all Asian) and have a rich history with their land. And this may be getting way too deep, but my mother’s mother was Native Hawaiian (meaning indigenous Polynesian people of the Hawaiian Islands) and her father is Portuguese, and if it weren’t for the U.S. military’s occupation of Oahu, my mother would not have met my dad – a Naval officer and black man from the South – and I would not be here. To be part Native Hawaiian and part black, I am a product of Hawaii and the mainland – which shapes my existence and political perspective and relationship to my homeland. When I think of Hawaii, I think about how missionaries came to Hawaii feeling that they were going to “do good,” forcing their religion and western values to an indigenous people they wrongly viewed as savage and ended up doing quite well instead, making major money in industries like sugar and pineapple and of course tourism. For Native Hawaiians (kanaka maoli) in the Hawaiian sovereign movement, they do feel Hawaii is separate and was colonized and stolen. The U.S. history of the Hawaiian islands is a revisionist telling of the story of our statehood, and like most indigenous people, Native Hawaiians have been displaced on their own land and would actually love for Hawaii to be its own sovereign “foreign” land again, as wrongly appropriated by the conservatives who wish to dismiss President Obama as “un-American” or “foreign.”
How/why did you move to New York City? Along those lines, what are you into outside of your incredible activism? Hobbies? Books you’re reading? Music you’re into? Movies you can’t wait to see?
I moved to Manhattan to study journalism at New York University and get a job as a magazine editor. Luckily, after earning my masters, I landed at People.com, where I worked for more than five years writing and editing stories, creating fun pun-filled photo galleries and of course developed my voice in social media. Right now I’m into everything, from following my dear sister in this movement Reina Gossett’s active archiving and retelling of the activist roots of trans women of color like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. I’m also into Instagram selfies, sharing curly hair photos and every bright lip color I find. I’m into books that critique and expand ideas of womanhood and blackness. I thoroughly enjoyed Sister Citizenand Iconicas well as Black Cooland How To Be Blackand Seasonal Velocities, and read This Bridge Called My Backtwice in one month. I also have a summer reading list of women of color writers’ classic and new works, like Salvage the Bones, Kindred, The Summer We Got Free, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere,and Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.Oh, and I want to read the Katharine Hepburn (she’s my fave movie star) style book Rebel Chic,as well as Nevadafrom Imogen Binnie. As for music, my tastes are pretty mainstream, not original at all – though I have been listening to Diana Ross‘“Home”from The Wizon loop while writing. It soothes me and inspires me to own my space in this world. As for films, it’s about to be summer movie season so I am boycotting Hollywood, though I will see Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners.I’m more of a TV girl anyway, live-tweeting Mad Men, Scandal, The Mindy Projectand eyeroll-inducing escapism like The Real Housewives of Atlantaand Beverly Hills.
Anything else you want to add?
I just want to thank you for finding me crush-worthy and sharing your first-ever #nerdland appearance with me. I love that we got the chance to discuss Scandal in such a giddy and hopefully impactful way. For me, it was just amazing to be embraced as another woman who has something to say. Not dismissed as a trans woman, but embraced as a fellow sister. Often I fell I must put my pop culture passions at bay to discuss more pressing trans issues in mainstream media so it was awesome to show my other intersections, as a woman of color, as a visible trans woman, and yes, as a pop culture lover!
Ma’am, since you’re a Mad Men lover, we may have to recruit you for our Mad Men roundtable!
In college, I got a C in microeconomics. Hopefully, this won’t kill my future aspirations to be President.
Apparently, Donald Trump, a man very concerned with whether President Obama, a Harvard-educated law professor, is just another dumb brown person riding the affirmative action ticket, wants to give $5 million dollars to charity if the President releases his college transcripts.
This is what racism looks like. Please save the, “Oh you are a typical liberal always playing the race card” response and take a moment to hear me out. First, racism is not a card. It’s a reality for many black and brown people in 2012. If you are not a person of color, it’s important you don’t find yourself quickly discounting the pervasive existence of racism in 2012, without actually speaking with a person of color. Assuming things are just better because we can drink at the same water fountain isn’t sufficient.
The campaigns’ disparate rhetorical treatment of poverty is worth talking about because it helps us understand what’s happening to safety-net policy. Obama’s acting scared of poverty. He’s all about ladders to opportunity and apparently also about closing the gender gap in earnings. He’ll talk around economic equity issues, but he doesn’t want to talk about poor people, and certainly not welfare and other poverty programs. Why? Because poor people and some of the programs that they depend on—food stamps, cash assistance, housing vouchers— are popularly imagined as people of color issues. And race is one thing that Obama still can’t talk about.
It’s not by accident that food stamps and the safety-net have been stigmatized and made into a racial issue. Let’s recall for a moment the Republican primary, when Newt Gingrich told an audience in New Hampshire, “If the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.” And when Romney told a crowd that imposing mandatory drug tests on the recipients of safety-net programs is “a great idea.” And more generally, remember the wave of bills—in 30 states earlier this year—to impose drug testing requirements on applicants to the food stamps, Medicaid, welfare and other programs, despite scant evidence of high rates of drug use among the programs’ applicants.
When Romney waxes indignant about poverty and food stamps, this is the context.
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.
The irony of Barack Obama is this: he has become the most successful black politician in American history by avoiding the radioactive racial issues of yesteryear, by being “clean” (as Joe Biden once labeled him)—and yet his indelible blackness irradiates everything he touches. This irony is rooted in the greater ironies of the country he leads. For most of American history, our political system was premised on two conflicting facts—one, an oft-stated love of democracy; the other, an undemocratic white supremacy inscribed at every level of government. In warring against that paradox, African Americans have historically been restricted to the realm of protest and agitation. But when President Barack Obama pledged to “get to the bottom of exactly what happened,” he was not protesting or agitating. He was not appealing to federal power—he was employing it. The power was black—and, in certain quarters, was received as such.
No amount of rhetorical moderation could change this. It did not matter that the president addressed himself to “every parent in America.” His insistence that “everybody [pull] together” was irrelevant. It meant nothing that he declined to cast aspersions on the investigating authorities, or to speculate on events. Even the fact that Obama expressed his own connection to Martin in the quietest way imaginable—“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”—would not mollify his opposition. It is, after all, one thing to hear “I am Trayvon Martin” from the usual placard-waving rabble-rousers. Hearing it from the commander of the greatest military machine in human history is another.
By virtue of his background—the son of a black man and a white woman, someone who grew up in multiethnic communities around the world—Obama has enjoyed a distinctive vantage point on race relations in America. Beyond that, he has displayed enviable dexterity at navigating between black and white America, and at finding a language that speaks to a critical mass in both communities. He emerged into national view at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, with a speech heralding a nation uncolored by old prejudices and shameful history. There was no talk of the effects of racism. Instead Obama stressed the power of parenting, and condemned those who would say that a black child carrying a book was “acting white.” He cast himself as the child of a father from Kenya and a mother from Kansas and asserted, “In no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” When, as a senator, he was asked if the response to Hurricane Katrina evidenced racism, Obama responded by calling the “ineptitude” of the response “color-blind.”
Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye. Hence the old admonishments to be “twice as good.” Hence the need for a special “talk” administered to black boys about how to be extra careful when relating to the police. And hence Barack Obama’s insisting that there was no racial component to Katrina’s effects; that name-calling among children somehow has the same import as one of the oldest guiding principles of American policy—white supremacy. The election of an African American to our highest political office was alleged to demonstrate a triumph of integration. But when President Obama addressed the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, he demonstrated integration’s great limitation—that acceptance depends not just on being twice as good but on being half as black. And even then, full acceptance is still withheld. The larger effects of this withholding constrict Obama’s presidential potential in areas affected tangentially—or seemingly not at all—by race. Meanwhile, across the country, the community in which Obama is rooted sees this fraudulent equality, and quietly seethes.
Obama’s first term has coincided with a strategy of massive resistance on the part of his Republican opposition in the House, and a record number of filibuster threats in the Senate. It would be nice if this were merely a reaction to Obama’s politics or his policies—if this resistance truly were, as it is generally described, merely one more sign of our growing “polarization” as a nation. But the greatest abiding challenge to Obama’s national political standing has always rested on the existential fact that if he had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin. As a candidate, Barack Obama understood this.
“The thing is, a black man can’t be president in America, given the racial aversion and history that’s still out there,” Cornell Belcher, a pollster for Obama, told the journalist Gwen Ifill after the 2008 election. “However, an extraordinary, gifted, and talented young man who happens to be black can be president.”
Belcher’s formulation grants the power of anti-black racism, and proposes to defeat it by not acknowledging it. His is the perfect statement of the Obama era, a time marked by a revolution that must never announce itself, by a democracy that must never acknowledge the weight of race, even while being shaped by it. Barack Obama governs a nation enlightened enough to send an African American to the White House, but not enlightened enough to accept a black man as its president.
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.
I have tears. I’m not crying because Rick Santorum said nigger in public.
I’m sure he says that word all the time.
I’m crying because in 2012, in America, the man who is the President of the United States cannot be referred to or respectfully addressed by anyone.
Barack Obama is nothing but the N-word to Rick Santorum and so many other people in this universe.
And if this educated, kind, brilliant and wonderful man is nothing but a n*gger to a huge swath of people, then imagine what they think of the rest of us.
That all of us People of Color are nothing but n*ggers.
And so I cry.