Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Beyond Racial Reductionism: Let’s talk about race.

In Collective and Chosen Trauma, Culture, Domestic Politics, Media and Politics on October 28, 2012 at 7:45 am

Remember back in 2008 when Colin Powell went on Meet the Press and made huge news in endorsing the first African American Presidential nominee from a major American political party? It was a much bigger deal than when he did it again the other day. His comments in 2008 were powerful. Among them were the following:

“Well, the correct answer is, he is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian,” he said. “But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet, I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, ‘He’s a Muslim and he might be associated terrorists.’ This is not the way we should be doing it in America.”

In other words he was outraged that the Republican Party was demonizing the guy with coded language that not only was incorrect, but also toxic for civil peace and economic prosperity. Part of why General Powell supported the president was that he was different from other people and it was important to stand with when that basis of difference was attacked in coded or direct language.

Fast forward to last Thursday and we have John Sununu attacking Powell’s 2012 endorsement because he said it could be explained, in part, by his reflexive support for a race comrade. As Charles Blow put it in the New York Times this Saturday, this has all the hallmarks of race coded language and smacks of what he calls racial reductionism. I totally get what Blow is trying to do with this piece and I am sympathetic to it. With his unique position at the Times, he is in a better position than anyone else to denounce race baiting attacks in the public sphere and to match these comments with clarifying data that provide the educated reader with statistical support of an unorthodox kind for the argument.

But in this case, I think Blow missed an opportunity to move the race conversation forward at a crucial time. Although conservative partisans do blow the dog whistle and use racial code to undermine their liberal opponents, liberal partisans might be in a position to make the case for race that is not only legitimate but also convincing. In 2008 this liberal case was common and was summarized with the moniker “historic,” which implicitly suggested the importance of Obama being the “first” black President. Subsequently Americans of all races and people of color around the world could now see themselves reflected in the Presidential mirror and could begin to imagine themselves as part of the liberal project that America was spearheading.

Obama holds what is arguably the most prestigious position in the world and he is also black. Sit on that for a moment. It matters, and it may be a reason, in addition to technical features of economic and foreign policy, to support him again in the future. What we have to recognize is that in a world riven by identity conflicts, cultural origin is policy. The symbolic advantage of having a black man in office is difficult to measure, but is probably of inestimable value in a world in which distrust of European hegemony is as fresh as Pearl harbor is to us. This may go some way toward an explanation for why a man like Obama, who is renowned for killing “bad guys” with robot drones, can emerge as the overwhelming world favorite in this contest. People of color (and those of us whites who would like not to be eternally denied solidarity with the whole of humanity) suspect that Obama can leverage his biography to make tough calls in delicate situations that someone else might not be able to make. To be sure, supporters are convinced that his specific policies are better than the alternative, but who he is matters as well.

You see, race can play a role in this election that has nothing to do with the affirmative action line that Sununu was pitching. If you have a “theory of change,” to borrow jargon from the evaluation literature, premised on the importance of dominant groups accommodating themselves to the real power won by formally subordinate groups, or similarly premised on the assumption of what we could call counter alienation theory in which sub-altern groups find their way back into the mainstream of civil society, in part, through recognition of people like themselves in it, then race could be a factor in your decision and it would be for a good reason. Ironically, race could matter in a substantive way through its symbolic value.

As we move forward, black opinion leaders like Charles Blow will have to do a better job than they now do in moving us past this regression to racial reductionism. It is gratifying to hoist your opponents on their own petards, but we often all blow up in the process. For example, I want to direct your attention to a statistic that Charles Blow did not mention in his article, but was part of the graphic. He did say that 91% of Romney’s supporters were white, and that is a powerful thing, but is a trick as well that confuses the marginal with the relative rates. In other words, there are many more whites than non-whites, so these marginal numbers can get high quick with small difference in the dominant group, i.e. only 59% of whites support Romney in this poll. This matters because an inclusive leader could promote responsible policy that would carry the white vote. Political trends suggest that we are not doomed to endless ethnic confrontation in this country.

Now, consider the number that Blow left out, although he surely could help to explain why it came about. In contrast to the 59% of whites who support Romney, 95% of blacks support Obama. If you’ve had any statistical training, this is intriguingly reminiscent of that magical .o5 statistical significance value. Now, there could be some reason that 95% of African Americans think about this issue as abstract rational actors who are gaming the policy outcomes and they all independently come to the conclusion that Obama’s economic theories are superior to Romney’s, but that seems a bit unlikely. A more plausible theory is that black people suspect that a black president will make judgment calls in countless unrecorded cases that will bring about a more just society–one that goes farther in healing the wounds caused by centuries of slavery, Jim Crow laws and discrimination than we have gone already. In other words, race becomes a factor in such calculations, but it is a legitimate one for the realization of justice for all, not merely an expression of groupism and self interest.

There have been a flurry of reports of late which demonstrate that race relations have been deteriorating under President Obama, rather than improving, but to me this is sort of like saying that cancer has been deteriorating under the treatment of chemotherapy. Our body politic is indeed sicker in some sense on racial grounds, but at least we now seem to have a chance of getting better. Something tells me that part of that chance has to do with the symbolic value of having a black man in the oval office.

Race is far from the only consideration in anyone’s support for the President, and it could and should be overwhelmed by others, but it is not racial reductionism to suggest that race can be a legitimate factor in throwing support to Obama. Prominent black opinion leaders should get wise to use the opportunity they now enjoy; talk about race, but don’t squander your teachable moments in easy moves to demonize and smear your opponents. We need more race talk and not less. When you attack someone like Sununu for his racism and introduce no hint of nuance in your attack, you fall into the same trap and, using the master’s tools, risk racial reductionism yourself. The result is that everybody clams up and coded racism spreads like a mushroom underground to another location like last year’s debt ceiling and next year’s sequester that drags us all down. It’s time we became more sophisticated in our race talk and that holds as much for Charles Blow as it does for John Sununu.

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