AMERICA'S SCREAMING CONSCIENCEOn Sunday, Bill Kristol,chronicallyincorrectsteward of his daddy's magazine, dismissed liberals' and black activists' outraged response to the Trayvon Martin killing as "just demagoguery... mostly on the side of those who want to indict the whole society for this death." The following day, Rush Limbaugh said the response was "doing more harm to the black community than anything else." How blessed the black community must feel to have their best interests overseen by the living embodiment of everything wrong with white people.
Thus we've reached the inevitable conservative endpoint of any race conversation in the United States. Racism, violence, the horror of an entire community—these are mere emotional reactions cynically drummed up by "race hustlers," marshaled against a demonized white society. If black people are upset about black people getting shot, they have only themselves to blame for their unwillingness to forget about it. And if they're still so upset after so much time, they must have an agenda. After all, the victim was only a black boy.
Our own Max Read posted a detailed breakdown of the white, conservative backlash against the Trayvon Martin coverage (and both Mediaite and Alex Pareene have added yet more). But what's interesting about the unfolding conservative commentary is that Trayvon's irrevocable silence re-defines ghoulish conservative blame-shifting. Trayvon is dead, and he can't speak or act to drive the news cycle. The right must walk its disingenuous path alone—spurred on by habitual loathing that any black man, even a dead one, might cast light on their boundless twilight ethnocalypse.
Conservative race-baiters set their clocks by the dog-whistle. They can't dismiss Trayvon outright: blaming him explicitly because he is black goes nowhere. That would just shift the conversation onto the accuser. Nobody illustrated this principle better than former Reagan and Bush I strategist and Republican National Committee chairman Lee Atwater, in a kind of "Come to Jesus" moment shortly before his death (emphases mine):
You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger"—that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now [that] you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me—because obviously sitting around saying, "We want to cut this," is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than "Nigger, nigger."
Atwater addresses national policy, particularly the linguistic erosions that allow us to arrive at "entitlements" as code words for "welfare queens cashing lavish checks while rutting like animals on the whites' dime." But this is just the Trayvon treatment writ large, on a national scale: the same linguistic counterrevolution has been imposed on blacks on the personal level as well. Look to the frequent application of "streetthug" to Obama, invoking images of saggy-pants gangbangers, chugging 40s. Look to Newt Gingrich calling him "the food stamp president," hammering that point home in the South Carolina and Florida debates. There's no value for Gingrich in citing food stamps as a program: the plurality of Americans on assistance are white, not black. But to an audience reared on the Southern Strategy since 1968, calling Obama the president of food stamps sends a familiar mute signal to those meant to hear it: the danger isn't that the president is black—which we know—but rather that his economics will complete the ghettoization of America. Why, if you had to go on food stamps, you'd be just as shameful ashim—as them.
The dog-whistling tweets and rants against Trayvon were inevitable. As Read pointed out, the right lustily impugned his character for his having a screwdriver, an impulse of vandalism and some loose (though not dispositive) association with someone who had possessed marijuana—all of which qualified him for nothing more than being an American boy. Right-wing blogs ran pictures of him flipping the bird, which also qualified him for being an American boy. Most damning of all, there were pictures of him wearing fake gold in his grill—a gangster signifier shared by me at a party once and probably 10% of all white kids at American colleges goofing around with a roll of Reynold's Wrap. Trayvon Martin is a boy in the worst possible way.
This thin characterization is all they need. The right-wing audience only needs a few traits from the bad novelist's toolbox. Like the big-titted blonde used and murdered by a Japanese man in Tom Clancy's Debt of Honor, whose sacred American vagina serves as both metaphor and explanation for that tiny, vengeful people's plunder of America, all you need are one or two red flags. They first say that Trayvon was black, and then they reference vandalism and "marijuana residue." A fake grill, tattoos and the word "thug" do the rest of the heavy social code-wording. By the end of that four-phrase personal inventory, anyone predisposed against blacks wants to know if the coroner shaved Trayvon's eyebrows to reveal hidden left-to-right "FUCK" and "WHITEY" tats. These people are already on board. You just have to punch their ticket.
The most important effect of race-baiting through the dog whistle, however, is that it really doesfunction as bait. When you conspicuously label black kids as "thugs" and white kids as "unruly teens," you bait someone else into noticing it and responding. In this respect, conservative commentators for the last 20 years have been nothing short of masterful. They've turned unregenerate racism into a thought exercise you might as well call "Schrödinger's Black."
A classic (oversimplified) version of the Schrodinger's Cat thought-experiment describes how a cat in a box, with a given atomic particle, can be alive or dead up until the moment you open the box and check on the cat. The act of observation ineluctably helps determine the outcome. Until you looked at it, everything was up in the air. You, the observer, are at fault for the result.
Placing the burden of racism on its observer is the natural, cynical result of decades of conservative dog-whistle racism. Commentators throw out deliberately "ambiguous" statementsintended to motivate racists willing to read into them what they want to hear. They make repeated references toObamaandwatermelons. They talk about "strapping young bucks" with t-bone steaks. Then, when black or liberal commentators denounce those statements, conservative pundits label them as the racists. After all, you'd have to be a racist to think there was racist commentary there; the only people who think about racism are racists. You have to be importing your own racial hangups to the exchange: you altered the outcome of the reaction when your gaze introduced a racial force to the social reaction.
This is largely how the American right wing created "reverse racism."
In the realm of Limbaughean physics, racism is something generated by race hustlers. These rabble rousers alter the dynamic of natural social interactions by injecting wacky racism particles into a totally innocuous discussion about the natural laziness of young black people who just want to own guns and steal buckets of Popeye's fried chicken. A noble white truth teller merely means to pull back the curtain on the inequities demanded by an indolent black class, and when he's called racist, it's someone else's fault for noticing it. People then victimize that noble soul for telling a hard truth, like Jesus.
In any physical exchange, this reversal of causation or responsibility would inspire laughter and contempt. If, to take a random example, some radio-show-hosting triple-chinned drug-addicted serial-divorcé and bloviator stabbed you repeatedly in the stomach, and you complained that you had "lots of knife-holes" in you, nobody could reasonably claim that you were a "stabbing hustler" who was "condemning mere knife enthusiasts" in a cynical ploy to" gain sympathy via stabbism." But this is the state of right-wing racism in America: it exists only on its moment of detection. Until then, it's merely an amorphous cloud of words. The people who are targeted by it are the real racists, because they have the insufferable gall to notice it and then divisively, unrepentantly point it out. They are malcontents operating without the privilege to speak freely.
This is how you get people like Bill Kristol accusing you of "demagoguery" and trying to "indict the whole society," which is not only paternalistically dismissive but shows their powerful white privilege in being able to decide what is our whole society. The act of creating it allows them to define its terms, drawing the line between a reasonable thought and a paranoid hippie/activist fantasy. Thus advocating mandatory sentencing laws for drug possession busts that disproportionately affect black youths is just smart business and safe policy. (Never mind if the advocate is invested in a privatized prison system whose profits are bolstered by a continual flow of inmates. Sure, he's breaking the whole society, but, hey—investors!—free enterprise!) Meanwhile, saying that the criminal-justice system and the industrial-prison complex disproportionately incarcerates and profits off targeting young blacks makes you a demagogue and a rabble-rouser.
When you cite The Bell Curve after a black youth shoots a suburban homeowner, you are a sober, reasoned sage. When you cite centuries of slavery, decades of Jim Crow, decades of exclusionary lending, predatory lending, white flight, inequitable distribution of tax monies, voter suppression, regressive voter-registration laws, regressive taxation, dog-whistle racism, spooky attack ads featuring menacing black figures and NRA-sponsored legislation that all but screams "a big negro might break into your daughter's hymen"—well, then you're just some kinda whackjob race-obsessive. Works like The Bell Curve merely update the Jim Crow quackery of phrenology and the simian negroid skull with the soft bigotry of inconclusive or incomplete statistical data interpreted in bad faith. They feed a pundit circus and a criminal justice system that reduces a race of people to a collection of ungovernable animal impulses. They lend a patina of rationality to the automatic presumption that Trayvon Martin was a rebellious addict who attacked a stand-up citizen.
This is what Limbaugh meant when he said that the Trayvon Martin murder was "doing more harm to the black community than anything else." It's counterproductive to get these sorts of people angry, because their emotionalism has already retarded their development. It's the same reversal of responsibility employed by anti-abolitionists, anti-unionists, anti-suffragettes and anti-civil-rights types: "Irrationally ranting and raving distracts you people from your own advancement, and your clamoring about the normative, accepted levels of social hate are rending the fabric of our society. It's all on you." You victimize me by complaining about my actions; your truth is less valuable than, and antagonistic to, my peace of mind.
The act of describing fundamental fractures in our society only exacerbates them. Sure, even in 1787, there were those opposed to slavery, but nearly 80 years later, we eradicated it. And only 100 years later, we gave blacks a full franchise. Any day now, woman will be equal, too, and we'll get around to finalizing that whole black thing. But dislocation is your responsibility when you demand that ice be cracked instead of rolled back glacially. You dishonor Trayvon Martin when you make him a "black victim" and not part of the process, where we all grow, like a nation of stalagmites.
The real racists, the real life-hating agitators, are those who reject the tranquilizing powers of gradualism, who rock the boat. Because the rising tide will lift all those boats. Now shut the fuck up about income inequality.
Washington (CNN) – Few might realize it, but Tuesday's primary elections might have quietly sealed the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. Senate for a couple of more years.
On Tuesday, C. Anthony Muse, thought to be the strongest black candidate for U.S. Senate this year, lost his Democratic primary race in Maryland, coming in a distant second to Sen. Ben Cardin, the incumbent. CNN found only one other African-American on a Senate ballot, a Florida candidate who isn’t getting much attention among a wide field of contenders.
Out of 100 U.S. senators, two are Latino, two are of Asian or Pacific Islander ancestry, but none are African-American. Tuesday's primary losses mean a Senate body with relatively little racial or ethnic diversity will likely continue to have no black members for two more years.
"When I tell this to people, most of them are shocked and don't understand how in America that could be the case," said Muse, a Maryland state senator and preacher.
There have been 1,931 members of the Senate, the chamber historian's office said. Six African-Americans have served in the U.S. Senate, Muse said, and that includes Roland Burris of Illinois, who was appointed to President Barack Obama's former seat and served less than a full term.
Six Latinos have held the title of U.S. senator.
"There does seem to be a ceiling," University of Mississippi political science professor Marvin King said. "People are used to electing minority office holders. There are plenty of blacks in every state legislature, but going beyond that to winning statewide races seems to be a ceiling."
Part of it might be simple math. Minorities, by definition, represent less than the majority of a population.
The same math might be affecting how African-Americans in the House of Representatives transition to the Senate, too. There are currently 44 black House members, a record-high number.
"How come minority members of the House have not transitioned to the Senate the way you see white members transition?" King asked. "One of the answers is the districts they represent tend to be different from the state as a whole. They tend to represent urban districts with high minority populations."
Conservatives, such as Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, see the lack of minority representation as a straightforward reflection of who's on the ballot and whom voters chose.
"We have elections in this country," Rubio said. "Obviously, we'd like to see more people running for all offices in this country. I don't know why it's been the way it's worked out. I think that will change over time."
Most senators who were asked about the low number of minorities in the Senate admitted or implied the issue was not something on which they focused.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, whose state is embroiled in discussions about race after the death of teenager Trayvon Martin, didn't have an answer when asked about the lack of diversity.
"Minorities in the Senate?" he asked. "Call the office and we'll talk about that, because that deserves a thoughtful answer."
His office later sent a written reply that the senator believes "the Senate would benefit from more closely resembling America's diversity." His aide theorized that Nelson was probably in a hurry to get to his next meeting and that's why he could not answer on the spot.
The lack of specific responses from across the Senate didn't surprise Sen. Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, the other Latino in the chamber.
Diversity in the Senate is "not at all" a discussion among members, he said.
"I don't think they think about it necessarily," Menendez said. "It's not as if they're averse to being helpful or supportive, but they're not thinking about it."
So does it even matter if the Senate has low numbers of minorities?
King, the University of Mississippi professor, said the effect might be more indirect than direct.
"My research has found that on all but a handful of issues in Congress ... the voting of black Democrats and white liberals is nearly identical," he said. The issues where he sees separation are housing, urban development and civil rights.
King and other researchers said they believe the effect of low minority representation is less on votes taken than issues presented.
"Where you might see a difference is in the agenda of the individual members of Congress, what bills they chose to introduce and where they put their energy," he said.
Before he lost his U.S. Senate primary race, candidate Muse gave a list of issues he felt were overlooked, including infant mortality, the criminal incarceration rate, housing and urban health care.
Now he's returning to the Maryland state Senate, vowing that he will keep pushing for a seat in Washington.
Audiences that go to watch this weekend’s production of “The Shipment” will enter the basement of Green Hall, a venue the show’s director chose so that viewers feel as if they are in “a white dungeon.”
“This show is about being at Yale and being bombarded by media [stereotypes],” said Timmia Hearn Feldman ’12, the play’s director. “I want people to come to this show because it allows you to laugh at yourself.”
The play, which is this year’s mainstage production by the Heritage Theatre Ensemble, a student organization that promotes black theater on campus, centers around the way blackness is depicted, how expectations are made on the basis of race and issues of privilege, Hearn Feldman said. Leonard Thomas ’14, the ensemble’s president, said the production “focuses on race in a way that is not really talked about at Yale [ … and … ] has the potential to make a lot of people uncomfortable.”
Nicky Davis ’13, one of the five actors in the production, said she thinks the play, written by OBIE award-winning playwright and director Young Jean Lee, highlights the assumptions white people make about black lifestyles.
“Because it’s so grounded in stereotypes of blackness as received by a white audience, it can be understood by Yale [audiences],” Davis said.
The play incorporates stereotypes prevalent in pop culture, she added — one character is named “Record Company Executive,” while another is dubbed “Video Hoe.”
Hearn Feldman said the play comprises a prologue and three scenes: a stand-up comedy and two micro-dramas.
Hearn Feldman said the play comprises a prologue and three scenes, including a comedian’s sketch, the story of a young black man aspiring to be a rapper and a dinner party that ends with a racist joke.
Mitra Yazdi ’15, the only non-black member of the cast, argued that societal assumptions reflect the idea that the level of fame a young black person can achieve is tied to “drugs, money and hos,” while white people live out their success in “a nice living room.”
The show’s poster depicts a white mouth with black lipstick, all inside a television set, which Hearn Feldman said highlights how media outlets present a white perception of blackness.
Davis said she finds these stereotypes “fun to work with” because of what she sees as a common feeling that Yale is home to few “real” black people, but a number of individuals are seen as “white black people.”
“Where I am from, that means you’re on the honor roll, you took AP classes in high school … you eat salad on a regular basis,” she said. “There are these weird things that are considered white stereotypes and things that make you ‘not black.’”
Davis said that some black Yalies who come to college from high schools at which they were no other “white black kids” identify more strongly as black on campus than at home because “there are black people here that are like [them].”
“Blackness at Yale is a hybrid between what we’re used to at home and the person we are in the classroom, where we want to seem intelligent,” said Yazdi, who added that she thought she was half-black until she was a teenager and mainly had black friends growing up.
Yazdi said that she has noticed she acts differently with her white friends from Yale than she does with her friends back home, which has caused her to re-evaluate the way she treats people, including local New Haven residents to whom she feels she can relate more than the average Yale student.
Thomas said he does not believe students talk about race very frequently, except during class — and even then, they avoid the uncomfortable topics discussed in “The Shipment.” In recent years, the topic of race has risen to the campus consciousness, he said, citing a Black Student Alliance at Yale project last year about blackness at Yale, a controversy over the concept of “colorblindness” on campus and racist graffiti found in a residential college two years ago.
As part of minority groups, Hearn Feldman said, she feels that both she and the playwright-director Young Jean Lee are able to identify with the problems that African-Americans face, and therefore work with black actors to give “a very authentic” portrayal of these issues, even though they may not have faced the racism their cast members have.
For audience members not part of minority groups, it may be particularly hard to appreciate issues of racial stereotyping, Hearn Feldman said.
Actress Carol Crouch ’14 noted that “The Shipment” is in fact a comedy, allowing the production to explore stereotypes in a way that is not serious to the point of causing people to feel attacked.
“In the brochure, members of the production team are all identified by the minority we belong to,” Hearn Feldman said. “We’re making fun of the fact that we like to identify ourselves by these simple, monolithic, one-sided identities.”
Hearn Feldman, who has previously directed five shows at Yale and said that “The Shipment” will be her last, said that the theater canon in which most Yale productions are rooted does not provide opportunities to explore the back experience, or even give sufficient casting opportunities to black actors.
“This is not something you’re going see at Yale again,” she added. “I really like the idea that you’re not just being entertained — you’re getting something that’s really, really new, and about this moment in time.”
“The Shipment” runs at Green Hall from Thursday to Saturday.