Friday, April 29, 2016

Race and the Presidency

This is a mini-post. I have had so many ideas running around in my head, and some writing I've been doing for other projects that I'm now reduced to a mini-post, with possibly others to follow. Who knows? I've never been one for planning, sometimes to my detriment. My redeeming quality has been persistence and the capacity for hard work. I keep coming back.

Anyway, mini-post. Toni Morrison in 1998 reflected on the impeachment of Bill Clinton. (Amazing how that has receded, isn't it?) She said, “White skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

She said the message of the Establishment to Clinton, as to any African-American, was this: “'No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot.'”

She continued: “This is Slaughtergate. A sustained, bloody, arrogant coup d’├ętat. The Presidency is being stolen from us. And the people know it.”

Today, a phrase in Paul Krugman's trenchant column on how the Republican Establishment has conned its way through the decades caught my eye: “after seven years of an African-American president (who the establishment has done its best to demonize)....”

This is not new, but when I heard it this time, I thought: you know, racism is so pervasive that there is no magic bullet, it really has to be taken on in stages. Clinton was stage one, a white man with some familiar African-American characteristics, according to Morrison. And Obama is stage two. Only stage two because being African-American isn't just about skin color, it's about culture and experience. Obama's skin color is dark, but he was raised by a white mother and white grandparents from Kansas living in Hawaii. True, not the total white experience – Indonesia and Hawaii are not Kansas.

The ambiguity was sufficient for many African-Americans to say he wasn't black enough to qualify as a Black President. But certainly prejudiced whites viewed him as plenty Black. And that was the label he embraced. If he was viewed by white society as Black, then let's be Black, he said. He chose a spouse who was fully African-American. And then he populated his government with many true African-Americans. One step further than Bill Clinton, I'd say, maybe a step and a half. Black he was but he still was raised by a non-prejudiced white family – his grandparents were really remarkable, both of them, the way they raised that boy. I'm all admiration.

Then as President he got the full illegitimate treatment from Mitch McConnell and other Southern friends – we'll break this Black boy, essentially. We'll challenge his birth, we'll block anything he wants to do. We'll put him in his place.

Well, it didn't work out that way, Mitch. The Confederacy may still live, but it's still shrinking.

Anyway, like I said, a mini-post. Just an observation. My own view is optimistic. Obama has clearly been a superior President in so many ways, and his no-drama temperament has been perhaps the strongest weapon of all. What a gift it is. Basically, I think Obama is step two or two and a half in a three step process. Next time, no more illegitimacy; next time, it will be just on the merits.


Budd Shenkin

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