13 January 2008

Race & Class - Here We Go Again

White America puts the characteristics of black people in an imaginary box they carry around with them. I know they do because I carry the same box. Despite all my efforts to discard it, it's there, right next to the ones I carry that hold the characteristics of Hispanic America, Asian America, Eastern European America, and India America.

But insert the phrase "middle class" in front of all these monikers and half the stuff in these imaginary boxes are irrelevant. Add "upper middle class" and you can put every supposed difference that's left into one box.

Juan Williams says essentially what I want to contribute on this, so I will pop his op-ed in below.

I have a client who came into the office on Thursday to drop off some documents for her loan. An Indian woman, her husband is the stateside CFO of a mid sized Indian corporation that does a lot of business in the US.

We talked for awhile about the loan while I made copies and filled in some blanks on the forms her husband had signed. A vestige of the tension remained from the negotiations over fees earlier in the week, which is pretty natural. So I put it out there just to get the issue of lingering distrust on the table.

"Are you comfortable with this loan the way we've got it set up?"

She replied that everything was satisfactory, but of course her job was to secure the best deal for her family. The way her eyes looked, the way the corners of her mouth were indented, it seemed even as she spoke to the contrary that something else might be wrong. Or she was dropping another package off at a competitor when she left my office, with the intentions of making it a horse race.

I gave her a copy of her appraisal report. We went through it. I made the appropriate gestures towards the decor of her home as we looked at the pictures, because flattery still works. I put all the copies she needed into a folder and presented it to her. While she tucked it away in her carryall, she mentioned that the house was pretty big "for three people".

So I asked about the child. It turns out her daughter is in high school, and wants to be a doctor. I ask where she's looking to go to college, and she mentions my alma mater. "They have one of the best medical schools," she says, the pride in her voice showing as if her daughter has already been accepted.

When I tell her that it has gotten a lot more expensive since I graduated, the look in her eyes changes - to what exactly I don't have the time to describe, but if you have any accomplished black friends they can tell you what I mean.

The next ten minutes she peppers me with questions about how to get her daughter in, about how to apply for various programs, as if I have a hotline to the admissions office.

I have to literally drag her out the door to get her to leave. When I tell her as she heads to her car that she is in good hands, she looks as if she actually believes me.

In this instance, class consciousness was more prominent than race, although most middle and upper class Indians feel they are a cut above African Americans.

Barack Obama and his wife are both lawyers, Harvardites no less, products of solidly middle class families who obviously valued education and a strong work ethic. But if I were to substitute the name "Scott Burks", you would probably assume from that sentence that this is a white family.

The New Negro is different. They are under 50. They have white friends that are higher on the friendship totem pole than a lot of their black friends. They have the means to enjoy the freedoms the sixties opened the doors to - because "you are now free to move about the country" doesn't mean anything if you can't buy a ticket.

But the main thing is, they are not angry ALL THE TIME. The images of Jesse Jackson and Maxine Waters and John Lewis [US House of Representatives - GA] seem to bring in that gospel background music on queue, as if they are stuck in a time machine.

The sixties were almost FIFTY years ago. And so far, Barack is doing a fairly good job of leaving them there. It will be interesting to see how much of that comes out in South Carolina - because in politics, to say "MLK" is the quickest way to say "I won't forget you, brother".

But the pollsters need to get their shit together, because there is no more "black vote". Stand ten black folks in a line (or in my kitchen, which is I where I got the numbers I am about to give you) and you will get 4 for Clinton, 3 for Obama, 1 for Edwards, 1 for Jim Huckabee and 1 for McCain.

Even in South Carolina, my home state, people are learning to think for themselves a little.

We shall see.

The Juan Williams article is below, as promised:

    BARACK OBAMA is running an astonishing campaign. Not only is he doing far better in the polls than any black presidential candidate in American history, but he has also raised more money than any of the candidates in either party except Hillary Clinton.

    Most amazing, Mr. Obama has built his political base among white voters. He relies on unprecedented support among whites for a black candidate. Among black voters nationwide, he actually trails Hillary Clinton by nine percentage points, according to one recent poll.

    At first glance, the black-white response to Mr. Obama appears to represent breathtaking progress toward the day when candidates and voters are able to get beyond race. But to say the least, it is very odd that black voters are split over Mr. Obama’s strong and realistic effort to reach where no black candidate has gone before. Their reaction looks less like post-racial political idealism than the latest in self-defeating black politics.

    Mr. Obama’s success is creating anxiety, uncertainty and more than a little jealousy among older black politicians. Black political and community activists still rooted in the politics of the 1960s civil rights movement are suspicious about why so many white people find this black man so acceptable.

    Much of this suspicion springs from Mr. Obama’s background. He was too young to march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His mother is white and his father was a black Kenyan. Mr. Obama grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, then went on to the Ivy League, attending Columbia for college and Harvard for law school. He did not work his way up the political ladder through black politics, and in fact he lost a race for a Chicago Congressional seat to Bobby Rush, a former Black Panther.

    In an interview with National Public Radio earlier this year, Mr. Obama acknowledged being out of step with the way most black politicians approach white America. “In the history of African-American politics in this country there has always been some tension between speaking in universal terms and speaking in very race-specific terms about the plight of the African-American community,” he said. “By virtue of my background, you know, I am more likely to speak in universal terms.”

    The alienation, anger and pessimism that mark speeches from major black American leaders are missing from Mr. Obama’s speeches. He talks about America as a “magical place” of diversity and immigration. He appeals to the King-like dream of getting past the racial divide to a place where the sons of slaves and the sons of slave owners can pick the best president without regard to skin color.

    Mr. Obama’s biography and rhetoric have led to mean-spirited questions about whether he is “black enough,” whether he is “acting like he’s white,” as a South Carolina newspaper reported Jesse Jackson said of him. But the more serious question being asked about Mr. Obama by skeptical black voters is this: Whose values and priorities will he represent if he wins the White House?

    As he claims to proudly represent a historically oppressed minority, Mr. Obama has to answer the question. Too many black politicians have hidden behind their skin color to avoid it.

    Fifty percent of black Americans say Mr. Obama shares their values, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center. But that still leaves another half who dismiss him as having only “some” or “not much/not at all” in common with the values of black Americans.

    There is a widening split over values inside black America. Sixty-one percent of black Americans, according to the Pew poll, believe that the values of middle-class and poor blacks are becoming “more different.” Inside black America, people with at least some college education are the most likely to see Mr. Obama as “sharing the black community’s values and interests a lot.” But only 41 percent of blacks with a high school education or less see Mr. Obama as part of the black community.

    Overall, only 29 percent of people of all colors say Mr. Obama reflects black values. He is viewed as the epitome of what Senator Joe Biden artlessly called the “clean” and “articulate” part of black America — the rising number of black people who tell pollsters they find themselves in sync with most white Americans on values and priorities.

    And in a nation where a third of the population is now made up of people of color, Mr. Obama is in the vanguard of a new brand of multi-racial politics. He is asking voters to move with him beyond race and beyond the civil rights movement to a politics of shared values. If black and white voters alike react to Mr. Obama’s values, then he will really have taken the nation into post-racial politics.

    Whether he and America will get there is still an open question.

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