Saturday, August 1, 2009

Post Racial. Forget it!

Sergeant Crowley did “act stupidly”, if nothing else then in arresting
in his own home Skip Gates, among the most distinguished and well known academics
in the country.  And the election
of Barack Obama as President, notwithstanding, race, including rightful pent up
anger against manifestations of ongoing institutional discrimination, remains a
significant issue.  I don’t have a
single African American friend who has not experienced it and whose reaction is
equally one of visceral outrage.  
So, too, did race remain center stage throughout the recent largely
boring Sotomayor hearings which, being a masochist, I watched from beginning to
end.  I really need to get a life.

Perhaps the soon-to-be Justice didn’t reveal much during those maddingly
choreographed hearings, but I for one found them most (and disturbingly)
revealing.  In that, there were two
principal players, Judge Sotomayor and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, the
committee’s ranking Republican. 
Sessions had famously once been turned down for a judgeship by the same
committee in part because of the kind words he had to say about the Klan and his
prosecution (unsuccessful) of civil rights workers.  This time around, joined by his Republican lemmings, Sessions
obsessed over a few words in the text of an inspirational speech (delivered
several times) and a single case of claimed discrimination against white fire
fighters to which he and they returned repeatedly during their individual
statements and three rounds of questioning.  Both had an undeniable subtext of racism, not to mention
outrage that a Hispanic (or for that matter a woman) would dare make yet another
incursion into the old boys club.

“I would hope” Judge Sotomayor had told her young audiences, “that a
wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than
not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”  Well “would hope” is not an absolute
claim but rather an aspiration for personal performance and “a white male who
hasn’t lived that life” hardly suggests every white male.  And what exactly is “that life”?  To be sure, it’s the experience of
being an ethnic minority (ask an earlier generation of the Kennedy or Scalia
families about that) but also in her case of being poor and of succeeding by
dint of perseverance and hard work. 
It’s also not forgetting where you came from even if you have been
fortunate enough to reach a different and exalted place.  It took a woman Justice Ginsburg to
enlighten male colleagues with only sheltered locker room experience about the
special and potentially traumatic indignity an impressionable young girl would
experience in a strip search. 
Indeed, and despite her difference on the subject with Justice O’Conner,
would anyone dare even raise an eyebrow if Sotomayor had suggested to those
students that a “wise woman” might make (or definitely would make) a better
decision than a group of men?  Race, or more specifically pride in race, makes the

If you have any doubt about the undertone of racism, consider two
supporting complaints: that the Judge had served on the board of the Puerto
Rican Defense Fund and, as Sessions said in his opening remarks, “Judges have
cited foreign laws” suggesting she was innately that kind of judge.  Both remind us of Sotomayor’s
“otherness” and of her fluency with an alien tongue – clearly not fully American.  But of course we’re not supposed to come
to such conclusions in this post racial world.  As we learned, even hinting that the arrest of Professor
Gates was not a good thing was considered getting the President off message,
and a happily compliant press looking for conflict and ratings made sure it was
just that.  To win office Barack
Obama had to develop a post racial strategy, one that is familiar to any person
of color, or of a minority religion for that matter, who wants to succeed in
this “pluralistic” society.  As
columnist Bob
put it, “The message that has gone out to the public is that
powerful African-American leaders like Mr. Gates and President Obama will be
very publicly slapped down for speaking up and speaking out about police
misbehavior, and that the proper response if you think you are being unfairly
targeted by the police because of your race is to chill.”  It is a message that leaves Herbert
with outrage, and rightly so.  In
fact we should all be outraged and ashamed that at this late date, and after
all we’ve been through, we have not reached a post-racial age or anything close
to it.

Even the complaint that Barack Obama is trying to do too much may
bespeak and undertone of “how uppity of him to think like that.”  The alarming fact that a majority of
Republicans now believe that he is not a native born American and thus really
not Constitutionally entitled to his office, is even more blatant.  The behind the back snickers endure not
only for African Americans and Latinos but also for anyone who is somehow
different.  Asian Americans, Jews
and even Mormons know the sound of those whispers all too well.  The irony of course is that the one
time “majority” is fast losing its numerical supremacy.  Perhaps in the end that is really
what’s bothering them.  Jeff
Sessions, the essence of the man, is still fighting the civil war and the irate
fire fighters of New Haven do feel themselves victimized by altered
demographics.  Entitlement doesn’t
cut it any more, and their trying to overturn affirmative action is like
putting a finger in the dike in the face of an oncoming flood.  Pluralism will ultimately win out, and all
would do well not to stand in its way, which will only lead to shared and
universal pain.

Sonia Sotomayor will undoubtedly join the highest court in the land
within a few days. Henry Louis Gates Jr. will continue with his work at Harvard
and take center stage in yet another PBS series.  Barack Obama will likely prevail in getting a lot of things
done.  All of them are here and
here to stay.  That said, seeing
them before us, we shouldn’t forget the vast majority who remain left behind
and those, including them, who are expected to walk on eggs to survive.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for tying these two events together so insightfully.