Friday, 18 September 2009

In which I get serious about race

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Sarah rings up over the Jimmy Carter flap. She is uncertain whether it helps anything at all. ‘It just turns Obama into the black guy,’ she says. She says her friend L, who is black, is uncomfortable about the whole thing, thinking it makes black people look victimmy, that they must have an old white guy riding to their aid. ‘Obama’s a big boy,’ she says, ‘he can look after himself.’ ‘And,’ says Sarah, who does not have any of the utopian visions that I am sometimes prey to, ‘why is it always gangs of white liberals who go on the television and get hot under the collar about racism?’

I take her point, even though I am a white liberal who gets hot under the collar about racism. I see that it is politically disastrous for Obama to have to talk about race while he is trying, against all the odds, to get his healthcare legislation passed. I understand that it is reductive and stupid for him to be just the black guy. But the fact remains that he is black, and there are white people who still, even now, in the shining 21st century, really, really care about pigmentation. I find it odd that people mind so much about something that is, literally, skin deep. I find it curious that racism is so ingrained, when we all started out black, it’s just some of us went to live in Finland, and there was a vitamin D thing which evolution had to sort out. But ingrained it is, and I think that is something that people should talk about. I think it should be spoken of because by letting the daylight in, a remedy might be found.

Most prejudice comes from fear and ignorance; it is much easier to hate someone if you know nothing about them. So throw up the windows; talk, instruct, argue, educate. I also think it should be spoken of because it is intellectually interesting. I could go all poncy and talk about investigating the roots of racism, and the psychology of it, the fear of the other, the Jungian projection of the shadow; I could talk about the forms it takes, the code words, the dog whistles, the soft prejudice and the hard hatreds. But really all I want to say is: why, why? I mean really: why? It is just skin. In pure aesthetic terms, it is much more beautiful than the pinkish often mottled stuff that Anglo Saxons got. As Martin Amis once wrote: who decided that white was best?

Yet it seems that the prevailing conclusion is, both here and in America, that it is unhelpful to talk about it. The British decided, fairly early on, that Obama was not really black at all. Not in the pejorative sense of not black enough that made him an object of suspicion among the black community in America early in the primary campaign, but in a more world-weary sophisticate pose. Come on, he wears sharp suits and talks his erudite talk and does not refer to women as hos; he falls into no stereotype, so let’s just get past the racial stuff and talk about something more germane. (Interestingly, this was rather the position that the candidate himself took, not wanting to put himself into an ethnic box, and he would have got away with it had it not been for the pesky Reverend Jeremiah Wright.) So now that President Carter has waded into the fray, the reaction on this side of the pond is very much Sarah’s. ‘It makes everything personal,’ she says. ‘I want people to talk about the policies, not about the man.’ The consensus seems to be: move along, nothing to see here.

I think this comes partly from an old British hangover of stiff upper lip. Despite the Jeremy Kyle Show and the rise of reality television, there is still an idea among the commenting classes that too much hysteria and letting it all hang out is a bad thing. But I also think it is because prejudice in Britain is a different animal than its American cousin. It absolutely exists, but in a more low key way; it is febrile and complex, prone to sudden swerves in direction, hard to get a handle on. Take the odd case of the Irish. There was a genuine hatred of the Irish from the 1960s, when boarding houses in Notting Hill sported signs saying: no blacks, no dogs, no Irish, to the 1970s, when anyone with an Irish accent was automatically assumed to be a member of the IRA. By the 1990s, the Irish were so lavishly adored, considered so much hipper and more glamorous and more romantic than the prosaic British, that Britons poured into Dublin every weekend, ostentatiously drank pints of Guinness, and listened to nothing but U2 records.

As for black Britons, attitudes towards them are hard to pin down. Young black men are disproportionately likely to come from broken homes, fare badly in education, and become involved in crime. They face bigger barriers in the employment market than do white Britons, pointing to lingering prejudices that trace their roots back to Windrush and the race riots of 1958. On the other hand, Britain has the highest incidence of mixed race marriages in the Western world, ‘voting with their squishy bits’ wrote Hugh Muir in The Guardian. The number of black MPs, while small, reflects almost exactly their proportion of the population - 2% in each case, which is much more impressive than the percentage of women members – 17% in parliament, 50% in the populace. Trevor McDonald is a Sir, a pillar of the establishment, a national treasure, and consistently voted the most trusted newscaster in Britain. It is tempting for me, as a hopeful white liberal, to look at the admired black faces in British life – Lenny Henry, Adrian Lester, Diane Abbott, Dame Kelly Holmes, Marianne Jean-Baptiste – and think of them as living proof that we are all fine. It is easy to remember only the good parts of race relations in this country: the passionate fervour among students for Nelson Mandela at the height of the struggle against apartheid, the two tone craze in the eighties, the moment in the early nineties where all the white kids in Notting Hill felt that the height of cool was to act black (whatever that meant). I have never walked down a city street and been regarded with suspicion simply because I am a certain colour, so I may be talking out of turn here, but for all the stains on our history – Stephen Lawrence, Handsworth, stop and search, the nights when Brixton burnt – I still feel that anti-black sentiment in this country is less visceral and less violent than that which exists in America. I could be completely wrong about this, but my suspicion is that it is for one central historic reason: there were never slaves picking cotton in British fields. The British enthusiastically embraced the slave trade until Mr Wilberforce and Lord Shaftesbury came along and spoiled the party, but it was a distant, unseen thing. There was no equivalent of Thomas Jefferson and his plantation. There was, most crucially, no parallel here of the American South.

It is because of Jimmy Carter’s pedigree that I think he should be taken seriously. He is a son of the south; he remembers segregation. Yet, in many areas of the American media, he is being treated as an out of touch old man who knows not of which he speaks. His words have been twisted back against him: he is apparently shutting down debate, playing the race card, tarring all of Obama’s honourable opponents with the racial brush. It seems to me entirely uncontroversial to say that prejudice still exists in America, and that some of it is directed against a black president. Oh, say the critics, but we elected a black president, and he got a 70% approval rating as recently as January, so that knocks that argument on the head. They conveniently forget that people candidly admitted to news reporters before the election that they could not bring themselves to vote for a black man. They ignore the posters of Obama as a witch doctor, as a monkey, eating watermelon. They gloss over the insanity of the birthers, who claim furiously that Obama was actually born in Kenya, and is therefore an illegal alien who should be deported. The people who still insist that Obama is a secret Muslim and that they want their country back are not doing it because they dislike his plans for healthcare.

Sure there is racism in this country, says the strange and bullying Joe Scarborough on his MSNBC morning show, in the same tone of voice as if he had said ‘sure there are traffic jams in this country’, as if racism was a fact of life, a minor inconvenience, something that people just had to learn to live with and not bitch about. Scarborough, who frequently talks of America as the greatest nation on earth, then goes on to say that this opposition to the president is not racist, and that to call it that just shows that those crazy liberals have lost the argument. This is an oddly common conflation: a liberal points out that there are racists who do not like Obama because he is black, a conservative immediately says that the liberal is calling all opposition to Obama racist and therefore the liberal has got nothing better to say than ‘ooh look bigots at six o’clock’, which, of course, liberals always do because they are genetically programmed and can’t help it. Scarborough then circles back to the clinching circular argument: America is great, America elected a black president, only America could do this, therefore America cannot be racist. Joe Scarborough is on the moderate right wing. On the far right, in the addled minds of men like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, it is Obama himself who is the racist, with, according to Beck, a real ‘hatred of white people’, and the poor white people can’t say anything about that, because if they do the ‘liberal media’ will say they are all, every last man jack of them, drooling haters of black people.

Race is complicated in America in a completely different way than it is here. It provided one of America’s finest hours with the civil rights movement, the I have a dream speech, the brave freedom riders, the men and women who walked across the burning bridges. It also, within living memory, revealed America’s darkest heart, in segregation, lynchings, Jim Crow, Klan rallies. There was a moment of giddy hope when Obama was elected that he alone could symbolise a glorious post-racial future, that the better angels would prevail. A young black woman was interviewed just after the election, and told the reporter: now I can tell my son that he can be anything he wants to be and mean it. It was one of the most moving moments of the entire campaign. When the man who stands as that glittering role model is depicted in crude posters as a monkey eating a banana, what conclusion is that same young boy to draw?

Sarah is right (she is almost always right) that there is danger of putting Obama into a nice neat little corner labelled: the black man. She is correct that there is an absurdity to seeing tormented white liberals agonising over race, although I would rather see that than white conservatives saying that there is nothing to worry about. But I do think President Carter was also right, and if the shining city on the hill is ever to be built, the fetid bog at its foot must be drained. Politely not mentioning it will not make it go away. Surely this is the time when everyone should be talking their heads off?


  1. Having writing like yours offered for free online is such a gift. As ever an insightful, thoughtful and erudite piece written responsibly and with understanding of all arguments. Of course I completely agree with everything you say, just wish I could put it so eloquently!

  2. WoW!! I love your view on this issue. And as an black woman in America, I could not have said it better myself!!

  3. A wonderful piece of writing, about a subject that is so heartbreaking. I agree also with all you said. I wish Obama was our leader he has more charisma and intelligence in his little finger than Mr Brown. As for being Irish in the 1970's Grandparents were both from Dublin. But my mother would never say she was Irish. Now she loves to sing it from the roof tops :)

  4. Why is so much hatred being hurled toward President Obama? That's a no-brainer!

    He's a Kenyan born Arab terrorist who wants to bring DEATH PANELS to this grand and glorious land of ours so he can pull the plugs on Granny and Gramps.

    HE'S A LEFT WING SOCIALIST whose education was funded by the American Communist Party, MoveOn.Org, Barbara Streisand and Ed Asner.

    He named his daughters Sasha and Malia - YO! WHAT'S UP WITH THAT???

    He would prefer to have dinner with Mahatma Gandhi over Ronald Reagan. RONALD REAGAN!!!

    He wants to start a TROTSKY FOR TOTS program for our children.

    He's just an evil person!

    EVIL, I SAY! My fellow Americans, heed my warning,

    The Big, Black, Bolshevik Bogeyman is gonna git'cha!

    It has not a thing to do with race.

    I am a white person. I would not lie to you.

    But seriously, folks....

    HEY, SCOTLAND! Do you wonder why we're having this stupid conversation over on this side of the pond?

    We're idiots.

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

  5. MissMtheBee - am blushing too much to say anything.

    MissCatFashion - it's fabulous to have you, thank you.

    Wildernesschic - so agree. My grandmother was also Irish, grew up in Dublin and then Co Mayo. My dad spent my entire childhood singing rebel songs (I'm off to Dublin in the green, in the green). I never quite understood the 70s thing. Even when very young I thought: can't you tell the difference between the north and the south?

    Tom - I do admit the secret plot to kill grandma is very worrying indeed. Although personally I am more concerned about the colour of John Boehner's face. But here is the point: you're NOT idiots. If you were just idiots I would not worry. But you gave us Hemingway and jazz and Dorothy Parker and Charlie Parker and lots of other great people called Parker. That's why I get exercised.

    Anyway, WELCOME to Scotland, it's lovely to have you all the way from New York State. Have gone and had a look at your blog and it makes me shriek. (In the Nancy Mitford rather than the Friday the 13th sense.)


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