Friday, August 1, 2008

The "conversation" on race in America

I've just published an entry about this on my blog but it's something a feel pretty strongly about so I thought I might write about it as my first entry here at a common fire (hello!). It seems that all the cable shows on politics are fixated today on the question of the supposed "playing" of the "race card" in the presidential campaign, and whether Obama or McCain played it. I think this very metaphor may be a distorting and unconstructive one. Can one be serious about race in America by using poker metaphors? I suppose. But the figure of speech itself is trivializing. Even using it to talk about politics demeans political discussion.

Mike Barnacle on MSNBC just said again that the race issue is "tedious": he had earlier said he was "tired" of it. It's strange to hear this repetitious mantra from white commentators that seemingly unanimously agree that it's bad for Obama if race is in any way whatsoever spoken of in connection to the campaign. (From what I've seen, black commentators are of the same opinion.) So the issue is tiresome, tedious, etc., and we (we white commentators?) would prefer if it just went away, or -- a more precious view which I heard Heidi Harris offer on MSNBC -- we wonder 'Didn't we get past all this already?', and yet still categorically say that if there's any talk about race at all, well, that's bad for the black candidate. What does all of that taken together mean? It seems to be a pretty unequivocal admission by everybody that has this rather privileged position as a face and a voice on the cable networks that race is in fact a major factor in American life, so much so that the Obama campaign ought to do everything in its power to make sure it disappears. (I know I probably overestimate the talking heads as a measure of whatever the actual state of opinion about these things in America is).

How can people who hold that view then say the issue is tedious or tiring? It's silently an absolutely definitive one if it has that much power. As I said on my own blog, as I watched the rather loud and emotional exchange between Leo Terrell (black) and Heidi Harris (white) I was struck by the uncomfortable and sad realization about how childish we Americans are as a people regarding race in our country, both its past and its present. I don't mean to sound superior about this. I know we are all often rather childish about sensitive issues, even (perhaps especially) in our own personal relationships--I've been married for two years and I feel like I know very well that I often fail to really act how I imagine a mature adult acts. Yet it is even more important with respect to something that socially divides so much of the citizenry to be able to at least, say, half of the time, be able to talk without raising our voices and outright yelling at each other: which some of our leading lights in public discourse can't seem to manage for five minutes. I believe I've seen maybe one actual, intelligent, respectful discussion of these issues. If I remember right it was on some show on PBS; probably the Jim Lehrer News Hour. Which we all know is so representative of the American public.

A bit disappointed,

P.S. I've just read through some of the old entries y'all have written here, and I'm relieved to see that race has been a topic here already. I look forward to reading some more of what's been said here. Greetings again, everyone!


JeremyC said...

Hi Jonathan. And hello again to this blog that I've been neglecting, with occasional "lurking."

I haven't checked out your blog yet, but I completely agree with your points here. I should start with a brief picture of my mediaverse: NPR and lots of it, with some NY Times and occasional reads online; no cable access now and never watch local TV news.

Over the last few days since this whole "race card" kerfuffle has erupted I've been increasingly frustrated with the constant reference to the "race card" even on NPR. Fortunately their commentators have been a little bit better about pointing out that the issue isn't race itself, but rather the "race card" as political strategy that is being disputed between the campaigns. Even still, after reading your post I am, with no overstatement, horrified by the treatment this issue has been given by the people you've cited. It truly boggles the mind that anyone would say anything like "Didn't we get past all this already?" Truly horrifying. And destructive in how dismissive it is.

Ironically, of course, the poker metaphor also underlines how important race issue is for our modern political discourse. It is the "trump" card, in this conceit, next to which other issues pale. (Not saying that it actually should be so dominant, but taking the metaphor to its logical end leads us here.) But the metaphor does disservice to the gravity of the issue by sublimating it. The "race issue" itself is complicated we can't bring ourselves to face it, politically, but we can repackage it as a tool for political strategy. Thus we can give lip service to "the race issue" (which is itself a somewhat empty signifier) without dealing with the issue itself.

And this gets me to the root of my own aggravation with this protracted presidential political season: the coverage (on my preferred media outlets included) mostly deals with the "sport" of campaigning, and little to do with true politics. We know a ton about superdelagates and what someone will likely do next to win, but we know little, often, of the planks in each candidate's platform. The media itself does not seem to be able to face issues like race.

So, finally, when I heard what Obama said, I was at first a little dismayed that he did seem to be referring to his race and, to ears so inclined (not mine) might have been understood to be calling the McCain campaign "racist," albeit in the most indirect way possible. But I was predisposed to see it in these terms because of this conceit of "the race card," since of course the clip itself is dwarfed by all the commentary, which you often hear before the primary statement in these situations. Once I tried to remove this structure of interpretation, I realized that not only was he indeed referring to his race (among other things) but that I was in fact relieved that he does so. Obama's race is indeed the proverbial 2,200 kilogram gorilla, a fact which is not mitigated by ad nauseum discussions of the "race card." And his inability to state that (because he would be accused of using it as a trump card) speaks directly to one of the central issues of race: that we can't even talk about it.

Joyce Cheng said...

Hi Jonathan,

Welcome to this blog, which is apparently very, very interested in race... It does in fact reflect badly of American society that race can be such a repressed issue. I suspect that the nervousness and the impatience that this topic provokes in people has to do with the lack of appropriate language to talk about something that is deeply traumatizing to blacks and whites alike.

Seriously, I was really struck by the fact that the Ivy-league educated white liberals with the best intentions in the world in *Traces of the Trade* suddenly sounded and appeared less than intelligent when they had to confront the issue of race.

What would be the way, or at least a way, to look at it in the face? I feel that Obama has done enough to model for us a way of speaking about race as communities, traditions and psychic identification. Maybe there needs to be some kind of crisis for the Americans' repression around race to crumble?

gale said...

Welcome Jonathan - hopefully the blog will have more continuous action when Jeremy and Laura settle into their new internet-ready homes, and now that I'm not driving across the country.

I was in a hotel in Tennessee the other day, watching a discussion of this (it featured Pat Buchanan and a guy I didn't recognize discussing why McCain has narrowed Obama's lead) on MSNBC in the breakfast area. There were a couple of white businessmen, a black woman, and a black family all eating at their separate tables, and a black woman seeing to the continental breakfast.

Wouldn't it have been nice if we, the real-live people, could have all discussed our views about race instead of listening to the talking heads blather on about it? I think that would be a real democracy. Especially since we live in a society where blacks and whites and people from different classes rarely meet in places on equal terms - in this case, most of us were hotel guests.

As to other things: Jeremy, I agree in the nature of coverage - it's all strategy and gaffs, rarely policy. Joyce - clearly we have a level of discomfort and lack the language to talk seriously about race and its historical implications. I know this because I face a room of silent students when the subject comes up . . . until I make it clear that it's okay for them to talk about it.

Jonathan Trejo-Mathys said...

well, your comments were a very nice birthday present for me (B-day was yesterday)! Regarding Jeremy's comment: I bet the relative lack of policy-oriented discussions on the cable shows has to do with need for advertising revenue derived from ratings. But that might be a poor way of viewing my fellow cable-viewing Americans, since it suggests that they find discussions of policy far less interesting than the heart-pumping "sport" mode of viewing and talking about politics. That said, perhaps it's simply true that in that sense turning politics into a sport or a spectacle is more interesting, and that it's unfortunate that too many of us prefer what's interesting to what's important. As for how educated Americans can believe we've gotten past race as a wound and a cleft and a reality in our society, it is hard for me to see how one can think that until I remember that it was largely my relationship with my wife and one or two friends, along with a modicum of reflection, that caused me to see how little it is past. My relationships did a good deal more than my reflection too, or at least the reflection would have had much less power without the push from the relationships. So the ignorance about the reality of race, especially on the part of whites who haven't been personally exposed to relationships that force them to see it (or not be able to avoid it), itself reinforces the reality. That's my thought. Another thing is a phenomenon psychologists and social scientists call "priming". You saw the Obama-McCain interaction framed by stories and talk about the "race card" and that "primed" you to perceive the Obama speech in a certain way. Researchers have found that priming affects our perceptions and choices in very powerful ways we don't consciously realize. If you take a bunch of folks and have them write down the last two numbers of their social security number on paper, then have them all sample a bit of wine, and then ask them to write down the lowest amount they would bid on or expect to pay for that wine (i.e., estimate the value of it), the folks whose SS#'s were larger will estimate a larger value for the wine. They were "primed" for a higher baseline estimate by a completely irrelevant factor. (I may have gotten the details a bit wrong: they're in a great little book called "Predictably Irrational".) Imagine how much stronger this effect is when the factor isn't completely irrelevant, as the idea of the "race card" as priming before hearing talk about race!

Regarding Joyce's comment: I think crises may be overrated in the overcoming of collective or systemically conditioned trauma. What works on the couch, won't work in the public sphere. I wonder if it won't simply be accumulated gains in understanding from relationships between individuals and civil society groups over generations, plus a sprinkle of inspired leadership. I wonder if crises don't more often result in riots. They expose the trauma and the anger, but they don't relieve it. But then exposing it is required for a cure.

Regarding Gale's comment: It would be nice to have all those folks talking to each other about this, but in daily life, outside the context of friendship, church functions, or some other structured environment or meeting, the risks of talking about potentially explosive issues may be too high. Plus no doubt everybody as other plans for the day (like classes to teach!). That's why I think increasing connections, whether as individuals or as part of groups, corporate personnel, associations, etc., between whites and people of other races in the U.S., or maybe between people of all races in general, might be what will help to change the reality of race here. I'm thinking of my realization one day that a friend of mine, who was rather rabidly homophobic, had no gay friends, and how it would be impossible for me to think and feel like he does given that I have had three very important gay male mentors in my life.

Phew! Back to work. Hope everyone is having a good day whatever it is they're doing.