Race, still the Final Frontier

By J Brooks Spector 11 February 2013

Some critics are suggesting that the US celebration of Black History Month has lost its edge and must become more inclusive. J BROOKS SPECTOR examines the theme for this year’s Black History Month – “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington” – against the backdrop of Barack and Michelle Obama’s second term as “First Family” in the White House.

On 20 January 2036, as Solomon bin Gonzales-Goldberg stepped forward on the special temporary platform on the west face of the US Capitol Building, his life partner, Vishnu Tanaka, handed him the specially wrapped Buddhist holy texts (protected in a cloth blessed by the Dalai Lama) for him to take the presidential oath of office. Supreme Court Chief Justice Louise-Louis Okoli-Sorensen then requested that he repeat the oath…

Maybe if – or when – such a moment really does come to be, a generation off into the future, race (among other things) may no longer remain so deeply resonant and relevant. If that were to happen, surely the way we continue to talk about race now would have dramatically changed, at least from the present. In the meantime, however, Americans remain stuck with race as a key determinant of behaviour and attitudes – certainly in American political discourse.

This seems peculiarly relevant given the couple now in the White House as well as the fact that February happens to be Black History Month in America – and, increasingly, in the UK and Canada as well. The commemoration that came to become Black History Month first began a half-century after the 13th Amendment to the Constitution had ended slavery in America. Harvard-trained historian Carter G Woodson and a minister, Jesse Moorland, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) and in 1926 that group sponsored the first celebration of Negro History week, selecting the second week of February, to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. This was in recognition of the virtual absence of any consideration of the contribution (and problems) of African Americans in the larger tapestry of American life and history in most examinations of American history at the time.

By the late 1960s, in the wake of the civil rights movement and a growing sense of black identity and American-style black consciousness, Negro History Week morphed into Black History Month on a growing number of university campuses. In 1976, President Gerald Ford was the first US president to offer official recognition of Black History Month, calling on his fellow citizens to “seize the opportunity to honour the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavour throughout our history.” Thereafter, every president has issued yearly proclamations for this commemoration. Over time, too, it has become emotionally conjoined with the Martin Luther King Day holiday – a federal holiday that comes in mid-January.

This year’s Black History Month theme, “At the Crossroads of Freedom and Equality: The Emancipation Proclamation and the March on Washington”, marks the 150th and 50th anniversaries of those two crucial events in African-American – and American more generally – history. But some critics have begun to suggest Black History Month has lost its edge and must become more inclusive – it needs to recognise the increasing share of the country’s African American population that is made up of recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean – some 12% of black Americans – rather than just individuals whose origins in America ultimately reach back to slavery and the slave trade.

In that sense, the Obama family stands at this crucial juncture, bringing together these two strands. On the one hand there is Michelle Obama’s heritage that encompasses both sides of the racial and slave frontier. On the other, there is the president’s origins – which as the world knows – stem from the marriage of a Kenyan educational exchange student and a young student from Kansas after they met and married in Hawaii.

With Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained now virtually owning the screens of every multiplex in the country, is it in fact still true, as Carter Woodson wrote nearly 100 years ago, that black history – or a mythologised version of it – is “overlooked, ignored, and even suppressed”? Nearly a decade ago, actor Morgan Freeman, one of the country’s most prominent black actors, critiqued Black History Month, arguing it unfairly split the history of black Americans from the rest of the country’s experience. Freeman argued, instead, “Black history is American history.”

But has everyone in America accepted Freeman’s point? If one delves into the murkier depths of the blogosphere, if only briefly, it is still ridiculously easy to find extended screeds about Barack Obama’s essential, fundamental, unchangeable “otherness” – his purported fraudulent American citizenship and his trumped-up academic credentials, his secretive agenda as, alternatively, a black-nationalist-anti-colonialist, a communist, a socialist, a fundamentalist Muslim, an authoritarian-dictator-wannabe, and so much more.

In a telling TV satire just a few weeks ago, John Stewart crafted a pseudo-Dr Seuss poem in the manner of the classic Green Eggs And Ham. Stewart made it clear that no matter what Barack Obama did or would do to reach across to his Republican opponents and strive for some sort of middle ground for governing the nation, his opponents were simply never going to reach back across the divide to him. Ever.

Or as Stewart had chanted on his TV show: 

“…You cannot reach across the aisle,

‘cause everything you do is vile.

They complained when you killed Osama.

So on a train, a plain, or a llama,

bowling a 44 at Bowl-a-Rama,

despite your nice white Kansas momma, comma,

they do not like you, Barack Obama.”

Okay, as doggerel it ain’t quite Shakespeare, but it does point to his opponents’ personification of Obama’s intractable, incurable “otherness” problem in the minds of too many.

But not content to cast Obama into this position of perpetual otherness, a share of the population has found its newest avatar in the person of Michelle Obama. Despite her substantial popularity with many around the world as the model of the modernist sensibility of a health-conscious, family-centred, career woman, or even as a new-style fashion icon somewhat in the manner of Jackie Kennedy, instead, for some, she has become an object of scorn. And this is, once again, tied up in that deep ambivalence about race in America.

In her recent column in The Washington Post, Krissah Thompson speaks to how Michelle Obama’s current healthy eating campaign – a typical White House first lady-style campaign right in line with efforts by half a dozen previous first ladies – has been criticised in a stridently racial tone. Thompson wrote that “The latest public rant against Michelle Obama’s effort to promote low-calorie school lunches was recently caught on tape in Alabama — the usual protest against the federal government meddling in local business. And then it quickly found its way around to the first lady’s posterior. ‘Fat butt Michelle Obama,’ said Bob Grisham, a high school football coach who was surreptitiously recorded by one of his students. ‘Look at her. She looks like she weighs 185 or 190. She’s overweight.’”

Thompson went on to write, “Grisham, who was suspended Monday, is neither the first nor the most high-profile person to feel moved to comment on the first lady’s physique. Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh has repeatedly called her Michelle ‘My Butt’ Obama. And Rep. James Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican, issued an apology after he was caught commenting on her ‘large posterior’. (Grisham has also said he misspoke.)”

It takes very little imagination to see such statements as veiled (or perhaps not-so-veiled) references to the archetypical trait of black physiognomy in folklore and legend – and even a reference to the agonies and degradations of South Africa’s “Hottentot Venus”, Saartjie Baartman, whose body shape had made her a carnival exhibition throughout Western Europe at the beginning of the 19th century. In contemporary South Africa, a young black playwright, Napo Masheane, has responded to just such a perception with her sharp, pungent, combative theatre works such as My Bum is Genetic, Deal With It and The Fat Black Women Sing.

In her column, Krissah Thompson goes on to quote Ayana Byrd, co-editor of the anthology Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hair, Hips, Lips and Other Parts, who asks what the heck is going on with Michelle Obama’s critics and their prurient obsession with her posterior: “We have a history in this country of white people not showing adequate respect for and devaluing the bodies of black women, and this most definitely falls in line with that.”

Thompson adds that Michelle Obama’s, “presence as first lady challenges the historic view of a black woman’s place and notions of beauty, says Michaela Angela Davis, a fashion expert who has campaigned for more positive images of black women in the media. ‘Michelle is black from a distance. She’s a real black girl,’ Davis says. ‘A lot of people have tried to make diversity into this weird beige thing. Her presence is just really powerful to interject into the global consciousness.’”

And Thompson concludes, citing yet another expert, that, “The first lady’s critics ‘are reacting to the culture in which they’ve grown up or they are using it as a code to racialise Michelle Obama and remind people that she’s black,’ says Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University.”

But have racial attitudes significantly changed since Barack Obama was first elected, and especially now that his selection has been reconfirmed by a majority of the American electorate? One way to evaluate this is to compare the share of the white majority’s vote garnered by previous Democratic candidates. In the 16 presidential contests between 1952 and 2012, only Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide actually pulled in a nationwide majority of the white vote. In fact, nine Democratic nominees gained smaller percentages of the white vote than did Obama in 2008 (43%), and four had less white support than Obama’s 2012 percentage of 39%. From that perspective at least, Obama’s record with white voters doesn’t seem all that different than that of other Democratic candidates.

On the other hand, House of Representatives elections offer a different snapshot as the percentage of the white vote going Democratic was just shy of 50% between 1980 to 1992, then fell to 42.7% from 1994 through 2004, then went up to 46.7% in 2006 and 2008 as a function of public disapproval of George W Bush and Republicans in Congress. But it fell to 38% in 2010 and went up just a point in last year’s election.

Political scientists Michael Tesler of Brown University and David O Sears of UCLA have written extensively on race and voting in contemporary American politics, including a 2010 study, “President Obama and the Growing Polarization of Partisan Attachments by Racial Attitudes and Race.” The two scholars argue political party attachments have become increasingly polarised by racial attitudes and race as a function of Obama’s rise to prominence within the Democratic Party. Specifically, they found voters who fall on the high end of a racial resentment scale have moved towards an intensification of partisanship within the Republican Party on a scale that runs from strongly Democratic to strongly Republican.

In measuring this racial resentment – a “subtle hostility towards African-Americans” – Tesler and Sears asked respondents how strongly they agreed with questions such as: 1) Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favours; 2) Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class; 3) Over the past few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve; and 4) It’s really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites.

Meanwhile, other scholars such as Josh Pasek of the University of Michigan have found statistically significant increases from 2008 to 2012 in “explicit anti-black attitudes”. This leads to a conclusion that, “People who self-identified as Republicans in 2012 expressed anti-Black attitudes more often than did Republican identifiers in 2008.” The practical effect of these shifts has meant white Republicans are part of an intensifying conservatism within the right wing of the Republican Party that is coming to hold stronger and stronger racial attitudes. This existential challenge for Republicans into the future is that as the party withdraws further within its regional stronghold and among older white voters, is leading some of its rising leaders to question if this will ultimately be a long-term, permanent losing strategy.

“We have a choice: we can become a shrinking regional party of middle-aged and older white men, or we can fight to become a national governing party,” said John Weaver, a consultant to the 2008 McCain campaign, after Obama’s re-election. And Mark McKinnon, an adviser to former president George W Bush, said, “The party needs more tolerance, more diversity and a deeper appreciation for the concerns of the middle class.” By contrast, the party’s current brand identity continues to be drawn from the conservative media echo chamber of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and others.

Or, as Sam Tanenhaus has just written in the newest issue of The New Republic, “[H]istory, with its repeated instances of racialist political strategy dating back many decades, only partially accounts for the party’s electoral woes. The true problem, as yet unaddressed by any Republican standard-bearer, originates in the ideology of modern conservatism. When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on 19th-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C Calhoun.”

Thomas Edsal of  The New York Times similarly argued the other day that the party “must assuage the social conscience of mainstream, moderate white voters among whom an ethos of tolerance has become normal. These voters are concerned with fairness and diversity, even as they stand to the right of centre. It is there that the upcoming political battles – on the gamut of issues from race to rights ­– will be fought.”

But this remains difficult – if not impossible – to accomplish as long as leading Republican Party supporters continue to figure out new ways to barrage Barack Obama and his wife via the use of covert racial signifiers, or as long as they keep insisting Obama is somehow a stalking horse – just by virtue of race – for a litany of “isms” antithetical to “real American values.” In that sense, then, Black History Month and a culture of inclusiveness continues to strive for will continue to have real meaning and purpose in finally bringing Morgan Freeman’s assertion that “Black history is American history” to a common appreciation by the entire nation. DM

Read more:

  • Jon Stewart uses Dr Seuss-like poem to describe Obama haters at the Examiner
  • Black History Month: Valerie Jarrett Talks Obama, Career in ‘Impact Players’ Series at Black Enterprise
  • Is Black History Month Still Relevant? At Take
  • “Original Sin: Why the GOP is and will continue to be the party of white people” at The New Republic
  • Origins of Black History Month at
  • The Persistence of Racial Resentment at the New York Times
  • Michelle Obama’s posterior again the subject of a public rant, at the Washington Post
  • In Africa, Michelle Obama reflects on race at Reuters
  • Viewpoint: Black History Month Doesn’t Represent All Blacks at Time
  • Obama presidency brings out worst in many white people at the Kansas City Star
  • Washington Post: Critics of Michelle’s Weight are Racist at the Washington Post
  • Those who insult her insult us all, and, yes, we should be angry, at the Huffington Post

Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama walk and wave after emerging from the presidential limousine during the inaugural parade from the Capitol to the White House in Washington, January 21, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing


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