Sunday, August 10, 2008

The End of Black Politics?

There are qualms I have about Matt Bai's long piece in the New York Times magazine that speculates upon whether Obama's emergence means the end of "black politics." It does however, articulate something I've been feeling for a while about the discussions of race during the campaign. Bai points out that the new generation of black politicians have endured a different form of racism than their predecessors. This quote from Corey Booker, reflecting on the similarity between his youth experiences and Obama's, highlights the changing experience of racism for a set of thirty and forty something blacks.

You know, what it’s like growing up every single day and having people ask to touch your hair because they’ve never seen hair like that,” Booker said. “To have the entire class laugh and giggle when somebody pronounces ‘Niger’ as ‘nigger.’ The constant bombardment of that kind of thing really affects our spirit, and it’s every single day. Like when people want to come back from a vacation and compare their tan to yours and joke about being black.

This is a racism of nuisance and the struggle to be seen as a whole human being rather than a racism of formal exclusion and violence. Whereas the previous generation had to endure racism in all its forms, the struggle for this group is less about breaking barriers and more about struggling to be accepted as a multidimensional person. This comes across in Booker's answer to Bai's question about whether he sees himself as a leader in the black community:

I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” he said. “I don’t want people to expect me to speak about those issues.” By this, presumably, he meant issues that revolve around race: profiling by police, incarceration rates, flagging urban economies. “I want people to ask me about nonproliferation. I want them to run to me to speak about the situation in the Middle East.

This seems to be Obama's struggle. A person who wants genuinely to be seen as a whole, but is repeatedly dragged into a civil-rights era, conversation about race and structural inequality. This conversation still needs to be had. The fact remains that for all the gains of the black middle class, a sizeable black underclass remains, hate crimes are on the rise, and the black incarceration rate is several times that of other groups. This is probably what drove Jesse Jackson to make his unfortunate comments. I can understand his indignance at this "upstart" who seems to be leapfrogging what he sees as the unfinished business of the civil rights era to attack black fathers who are already beleaguered by societal stereotypes and institutional racism.

Therein lies the problem...the shift in racism from the formal and overt to the subtle and personal for many in the black middle class. Your politics derives from where you stand. It's telling that Obama sought out the experience of black inner-city life by moving to Chicago to become a community organizer. His is a politics of searching, of constructing identity from a pastiche of experience. This is the stuff of novels, but not necessarily of politics. This might be what the "new black politics" turns out to be. A politics that is rooted more in identity and recognition rather than challenging structural inequalities. If you listen to Obama's recent rhetoric, he doesn't strike me as one who is relishing the opportunity to get in there and "stick it to the man."


Black Political Analysis said...

Corey Booker should address young men who heckled Obama into addressing "black issues." As long as some blacks insist on Obama and other new, prominent, young black leaders strictly addressing black issues it'll be hard for these new leaders to escape Jesse Jackson's shadow. Maybe that's what Jackson wants, but in order for blacks to be seen as leaders that can address all issues, blacks must let them.

Jose Marichal said...

I agree, but I sympathize with that heckler who isn't cynical (realistic?) about the possibilities of politics like those of us who study this for a living :-)