I was looking for an oversight perspective on changes in American race relations - instead, "Breakthrough" quickly becomes an incredibly detailed accounting of infinite minutiae that becomes had to follow.
In 1958, more than half of Americans responding to a Gallup poll said they would not vote for a black candidate. By 1984, that number had dropped to 16%, and by 2007, only 4% told Newsweek they would not. In 2008, 43% of whites voted for Obama, vs. 41% for Kerry in 2004.
A lot of attention was paid to the so-called "Bradley effect," named after former L.S. mayor Tom Bradley lost the 1982 race for California governor to a white man, even though polls showed Bradley winning by as much as 22 points. Similarly, Douglas Wilder was elected Virginia governor by a far smaller lead than the polls predicted. Others, however, that these results were the results of polling errors; Harold Ford lost in Tennessee by less than predicted.
At this point, the book becomes too detailed for the average reader. Hopefully, Ifill will write a follow-up that is more digestible.
on February 7, 2011
This ostensively is a book about race in America -- in the run up to Barack Obama's election. Yet it is a discussion that reduces wholly to a narrative about only one race: the black race.
If one lived outside the U.S., one could easily get the impression that blacks are fighting only against themselves or against some invisible or non-existent racist enemy? Whites, to the extent they appear in the book at all, appear in this narrative only as an unseen backdrop, or the canvas upon which all black aspirations are written, and the veil through which all black problems are seen. Otherwise they are all imagined caricatures of past racists: foaming at the mouth Southerners of a past generation, or so it seems from this narrative. What we have here is a carefully articulated non-existent "war" between the "old Civil Rights generation blacks" and the "new non-civil rights generation elite educated post-racial blacks." Contemporary whites and white racism (what Tim Wise has labelled Racism 2.0) does not even make a cameo appearance here.
But this war between blacks that the author has conjured up is contrived, a faux war, if ever there was one. It happens to be the same one that Washington Post Reporter, Eugene Robinson conjured-up in his book, how curious?
But the truth is. that the racial war in America is still the same old one between -- not within -- the races. It has not changed one iota: white racism today is as endemic and as destructive to the black race as it ever was: Only the name of the game has changed; and a few "tokens" have been admitted inside the carefully guarded gates of the "white racial iron curtain" as "honorary whites."
Glen Ifill, a veteran and much respected PBS Journalist, has her say here about Obama's "Joshua generation." And although the book is intended to be another celebration of yet another new tranche of spectacular "black progress," it has a decidedly disquieting undertone to it. How many times has spetacular black progress broken through only to be reversed by the very next political administration? I can count cases that go at least all the way back to Reconstruction. In fact, "undoing black progress" is the consistent leitmotif of American politics.
Without getting into the other false debate about "who is black enough" and that kind of nonsense, what is so disquieting about narratives like this one is that it represents an alternative reality that somehow "individual blacks who have made it," have unaccountably also arrived at the gates of a new "non-racist America?" Curiously, they are the only witnesses to this new reality, and each of them becomes self-appointed spreader of the new non-raist gospel. What their isolated success teaches these new converts -- the new "foot soldiers for the status quo"-- is first and foremost how to become blind to, or how to pretend not to see that, due to their own success, the world of racism in America has not been changed one iota?
Indeed, who cannot be proud of Arthur Davis, Cory Booker, Deval Patrick and others (including Barack Obama) that make up the pantheon of Ifill's new wave of post-racial heroes. But is the issue really about the success of a handful of blacks who by "hook or crook" have managed to get through the eye of the needle and into Yale or Simmons College? Or is it about the rest of us Americans, both black and white, that must continue to live under the oppressive weight of a profoundly racist society? And why is it that all of these black officials have advance degrees from elite universities, when the whites they replace have somehow escaped that requirement?
Does one need to point out to Ms. Ifill that there is something eerily similar to her group of isolated heroes, and the Clarence Thomases, Linda Chavis', Colin Powells, Condoleeza Rices and John Yoos -- blacks and minorities not quite so heroic but who served their racist masters in previous administrations in less than honorable ways?
Why is it that Ms. Ifill did not include those stellar examples of black success and progress in her sample? I think she did not because her carefully circumscribed reality would not permit her to come to grips with the real problem involved in a profoundly racist society: It is that her own self-described heroes, have "no agency." They have no power to affect the problems that beset their own kind? They cannot affect the problems of their own tribes like white and other minorities can affect theirs.
So, no matter how this author conveniently reframes the problem as sub-cultural internecine warfare, the facts remain the same: the underlying dilemma of racism does not go away simply by ignoring it; or bombarding it with uplifting prose and lavish praise (or in the case of our newly minted mulatto president, with flowery speeches.) Or by building a diversionary narrative, pretending that our problem is that some blacks "have it," and "others do not?"
What is needed here are clear measures of "effective black progress," so as to be able to get away from "argumentation by sentiments." Let us use as a new standard, those heroes who get the job done both for America, and also for blacks. Why, also for blacks? Because, if no one but me has noticed, if we solve the problems of blacks in America, we also solve most of the problems of America. To wit: the problems of the poor, the problems of the schools, the problems of crime, the problems of heathcare, the problems of joblessness, and the grandmother of all American problems, also the problems of white racism.
What is similar about Ms. Ifill's two groups (of heroes and anti-heroes) is that they both operate in a complete power vacuum; both groups are completely without any "agency" whatsoever. And thus sadly they are just further symbols in a narrative that frames and indirectly acknowledges the reality of black powerlessness; a powerlessness the author pretends not to see. What good is ti to be an anchor for PBS, when your brothers and sisters cannot eat or get a job, do to no fault of their own?
Just as Ms. Ifill has had to create a faux internecine war; she also has had to create an imaginary "stand-in" for the missing black power," one needed to fill-in the void the lack of any black agency whatsoever leaves in the laps of her newly elected heroes.
We have seen what happens when whites see laws against discrimination they don't like: They simply ignore them; resist them; collude to undermine them; move their taxes away from them; demagogue them; delay implementation of them; or have the laws changed so that discrimination is again rendered legal. Into that void of powerlessness is where all the specatular black progress that reachs all the way back to Reconstruction has gone. And I see nothing that would make me sanguine about what will happen to that Ms. Ifill celebrates here.
The way this lack of black agency is "back-filled" is by pretending that black elected officials have exactly the same powers as do their white counterparts. But just as Obama is proving as president, once a black has been elected, there is little evidence they can affect the one problem that bedevils America and blacks most: white racism. Plus, black elected officials seem to never have any clear goals or any clear ways of measuring black progress or effectiveness? And so far, that includes those on the author's list of heroes. Unlike with other groups, blacks are not allowed to ask of their officials: What have you done for your tribe lately? What is your track record on issues of primary concern to us? When blacks ask that question it is considered racist (or reverse racist). When others do it. it is considered normal. Even though 96% of blacks voted for Mr. Obama, it is considered racist to expect him to respond to urgent black demands?
Unless the author is able to pose such questions of her list of elected black heroes, she is imposing a false reality on those of us who are looking at an entirely different reality; one that allows for our black officials (including the U.S. president) to be able to solve American problems by including the solving of black problems too?
To assume otherwise is to live in the same DC media bubble that Ms. Ifill and Eugene Robinson, apparently live in together (since he too has written a similar book). "Token success," in the U.S. is not real success, just as having a single black mayor or even a black president is not real power. No matter how one's reality is framed, the reality of racism in America must be dealt with straight up if there is ever to be sustained black progress; it cannot be finessed. Otherwise, Ms. Ifill's heroes are just cardboard cutouts, like more puppets on a string unwittingly at the service of the "old order," while pretending to be otherwise.
Here is the best example I have that the old order is still alive and kicking.
Being from Arkansas, and having spent almost 30 years as a U.S. Diplomat and foreign policy expert (also with a Ph.D from an elite University), I was naturally "tapped" to be on the Bill Clinton Foreign Policy transition team, and later offered a job at the NSC which I turned down. Even though I initially supported John Edwards. When he dropped out, I filled out an online form offering my services to the Obama campaign. Eventually I got a call to come to the Falls Church office to assist the election team there. All the faces running the operation were white, young and mostly women. All of the phone banks were manned by older people and mostly minorities. For the first several days, I did as other volunteers: answered phones, stuffed envelops, and tried to help out as best I could.
As I watched chaos descend on the operation of inexperienced staff of self-appointed white volunteer leaders, and not wanting to be pushy, I mentioned that I had indicated when I signed up that I had considerable experience in Washington politics, and could probably do more than just stuff envelops. But somehow my offers were repeatedly turned down. In a discussion with another black lady with experiences similar to my own, she too expressed dismay at not being asked to help out in the midst of all the chaos. And so, Mr. Obama went on to win without our expert help. My last contact with the office, after Obama won was to call to see how I could get tickets to the inaugural ball. My name was checked off as one who would receive two tickets. But of course, I never received any. Even though in the past, I did receive them for most other presidential balls.
I tell that little story to say this. During the days of deep racism, I also helped out in democratic campaigns in Arkansas, but never felt the tension and hostility I felt by those Virginia whites (some of whom were probably my neighbors) in the Obama campaign? These people had carefully compartmentalized their racism. Blacks need not apply to help out in the Obama campaign. "We whites can screw it up all by ourselves, and no one will ever ask any questions, right?
So, I think Ms. Ifill and Eugene Robinson need some reality-testing outside their little D.C. media bubble. Otherwise like Don Quixote, I fear they will just continue flaying at post-racial windmills as they fight their own self-conceived but imaginary and false internecine wars within the black race. This act of creating an unnecessary enemy within one's own tribe is no different than what Rice, Powell, Yoo, Chavez and Thomas did in previous administrations: It is an unconscious acknowledgement of a profound weakness as an independent actor in the American tribal drama of political power: Nothing more and nothing less: It too is just a sophisticated way of genuflecting in the face of superior white power. May I suggest that they both volunteer for campaign duties the next time one of these new black elite heroes runs for office. Then they both might see the same reality that the rest of us see. Three stars