Dynamic News: Whites Supporting Obama in Record Breaking Numbers

A recent story on Politico.com finds that Barack Obama is “poised to win the largest share of white voters of any Democrat in more than three decades.” The article reports that 44% of whites are supporting Obama. This means that Obama is poised to get more white voters than Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry—every white Democratic candidate except for Jimmy Carter, who had support from 47% of whites (image from Mr. Jincks).

Of course, we still have a little over a week to go before the election, and things could still change. But many pollsters, oddsmakers, commentators, and analysts are calling this race for Obama. A recent New York Times story even argues that some within the McCain camp (speaking on the condition of anonymity, of course) expect Obama to win.  Politico’s report comes at a time when there are hopeful implications to be drawn from many otherwise negative stories. Racialized attacks on Obama seem to be falling flat with voters. A McCain volunteer’s fabricated story of being attacked by a large black man did not follow the same path as the Susan Smith story of 1994 or the Charles Stuart case of 1989  (Both Smith and Stuart falsely claimed they had been attacked by large black men. In both cases, police engaged in widespread racial profiling before it became clear that the “victims” were actually the perpetrators of the crimes.) Increasingly, it is looking more and more like Obama could get a broad coalition of support not just from voters of color, but from the white voters he will need in order to win the presidency.

When Obama won the nomination, I wrote on this post about how his election would potentially change the ways in which we think about and understand race in this country. If Obama generates the level of support Politico is predicting, it will be a major, transformative event in American history.  It will mean that not only will we have the first black president, but that a sizable number of whites supported his candidacy, even more than those who supported Bill Clinton, one of the most popular white Democratic candidates in recent history. Another thing to consider is that Obama would be taking office during an economic crisis of nearly unmatched proportions. So not only would Obama generate more white support than any of his white male Democratic predecessors, these type of numbers would suggest that a record-breaking number of white voters trust a Black man to provide better leadership, solutions, and guidance out of this financial meltdown than his white male counterpart. This is a phenomenal, unprecedented moment. As the political analysts are (somewhat repeatedly) fond of saying, it might just be a “game changer.”

But first, for what this doesn’t mean. An Obama win, even with more white support than any candidate preceding him since Jimmy Carter, doesn’t mean that racism is over. It doesn’t mean that some of the same whites who will vote for Obama see him in ways that challenge racial inequality. Specifically, some will continue to see him as different from “most” black people, who they view as lazy, unintelligent, and immoral. It doesn’t mean that institutional, systemic racism that results in neighborhood segregation, wealth disparities, educational inequities, and racialized processes in the criminal justice system no longer exists. It doesn’t mean that Black men will stop getting beaten and harassed by police, or that Black women will no longer be disproportionately represented in low-wage, low-prestige jobs. It doesn’t mean that white privilege has disappeared or that the nation has suddenly become colorblind.

What this does mean, though, is that we may just be entering a new stage in American society. Blogger Andrew Sullivan stated recently on “Real Time with Bill Maher” that Obama represents the future of this nation, and this election simply poses the question of whether we accept this future now or later. I think Sullivan is correct. Census data suggests that by the middle of this century, whites will no longer be a numerical majority in this country. We are clearly moving into a truly multiracial era in terms of the numbers alone. I think Obama’s presidency—if it comes with the type of white support Politico predicts—has the potential to be the beginning of social change in the direction of a multiracial nation in terms of political, social, and economic representation as well. This would take America closer to being the kind of nation that it could be—the one that really offers liberty and justice for all, and really provides everyone with equal opportunity.

It’s important to point out, though, that Obama’s presidency (again, attained under the conditions laid out by Politico) isn’t sufficient to get us there. One thing his candidacy has shown in stark and often hurtful detail are the manifestations of racism that are still present and widespread—monkey dolls brought to GOP campaign events, Obama hung in effigy at a college campus, suggestions on Republican and conservative websites and at rallies that he be killed/waterboarded/tortured. But widespread white support for Obama could signify the beginning of major steps towards finally achieving racial equality, if we as a nation don’t follow this up by getting lazy and complacent.

I am profoundly encouraged by the number of whites who have been able to move far enough past white racial framing that says that Blacks are lazy, inferior, unqualified, etc. to vote for a black candidate, and would be enormously pleased if these numbers reflect Politico’s expectations on Nov. 4. If we keep going and continue rejecting white racist framing and begin dismantling the institutionalized racism that perpetuates unequal opportunity, think of what kind of country we could have. Whether it will happen or not is still to be determined, and America has an unfortunate history of following progress with regression. But for the time being, I’m hopeful that broad white support for a black man might be the kind of change we can believe in.

More Examples of White Privilege in Election ‘08

With this election season (finally!) drawing to a close, people are starting to speculate that Obama will win. Every time I start getting hopeful, though, I remind myself not to get too comfortable. After all, this is still America, a country grounded in slavery, genocide, and freedom of opportunity, speech, and religion only for a few, not for the masses. Centuries after America’s beginning, we are still a nation profoundly shaped by racial inequality. To paraphrase comedian Chris Rock’s metaphor for this: “if you’re playing a game with a white guy, and you have six and the white guy has five, the white guy wins.” Right now, Obama has six. But the white guy with five could still win.

Despite Obama’s superior ground game, campaign management, advantage as the challenger after eight years of Republican rule, record levels of dissatisfaction with the current president and direction of the country, and even the dramatic financial collapse that precipitated his lead in the polls, white privilege continues to shape this campaign and could determine the final outcome of this election. The last examples I gave of this considered whether Malia Obama could be an unmarried, pregnant teen and get the same response that Bristol Palin has, or whether Barack Obama could have left his wife (after she was critically injured in a near-fatal car accident) for a younger, wealthy heiress without facing constant criticism of his morals and ethics.

Here are some other examples:

  • Imagine that in the presidential debates, Obama initially refused to look at or even acknowledge John McCain’s presence. Imagine that Obama seemed almost visibly angry at even having to debate McCain. Would this election still be relatively close?
  • Imagine that Obama had graduated fifth from the bottom of his class at a military academy. Better yet, imagine that he had attended five schools over the course of six years before graduating. Would anyone at all still consider these acceptable qualifications for seeking office?
  • Imagine John McCain getting an endorsement from a major, credible Democratic figure who was well known for his expertise in economic policy (one of McCain’s weak spots). Would anyone have attributed this to race and argued that this figure only endorsed McCain because they were both white?
  • Imagine that Obama, instead of Rep. John Murtha, argued that certain parts of Western Pennsylvania were racist. Would it be considered a simple admonition of truth, or would it be a blasphemy akin to Michelle Obama’s statement that “for the first time in my adult life, I am really, really proud of my country, because it feels like hope is making a comeback?” Or, as this statement was generally edited to read, “for the first time in my life I’m proud of my country.”
  • Finally, imagine that Barack Obama was trailing in some polls by a 5-10 point lead (depending on which poll you look at), when a story surfaced in the New York Times that long ago, Michelle Obama had become so addicted to painkillers that she began stealing them from her charity foundation. Would Obama still be behind by only 5-10 points?

Race has shaped this campaign since its onset, and it seems clear that it will play a role in its outcome. I hope that on Nov. 4, white privilege doesn’t determine the outcome of this election. I will be discussing this issue and more on the show Meet the Bloggers, which airs Friday, Oct. 24 at 1pm.

How White Privilege Works

Earlier this year, Gloria Steinem wrote a provocative and controversial op-ed piece where she asked readers to imagine an African American woman, trained as a lawyer, who spent two years in the Senate and then went on to run for the Presidency. Steinem’s point was that that “gender is probably the most restrictive force in American life,” and that a Black woman could never hope to achieve such lofty heights, while a Black man is currently doing so and may in fact be elected President.

I took exception to Steinem’s premise, but now I find myself wishing she would update it. Specifically, I’d like Americans to examine a few scenarios and imagine how these would play out.

Let’s start with this one. Imagine that Michelle Obama were not Barack’s first wife, but his second one. Imagine that Obama had been separated from his first wife due to some horrible trauma, and when they finally reunited, he learned that she had been disfigured by a car accident. Imagine then that Barack met Michelle Robinson, a much younger, wealthier woman, began an affair with her while still married to his first wife. And to put the finishing touch on it, imagine that Barack eventually left his first wife for Michelle and used her father’s wealth to launch his political career. Would he be the Democratic nominee today? Or would conservatives tear him apart for his multiple marriages, infidelity, and “moral failures”? Would he generate the same support from Democratic elites, or would he be a lesser version of Kwame Kilpatrick–another black male politician for whom a sex scandal proved his undoing?

Here’s another one. Imagine that Barack Obama ran for president when Malia and Sasha were 17 and 14 instead of 10 and 7. Imagine that in the early stages of his candidacy, news surfaced that Malia was pregnant by her boyfriend, but that they planned to wed. Would Democratic leaders and left-leaning news commentators rally around Obama and insist that his family’s lives are private and not for public consumption? Or would Malia immediately become used as a symbol of irresponsible teen mothers who are a drain on society?

Let’s keep going. Imagine that Barack Obama, in the early stages of his candidacy, simply decided that all the questions and innuendo about him being Muslim, tied to a member of the Weather Underground, and a secret terrorist plant were just too much, and opted not to talk to the media any more on the grounds that they were racist. Would anyone, anyone at all, consider this defensible behavior? Would he even have a candidacy if he did this?

I’m not suggesting that Obama should want to strive for these things, or that these are behaviors to be glorified. But I don’t believe that he could have McCain’s sordid marital history, Palin’s familial dynamics, or her arrogant hostility towards the press with the same consequences. The double standard has a name, and that name is white privilege.   John Ridley writing at Huffington Post has even more examples of this sort of thing in his recent column.

Michelle Obama Gives More than Just a Speech

Last night, Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. She was the keynote speaker of the night, charged with personalizing Barack Obama and, more implicitly, with showing a different side of herself. Michelle Obama has been very negatively reviewed by the press and by Republicans, often described as unpatriotic for her statements about her perceived lack of pride in her country (photo by Jackson Solway, from the DNC via Flickr). Hence, at the convention, her speech had two goals: to make Barack Obama relatable and to define his history as a typical American story, and to “soften” her image and to showcase herself as someone who most Americans could envision as First Lady.

Michelle’s speech touched on all the requisite themes. She explained why she loves America, discussed Barack Obama’s commitment to everyday Americans, his middle-American roots and upbringing, and love for his family. For me, however, what she said in her speech was much less important than having the opportunity to watch her say it.

For many African Americans, there has been a long sense of being shut out from most levels of the U.S.’s social, economic, and especially political systems. Many of us are all too aware of the ways African Americans are taken for granted and/or ignored in national elections, and the ways that Black Americans are often invisible at the uppermost levels of the political spectrum. We see how infrequently loving, caring, happy relationships between Black men and women are depicted, and we notice the scant coverage that polished, smart, passionate Black women receive in the mainstream media. So to see Michelle Obama speaking about her husband with love and pride, to hear him tell her after her speech that she looked “very cute,” and to see their adorable children conclude with “we love you, Daddy!” was an incredible moment for me and many other African Americans who are acutely aware of how infrequently these types of images are shown.

We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the challenges facing Barack Obama, the covert and overt racism inhibiting his historic campaign, and the ways intersections of race and gender have shaped the ways Michelle Obama is depicted as an “angry black woman.” It’s pretty clear that Barack Obama still has an enormous task ahead of him in overcoming white racism. It is unfortunate that Michelle Obama must work so hard to combat gendered racist stereotypes that demean and belittle her. But as an African American woman, it was such a profoundly moving moment to see someone who looked like me included, rather than excluded. Whatever else happens in this election, Barack Obama’s candidacy has been a welcome departure from the implicit “whites-only” norms of presidential politics, and has given a glimpse of America’s opportunity to finally start cashing that check that keeps coming back marked “insufficient funds.”

I have admired and appreciated Barack and Michelle Obama as a couple since he completed his 2004 keynote address at the Democratic National Convention, went backstage, and grabbed his wife in a huge bear hug. In the Obamas, I see my husband and I, our friends, and our family members. In many ways, we’re similar to the Obamas– typical, everyday, working professionals, but we are painfully aware that Black Americans like us are rarely the subject of media attention, much less present in a central, defining role in American politics. Watching Michelle Obama speak eloquently and candidly about her love for her husband, her family, and the familiar particulars of her life story, I (and many other Black Americans) experienced a welcome departure from the typical feelings of exclusion and marginalization induced by national politics. Like her, for the first time in my life, I felt not only proud, but represented and included in a way I’ve never felt before.

A Review of CNN’s “Black in America”

On July 23 and 24, CNN aired their much-hyped series entitled “Black in America,” which sought to examine the varied and wide-ranging experiences of African Americans in the contemporary U.S. The series sought to explore and document “what it really means to be black in America,” by focusing on the experiences of a wide range of everyday black Americans and the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that they face (image from CNN). The segment on July 23 focused on Black women; the segment on July 24 addressed Black men. Together, the two segments addressed topics including the high numbers of female-headed households, the challenges of public education, inner-city isolation, hip hop culture, and the staggering rates of imprisoned Black men.

While many people I know emailed reminders and made it a point to watch the show (my mother even marked it on her calendar!), I wasn’t overly excited about it. I figured that if CNN did an accurate job reporting what it means to be black in America, then they wouldn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. If they did a poor job and misrepresented things (which they have done in the past), then I would just get irritated. But I was pleased to see that in many ways, CNN made some important points and addressed some key things that urgently need to be addressed.

One thing I appreciated most about “Black in America,” was the focus on the things that everyday Black people do to improve their communities and to try to make the world a better place. In the July 23 segment on Black women, the show followed a Black male high school principal who, troubled by the high numbers of Black students who do not complete high school, actually tracks down truants to encourage them to come back to school. Reporter Soledad O’Brien later profiled a Black woman cardiologist who does outreach to encourage Black people to get routine preventative health screenings and to overcome distrust of the medical establishment. (This distrust is well founded. The Tuskegee experiment, in which Black men were injected with syphilis and/or denied medical treatment in order to study the progression of the disease, is the most infamous example of Blacks being used for medical experiments in ways that violate ethical standards and human rights.)   The show also featured a Black male economics professor who, in an effort to address racial disparities in educational attainment, is trying a controversial experiment where he pays children for good grades in an effort to build strong study habits and an appreciation for the value of education.

Examples like these are an important counter to many of the commonplace myths about Black Americans that abound in popular culture, policy decisions and in everyday interactions. Many believe that Black Americans in general are lazy, unmotivated, and unwilling to take advantage of the opportunities available to them. To this way of thinking, the main challenge facing Black Americans is their refusal to exert any agency to change their circumstances. This perception does not characterize most African Americans. One of the most valuable contributions of “Black in America” is that it documented many everyday, ordinary African Americans who work hard for themselves and to make life better for others. This is a picture we rarely see in mainstream media, which disproportionately depict Blacks as perpetrators of crime rather than everyday Americans trying to make changes. (See Joe Feagin’s Systemic Racism for more discussion of this.)

I also appreciated the program’s emphasis on Black fathers, and their acknowledgment that contrary to popular opinion, many Black men are actively involved in their children’s lives and parent under unbelievably difficult circumstances. The show also made connections between the fact that while some Black men are absent parents, often this is a consequence of many complicated factors—cycles of parental abandonment, incarceration as a result of a racially biased criminal justice system—structural issues that are often overlooked.

Now for the problems: one glaring omission in “Black in America” is the absence of any Black (openly) lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered individuals. While I applaud “Black in America” for its attention to how gender and class are important factors in creating a myriad of experiences in Black America, I think the segment should have acknowledged that not all of Black America is heterosexual. Black LGBT individuals face issues and challenges in the Black community that stem from intersections of race, sexuality, and gender. Too often they are alternately overlooked or demonized, and CNN missed a valuable opportunity to speak to their experiences. How might the story on Black women have been changed had Soledad O’Brien spoken with the family of Sakia Gunn, the 15 year old Newark, New Jersey lesbian who was murdered in 2003 after refusing the sexual advances of men by identifying herself as a lesbian?  Gunn’s story shows not only the ways that homophobia impacts Black Americans, but the threat of violence that Black women face every day. This is another very important part of being Black in America that should have been included.

On a related note, the July 23 segment on Black women did not seem to focus very heavily on issues facing Black women. The stories in this segment included an incredibly poignant account of a single Black father in Brooklyn trying to maintain steady employment to keep his children in school, and his young son’s involvement in the experimental class where children were paid to earn good grades. Another story detailed a young woman who, abandoned by her father and searching for a father figure, ended up raising several children alone, and the impact that male abandonment can have on young women. A third story focused on black professional women’s struggles to find comparably educated Black professional mates, and the challenges of doing this given the high numbers of Black men who are incarcerated, uneducated, and unavailable.

While these stories definitely include Black women, I did not feel that there was a heavy emphasis on the ways intersections of race and gender create specific experiences for them.  In some ways, these stories still seemed to be more about Black men than Black women. In a profile of a Black woman who had no health insurance, Soledad O’Brien emphasized the difficulty this woman experienced maintaining her health when no stores in her neighborhood provided fresh fruits or vegetables, and the fact that without a car, she had to travel over an hour to get nutritious food. And, in a compelling quote that captures the essence of urban health disparities, the woman said that in her neighborhood, “it’s easier to buy a gun than a tomato.”   While this is definitely an important story,  it reflects intersections of race and class much more so than race and gender. I’m surprised that a segment on Black women did not discuss the fact that Black women are much more likely than white women develop and die from breast cancer, to develop uterine fibroids, and to give birth to low-birth weight babies (as Jessie posted about recently), and the studies that connect these issues to surviving daily onslaughts of racism and sexism. It’s also interesting that in this discussion of health, there was no mention of the fact that Black women are the fastest-rising group of new HIV/AIDS cases, are 26 times more likely to contract AIDS than white women, and that this occurs most frequently through heterosexual intercourse.   Finally, Black women experience sexual assaults at higher rates than women of other racial groups, yet are less likely to see their assailants prosecuted. From slavery on, Black women have enjoyed little ownership over their bodies and have had to combat issues including rape, forced sterilization, and limited access to birth control, so the current issues Black women face in this vein have clear historical precedent. Yet for some reason, these were overlooked in the segment that purported to focus on Black women.

Lastly, I felt that the July 24 story about race and education overstated, as mainstream media outlets frequently do, the “acting white” phenomenon among Black Americans. The show reported that for many Black Americans, school success is perceived as “acting white,” which leads African Americans to shun it in favor of pursuing other routes to popularity. The “acting white” argument, first introduced in academic circles by Signathia Fordham and John Ogbu “Black Students’ School Success: Coping with the Burden of ‘Acting White,’” has been retested and analyzed among many other researchers who find little empirical support for this theory. In short, Fordham and Ogbu state that Black students don’t perform well academically in part because they see it as “acting white,” and because they recognize that in a racially unequal society, there will be little reward for their educational efforts. Yet numerous other scholars have performed more empirically sophisticated tests of this theory and have gleaned different results. In several articles, Jim Ainsworth and Douglas Downey have argued that Black students who earn high grades are very popular among their peers and believe that their educational gains will earn them occupational rewards down the line. Sociologist Karolyn Tyson has also argued that Black students with high grades are popular among peers, and that their academic achievement is met with positive regard rather than negative sanction. This is not to say that Black children never taunt others with “acting white,” but that a well-documented body of research suggests that this label may be given for reasons other than academic success, and that it is likely not the deterrent to academic achievement that Fordham and Ogbu initially suggested. It is rather unfortunate that CNN ignored a body of social science literature that challenges this theory in order to perpetuate what cultural critic Michael Eric Dyson has referred to as “the academic equivalent of an urban legend.”

Overall, I felt that the CNN special told me little I didn’t know about being Black in America—which, to me, means that for the most part they accurately reported many of the varied, diverse experiences of African Americans in contemporary society. For other educators, this series could be a useful tool for initiating discussion about race, class, and social structure in America. The series definitely challenged some—not all—of the preconceptions and stereotypes that persist about Black Americans. It is worth watching, but definitely warrants watching with a critical eye.

White Racist Framing in Ohio

MSNBC recently posted a story about an Ohio town where misinformation about Barack Obama is running rampant. The story begins by describing one man’s struggle with wanting to vote for Obama despite the competing narratives he hears from different sources:

On the television in his living room, Peterman has watched enough news and campaign advertisements to hear the truth: Sen. Barack Obama, born in Hawaii, is a Christian family man with a track record of public service. But on the Internet, in his grocery store, at his neighbor’s house, at his son’s auto shop, Peterman has also absorbed another version of the Democratic candidate’s background, one that is entirely false: Barack Obama, born in Africa, is a possibly gay Muslim racist who refuses to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The story continues, describing Obama’s efforts to confront the lies that abound about his background and personal story, and putting them in the context of the small town in Ohio where residents are mostly white, working-class, and close knit:

“On College Street, nobody wanted anything to change. As the years passed, Peterman and his neighbors approached one another to share in their skepticism about the unknown. What was the story behind the handful of African Americans who had moved into a town that is 93 percent white? Why were Japanese businessmen coming in to run the local manufacturing plants? Who in the world was this Obama character, running for president with that funny-sounding last name?”

What’s most interesting about this story is the ways that it describes—but doesn’t identify—the pervasiveness of the white racist frame in shaping the ways residents of this town (credit: fusionpanda) perceive Obama. One resident states:

“I think Obama would be a disaster, and there’s a lot of reasons,” said Pollard, explaining the rumors he had heard about the candidate from friends he goes camping with. “I understand he’s from Africa, and that the first thing he’s going to do if he gets into office is bring his family over here, illegally. He’s got that racist [pastor] who practically raised him, and then there’s the Muslim thing. He’s just not presidential material, if you ask me.”

This resident seems invested in viewing Obama through a white racist frame that suggests that as a black man, Obama is a criminalized, racial “other.” This is evident in his assertion that Obama is “from Africa” (therefore a racial other) and that his first act in office will be to break the law by illegally bringing his family here. This man’s statements also underscore an additional aspect of the white racial frame, one that has largely been neglected in much mainstream media discussion. In his statement of “the Muslim thing,” he reinforces a seemingly common idea that if Obama was a Muslim, his religious orientation would and should be sufficient to disqualify him from public office.

It is disturbing and problematic that so few media outlets, pundits, and mainstream voices have critiqued this stereotype that Muslim = terrorist. Most Muslims are not terrorists, and I think many Americans would be rightfully offended if anyone labeled extremists like David Koresh or Timothy McVeigh (who used, among other things, distorted religious ideology to justify child rape and terrorism, respectively) as typical examples of Christianity. Yet this type of religious profiling frequently goes unquestioned, and many seem to accept the implication that Muslims, by virtue of their faith alone, are persona non grata, unfit for public service, and a threat to national security. This is a dangerous line of thought that, when it surfaced in 1942, contributed to Executive Order 9066, one of the most regrettable acts of domestic policy in American history. When it comes to Muslims today, however, we seem to be repeating the same line of thinking if not (yet) the same course of action.

The racial frame also emerges in other parts of the article:

“So far, those who have pushed the truth in Findlay have been rewarded with little that resembles progress. Gerri Kish, a 66-year-old born in Hawaii, read both of Obama’s autobiographies. She has close friends, she said, who still refuse to believe her when she swears Obama is Christian. Then she hands them the books, and they refuse to read them. ‘They just want believe what they believe,’ she said. ‘Nothing gets through to them.’”

This anecdote suggests that the white racist frame that casts Obama as a dangerous racial other is so powerful that some are willing to ignore evidence that counters it:

“And they say that Obama’s moves to put distance between himself and the Muslim community, with his campaign declining invitations to visit mosques and Obama volunteers removing two women in head scarves from the camera range at a rally in Detroit last week are just a too-late effort to disguise his true beliefs.”

Again, this frame is so powerful that it seems that it seems impervious to any explanation or facts. When faced with evidence that could contradict their stereotypes of Obama, these residents simply choose to ignore it so that they can continue grounding their opinions in the white racist frame. And once more, there is no critical attention paid to the disturbing conflation of Muslim faith with terrorism. This seems to suggest that the white racial frame not only includes the creation of racial others, but that these “others” may encompass a particular swath of religious and cultural identities as well. And given how entrenched this frame seems to be, there are real and disturbing questions as to whether it will determine the outcome of this election.

Race and “Sex and the City”

I recently saw the “Sex and the City” movie, which continues where the television show left off (photo credit: drp).  If you’re  unfamiliar with this phenomenon of popular culture, “Sex and the City” was an HBO series about the deep friendship between four single women in New York City and their romantic and sexual relationships with men. The show has been alternately described as the series that made it “cool to be single,” and has also received attention for its depictions (often graphic) of women as sexual subjects rather than simply as objects. Carrie Bradshaw, Samantha Jones, Charlotte York (later York MacDougall and then York Goldenblatt), and Miranda Hobbes alternately questioned and reinforced commonsense assumptions about gender, sex, friendship, relationships, and love.

I can openly acknowledge that I enjoyed “Sex and the City” (the show and the movie) for its depictions of women’s friendships and the central role these ties play in contemporary women’s lives. However, watching the “Sex and the City” movie confirmed for me something unpleasant that I’ve long suspected about the show. Despite being sometimes shocking, often hilariously funny, and always provocative, “Sex and the City” has a real racial problem.

The show was frequently and heavily criticized for its racial homogenization of New York City. During the first and second seasons of the show, minorities were rarely depicted in any scenes. The four protagonists of the show are white women, and while this is technically sociologically accurate (in the sense that friendships, like most aspects of American life, are unfortunately quite segregated), the deletion of any people of color from background scenes, street scenes, and everyday life is a gross misrepresentation of the demographic realities of New York City.

In the third season, the show attempted to correct this by introducing an interracial “relationship.” However, in this episode, “No Ifs, Ands, or Butts,”  Samantha—the member of the quartet known for her voracious sexual appetite and appreciation for anonymous sex—has a sexual relationship with a black man that is eventually undermined by his disapproving sister. The sister is depicted as an “angry black woman” who irrationally opposes their relationship because Samantha is white. The black man is referred to on the show as a “big black pussy” who can’t stand up to his domineering sister to continue his sexual relationship with Samantha. This type of pandering to racial stereotypes—a controlling black woman who emasculates a black man—does not represent progress from the preceding season’s virtual omission of other racial groups. Racist stereotypes are not, in my view, better than nothing at all.

Miranda’s relationship with Robert, a black man, in season six, was in many ways an improvement over Samantha’s sexual/racial excursion in season three and perhaps represents some evolution on the writers’ and producers’ behalf. Unfortunately, any progress came to a crashing halt with the racial representations in the “Sex and the City” movie. In the film, we meet Lily, Charlotte’s ever-present but curiously silent adopted Chinese daughter. This depiction is uncomfortably evocative of other stereotypes of voiceless Asian American women, which reinforce the image of their passivity and controllability and further justify their labor market exploitation. There are also the Mexican workers at the resort who are only there to serve the four main characters. Lest I forget, there’s also Miranda’s charge to follow the “white guy with a baby” as a way to locate an available apartment in a gentrifying neighborhood.  Hooray for revitalization.

Then there is perhaps the most problematically-rendered minority character in this film.  In what some reviewers have described as an attempt to “pass the torch,” the movie features Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson in a supporting role (photo credit: Sharyn Jackson). Some have argued that Hudson’s character Louise is supposed to be a younger, newer version of what Carrie Bradshaw initially was—idealistic, romantic, and looking for love in the big city. However, if this is the case, then why is Louise cast in such an obviously subservient role as Carrie’s personal assistant?

This is a disappointing throwback to the Mammy image of earlier films—the darker skinned, full figured black woman who was content to tend to her white family at the neglect of her own, and who typically was responsible for providing emotional support and nurturance to a white woman who couldn’t take care of herself? This image is present in “Gone with the Wind,” “Imitation of Life,” and as noted sociologist Patricia Hill Collins brilliantly describes, is updated in several contemporary media depictions. I recognize that aspects of Louise’s personal life are shown, and this is a minor improvement from the prototypical Mammy who had no life outside of caring for her white family. However, it’s still problematic that an Academy Award winning, brilliantly talented young black actress is not cast in a role that is on equal footing with the central character. If the sole intention was for Carrie to pass the torch to Louise, then why couldn’t she have been cast as a young, up and coming writer that Carrie meets and mentors? Is it necessary for Louise to clean up Carrie’s apartment—and her life—as well?

The decision to put Hudson in this role has so many implications. Let’s not forget that we are in the midst of a presidential campaign season where many white women have accused black women of failing to follow a feminist mandate to vote for and support the (white) woman candidate. I have to wonder if the ways in which black women are packaged into recognizable media caricatures plays a role in shaping white women’s perceptions of us. Do these types of representations contribute to some white women’s ideas that they should lead and black women should follow? It’s images like these, though, that undermine the myth of sisterhood and some white feminists’ desire to believe that gender is the “most restricting force in American life.”  When your fictionalized “sisters” seem to believe that your primary job is to clean up their emotional and personal messes—not to mention their expensive Manhattan apartments—it’s hard to think that it’s only gender holding you back. When your real-life “sisters” astutely decry how sexism undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign but are silent about the racist and sexist descriptions of Michelle Obama as Barack Obama’s “baby mama,”  it doesn’t do much to promote the gender-based unity these white feminists want to see deployed to Hillary Clinton’s benefit. It does suggest to me that the longstanding idea of black women as best suited for servitude and denied their full humanity is still pervasive and dangerously in full force.

Imagining Race Under an Obama Presidency

Yesterday, I sat with my husband and watched Barack and Michelle Obama on television as he stood poised to become the Democratic nominee for president (photo from here). It was a strange, surreal moment, because it was one of those few obviously historic ones you immediately know you’ll always remember. For the first time in my life, my husband and I looked at a couple who looked like us, who shared backgrounds and experiences similar to ours, and watched them shatter a near-400 year old glass ceiling to become the first black candidate nominated by a major party as a presidential candidate. (I know technically this is “his” accomplishment, not “theirs,” but as anyone in a relationship knows, most major successes are in many ways a joint venture. ☺)

I had mixed feelings watching the Obamas on television last night. I was proud of his achievement, but concerned for his safety. But perhaps most strongly, while I was indescribably pleased that yet another barrier had been broken, I was concerned about what would come next. A lot of the debate about Obama’s candidacy has addressed whether or not he can win in the fall. There is concern over Obama’s problem with white women and working-class whites (which should more accurately be described as these whites’ problem with Obama). There is discussion, much of it on this blog, about whether racism will prevail and facilitate a McCain victory. But yesterday I allowed myself to think about something I refused to let myself to consider in too much detail during the primary season, for fear of getting my hopes up too high: What if Obama wins? More specifically, what are the implications for race in America then? Ironically, this scenario is what brought out the most ambivalence.

Obama’s candidacy has forced most Americans to acknowledge (with varying degrees of realism and accuracy) the fact that race is still a major issue in the country. But if Obama wins the presidency, I fear that the overwhelming response from many whites—including but not limited to his supporters—will be a sense that this latest progression means that the debt is paid. In other words, I think many whites will see Obama’s presidency as a sign that America has solved its racial problems, and will turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to the realities and evidence of continuing, ongoing, systemic racism. A key part of the American story is a heavy reliance on the myth of meritocracy and equal opportunity. Part of how we rationalize extreme inequality is to point to the success stories of a few to obscure the systematic processes that preclude equal opportunity for the masses. What better opportunity for whites to do this than to point to the first Black president as evidence that America’s racial problems are now solved? If a Black man can be president, then why do we still need affirmative action?

The systemic nature of American racism and inequality, as well as the limits of the presidency, also constrain Obama’s opportunity to create genuine, lasting change—should he be willing to do so. The flip side of the myth of meritocracy is the idea that the social structure doesn’t matter, when in fact it does, and it matters enormously when it comes to matters of race. Obama may truly want to eliminate the divides that exist in America, but when it comes to the systemic processes that reproduce racial inequality (e.g., residential segregation, labor market discrimination, and the broader and more elusive white racial frame that shapes and legitimizes these), it’s hard to envision how one individual, no matter how well-intentioned, can change social structures that have been in place for centuries. Especially if many members of the racial majority group (and some in various minority groups) view that one individual’s presence as evidence that no such structural changes are necessary.

My biggest fear is that in a racially schizophrenic country like this one, the consequences of an Obama presidency would be an obstinacy and resistance to racial change that retards the progress that has transpired. I hope that my predictions and concerns are wrong, and that an Obama presidency would be the first indication of broad racial changes that are long past due in America. Then ambivalence takes over again, and I wonder if this is how many Blacks felt at the onset of Reconstruction, before Jim Crow.

In Memory of Sean Bell; In Recognition of the Devaluation of Black Men

         This morning I learned that the officers who faced trial for the 2006 murder of Sean Bell were acquitted of all charges. For those who don’t know, Sean Bell was murdered on the morning of his wedding as NYPD officers fired a torrent of over 30 bullets into his car. The officers were working undercover at the club where

        Bell held his bachelor party. They allegedly heard a member of Bell’s group say he was going to get his gun, and followed the group outside. Though the events immediately following are disputed—the officers claimed they identified themselves as police, witnesses claimed they did not and opened fire without provocation—the end results are unambiguous. Bell was murdered in a hail of gunfire hours before his wedding. There were no weapons on him or in the car. At age 23, he left behind a fiancé and two daughters.

        Few incidents drive home the bleak devaluation of Black men’s lives the ways that stories like this do. Even one case like this is too many, but New York police officers are developing quite a record of murdering Black men with little to no punishment or repercussions. In 1999, Amadou Diallo lost his life in a hail of 41 bullets after trying to produce his wallet for identification. Abner Louima was one of the “lucky” ones. In 1997, he escaped police custody with his life, but only after officers savagely beat him and sodomized him with the handle of a toilet plunger. As Black men are increasingly represented among the ranks of the un- and underemployed, in prison, and in caskets, I find myself almost overwhelmed with sadness that our society can’t seem to view—and value–these men as people with loved ones and lives that can’t be replaced. Sean Bell could have been my husband, stepson, or cousin; indeed, he was someone’s father, someone’s fiancé, someone’s son. Cases like his, however, are a cruel reminder that at the core of racism is a denial of someone else’s humanity, complexity, and inherent value and worth.

        It’s interesting to me to connect the life and sad death of Sean Bell with Bill Cosby’s recent news coverage for coming to the defense of an African American judge who kicked white lawyers and spectators out of his courtroom to deliver a stern lecture on appropriate behavior to black defendants. The judge initially claimed to have been inspired by Cosby’s speeches chastising the black poor for failing to take responsibility for their lives and recognize the value of hard work and education. The biases, logical errors, and factual misrepresentations of the implication that the black poor are primarily for their plight have been articulated in several spaces, so I won’t repeat them here. I will say, however, that Sean Bell’s tragic death (and the criminal justice system’s sanctioning of it) does more than any verbal argument can to illuminate how taking personal responsibility falls far short of changing the social systems, institutions, and ideologies that reproduce the racist thought that contributed to Sean Bell’s murder.

         Sean Bell was the responsible, upstanding citizen Cosby exhorts poor blacks to be, but ultimately, personal responsibility couldn’t save his life. Instead, the racist framing of black men as criminals prevailed with deadly consequences, and social systems worked to reflect once more how little value our society places on the lives of black men.

CNN Blows It

This afternoon, CNN aired a brief segment as part of their “Black in America” segment. This program has focused on important issues like Dr. King’s assassination; however, in this segment they missed an important opportunity to talk candidly and honestly about race in America.

The CNN program went to historically Black North Carolina A&T University to talk with students there about their perceptions of what it means to be Black in America. Anchor T.J. Holmes (pictured here, photo from CNN) promised viewers that “[these students] answers might surprise you,” but rather than surprising viewers by offering a cogent analysis of these students’ perceptive awareness of the realities of racism, Holmes’ broadcast disingenuously cast African American college students as swayed by misguided elders and partly responsible for perpetuating racism.

In his interviews with the students, Holmes stressed that while all the students felt that America remains a racist society, none acknowledged experiencing the racism of their parents’ and grandparents’ era. That is, no students reported facing overt segregation or separate-but-equal facilities. Yet Holmes seemed shocked that the students remained convinced that racism exists in American society. He suggested that many of their attitudes were passed down in discussions with parents and other elders, who transferred their own perceptions of racism to these students. That the students chose to absorb these views despite never having experienced overt segregation made them, in Holmes’ opinion, part of the problem in perpetuating racism. Holmes suggested as much outright when he concluded his segment by sharing that he asked all the students he interviewed if they considered themselves Black first or American first. In hearing that the students considered themselves Black first, Holmes concluded that they acknowledged that they were in fact part of the problem.

It’s really too bad—but not surprising, in contrast to Holmes’ claims—that CNN chose to mischaracterize and distort the reality of racism in this country. It’s not shocking that these young students, many of whom were born in the 1980s and 1990s, haven’t encountered openly segregated facilities. Why would they? Any cursory review of an abundance of social science literature could have enlightened Holmes to the fact that racist practices today are often (but not always) much more covert than overt. Holmes also might have done some basic background reading to learn that these students’ sense that racism still exists in America is simply a fact of American society that has been extensively documented by sociologists, psychologists, economists, and many others. Careful empirical research points to racial inequities that privilege whites in the housing market, the criminal justice system, the legal system, and—though this might shock TJ Holmes—the educational system.

Given this history and ongoing present, is it really that shocking that these college students might maintain what brilliant sociologist W.E.B. DuBois described as a sense of double consciousness, viewing themselves as both Black and American with “Black” taking precedence? Maybe instead of blithely criticizing these college students for perpetuating racism because, unlike him, they are aware of its existence and manifestations in society, T.J. Holmes might consider taking some college level courses on Race and Ethnic Relations himself.