Dr. Regina Benjamin: HIgh Achievement

President Obama has just nominated Dr. Regina Benjamin to the post of Surgeon General, the AP reported yesterday. Obama said that Dr. Benjamin “has seen in a very personal way what is broken about our health care system” and that she will bring important insight as his administration tries to revamp that system.

Dr. Benjamin truly has seen her fair share of personal and family tragedy, as her brother died at age 34 of HIV-AIDS, her mother of lung cancer, and her father of complications resulting from diabetes. With her entire family victimized by these diseases, her life is a testament to the health problems facing this country and the racial injustices plaguing the Black community. She has faced lots of other tragedy, as her medical clinic was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and again by a fire just after it was rebuilt. She then rebuilt this very important New Orleans clinic yet again.

Benjamin(Photo: Wikipedia) Not surprisingly, the right-wing press is again mocking President Obama’s well-qualified nominee. A Fox News headline reads, “Obama Taps ‘Genius’ Doctor, Katrina Victim for Surgeon General,” an obtuse reference to a $500,000 MacArthur Foundation award she received for her dedicated and selfless service following Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Benjamin is receiving some gendered-racist attacks like Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has gotten the last few days, with some right-wing (like Senator Jeff Sessions, famous for his “joking” comments about the nice folks at the KKK) attacks on her “wise Latina” comments.

Contrary to the opinions of many on the right, Dr. Benjamin is more than qualified for the position. Her amazing list of academic, medical, and civic service qualifications are listed thus in wikipedia:

Dr. Benjamin attended Xavier University of Louisiana in New Orleans and was a member of the second class of the Morehouse School of Medicine. She received her M.D. degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. . . Benjamin is former associate dean for rural health at the University of South Alabama’s College of Medicine in Mobile, where she administers the Alabama AHEC program and previously directed its Telemedicine Program. She serves as the current president of the Medical Association of the State of Alabama. In 1995 she was elected to the American Medical Association’s board of trustees, making her the first physician under age 40 and the first African-American woman to be elected. Benjamin is a diplomate of the American Board of Family Practice and a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians.

That should be enough to be Surgeon General, right. But then the list of her achievements continues:

She was a Kellogg National Fellow and also a Rockefeller Next Generation Leader. She has served on a variety of boards and committees, including the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured, Catholic Health East, Medical Association of the State of Alabama, Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, Alabama State Committee of Public Health, Mobile County Medical Society, Alabama Rural Health Association, Leadership Alabama, Mobile Area Red Cross, Mercy Medical, Mobile Chamber of Commerce, United Way of Mobile, and Deep South Girl Scout Council. She was appointed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala to the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Act Committee and to the Council of Graduate Medical Education. . . .In Alabama, she formerly served as vice president of the Governor’s Commission on Aging, and also formerly as a member of the Governor’s Health Care Reform Task Force and the Governor’s Task Force on Children’s Health. . . . Dr. Benjamin was named by Time Magazine as one of the “Nation’s 50 Future Leaders Age 40 and Under.” She . . . was chosen “Person of the Week” by ABC’s World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, “Woman of the Year” by CBS This Morning, and “Woman of the Year” by People Magazine.

Wow! Can any of her critics come close to matching this remarkable list of achievements? Talk about having to be the proverbial “water walker” to get nominated for high office. In discussing this nomination with Adia, we agree with her view that it is often the case that people of color, and certainly women of color, are told to work hard and play by the societal rules. But when they, like Dr. Benjamin and Judge Sotomayor, do that extremely well and then seek out or get nominated for nontraditional jobs not open to them until recently in U.S. history, or when they literally shatter the conventional glass ceilings, certain white racist folks, talk show hosts, and politicians start articulating racist stereotypes and narratives and engage in name-calling, like the calling of Dr. Benjamin as “fat” and racist commentaries, including racist epithets, on various news and right-wing websites. Instead, why isn’t the right celebrating them for doing exactly what they were told, working very hard and achieving great things? One would think these women would be celebrated in all corners of conservative America? Is the reason they are not because that work-hard rhetoric is really a ruse and cover often used to rationalize a racist system that has little or no attention of changing its basic structure for those who more than meet the calls of this work rhetoric?

While being overweight is a health concern that Dr. Benjamin and others in the health field are likely very aware of, why is it that none of these right-wing folks talk about how fat Justice Antonin Scalia is, or Karl Rove, or the huge Rush Limbaugh in regard to their “qualifications”? Indeed, we have not seen anyone suggest that these white men’s overweightness interferes with their ability to do their jobs. Yet, for women of color like Benjamin, this immediate accent on their being overweight is a common gendered/racial stereotype that seems to be linked to the old black “mammy” image, which is part of the 400 year old white racial frame.

AP Posts Tale of Segregationist, Now a “Reformed” Racist

08KKKfamilyPortraitThe U.S. press has always been fond of redemption tales, especially those involving whites seeking exoneration for earlier crimes against black communities (Creative Commons License photo credit: Image Editor). This recent news story from the Associated Press about an older, now apologetic segregationist and Klan supporter, Elwin Wilson, is no different. This extensive piece written by Helen O’Neill and posted on the Yahoo.com homepage adheres to all the confines and revealing silences of traditional white discourse on racism.

Wilson has apologized publicly and often to this history:

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father’s service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961

Once wonders where the attempt at serious reparations is. Apologizing seems rather too weak, indeed.

For another thing, the journalist’s piece reeks of the prevailing white folk theory of racism. As outlined by Jane Hill, the conventional white folk theory of racism treats white racism as a mere pathology held by individuals, something which can be rooted out with education and socio-economic uplift. The author of the AP tale seeks to present Elwin Wilson, a “former Ku Kluxer,” as a redeemed white man who has been enlightened to the error of his old segregationist ways. His apologetic actions play into the white racial frame by pushing white racism, past or present, to the margins of society, rather than being seen as inherent in the dominant white perspective and perpetuated, allowed, or beheld as actions by many, if not all, whites.

According to Otto Santa Ana, the prevailing metaphor for U.S. racism is Racism as Disease. The AP journalist plays into this old white metaphor by describing Wilson as “a sad, sickly man haunted by time.” By characterizing him in this individualistic manner, the (assumed to be white) reader can dissociate him/herself from the aging Wilson, a former Ku-Kluxer suffering from the individual pathology of racism. This tactic of pegging Mr. Wilson as someone suffering from a “peculiar” disease only reinforces the dominant white view that U.S. racism is an individual-level problem, something to be confronted by individuals and not something foundational to the operating of U.S. society. The author reveals her naiveté when she fails to acknowledge the institutionalized, structural nature of racism or its very long, continuing, and unjust history. Wilson did not act alone or as an innovator.

Wilson himself fails to grasp this systemic racism, when he states that “his parents treated everyone equally.” This denying attitude about the segregation era resonates with the findings of Houts-Picca and Feagin, who show from college student diaries just how much whites seek to deny racism even as they do it, and how often they describe as “good” and “fun” or “nice” the white friends or relatives who do blatant racism. By defining recurring racism as a pathological trait beheld by otherwise “good” individuals, it becomes impossible to locate responsibility for white racism.

Also, the journalist unquestionably accepts an Us vs. Them dichotomy when discussing Wilson’s segregationist past and other racial matters with Wilson, who himself seems more concerned with gaining entrance to heaven (his words) than actually righting the wrongs of his past. Wilson refers to African Americans as “[those] people I had trouble with,” and his wife nonchalantly states “they’re going to be [in heaven] with you.” Later he even states, “By the time I went to college I had dropped all that jumping on them, [but] I still didn’t want to marry one or anything like that.” (By jumping, he means violence.) We can see just how unchanged Wilson’s othering attitudes are. Though he may be touted as a repenting celebrity by many whites and some others, especially those who have internalized the myth of the U.S. now entering a “postracial” era (see the article itself for quotes from some of his elated admirers), one can easily sense ambivalence and continuing white racial framing in the man’s contemporary words and actions.

The AP article is but another example of white writers stroking the egos of the white public, who see whites as rather easily “overcoming” the openly-racist rhetoric and action of the past. Instead of confronting the latent, deep, and commonplace remainders of white-on-black oppression today, this breezy article reinforces the prevailing disease metaphor for white racism and pushes understanding that systemic racism again to the margins of society.