On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics

On Friday, December 12, I had the profound pleasure of attending the Kessler Award ceremony hosted by The Center for LGBTQ Studies: CLAGS at The Graduate Center, CUNY in honor of Professor Cathy J. Cohen (University of Chicago). Cohen has a large body of work at the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality, but is perhaps best known for a 1997 GLQ article, referenced this talk, called, “Punks, Bulldaggers and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics” (locked). The title of her talk was, “#Do Black Lives Matter? From Michael Brown to CeCe McDonald: On Black Death and LGBTQ Politics.” What follows is a brief summary of her remarks, and the video and transcript are linked below.

Cohen’s talk began with the screening of a video that included the murders of Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Kaijeme Powell, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice in one devastating 2-minute clip, she said to “re-center us and remind us what the movement is about.”

Cohen then turned to a discussion of the context surrounding the murder of Michael Brown, what she calls the ‘multicultural turn in neoliberalism.’ She uses the traditional definition of neoliberalism, as a “prioritizing of markets and a corresponding commitment to the dismantling or devolution of social welfare.” She argues that with the election of the first African American president in Barack Obama, neoliberalism has taken a “multicultural turn” that requires us to “complicate our understanding of state power and neoliberal agendas.” About this, and as part of her critique of Obama, she said:

Colorblind racial ideology, by both decrying racism and designating anti-racism as probably one of the country’s newly found core values, actually works to obscure the relationship between identity and privilege. Thus, through colorblind ideology one can claim to be in solidarity with black people while at the same time denigrating the condition of poor black people, faulting them for their behaviors or lack of a work ethic and not their race. Moreover, one could declare that ‘black lives matter’ while undermining any state-sponsored programs that would address the special needs of poor black people. One could say, in fact, that I’m heartbroken with the death of Trayvon Martin because if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon, and recognize that that means nothing in terms of justice for black people.

She began here, with neoliberalism and its multicultural turn because “it is a reminder of the sustained attack on the basic humanity of poor black people that provides the context in which we should understand the killing of young black people, in particular young black men, and the less visible assaults on black women and the murder of black trans people.”

The second section of her talk, called “Performing Solidarity: LGBT Complicity = Black Death,” was a thorough recap of the critique made by Urvashi Vaid, Lisa Duggan, Dean Spade and Michael Warner, of the way that mainstream (read: predominantly white) LGBT organizations have prioritized a neoliberal agenda with policies agendas that emphasize, marriage, access to the military and increased criminalization through hate crime legislation. Then, she argued that the kinds of letters issued by mainstream LGBT organizations in support of Michael Brown’s family

The third part of her talk, which she called “This is Not the Civil Rights Movement: The Queering of Black Liberation,” is where she addressed the possibility of transformational politics. She began this section by screening this short video:

This young brother, Tory Russell is from Hands Up United, one of the grassroots groups organizing people in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to a question from Gwen Ifill (PBS Newshour) about what he sees happening now, Russell says:

“I mean it’s younger, it’s fresher. I think we’re more connected than most people think. I don’t, this is not the civil rights movement, you can tell by how I got a hat on, I got my t-shirt, and how I rock my shoes. This is not the civil rights movement. This is an oppressed peoples’ movement. So when you see us, you gonna see some gay folk, you gonna see some queer folk, you gonna see some poor black folk, you gonna see some brown folk, you gonna see some white people and we all out here for the same reasons, we wanna be free.”

In many ways, Russell here articulates Cohen’s vision for transformational politics and what she refers to as substantive, rather than performative, solidarity.

Cohen, along with a growing chorus of voices, sees what is happening now as a movement, rather than simply a momentary response to aggressive policing.

Near the end of her talk, Cohen describes this movement, echoing Russell, as a “movement made up, as Tory Russell described, made up of some gays, some queer folk, some poor black people, some brown folks, some white folks, …all of them united in their position as oppressed people, aka politically queer, and all fighting for freedom, not marriage, not increased criminalization, not access to the military, but for freedom.”

You can view Cohen’s lecture online here (beginning about the 25:50 mark). A transcript of Cohen’s remarks is available here.

NOM Strategy: Use Race to Divide Marriage Equality Supporters

There’s a lot of buzz about the just revealed internal memos from the National Organization for Marriage’s (NOM) which make plain their divisive racial strategies to oppose marriage equality. The key strategy NOM has employed is wedge politics, that is, seeking to drive a wedge between African Americans, Latinos and those in the LGBT movement.

Here is just some of what the NOM memos say about blacks:

The strategic goal of this project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks—two key Democratic constituencies. Find, equip, energize and connect African American spokespeople for marriage; develop a media campaign around their objections to gay marriage as a civil right; provoke the gay marriage base into responding by denouncing these spokesmen and women as bigots. No politician wants to take up and push an issue that splits the base of the party. Fanning the hostility raised in the wake of Prop 8 is key to raising the costs of pushing gay marriage to its advocates and persuading the movement’s allies that advocates are unacceptably overreaching on this issue.

NOM’s strategy for Latinos looks like this:

Will the process of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture lead Hispanics to abandon traditional family values? We can interrupt this process of assimilation by making support for marriage a key badge of Latino identity.

You can read all the documents here, thanks to HRC.

To say that NOM’s strategy is racist is stating the obvious. Sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious, but I want to make a slightly less obvious point, and that is that the revelations about NOM’s racial politics highlight the LGBT movement’s need for a racial justice agenda.

The truth is that African Americans and Latinos are just as likely to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, as white people. And, Zack Ford makes the excellent point that:

“NOM’s tactics seek to erase an entire population of people who live at the intersections of these experiences, limiting their ability to fulfill their complete identities.”

That’s exactly right. The NOM strategies are not only racist, but they assume that “gay” and “black” or “lesbian” and “Latina” are somehow mutually exclusive categories, that you can’t be both gay and black, or lesbian and Latina. The reality is that the LGBT movement has also ignored the “both/and” identities. How else to explain the popularity of the “Gay is the new Black” slogan popularized by during the Prop 8 campaign? We’re right to get outraged as NOM’s racial strategy to divide “gays and blacks” – but this division is one we have to take a serious look at within the LGBT movement which currently lacks a racial justice agenda.

(Creative Commons License photo credit: tantek)

What would it look like if the LGBT movement had a racial justice agenda?  Well, for starters, we’d see our struggle for equality tied to other movements for justice, not just by analogy. So, for example, there’s been a noticeable silence about Trayvon Martin on most of the mainstream gay blogs, probably because most (white) gay folks don’t see the case as “our issue.”

But, as Zach Stafford pointed out here recently, gay folk should care about Trayvon Martin because all of us who are “outsiders” – whether because of sexual orientation, gender non-conformity, or race – can be targets of violence.

When we say that “gay rights is the new civil rights movement,” we’re playing into the divisive racial politics of NOM.  We have to do better than “gay is the new black.”  We have to see that the fight for sexual equality hasn’t replaced the fight for racial equality, because that’s not over. When the LGBT movement moves beyond shallow slogans like “gay is the new black” to embrace a racial justice agenda that sees our struggle tied to others, then we’ll have truly won a victory against opponents like NOM that can only see “gays” and “blacks” as an easy place to drive a wedge.

~ This post originally appeared on HuffPo Gay Voices.

Battling Racism in Drag

I’ve written here before about the racism in the gay community and this is one of the most egregious examples.  Shirley Q Liquor is one of the drag personas of Chuck Knipp, a white guy who performs in blackface.   The centerpiece of his act seems to be trading on the crassest stereotypes of black women.

The following is an excerpt from the Shirley Q. Liquor MySpace page, describing the character:

“How you derrin’! I’m Shirley Q. Liquor. I is from Texarkana and is mother of 19 chillrens. I love some brown bakeded beans, sermons on ignunce, K-Mark, and Shlitz malt liquor. I enjoys goin’ to get my nails did. I think I’m gonna get my nails painted blue with a lil’ gold jessie picture on my littlest nail. I also enjoys hangin’ out with my girl Watusi. Good lawd, she got’s some crazy ass drivin’s. Oh, and she so ugly. She 7″1′ and no amount of make up gonna help her. Oh lawd, she look AWFUL. Well honey, that’s it for now. Tell yo momma I axed her how she durrin’. Bye suga.”

In Shirley Q. Liquor’s repertoire are numbers with titles such as as “Church Slave,” “Who is My Baby Daddy?” and “Jailed.” Although Knipp defends his act as a parody of Tyler Perry’s Madea character, just saying that you’re mimicking black-created foolishness isn’t enough to absolve Knipp of the overtly racist content of his Shirley Q. character.  And, just because white, predominantly gay audiences pay for this crap is no excuse either (boys of Queer Eye – I’m *so* disappointed in you for getting your pic snapped with Shirley Q!).

If you object to Knipp’s Shirley Q. Liquor drag character, take a second and sign this online petition.

Judith Butler Refuses Award at Berlin Pride Citing Racism

Last week, noted  social critic and philosophy professor Judith Butler refused the Berlin Civil Courage Award saying, “I must distance myself from this racist complicity” (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).   Butler was referring to anti-immigrant media campaigns that repeatedly represent migrants as ‘archaic’, ‘patriarchal’, ‘homophobic’, violent, and unassimilable while at the same time prominent (white) gay organizations in Berlin encourage a heightened police presence in gay neighborhoods where there are more people of color.  The group SUSPECT condemned white gay politics and applauded Butler’s refusal saying:

It is this tendency of white gay politics, to replace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement, which Butler scandalizes, also in response to the critiques and writings of queers of colour. Unlike most white queers, she has stuck out her own neck for this. For us, this was a very courageous decision indeed.

SUSPECT is a new group of queer and trans migrants, Black people, people of color and allies whose aim is to monitor the effects of hate crimes debates and to build communities which are free from violence in all its interpersonal and institutional forms.

(Creative Commons License photo credit: thomasderzweifler)

Angela Davis, noted scholar, activist and UC-Santa Cruz professor, has also voiced support for Butler’s refusal of the prize, saying “I hope Judith Butler’s refusal of the award will act as a catalyst for more discussion about the impact of racism even within groups which are considered progressive”  (h/t @blacklooks via Twitter).

There’s certainly room for such a discussion about race and racism in the white LGBT community here in the U.S., and surprisingly little analysis of it to date.   As I noted back in November 2008, the racism among white gay marriage supporters is a problem.   Prominent white gay men such as Dan Savage make a good living off of saying ignorant, racist crap while claiming the “oppression” card.   This is not to say that people who identify as LGBT are not oppressed in the U.S. and around the world, in fact, there’s quite a lot of evidence to support this claim, including the murder and torture of people because they are same-gender-loving.   This is a human rights issue, and a global one.

What Dan Savage and other privileged white gay men fail to understand is the way one struggle is connected to another.  In part, I think this is because they fail to see the ways that sexuality and race are intertwined.  When you begin to see this, it shifts our understanding of oppression.  Rather than seeing “blacks” and “gays” as somehow distinct, disparate groups, such an analysis allows you to recognize the reality of black and brown LGBT lives (such as the recently out entertainer Ricky Martin, who is both gay and Puerto Rican).   And, such an analysis makes visible the white privilege that still adheres to the lives of LGBT folks like Savage.  The challenge then, for white LGBT folks, is whether they are going to continue to wage a campaign for the rights of some or whether we will join the struggle for LGBT human rights with other human rights struggles.

What’s maddening about the ignorance around race among white LGBT people, is that it represents such a lost opportunity for – as SUSPECT points out in their statement – a “politics of solidarity, coalitions and radical transformation” and replaces it with one of criminalization, militarization and border enforcement.  What might this look like?  As just one example, the organization Immigration Equality, is coming out against Arizona’s draconian immigration law:

The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community knows all too well how easily people who “look different” can be singled out for harassment and prosecution. In addition, LGBT immigrant families are too familiar with the double burden of immigration discrimination. Now Arizona’s LGBT families have yet another reason to be alarmed. The state’s new law threatens to tear apart families, separate children from their parents and rip apart loving couples who are building their lives together. Forty percent of LGBT binational couples in the United States include a Latino family member. For them, and their loved ones, Arizona is now the most dangerous place in America.

As people in New York City and around the U.S. celebrate Pride today, my hope is that we will all embrace a politics of solidarity, coalitions and transformation.

Racism (and other issues) among Gay Marriage Supporters

My joy at the news of last week’s presidential election was quickly deflated as I learned about the passage of Proposition 8 in California and a number of other anti-gay measures around the nation.   What’s particularly heartbreaking to me personally  (as a member of the LGBTQ community) is that alongside the legitimate anger this defeat has prompted (image of some of that anger from here), it’s also generated some racist name-calling in street protests as well as some much more measured and supposedly reasonable race-baiting by prominent white gay writers, like Dan Savage.

What writers like Savage and Andrew Sullivan and other relatively privileged white gay men fail to understand is that supposedly single-issue propositions, like Prop 8, are still embedded in larger systems of inequality that have to be at least partially addressed with voters in what we’re calling “the ground game” now.  Worse still, they are actively scapegoating black people for this defeat.   The defeat of Prop 8 and the other ballot measures last Tuesday at the same time that our first African American president succeeded, is clear evidence to me that gay marriage organizers failed at the ground game.    Let me break it down.

White LGBT folk need to learn about race and racism, especially their own. There’s just no excuse for rally-goers at a No on 8 rally dropping the N-bomb on black people, and the fact that these particular black people happened to also be gay and carrying “No on 8” signs makes the whole thing even more absurd and inexcusable.   In addition to that kind of overt racism (which, I thought we were over and was a myth anyway, but I digress) is just part of what LGBT white folks need to educate themselves about.  While some prominent white queer people have denounced overt racism, they could also stand to learn a little about inclusion.   According to Daily Voice blogger Rod McCollum, there was not one black LGBT couple in any of the “no on 8” ads.  Not one.

Beyond stopping overt racism, and learning about inclusion, white LGBT folk need to get much, much smarter about race.   For those just beginning to think about race in the marriage equality movement, let me recommend this Open Letter to White Activists by laura.fo is a good starting point (hat tip: Lizhenry via Twitter).  Included in her list are the following:

1) Think about the way you use civil rights imagery; 2) Think about you talk about “sex” and “freedom” ; 3) Think about how you talk about Black churches…

And, further down her list, “Stop assuming Black support.” To anyone that’s thought critically about race, there’s often a cringe-worthy quality to the rhetoric of the gay-marriage movement in the thoughtless appropriation of civil rights rhetoric while simultaneously assuming Black support and disparaging church folk (more about which, in a moment).  This is not a winning strategy.

The scapegoating of black people for the failure of Prop 8 assumes that black people are more homophobic than white people.   Terence, writing at Pam’s House Blend, has a long and incredibly insightful piece in which he argues that, in fact, blacks are more homophobic than whites because of a long history of having their own sexuality “queered” by the racial oppression of our society.    This is similar to an argument that Michael Eric Dyson makes (who is cited in the post) and an argument that Patricia Hill Collins makes in Black Sexual Politics.

Yet, such claims are flawed to the extent that they erase the lives of black and brown LGBT folk.    In a statement by Dean Spade and Craig Willse titled, “I Still Think Marriage is the Wrong Goal,” (hat tip Julie Netherland) the authors write about the move to blame black folks for the failure of Prop 8:

“Beneath this claim is an uninterrogated idea that people of color are “more homophobic” than white people. Such an idea equates gayness with whiteness and erases the lives of LGBT people of color. It also erases and marginalizes the enduring radical work of LGBT people of color organizing that has prioritized the most vulnerable members of our communities.

Current conversations about Prop 8 hide how the same-sex marriage battle has been part of a conservative gay politics that de-prioritizes people of color, poor people, trans people, women, immigrants, prisoners and people with disabilities. Why isn’t Prop 8’s passage framed as evidence of the mainstream gay agenda’s failure to ally with people of color on issues that are central to racial and economic justice in the US?”

I heartily agree with the authors’ re-frame of the failure of Prop 8.  The mainstream gay political movement has failed to do the hardwork of coalition building with people of color, whether straight or LGBT.  While I’m not prepared to argue that gay marriage is inherently racist as some do (download pdf), I do think the fight for marriage equality has got to re-think it’s white-led agenda and connect to broader social justice goals in order to be successful.

Class and gay marriage. When people in the marriage equality movement frame their struggle exclusively in terms of “rights and benefits,” they unconsciously adopt a class-based rhetoric that excludes many potential allies, including straight people across races and LGBT people across classes.   It’s hard to know how marriage equality “benefits” should resonate as an issue with poor and working-class straight or queer people who often work in jobs that have no benefits.  While it’s tragic and wrong when, for example, a terminally-ill lesbian cop in NJ is not able to give her partner the death benefits that she would receive if her partner had been a man, these are not the working-class images we typically see in the struggle for marriage equality. (Although, given NJ’s recent history with racial profiling by state police, one wonders about the wisdom of a cop as an example that’s supposed to a resonate for people of color who are the target of polic brutality.)   A more radical – and racially diverse – approach advocated by the organization Queers for Economic Justice includes an effort to expand the dialogue on marriage equality to make benefits available whether or not one is married.  

Gender, race and “normal” families. Advocates for gay marriage need to check their gender politics.  For women who came to feminist consciousness in a certain era, marriage is and remains a repressive patriarchal institution based on the transfer of women-as-property. Hence, the battle to be “allowed in” to marriage is similar to the battle to be “allowed to” serve in the military, in which the ultimate prize of acceptance is a dubious goal.  Thus, it’s not surprising to see this movement as a largely (white)male-led movement.   Still, I’m enough of a sociologist to recognize that marriage is the primary way that our society recognizes people as adults, as citizens, and as human beings.  So, by denying an entire group of people the right to marry it really is denying them (us) a basic, fundamental human right.  

But the movement for gay marriage, and indeed much of the scholarship on this issue, is framed in terms of assimilation and acceptance as “normal families” rather than in terms of human rights.  The “normal family” is a central feature of the white racial frame as in the “virtuous white Ozzie and Harriet family.”  This is an unfortunate strategy as it excludes the large number of the population that do not live in such an arrangement and the possibly larger number that have no desire to do so.

Still, this is a powerful narrative in our culture and it is has taken on a noticeably racial inflection at this moment.    The idealized image of the “normal” Obama family is part of what got Barack Obama elected.  And, indeed, the image of Barack and Michelle Obama and their daughters Malia and Sasha counters age-old racist stereotypes about negligent black fathers and irresponsible black mothers.   A recent article in The New York Times explicitly connects the success of the real-life Obama to the fictional “Huxtables” created by Bill Cosby (and indeed, The NYTimes article credits the show, at least in part, with Obama’s success).   This idealized family image of the Obama/Huxtable family is one that requires a particular heteronormative gender performance from all the participants.  After all, the Huxtables are variations on the “virtuous white Ozzie and Harriet family” of the white racial frame which was front and center in this election.  Any deviation from the Ozzie-and-Harriet model by the Obamas was severly punished (yet, the McCain’s numerous steps outside this went largely unremarked upon).   For example, Michelle Obama/Mom got in trouble for being too assertive,  Barack Obama/Dad was lauded when he attacked black men as irresponsible, and their daughters must dress and act appropriately “girl-like”  (hat tip to Joe for this insight).   What white gay marriage advocates seem to encourage looks and sounds a lot like assimilation into that heteronormative model of the family.  A movement that emphasized social justice and human rights would allow for and celebrate a range of expressions of gender and sexuality rather than conformity to a particularly narrow conceptualization of what constitutes a family.

Religion, race and gay marriage. Advocates for gay marriage need to work on their religious intolerance (image from here.)  The Mormon church and others on the religious right funded the political campaign to take away marriage rights in California, following on a long history of religious-sponsored vicious hatred toward LGBT people.  Understandably, many LGBT people have no patience with religious arguments intended to undermine our rights.  Yet, for many people, including black people and LGBT folk, the church is the central social institution.  As Joe pointed out recently, most churches are still among the most racially segregated institutions we participate in.  Given the fact that marriage is both a religious rite (as well as a human right) that is being defended by religious people in racially-segregated congregations means that those interested in marriage equality need a ground game that engages, rather than alienates, church folk and does so with a real awareness of racial issues.  The “No on 8” graffiti that appeared on several churches (as pictured above) following the defeat last week is not the way to win supporters.   The rhetoric of gay marriage supporters that polarizes “black churches” and all religious folks as diamterically opposed to “gay supporters of No on 8” keeps both sides locked in a symbiotic relationship in which each side significantly affects the evolution of its counterpart, as Tina Fetner explains in her new book.   Such dichotomous, either/or, views of marriage equality ignore the fact that it’s religious LGBT folk who have been pioneers in the movement.

I agree with Jasmyne Cannick who writes that: 

“Black gays are depending on their white counterparts to finally ‘get it.’  Until then, don’t expect to make any inroads any time soon in the black community on this issue — including with this black lesbian.”

And, for this anti-racist white lesbian, I’m not so interested in a marriage equality movement that fails to “get it” about race.  What gay marriage supporters must do if they hope to win on this issue is to address the deeply intertwined politics of race, class, gender and religion in ways that frame marriage equality as an important human rights issue that other people should care about rather than a luxury denied already privileged white gay men.

Republican Party: Howard Dean Says, the “White Party”

ABC News’ Ron Claiborne reports a likely slip of the tongue on National Public Radio last week by the Democratic National Committee chair, Howard Dean, who said: (photo: Stroup)

“If you look at folks of color, even women, they’re more successful in the Democratic party than they are in the white, uh, excuse me, in, uh, Republican party.”

The McCain folks of course pounced on this, and called it “insulting,” while a DNC spokesperson just said that Dean “misspoke and corrected himself immediately.”

Claiborne, however, accents how important this issue really is. It is literally, the Elephant in the Room. This issue is

rarely discussed in public and almost never by politicians: the marked racial division by party in American politics. Members of the country’s largest minority groups — blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans — are predominantly Democratic.

He is right, but of course there is a lot more to it than that: The Republican Party has been the white party since African Americans left it in large numbers for the New Deal Democrat, Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. It was then no longer the “party of Lincoln” civil rights issues, and economic issues were hitting African Americans very hard.

Last December I made these additional points about the Republican Party being, in effect, the “white party” of the United States (for research see here):

With the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, the Republican Party intentionally abandoned black voters for a strategy openly targeting what are seen as the primary interests of a majority of white voters. This explicitly pro white political strategy has put emphasis on the interests of whites in suburbia and the southern states. Codewords such as “quotas,” “states’ rights,” “busing,” and “crime in the streets” have been substituted for the more explicitly racist terms of the days of legal segregation. The southern strategy was effectively used by Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972 to win the first two Republican elections with that racialized strategy.

The neo-segregationist strategy targeting southern and suburban whites was also used effectively in the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush campaigns of the 1980s and early 1990s. Reagan began his presidential campaign asserting strongly a states’ rights doctrine, and he intentionally picked Philadelphia, Mississippi–where civil rights workers had been lynched in the 1960s—to make this symbolic appeal to southern white voters. Reagan and his associates sought to dismantle further federal civil rights enforcement efforts, including weakening the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and attacking affirmative action programs, to please white constituents.

When George H. W. Bush undertook a run for president, he ran a racist campaign. In 1988 Bush and his advisors conducted an infamous advertising campaign that used visual images of a disheveled black rapist, from his opponent’s home state, to intentionally scare and recruit white voters to the Republican Party. Most recently, after losing elections in the 1990s to moderate Democrat William Clinton, the Republican Party succeeded in electing George W. Bush. Bush gained the presidency in two consecutive elections, 2000 and 2004. In both, the Republican Party focused heavily on securing white voters in the South and suburbs, and some Republican officials sought to restrict black voting in key states.

At one time centered in the states of the East and upper Midwest, today the Republican Party is, as a result of its recent political remaking, now centered in the South, parts of the Midwest, and the Rocky Mountain states. In recent political campaigns, the Republican Party has continued to be the “white party,” the one aggressively representing white interests, albeit often in disguised language. Thus, in elections between 1992 and 2004 the Republican Party got a remarkably small percentage (8-12 percent) of black voters, and a minority of most other voters of color as well.

Not only has there been only a handful of black delegates at recent Republican party conventions, but the Republican National Committee has had few black members. Service at the highest decision-making levels of the Republican Party has in the last few decades been almost exclusively white. Thus, in late 2004 there was only one African American from the fifty U.S. states (plus a black member from U.S. Virgin Islands) among the 165 members of the Republican National Committee. This compared to the 97 black members on the Democratic National Committee, more than one fifth of the total membership about the same time. This pattern still pretty much holds today. Today, all black members of the U.S. Congress, and something like 98 percent of the 9,000 black officeholders at all government levels across the United States are members of the Democratic Party.

This highly segregated pattern of political party interests and participation has characterized U.S. politics now since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the southern and border states, the Rocky Mountain states, and numerous states of the lower Midwest, white voters now tend to vote overwhelmingly for the Republican Party in presidential elections, and for that reason some people now explicitly refer to the Party as “white party.” The Republican party has brought about its political resurgence since the major losses in presidential elections of the early and mid-1960s by explicitly using a politics of “race” that works mainly because of the racist legacies of slavery and legal segregation have persisted aggressively into contemporary U.S. society. It continues to do this today, and will even more in coming months.

How can we claim to have a democratic country and have a democratic media when these strong data on the racial differences in the two major parties are almost never seriously discussed? It seems to me, that this is the real issue in this election: democracy.

Jodie Foster as Bernhard Goetz Proves Popular

The box office was good this weekend for closeted-lesbian Jodie Foster’s new movie “The Brave One” this weekend (she both stars and is credited as Executive Producer). Some reviewers have compared this film, directed by Neil Jordan, to “Death Wish,” and it does share similar gun-violence and revenge-fantasy themes with that earlier film. But for me, more salient referent is Bernhard Goetz, the white racist subway vigilante that gunned down four African American teenagers on the 2 train at 14th Street in 1984.

Now, before I continue my critique of this film, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to confess that I saw this film over the weekend, so some of my coins (ok, $11 here in Manhattan) went to the box office totals. I also went to see this film with my long-term partner, Julie, and we did enjoy Ms. Foster’s, ahem, acting. As lovely as she and her chiseled jawline, cropped hair and form-fitting t-shirts are, she is a perennial disappointment in terms of her politics. The fact that someone of her stature doesn’t have the strength of character to come out publicly confirms the kind of societal level homophobia that contributes to the high rates of suicide and homelessness among LGBTQ teenagers. Her recent donation to The Trevor Project doesn’t ameliorate the larger message of her being in the closet, in fact, it only serves to highlight the duplicity of what Michael Musto calls “the glass closet.”

Her abysmal sexual politics are now joined by some pretty deplorable racial politics in “The Brave One.” [SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who haven’t seen the film and plan on it, the rest of this post contains numerous spoilers.] Foster’s character in the film, Erica Bain, is an NPR-style radio host who is engaged to a dark-skinned South Asian (male) nurse, David Kirmani, played by Naveen Andrews. The white woman – dark lover idyll is meant to signify that the Foster character is “not a racist,” as is the presence of a Caribbean woman who is her neighbor, and later voices the moral of the film (more about her in a moment).

As the couple walks their dog late at night through Central Park, entering ominously through the “Stranger’s Gate” at 106th Street, they are attacked by a group of tatooted, bandana-wearing, whisky-guzzling Latino thugs who are equipped with metal pipes as weapons, and with a small, handheld digital video camera to record the attack. Foster’s character is badly injured and is in a coma for three weeks, her boyfriend is killed. After she emerges from the coma, she goes on a grief-stricken killing spree as a sort of vengence-as-recovery strategy. She kills a number of people, some of them white all of them men, in her revenge spree, but the quintessential moment in the film is the incident on the subway by two young African American guys, and as with Bernhard Goetz, she doesn’t only shoot them, she unloads her gun into them. The rather straightforward white racist reaction (two young African American guys on a subway must be a threat), is complicated by the gender and class dynamics. After the two African American guys harass a young white guy and steal his iPod, a current urban symbol of class status (and make fun of his musical choices on the iPod as they steal it), the subway car empties and they turn their menacing attention to Foster’s character, who – – packing a Glock – – has chosen to remain on the subway. As the two men approach, they make an explicitly sexual threat to her involving a knife, and she responds by emptying the gun into both of them and calmly walking away. This image, of two, large, Black men, one with a phallic-and-threatening knife, approaching an assumed-to-be-innocent white woman resonates with the deepest strains of white supremacy in the U.S. The entire history of lynching was premised on just such an image of gendered racism, and the response is evokes from most whites is one of fear, outrage and identification with (or a desire to protect) Foster’s character. However, the image of a woman with agency, who acts in her own defense and does not wait to be rescued, barely registers on the American political landscape; so, for most of the film, people don’t suspect Foster’s character because they assume the vigilante is a man. The subversive possibilities of a woman fighting back against male violence (“who’s a b*tch now?” she asks as she shoots one of her perpetrators) are competely overshadowed by the regressive racial and class politics of the film. Once she as is back at home, Foster listens to an audio recording of the shooting again and again, much like the perpetrators of the attack on are assumed to have watched the video recording of the attack on her, thus blurring the lines between them. Yet, it’s not the similarities between Foster and the various Black, Latino and even white, perpetrators that the audience is left with, but rather the distance between her and her attackers marked by racial and class differences.

While Stephanie Zacharek, reviewing the film for Salon, writes that the Dublin-born director Neil Jordan “has a surprisingly strong grasp of what living in New York is like, and he translates it beautifully onto the screen,” I think Jordan completely misrepresents the city and what it’s like to live here. More accurate is Neil Rosen’s take in his review for NY1 in which he writes that, “Although the movie is set in the present, the crime ridden New York that’s depicted in the film bears more resemblance to the 1970’s.” And, this is a key point in my critique of the film. While Foster’s NPR-radio announcer character refers repeatedly to New York as “the safest big city in the world,” a line from the Guiliani-administration, neither she nor the film as a whole make reference to the police state that Guiliani established that has made Black and Latino young men are the primary targets and vicitms, the very people configured in this film as the menacing villains. The reality of living in New York City today if you look like white and middle-class, is that it is one of the “safest big cities in the world.” However, if you’re a young Black or Latino man, and also happen to live in — or are just passing through — one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, this is a very dangerous city, and that danger very often comes from the police. For example, the New York Daily News this morning is reporting a story about the teen-aged African American son of an NYPD veteran who was repeatedly tasered, hit him 15 times with a nightstick and put into a choke hold for no apparent reason at a “community sponsored” barbecue at 126th St. and Park Ave. last month. The carcicatured portrayal of young Black and Latino men on the screen, and the spectacle of one after the other gunned down, the last one with help from the police detective played by Terrence Howard, renders the film an apologia for the police-state in New York City, rather than simply entertainment or, as one might hope, a cogent social analysis wrapped in an entertaining package.

It is not only Black and Latino young men who are targets here of racial profiling by the filmmaker: a Black woman is also portrayed in stereotypical fashion. Ene Ojala, who plays Josai, the apartment-building-neighbor to Erica and David. Josai first appears as a large, gruff presence that Erica and David make jokes about. Then, once Erica begins her revenge-killing-spree, it is only Josai, in almost supernatural fashion, that discerns Erica’s secret. Josai conveys the central message of the film when she tells Erica, “There are plenty of ways to die. You have to figure out a way to live.” And, fulfilling the “mammy-role” by serving as nurse to Erica who shows up wounded in the apartment hallway in the middle of the night, Josai is not moved when Erica tells her she killed a man, and Josai replies that “in her country” (which is unnamed) she saw lots of killing. The final shot of Josai in the film is one from above, further depersonalizing her, as she scrubs Erica’s blood off the hallway, on her hands and knees. By giving Erica a neighbor who is Black and an immigrant (as well as her boyfriend), director Jordan intends to deflect the broader racial implications of a film in which Jodie Foster plays a thinly veiled version of Bernhard Goetz. Such casting also allows white audiences to go and enjoy Foster and Jordan’s creation with little thought about what is implied.

There is a rich legacy in this country of progressive, even radical, white lesbians who are anti-racist, such women as Lillian Smith, Adrienne Rich, Mab Segrest, and Dorothy Allison. Yet, Jodie Foster — who had access to an elite education — seems unaware or unmoved by such a legacy. While there is no denying that Jodie Foster looks great in a t-shirt, and she just looks better with age, her politics are more troubling than ever.