Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Race in America: Irrelevant & Incredibly Consequential

Clinton. Kennedy.

And yes, Bush.

We all know that a few families wield immense political power in this country. In fact, if a certain democratic candidate gets elected in November of 2008, the same two families will have been in the White House for at least 32 consecutive years. If this scenario holds true, however, we still could have a major first in American politics: our first female President, or our first President of color.

No, that is not a typo.

Lynne Cheyney, the wife of Dick Cheyney, recently discovered that she and her husband are related to Barack Obama as both descend from 17th century French immigrants. Obama is also distantly related to Bush through 17th century residents of Massachusetts. Although these relations have had absolutely no impact on the lives of any of these people, it does shed light on the concept of race in America.

Race is a social construction. Many historians will argue that before Bacon's rebellion in 1676, the concept of race was far from what it subsequently became. Prior to the rebellion, black slaves worked plantations along with black and white indentured servants. It was only after this event took place that the plantation working force became composed almost entirely of African slaves. Only then did the concept of race develop, and that was primarily a tool by which the new poor white farming class could ascend socially.It follows that race is not biological at all, but simply a holdover from another American institution - slavery.

Furthermore, if race is not biological, then it is irrelevant to the psychological development of a human being - independent of a society which conditions otherwise. For example, examine the case of Wayne Joseph, a Chino, Calif., high school principal. Joseph has lived his more than 50 years self-identifying as African-American who, "a few years ago, took an ethnic DNA test out of curiosity about his genetic history. To his surprise, the test found Indo-European, East Asian and Native American DNA, but none from Africa!" (Chicago Tribune). There is nothing that ties Joseph to the continent of Africa, but his self-identification has inextricably bound him with a group of people who are tied to the continent. As the article continues to say, "His chromosomes might not show African roots, but his identity was produced by the African-American experience" (CT). In short, this man was conditioned to be black. Thus, the concept of race without a society is irrelevant.

Race can be constructed or deconstructed as people desire. Until a society desires that deconstruction however, race is incredibly consequential.

As race is a social construct, it spurs the construction of other social institutions like racism, prejudice and bigotry. Those concepts have the power to stop individuals from reaching their dreams and to bind a people in the shackles of indignation. For that reason, America must continue on its road to racial equality - a journey that will require the efforts of all involved - especially people of color.

As Obama is the first realistic opportunity for a person of color to become President of the United States, his candidacy alone is cause for celebration. As much as we would all like to bury the racial history of our nation, none of us should fail to recognize that Obama will be campaigning for President in 2008 - just 40 years after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Just 40 years after blacks were being imprisoned for marching for freedom, a black man will be a serious candidate for President.

Maybe his candidacy can expedite the journey.


Joshua said...

I like the flexibility of your argument here. Race as multiple things that display its importance: the irrelevant non-realistic divide it created or the construction that orders society.

In addition, I think we should seek to define it at least one more way. I think identifying racial communities, in their best light, as progressive spaces for love and caring (since some have rejected or limited fear and hatred in their lives in order to live fully and freely given racism's pervasive power to affect our state) is important because expanding that community is our best shot at defeating some of these -isms.

Naima said...

hey michael, thanks for this post! i have a couple thoughts.

i had no idea about the ancestral relationship between obama and bush or obama and cheney. it's interesting and does show how the divide of race is complicated by our interconnectedness.

i also like that you mention that in certain slave societies, like colonial VA, there is evidence to suggest that ideas of race are not necessarily what we would imagine them to be.

i've got to say though that having a person of color as president does not translate into real changes in the everyday material conditions of black people in the United States and around the world. does it change our political, intellectual, and spiritual life?

you raise some good points and questions and i want to see what people who read/write for TNS think about obama's candidacy more deeply... this post is a great place to start.

Zach said...

great post, michael, even if you do like hillary.

naima, you say that "having a person of color as president does not translate into real changes in the everyday material conditions of black people in the United States and around the world."

no one's arguing that by having a black man in the white house, suddenly the median household income of black families jumps $15,000. i don't think your suggesting anyone is arguing that, but to answer your second question, having a black president certainly does change the tenor of american political life and american culture in general. it goes a long way to erasing the sense of helplessness that has pervaded so many minority communities where many feel like mainstream society has passed them by without much thought. this leads to the first point about concrete improvements in black people's lives. i think having a black president can make a huge difference. forgive my mushy anecdote (and try to pretend a white person isn't writing it) but a young black man who feels there is no chance for upward mobility can look and see a shining example of why there is hope (politics of hope!) in the white house. (this leads to two easy objections: first, might a black president then be a bad thing since it relieves the pressure for society to address serious racial problems and inequalities? does racist white man now have the excuse to say "hey, there's a black president? what are y'all whining about inequality for?" second, is the mushy anecdote "privilege-blind" (as we whites with our liberal guilt are known to be)? that is, might this hypothetical young black man really never think there is much hope for social mobility simply by looking at obama because he knows that barack had caring parents who helped him get to harvard law school and put food on the table every night?...these objections deserve addressing but it's late and i've rambled too long)

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