Monday, October 20, 2008

Powell, Obama and "race"

Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama's presidential bid has got the Usual Suspects in a lather. The grubby Rush Limbaugh, the Holocaust-denier and racist Pat Buchanan and a host of other conservative commentators, (not to mention bloggers), ignoring the content of Powell's endorsement altogether, were quick to reduce it all to "race." Even here at home, the staid Globe & Mail suggested that "some" could see the endorsement simply as an act of "racial solidarity."

This puts me in mind of an acrimonious discussion I had a few weeks ago with one Edward Michael George, who claimed that this sort of solidarity was at work in the overwhelming support that Blacks showed for Obama. The fact that equally impressive support from Blacks had been offered to Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry didn't seem to matter.

Racial reduction of this kind is what racism is all about. The Other is always homogenized, part of an alleged "community" based entirely upon the Other's Otherness. Only Others act in this kind of robotic concert. White folks, the unmarked "race," do not. Here's a list of predominantly white people who have endorsed John McCain: is this only about "racial solidarity?" We all know what those same Usual Suspects would say if anyone suggested such a thing--and for once they'd be right.

Powell's arguments make sense on their face, and he's not the first to have made them. It's fair enough to produce counter-arguments, but outrageous to suggest that Powell is, in fact, lying to us, that his arguments are mere alibis, that his endorsement is based on nothing more than African-American clannishness. Those who make such claims remind me of the cynical joke current in the 'sixties during the civil rights era: what do rednecks call a Black person with three PhD's, a Medal of Honour and a Nobel Prize? Answer: "a n----r."

That is not, however, to argue that such solidarity is non-existent. When people are racialized, they in effect have solidarity thrust upon them. Witness, for example, the négritude movement, or, more recently, the racial divide that became manifest during O.J. Simpson's legal travails. It's not racist to point out the force and effect of the notion of "race": we have decades of
the category of practice known as "identity" (a defensive concept if ever there was one) to indicate how deeply these constructs are rooted.

What is racist, though, is to ascribe racial motives automatically when an individual who is not white speaks in favour of another individual who is not white, while completely ignoring what the person is actually saying. It's racist to assume that every Black person is no more than a kind of personified Blackness.
As we are seeing once again, however, such open and unapologetic racism continues to taint American--and Canadian--conservative political discourse.

UPDATE: I seem to have gotten under Edward Michael George's skin. He even booted me off his blogroll. You can't comment there--he doesn't permit it--but by all means do so here if you're so inclined. :)

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