Inequality, If You Can Keep It: The Demise Of Manifest Ethnicity
America. So often, it's like the boss who walks into your office, turning around to ask: "Do these pants make my ass look fat?" While it may be sorely tempting to say, "Good god, what do you think?," one is expected to elide and evade, even to elicit a providential slimming from reality. The primate's point in these exchanges is to solicit a supportive yet contrary protest, to confirm and test a hierarchy in so doing, to read for signs of trust and betrayal. Hierarchies are constantly eroded, exchanged, cashiered, and in ours, eventually once-distant realities seem close-drawn, in fact wait right outside on the porch-steps in the rain. They wait to state the obvious and say, "Your ass is so big, it couldn't fit on Mount Rushmore. It's bigger than Brooklyn." The national buttocks which comprise our collective broadcast-brain have lately been asking rather different questions of fashion and taste, telling variations on a theme: "Do these clan robes make me look racist?"
Over half the children now born in America arrive with a skin color. We are no longer a pale-faced country, and our best future is not aristocracy writ white. Yet as the post-racial days knock on our door, the Clinton campaign darkened Barack Obama's skin tone in one of their Texas commercials. In their other fear-o-gram known as the 3AM Call (suggested riposte: "Bill, wake up, it's for you!), they arranged the letters "N-I-G" just to the left of the phone's handset, a subliminal message written on a sleeping boy's pajamas spanning seconds 12 thru 15. Nice, huh? They surfaced a sound-bitten call-to-repentance sermon Chicago's Reverend Wright gave 7 years ago at The Trinity United Church of Christ. True, scandalous things were said by the reverend, such as-- America is a murderous and corrupt country--guilty of its own terrorism--god damns white people for their sins. So the media reflexively pantomimed (reading the body language is much easier with the sound turned off) a trip to the whipping post for Bad Blacks. Equality, real post-racism equality, cannot be granted by the hand of white man nor woman. It must be won.
The fear-mongers' calls also contained a golden opportunity, one which was seized this Tuesday in the cradle of liberty, Philadelphia of all places, by Barack Obama. He gave a speech which defined Reverend Wright's controversial remarks as divisive and undesired, which dunked Clintonianism's hypocritical, Church-Lady dualism as divisive and outmoded. He defined mixed ethnicity as an American strength, a sensible foundation for greater equity, and used the Constitution and its intents to gird that notion with armor. A test was passed, and although there are already over 2.5 million viewings of the speech on YouTube, the media and public haven't yet fully recognized how remarkable a speech it was. The Philadelphia Speech is morphically resonant. Historic. Both subtle and challenging, it dared to square off and talk about America's special relationships with race and equality, as Jon Stewart joked, as if...we were...adults! By finally doing so, a spell was broken. Americans can talk about racial issues as adults. The speech will work its way into our collective consciousness, one day to be looked back on as a necessary milestone we crossed, part of our nation's destiny.
When the Founders argued, beat on tables with canes and walked out of meeting rooms in a rage, you would expect it might've been over their prospects, pretty likely, of being hanged for treason. But by far their worst disputes were over race. The economic basis of the southern states, a.k.a. industrial slavery, caused great rancor back then and was insoluble, absolutely unbridgeable. Benjamin Franklin, mastermind of the government's birth, emerged from convention hall on September 18th, 1787 after the Great Compromise ("we'll punt on slavery so we can free ourselves first") finally got the southern signatures. A certain Mrs. Powell, political junkie of her times, was waiting outside on the steps. "Well, doctor," she asked, "what have we got? A republic, or a monarchy?" "A republic, madam, if you can keep it," was Mr. Franklin's frank reply, teferring to long-term threats posed by fundamental and philosophical disagreement, conflicts on genetic, biblical, and Boethian-Manichean scales.
How much Franklin presaged by so few words! How well he conveyed the split personality apparent in nearly all subsequent American affairs, from the waspish manifest ethnicity underpinning expansionist Manifest Destiny to the racial codes connected to communism. Across the street from Convention Hall, Obama started to build where Franklin left off, explaining the United States as no modern candidate or President has ever explained it:
“We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.”A document about equality was signed, but unfinished, leaving us with a scathing paradox. It would take a million gallons of American blood to dispense with pernicious practice and end America's stature as international pariah. But granting freedom didn't grant equality, and granting equality didn't grant the access in tune with Constitutional ideals. I wonder if Franklin, far-seeing a hominid as ever was, saw across the street to this day. Obama is a firmamental allegory of how to finally move past the American paradox, a Tuskegee Airman of our politics, "black" yet objective. "Other" yet authentic:
Two hundred and twenty one years ago, in a hall that still stands across the street, a group of men gathered and, with these simple words, launched America’s improbable experiment in democracy. Farmers and scholars; statesmen and patriots who had traveled across an ocean to escape tyranny and persecution finally made real their declaration of independence at a Philadelphia convention that lasted through the spring of 1787.
The document they produced was eventually signed but ultimately unfinished. It was stained by this nation’s original sin of slavery, a question that divided the colonies and brought the convention to a stalemate until the founders chose to allow the slave trade to continue for at least twenty more years, and to leave any final resolution to future generations.
Of course, the answer to the slavery question was already embedded within our Constitution – a Constitution that had at is very core the ideal of equal citizenship under the law; a Constitution that promised its people liberty, and justice, and a union that could be and should be perfected over time.
And yet words on a parchment would not be enough to deliver slaves from bondage, or provide men and women of every color and creed their full rights and obligations as citizens of the United States. What would be needed were Americans in successive generations who were willing to do their part – through protests and struggle, on the streets and in the courts, through a civil war and civil disobedience and always at great risk - to narrow that gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of their time.
I am the son of a black man from Kenya and a white woman from Kansas. I was raised with the help of a white grandfather who survived a Depression to serve in Patton’s Army during World War II and a white grandmother who worked on a bomber assembly line at Fort Leavenworth while he was overseas. I’ve gone to some of the best schools in America and lived in one of the world’s poorest nations. I am married to a black American who carries within her the blood of slaves and slaveowners – an inheritance we pass on to our two precious daughters. I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible."Barack Obama" the man, the myth, the motor-mouth, he knows who and what he is. He's keenly aware of his symbolism, no one more so, and his ambition is to use it to further a civil liberties agenda. (Hillary Clinton said, "It took a white man to make the Civil Rights Act." Yes, emphatically, these clan robes do make us look racist.) He has the temerity to wholeheartedly believe in a more perfect union, knows he is the embodiment of it, and knows equity will not be granted by a white president. We have a windmill-tilting Leveller, a Cinderella triple-threat to the established order, a Constitutional scholar who sees the document as a cooperative, iterative process on our hands. The only reason we keep looking the gift horse in the mouth is we've been trained to think one's no longer possible, we wouldn't deserve it if it were, and equity is communism.
600,000 self-described conservatives voted in the Texas primary for Hillary Clinton because Rush Limbaugh told them to. It's why she won the primary but lost the caucus (losing the state by a net 13 delegates). Limbaugh told them to vote Hillary for various reasons, the biggest because he sells fear of a black planet wrapped in fear of al-Qaeda, and making him object to statements like this:
"We will close Guantanamo, we will restore habeus corpus, we will have a president who will respect and obey the Constitution."Rush Limbaugh embodies one possible American future, a future in which a minority is forced to become even more hypocritical, deceitful, and vicious in order to maintain a perceived position in wealth and power. Sure, wealth can probably be concentrated into still fewer hands headed off to more exotic lands, and I suppose debt could be incurred even faster, in more follies than it already is. I suppose the country, given its proven capacities, could perhaps lie its way through a fourth Bush or a third Clinton administration. Still, it would be nice if we could avoid eventually becoming a larger version of Argentina or Brazil. Which is the path we're on. Nothing would please Rush as an entertainer better than a black man elected President--nothing would piss his audience off more than witnessing the literal fulfillment of the words of our country's Constitution. And that is where the perfection begins.