The GOP’s ‘Black’ Problem

The GOP’s ‘Black’ Problem

WELCOME TO TAMPA: Some 200 protesters braved inclement weather from Tropical Storm Isaac today to rally against the presence of the GOP convention in Tampa, Florida. Protesters cried out against Republican policies on immigration, health care, and the economy. (Photo: Mladen Antonov/Newscom)

News that a Republican candidate is getting a low percentage of the black vote typically draws a yawn.

But prominent black Republicans, such as Romney-Ryan adviser Tara Wall, likely gasped at the new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that suggests the ticket is currently getting zero percent of the black vote. How do you get zero percent with all those #BlackConservativeForMittRomney tags on Twitter?

Truthfully, the poll’s results aren’t literal, being within the 3.1 percent margin of error. But there’s a link between the poll and Romney’s actions that should cause black Republicans like Wall to do some soul-searching.

Since May, Wall has been Romney’s senior communications adviser emphasizing African American outreach (UrbanFaith news editor Christine Scheller spoke to her back in June). Wall held a similar role with President George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign where he gained 11 percent of the black vote. She’s among a group of black advisers who have been schooling (apparently not well) Romney on what black voters need to hear from him. They don’t expect to outpoint the nation’s first African American president, but want Romney to at least hold on to the 4 percent of the black vote that McCain received in his 2008 loss to Obama.

I interviewed Wall last week on my radio show and her comments about the poll were predictable: You can make numbers say anything you want. Obviously, black Republicans weren’t among those polled. Excitement for President Obama has dipped as people continue to struggle economically. Efforts to appeal to black voters are gearing up (at this writing there was no section on Romney’s website under the “communities” geared specifically towards black or Hispanic voters).

However, I was struck by Wall’s response concerning the GOP’s elephant in the room — its race-baiting tactics.

It’s often said that blacks, particularly black Christians, are as socially conservative (pro-life, pro traditional marriage) as the Republican platform claims to be.  So why aren’t black voters aligned with Republicans over Democrats? The GOP’s racist bent is what keeps black voters at bay. Wall objected passionately.

“That’s false. I reject that notion,” she said. “… Racism comes in many forms. I think that is a discussion in a broader context that we as a community have to have on an ongoing basis. But to simply blanketly [sic] say that Republicans don’t speak out and are racist, I think that’s patently false. There are racist elements in society everywhere and in every party and in every place.”

TOUGH TASK AHEAD: Tara Wall is charged with shaping the Romney campaign’s communication strategy — including its message to the black community, which is presently showing no love for Mitt.

That last sentence is certainly true. Democrats play race games as well and President Obama has been tepid on addressing racism. However, it’s well documented that much of today’s Republican base is of the Dixiecrat tradition — anti-big government, pro-state’s rights, segregationists. In response to Democrat President Lyndon B. Johnson signing civil rights legislation in the 1960s (Northern moderate Republicans urged him to), Southern conservative democrats began fleeing to the GOP. They were lured by the GOP’s “Southern strategy” during the Goldwater and Nixon years. To compete with Democratic gains, the GOP saw white southerners as fertile ground for new voters. Understanding the buttons to push, they stirred fears of big government and black people to win them over. No deep ideological motive, just money + votes = power.

Blue states turned red. The party of Abraham Lincoln took on the spirit of Andrew Johnson. Blacks fled the GOP. The legacy continues today.

Wall and other black Republicans know this history well. She has been among those critical of the GOP’s alienating minorities, especially in light of America’s “browning” as Hispanic populations grow. She has even produced a documentary about this titled, Souled Out that has apparently been tucked away for the moment.

As an independent who votes his interests, I admire black conservatives who are truly sincere in their beliefs to diversify the GOP. Think about it. If Romney beats Obama, who would be at the table of influence in the West Wing fighting for black issues? We need advocates in both political parties. Besides, there are sellouts on both sides who dine and grow fat as the masses of black people suffer from high unemployment, health disparities, incarceration rates, and wealth gaps.

The gentleman in me held my tongue from lashing out at Wall about the race baiting. I didn’t have to. The following day her boss, during a campaign stump in Michigan where he and his wife, Ann, were born, pulled a line from the Southern strategy playbook. Before an overwhelmingly white audience, Romney quipped: “No one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate; they know that this is the place that we were born and raised.”

It was an obvious wink to the birthers who believe Obama is un-American, unqualified, and should go back to Africa.

Sound familiar?

Yawn.

Neutralizing Racist Emblems

Neutralizing Racist Emblems

Americans need a crash course in how to argue.

Inundated by partisan “screaming head” content daily on cable TV and blogs and social networks, we need a refresher on respecting opposing views for a healthy public discourse.

As a college English professor, I’ve been wondering about this as I witness my freshman composition students struggle to explain opposite viewpoints in essays. But after reading about Byron Thomas, a 19-year-old University of South Carolina freshman, I’m encouraged.

Thomas, who is black, hung a Confederate flag in his dorm room window after researching its meaning. Initially there were no complaints, but then university administrators asked him to take it down for violating the school’s anti-racism code. Thankfully, they came to their senses and reneged, realizing they were violating his right to free speech.

The Confederate or Rebel Flag is what Southern states that seceded from the Union fought and lost under during the Civil War against the North. The war was complex, but hinged and swung on slavery, especially as black men joined the Union army, helping to turn the tide toward victory. For many, the defeated Confederate Flag remains a symbol of racism and white supremacy.

In a video blog post, Thomas explained that he understands this history and respects blacks and whites who have fought and died for justice and equality. He believes the flag was co-opted by racists and chooses to see it as a symbol of states’ rights and smaller federal government. Besides, the near extinction of Indians happened under the American Flag, as well as slavery, sexism, legal segregation and the discrimination and racism that remain today. Thomas’ point is that these are shackles of previous generations and he wants his Millennials to have their turn with the banner for a better future. Move forward by changing what old symbols mean.

Of course, this is not a popular position for an African American to take, no matter how well reasoned. And just a glance at some of the negative comments at the CNN blog post about Thomas’ story reveals the intensity of emotion on this issue.

Even Thomas’ parents have challenged him on the matter, to the point that he said he was reluctant to raise the flag again because of their disappointment. As a parent of college students, I understand their concern. But as a Gen-Xer who believes in pushing boundaries, I’m impressed with this young man.

Can and should we change the meaning of symbols? Of course. It often happens with our language over time as words, which are merely symbols of meaning, evolve. “Bad” changes to “good.” “Cool” changes from a description of temperature to a description of one’s popularity. “Nigger” becomes “Nigga.” (Well, I don’t know about that one).

But the point is if we listen to each other, and take time to understand opposing views, we could become better informed in our convictions or perhaps change for good. We might find that we share more in common than not. Symbols and meanings are social constructs. They exist in the mind. If we truly strive for peace and understanding, even evil symbols, such as Swastikas or “stars and bars,” can weaken to worthlessness, especially among those who never suffered under them. The cross was a symbol of pain and condemnation, but Jesus turned it into one of ultimate sacrifice and redemption, right?

Well, the risk of what Thomas proposes is that we forget why the symbol was changed. “Choosing” to see the Confederate flag as non-racist also plays to the agenda of those who, in the name of “honoring Southern heritage,” would delete slavery and black pain from the Civil War narrative. This would be particularly devastating if embraced by young blacks — the generation for whom slaves prayed to God to grant a better future. It is our responsibility to honor our ancestors by “never forgetting” and by achieving dreams that for them were deferred.

Perhaps the younger generation could weaken the Confederate Flag by commercializing it. They could sport “Confed Gear” like how those “X” hats and shirts promoting Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcom X went out of style when white kids began wearing them, too. I could be wrong, but it seems Thomas is on the right track in understanding free speech and using it for the public good. He told CNN the following:

“I learned that my generation of people are applauding me and telling me they want to see things different now. I’ve gotten so many friend requests on Facebook. They are encouraging me. The generation before has mixed views about it, strong views. The generation before won’t let us think for ourselves. They had their chance to think and run things but we need to have our chance. We will have our turn to step up to the plate and get out of this mess that we’re in.

“I respect where they are coming from. I’m not saying that what happened didn’t happen. We don’t want history to repeat itself, but I see where they are coming from. They endured things I might never endure, but why do I still have to feel grounded, that I have to endure it? They weren’t allowed to go to school with white people but I am. I have never been to a school without white people. Why can’t my generation start making our own history? I respect every black person for the civil rights movement. I just want us to move on from all of the hatred that’s still dividing us today. I’m tired of us still being divided.”

Son, you are persuasive and I’m proud of you for having the guts to make this sound, thoughtful argument.

Your parents raised you well.

Stop Saying ‘Racism’

Honest dialogue about race and racial issues should move the conversation forward and advance its participants further down the road of understanding. Unfortunately, we’ve been doing the opposite. That’s why our columnist is proposing this radical idea: a moratorium on the use of the “R-word.”

I just can’t take it anymore. Something has to stop.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham recently made comments about illegal immigrants having children, calling into question the validity of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Almost immediately, many people called his comments, and the people who support them, racist. (Do I even need to mention this happened on Fox News?)

Technology writer Farhad Manjoo recently posted a thoughtful, broadly generalized analysis of the ways in which many young black people use Twitter. Various bloggers have either called it, or more generally insinuated it to be, racist.

A chorus of African American conservatives gathered at the National Press Club, in the wake of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco and the expulsion of former Tea Party spokesman Mark Williams, largely for the purpose of advancing their belief that liberal race-baiting is just as much, if not more racist than any of the so-called racist elements in the Tea Party.

Rap mogul Diddy was asked in an interview about the rather ostentatious luxury car he had given his teenage son. Diddy was offended. According to Diddy, White luminaries in their respective fields would not be assailed with such trivialities. He said the question was racist.

Dr. Laura Schlessinger apologized for her now-infamous saying “n-word” rant during her radio show in response to an African American caller expressing consternation over racist remarks by her husband’s friends. She was chiding the caller for being hypersensitive, and ended with the following comment:

“If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.”

For many bloggers, pundits, and readers, that quote is all the evidence one needs to convict Dr. Laura of a textbook case of racist behavior.

A Year Without the R-Word

In today’s overly politicized media climate, storms of controversy continually erupt over allegations of racism, polarizing wide swaths of people in the process. It happens with big stories and small stories, with celebrities as well as regular folks. And even in stories that ostensibly seem to have nothing to do with race, it breaks out in comment threads after the fact. Somebody says that something or someone is racist, and people on both sides lose their minds and start jabbering away. The names may change, but the problem persists.

Actually, forgive my typo.

What I meant to say is that people close their minds and start jabbering.

Not that I believe that open-mindedness is the ultimate virtue to strive toward. I subscribe to the maxim of G. K. Chesterton, who once stated that an open mind is like an open mouth; useful only in its capacity to close down on something solid. His point, generally speaking, is that open minds should be constantly searching for truth.

My belief is that substantive dialogue about race and racial issues should, when done honestly and with virtue, move the conversation forward and advance its participants further down the road of understanding.

What I’ve seen too often is the exact opposite. It’s a mindless bludgeoning, day after day, perpetrated by people who wield terms like “racist” as weapons to be used only for discrediting, embarrassing or repudiating their enemies, regardless of how much truth is in the allegation. When this happens, no real dialogue or learning takes place, other than a steely resolve from both sides to dig in a little deeper and get a little nastier next time.

And like I said, I just can’t take it anymore.

Like The Winans once said, it’s time make a change. So I’m gonna summon my inner MJ, and start with the man in the mirror.
I’m gonna take a break from talking about racism.

For one whole year, I will conspicuously avoid using the word “racist” or “racism” in any written form of public discourse, except to finish this article.

Too Many Dropped Calls

This might seem like a really radical idea, but in fact a lot of intelligent black people already do this. Some of us might do it to avoid being labeled as a troublemaker. Some of us might do it because we’re tired of banging our heads against the wall. Some of us might do it because we want to prove that black people can and should talk about more than just “black issues.”

I’m doing it for a simpler reason, though.

The word “racist” is broken.

Words are supposed to represent ideas, and when the use of certain words actually impede the communication of ideas, then those words no longer function like they’re supposed to. When people argue about whether or not such-and-such was racist, there is no agreed-upon standard for what racism is or is not. The arguments just go in circles.

Some people believe that racism is strictly a matter of the heart, like jealousy or avarice. Others look at racism more in terms of structural or institutionalized inequities in society. Some people think it’s both. Some people hear or read the word “racist” and they automatically translate that to mean “not politically correct.” Others do the same and end up with “conservative.”

Is it any wonder, then, why our conversation suffers so badly?

Like a bad cell phone connection, constantly assailing racists and calling out racism leaves us with an illusion of communication. We think we’re getting our point across effectively, unaware that critical feedback is missing. Assumptions and biases block us from making relational progress across the long cultural and ideological divides where progress is needed most. It litters our discourse with misunderstandings that frustrate like so many dropped calls.

And the conversation goes nowhere.

In Other Words

When I was just out of high school, I was in a Christian discipleship program called The Master’s Commission. One of the aims of the program was to create leaders in the faith who could elucidate on matters of import. As such, the leaders at the time issued a challenge to the students, to see how many of them could carry on a conversation without using the words “dude,” “cool,” or “awesome.”

For some of us, this was a minor inconvenience. For others, it was a full-blown crisis of communication.

Some of these students were tempted to view the leaders as archaic fuddy-duddy types who abhorred casual speech, but that was not the case at all. They had no problem with those words in and of themselves. They just wanted to break the students of their habitually poor choice of words. The challenge forced the students to start using unfamiliar words, which occasionally led to some hilariously awkward exchanges.

“Du — I mean, bro, did you watch the game last night?”

“Oh yeah, when Drexler hit that three it was so … um … interesting.”

Many black folks today use the terms “racist” and “racism” with almost that same habitual reflex as my white Gen-Xer friends had with “dude” and “awesome.”

It’s not that we think everything bad or wrong is racist, but we keep it handy for any situation that fits a certain familiar scenario where our brothers and sisters get the shaft. There’s legitimate reason for this habitual usage — namely, centuries’ worth of systemic oppression and disenfranchisement against people who look like us and share our lineage. But over time, as the issues get murkier and problems have more complicated solutions, habitual cries of racism look like emotional shorthand for “something shady that I can’t quite put my finger on.”

Back in the salad days of the Internet, netizens in chat rooms and message boards used to operate on a principle known as Godwin’s Law. It says the longer any particular argument goes on, the more likely it is that someone will make a comparison to Nazi Germany. Thus, whoever reaches that point first has automatically lost the argument by default, since they obviously had nothing else worthwhile to say.

I think we ought to do the same thing with “racist” and “racism.”

Because regardless of how racist someone may actually be, the moment that word enters the discussion, you’ve lost any hope of actual dialogue with anyone who didn’t already agree with you — even if the facts are on your side.

So that’s why I’m taking this pledge. It’s not in spite of the many instances of racism I see, but precisely because of how much there is that doesn’t get talked about in any meaningful way.

No, I don’t believe that choosing not to talk about racism will make it go away. But choosing to talk about it in other terms that aren’t so emotionally charged … that’s a start.

Some may say that by doing this, even temporarily, it lets purveyors of racist acts and ideas off the hook.

I could not disagree more. Choosing to talk about these things without using the terms “racist” and “racism” can shine an even more effective light on the relative merit (or lack thereof) of these particular ideas and actions, without giving their defenders an easy way to blow off the criticism as being too P.C.

So I don’t need to call Sen. Graham a racist to combat his statements. I can simply call them insensitive, politically-calculating, cowardly, mean-spirited, a threat to the fabric of our Constitution, and lacking even a modicum of logic. (Seriously, “drop and leave”? Isn’t the whole point that they want to stay?)

I can say that Farhad Manjoo was pretty clear that not all black folks use Twitter the same way, and that even though the header image was a little silly, I’d proudly rock a baby blue fitted hat with a pound sign on it, stereotype or not. (Assuming it wasn’t a 59Fifty, those joints are expensive.)

I can say that black Tea Party apologists are fighting a lost cause if they can’t recognize rogue elements in their own movement, because everybody else can see them, even if some of them are manufactured by their opponents. Unfortunately, perception is reality.

I can say that Diddy is a rap star who popularized celebrity culture in hip-hop, and that he, of all people, should know better than to clamor for attention and then pout after getting too much. It doesn’t take a family counselor to see that no 16-year-old needs a Maybach Benz.

I can say that Dr. Laura is, like most talk-radio icons, too abrasive and combative to deal with issues like race effectively, which says less about her as a person than it does about the ineffectual nature of talk radio as a forum for serious discussion. I can say that I don’t really believe her apology, because it sounds too much like many other apologies we’ve heard after these types of racial incidents. And despite her rude and boorish response to her listener’s question, I can say that she has a point about the whole HBO-and-black-comics thing.

That’s what it’s like to talk about racial incidents without using those words. And that wasn’t so hard, was it?

That’s why I’m willing to give it a try.

Now who’s with me?

If you plan to join Jelani in refraining from use of the “R-word,” drop us a comment below and share your reasons. Even if you don’t plan to abandon the word, we’d still like to hear from you.

Who Gets to Say It?

The Dr. Laura Schlessinger N-word flap once again highlights the Black community’s uneasy relationship with a depised word, and the double standard many Whites believe we promote.

Then the king commanded his palace master Ashpenaz to bring some of the Israelites of the royal family and of the nobility, young men without physical defect and handsome, versed in every branch of wisdom, endowed with knowledge and insight, and competent to serve in the king’s palace; they were to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans … Among them were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, from the tribe of Judah. The palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego (Daniel 1:3-4, 6-7, NRSV).

My secondary school teaching experience was brief but enlightening. I first entered the classroom as a fifth-grade teacher in 1999. As a wide-eyed and eager teacher in a Southern California public school system, my life was filled with new experiences and a roomful of not-so-eager-to-learn students.

My days were full and eventful. I can remember one particular event on the school playground where my class was playing. Two young fifth-grade girls that were in my class ran up to me; they were visibly distraught and somewhat undone (both were African American). Trailing behind them was a young Armenian boy, also in my class. He appeared agitated, nervous, and somewhat defensive.

The girls told me that the Armenian boy said the N-word on the playground. The young man chimed in and said he was merely rapping the same song the young ladies were rapping — the latest hip-hop cut no doubt — and repeating the same words they said. One of the girls then said, “You’re not Black, so you don’t have a right to say that word.”

I was taken aback. This was 11 years ago. The N- word is now even more widely promoted in the public space in many rap songs and entertainment circles. Thrown out predominantly by some African American rappers and comedians, this term (epithet to many) has become public domain; however, does this give everyone the right to spew it out freely — essentially naming all of us like in the Daniel passage above?

Over the past several centuries, Black folks in America have been named and renamed — boy, colored, Negro, Afro American, Black, etc … The naming of self, as opposed to being named, has been and continues to be a sensitive issue. What one feels comfortable with being called depends on personal preference or perhaps it is informed by a generational context — would the 18th-century enslaved Africans in America refer to themselves as African American or, rather, African, Ghanaian, or Ashanti? What did Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah prefer to be called?

The recent spate of public racial insensitivity has seemingly reached an all-time high. Not to be compared with the horrors of the American slave period or the legalized racial segregation of the18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, in a postmodern 21st century climate, racial sensitivity is becoming virtually extinct. Although thought to be somewhat curbed in light of America’s first African American president, prevalent attitudes suggests otherwise.

Discussion on race and racial insensitivity resurfaced once again a couple weeks ago on the Dr. Laura Schlessinger radio show. Schlessinger explicitly uttered the N-word 11 times when an upset African American female phoned in to ask advice concerning racially insensitive remarks made by her White husband’s family and friends. Schlessinger dismissively told the woman that she was being hypersensitive and that “when Black people say [the N-word], it’s affectionate.” Schlessinger told her caller that Black guys, like comedians on HBO, use the term all the time when referring to themselves. After an awkward exchange that found Schlessinger continually cutting off the caller, Schlessinger hung up!

The good Doc went on to say that if you’re too hypersensitive, and don’t have a sense of humor, then you should not marry outside your race. Dr. Laura seemed to suggest that she, too, should not be too hypersensitive when being racially demeaned as a Jewish woman — well we know where this argument ends!

Despite Schlessinger’s apology the next day, it became clear that her bizarre comments were the result of a deep-seated resentment that probably stemmed from the growing national backlash against what many White Americans perceive as a double standard when it comes to race — i.e., “If Black people can say it, why can’t we?”

This same backlash could be detected in the infamous meltdown of comedian Michael Richards (formerly of Seinfield), who referred to hecklers in his audience as “n—–s,” or in the callous banter of shock jock Don Imus when he referred to the sistas on the Rutgers women’s basketball team as “nappy headed hoes.” Where and how did these public figures get the idea that they could name us?

The unfortunate fact about this deplorable language is that much of its use is due to a cavalier and self-deprecating attitude among a minority of vocal and visible folks within the African American community. Some don’t think the N-word is negative until it is turned on them by someone who isn’t Black. The term is publicly used and promoted by rappers, opportunistic professors who peddle popular commentary disguised as scholarship, and a wide array of youth and self-adulating persons. These are the people who ensure that racial resentment and division will continue to fester. Most significantly, these persons attempt to re-name us all similar to the example seen in the Old Testament narrative of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Dr. Laura Schelessinger photo by Phil Konstantin from Wikipedia.