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April 16, 2005

Dancing on the Third Rail: Part Three

You can sing the words to 'Amazing Grace' to the tune of 'Gilligans Island'. Try it. It works perfectly, and it kind of destroys the purity of both songs. It's completely unexpected and it stays in your head. I think that's what a black Republican is. The first time you see it, you don't believe it, because it seems wrong, and whenever you think about it, it makes you angry because it disrespects tradition. And as long as you've learned it the way you've learned it, it will seem that way.

I believe the future of this country is like that, with regard to race. We are going to have to expect the possibility that all of the different colored square pegs belong in the square hole. We have to stop mistaking color for shape. It requires an honesty that seems wrong and disrespects tradition. It requires an honesty about color and an honesty about shape. But there's still a lot of mending to do because we've all been getting bent out of shape over color.

The Existential Shape of Politics
I've talked about the mending in terms of healing and curing. Since I'm a conservative, I think that the primary burden of healing and curing lies with the self. I have come not to expect a fair society, I've always said that you cannot wish for a better public. As my new pals in the Mother Company salesforce say, 'It is what it is.' I prefer the Run DMC version myself, but the point is exactly the same. We live near the end of an awful history that has taught valuable lessons. That's good and bad. The bad speaks for itself, but the good is found in those lessons - after all, somebody succeeded. But since I believe what I do when it comes to race it puts me in a peculiar if not precarious position, with regard to whom I feel my responsibility lies. I say this understanding that it's a fair guess that most of my readers might consider themselves to be whitefolks. I'm shouting out to the public. The bottom line is that I'm trying to direct black politics into a direction that speaks honestly to self-representation that allows the truth about blacks to be said, and I'm trying to influence white politics into a direction that works in honest coalition with black interests as expressed through those black politics. We've had a liberal white coalition with left blacks and that produced the mandate for Civil Rights. Now that Civil Rights is baked that coalition is in shambles and everybody is wondering where to go next. So far they're regressing. That's why I think the progessive side of the Old School is in a unique leadership position now that Republicans control American politics, but that connection has to be done right.

You see, I am a nationalist and a globalist. I believe that I am a citizen of my nation and I inhereit its traditions and laws. I have a duty as an African American to reconcile myself to the history of my country. I make sense of it and I locate myself within a thread of its development. I am an African American raised as a black nationalist in Southern California during the 70s. When I was driving Lee around and showing her my Los Angeles, she found it remarkable that I knew so many black Catholics & Episcopalians. I really never thought much about that fact in isolation, but it's a very real part of my association with the folks in The Dons. Many attended mass at Holy Name, or Advent or with Reverend Stallings. That's part of it as well. And I also look very closely at my family. I am part of them and I am responsible to them, not just the nuclear family but my entire extended family. That's hard. My family tree is deep and wide. There's a lot to say here but the point is that there are significant contexts within which my identity is subsumed and these are the contexts I expect others to represent as we all work as citizens in the public sphere. When we talk about simple matters like Affirmative Action, I don't want to hear just 'white' or 'asian', I want to hear second-generation vietnamese whose family ran a restaurant.. and that whole nine yards.

So when we talk as Americans about race, a lot of it comes back to the personal, and I know sometimes I get upset when people say ('oh by the way I'm white') and just leave it at that. I say that's hiding. If that's all you say, that's all you can be. But I'm trying very hard to get the energy of black nationalists who led back in the 60s & 70s to work on this new politics of the 21c. I can't do that if whitefolks are just going to be 'white', because that's problematic with regard to multicultural ethics and anti-racist principles that are non-starters in the coalition of color.

There are a couple of huge conspiracy theories in operation today with regard to American politics, and one of them is that all Republicans and folks on the right are like 'Goldwater' and that Goldwater was opposed to Civil Rights for racist reasons. So while a significant number of Old School blacks have basically opted out of mainstream politics for this reason, the Republican agenda has a big gaping default. And from my perspective, all the Pat Robertsons in the world do not add up to one TD Jakes - the conservatives of color, not just blackfolks, but conservative immigrants in generation one and two are a huge flavorful coalition that ought to be the more proper multicultural coalition on the right. But you have to play whack-a-mole on a lot of knuckleheads like Phil Gramm & Tom DeLay before that message get through their thick skulls. They think we're going to assimilate and they're dead wrong. We don't have the ethics problem. They think we're going to get stronger by beating up on homos. Wrong again. They think we're going to sell out to high stakes influence politics. Nope. They just don't have their marketing right, although Christie Whitman does. I think GW Bush started off on the right track with regard to 'compassionate conservatism' but global events took over his domestic agenda, and really this Republican congress defaulted big time. I think history will show that the focus on terrorism and the war allowed a high quotient of mediocrity to set the domestic legislative agenda...

But I digress.

The American mainstream is wide open and accomodating to ethnic flavor, but the issue of race is more than just flavor. That's not anybody's choice - but it is deeply embedded in the way we talk about social justice. It's an important shape, and we shouldn't let color distract us from the content of that discussion. There will always be people who have grown up singing Amazing Grace to the tune of Gilligan's Island for whom there is no resonance of the way things were. That's not what we want. We want people who understand the effort with which things were changed who are comfortably fluent enough to put the same words into the tune of 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. So this is not about colorblindness, it's about color competency and cross-cultural fluency. It's about understanding both history and possibility. It's about knowing enough about why people made political coalitions in the past and how they view their progress from there in order to make new ones in the future. It's about living with the public we have and incorporating their aspirations into the society they would have for their children. It's all going to come together and come apart again. That's why integrity is key.

I have thrown in some Cobbian politics above, and I am negotiating some complex dynamics. I am convinced that the leadership of black political coalitions will be of a certain type of elite. You cannot dredge up the 'legacy of slavery' without the understanding that through it all, the African family persists. And you cannot talk about oppression in the world without recognizing the possibilities of Africans on the world stage. So in solving problems for a particular class of African Americans, black political leaders are going to be thrust quickly onto that world stage. The Congressional Black Coalition appears to me to not be forward thinking in that regard; they're thinking small and as such are going to be marginalized. The context of race is political and the political power one can obtain by wrangling that context well is outsized, but the end goal has little to do with race, and it is a mistake to think otherwise. So how we spend the political capital of making the ethnic vote produce is of critical import. I worry that those who believe the 'Goldwater Theory' are all too ready to pay it all back, that is a strategy which will devolve into an Israeli-Palestinian situation.

Failure is Not An Option
An enemy is somebody who doesn't mind if you fail. And since white identity and all American identity depends very highly on how well our ethnic politics go, everyone has a stake is making this work. Nobody wants to go back to the repression of the 50s, well nobody sane anyway. Neither do we want to go back to the chaos of the 60s nor the sappy accomodation of the crossover 70s. And while I don't wish to overstate the import of how black politics gets its act together in the context of the American economy and geopolitical destiny, it is at the very core of the world's experiment with democracy. We are the leading example of how democracy can empower. If it weren't for what happened to Emmitt Till and how we worked America because of it, the Minutemen at the Mexican border would be shooting first. If African Americans had failed in their demand for universal public accomodations, this society would be a great deal more closed and this nation would be unable to lead the world in any way whatsoever. Just count the American cities that burned in 1968 and imagine where we would be if it got worse instead of better.

It took 26 years to free Geronimo Pratt. Certain key things simply must happen in order to sustain our faith in law and order. One of those things is that we must be free to stake our claim in this land. We must be able to sustain our families as we believe they should be in a place we call our homeland. We cannot sacrifice ourselves into la vida sin corazon. Rather we must draw strength from a society that grows respect of its people. When it comes to American identity, that means respecting the aspirations of freedom and accomplishment for which our emergent populations struggle. It means not only, in the way Malcolm described, are we diners at the American table, but our recipies are on the menu. In that and only that way do we secure the blessings of liberty.

"Humankind still lives in prehistory everywhere, indeed everything awaits the creation of the world as a genuine one... if human beings have grasped themselves, and what is theirs, without depersonalization and alienation, founded in real democracy, then something comes into being in the world that shines into everyone's childhood and where no one has yet been -- home."
--Ernest Bloch

Posted by mbowen at April 16, 2005 08:41 AM

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