The black voters of Memphis reject Jew-baiting, race-baiting, and gay-baiting

A Jewish Congressman clobbers a black challenger (running on “he’s not one of us”) in a majority-black district.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, from his new platform at the Atlantic, reports that the VRWC was confident that Nikki Tinker’s race-baiting and/or Jew-baiting (along with a dash of gay-baiting and a tablespoon of school prayer) would win her votes in a majority-black Congressional District in Memphis represented by a first-term Congressman named Cohen. The Fox News types were pre-emptively trumpeting the notion that black voters as a class are intensely racist and anti-Semitic and that Tinker was going to win.

That Tinker might win wasn’t obviously a loony thing to think; she had gotten close to Cohen two years ago, so she wasn’t a complete joke candidate, and she had backing from EMILY’s List (hastily retracted at the end) and at least two members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

However, in reality Cohen wiped up the floor with Tinker, 79-19. That means she got clobbered even among black voters, and drew fewer votes this year than she had two years ago in a much bigger field. If that’s not a solid rejection of racial and religious bigotry, I don’t know what it is.

There’s no way to measure how much of the credit goes to Barack Obama, who denounced the disgusting ad Tinker ran in the last few days, how much to Cohen, how much to Tinker’s basic creepiness (in real life she’s a union-busting lawyer for an airline) and how much to the decency and good sense of black Memphians, but none of the others could have mattered at all without the last.

Here’s a little thought experiment. Move the race to a 95% white (Christian) suburb. Paint Tinker white, running against a Jew who voted against school prayer and for including gays in hate-crimes protection. Don’t you think the white Tinker in a white district could have scored more than 19% of the vote?

Of course there’s black racism around. (Coates points out that the CBC has some racist tendencies, and displayed them by rejecting Cohen as a member. That’s disappointing but, as Coates says, not surprising, if you remember that black people are human beings.) But the attempt of the VRWC to project bigotry on to black America just took a huge hit, or would have if the wingnuts cared about real phenomena as opposed to their fantasies.

I recall some right-wing bloggers demanding that Obama intervene in this campaign several months ago, though I can’t find those posts. If anyone sees any right-wing mention of the fact that Obama did intervene, and that his intervention was either successful or unnecessary or both, I’d love to hear about it.

Life Imitates Art Department: David Alan Grier and JC Watts

I got a great birthday present last Friday, when I read Comedy Central’s announcement that David Alan Grier will host a new show entitled “Chocolate News,” a sort of Black newsmagazine version of The Daily Show. This could be hilarious.

But would Grier have a consistent source of material to satire, I wondered.

Well, today, former right-wing Republican Congressman JC Watts has announced that he is launching an African-American news channel. But don’t worry: he promises us that it will be fair and balanced.

One wonders whether the folks at The Onion think that everyone is stealing their material.

Iran, bogeyman II

Iran should be required to denounce Holocaust denialism.

Hear, hear to Quincy and Harold.

An additional issue in diplomacy with Iran should be Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denialism. It’s true that he has limited authority and has only been speaking for himself. But Jews in and out of Israel are right to feel strongly about this idiocy. Some Holocaust denialists (Faurisson, Irving) are basically overgrown adolescent provocateurs: you see the type as trolls in many blogs. Others, like Jean-Marie Le Pen, are hardcore antisemites, signaling to their cronies their vile glee that the Holocaust did happen. It is entirely reasonable therefore to fear that a powerful politician hostile to Israel who spouts Holocaust denialism is threatening not only destruction of the Israeli state but genocide of the Jews. This inference will enter, with nonzero weight, into the thinking of the Israeli government, which controls a nuclear arsenal. Ahmadinejad’s denialism is not only repugnant, it is a threat to peace.

It’s hard to see any advantage to Iran in its President’s posturing.

Continue reading “Iran, bogeyman II”

Punk Baracker

Is Barack Obama a closet Bad Brains fan?

Thomas Sowell and punk rock—not the most obvious fit. The missing link is Barack Obama. Sowell writes:

Barack Obama’s own account of his life shows that he consciously sought out people on the far left fringe. In college, “I chose my friends carefully,” he said in his first book, “Dreams From My Father.”

These friends included “Marxist professors and structural feminists and punk rock performance poets”…

Tim Cavanaugh is having none of it:

I have no beef with Sowell’s judgment on Obama’s fondness for “members of the left, anti-American counter-culture.” But his citation here indicates a misunderstanding of popular culture that is glaring even for a 78-year-old economist.

To wit: If you were looking to find your own blackness, in Obama’s day or (to a slightly lesser extent) now, you might possibly cozy up to Marxist professors. There’s a very outside chance you might associate with structural feminists. But you would not go anywhere near punk rock performance poets.

Punk was many things, but it was first and foremost white-kid music. I neither praise nor condemn punk for that. It just is—or was: These days, we have Afro-Punk, and we have black punkers willing to speak about the genre’s racial divides. But back then, it was vanishingly rare to find any color but untanned-pale in punk rock. Indeed, the hints of white supremacy that always circled around Siouxsie and the Banshees and New Order should be the tipoff. When Obama claims alliances with punkers, he is doing the exact opposite of what Sowell accuses him of: He’s indicating his willingness to make friends across racial and cultural lines.

(Thomas Sowell should know that Siouxsie Sioux used to wear a swastika?) I don’t know who Obama’s friends were in college (at Occidental and Columbia), but there were plenty of black punks in both towns. Including LA’s polymathic Vaginal Davis and DC émigrés Bad Brains in NYC. Black Punk Time has loads of others—and it’s less contrived than those Great Jewish Sports Heroes books I had as a kid. (Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg,…um,…Rod Carew?)

More to the point, I’d venture that Obama was trying to demonstrate neither his black-power bona fides nor his fondness for “Ebony and Ivory.” “Punk rock performance poet” is code for Patti Smith.

Politics and Art: Feminism and some humble pie

The Brooklyn Museum hit the headlines several years ago playing its role in the wonderful piece of political theater set in motion when it exhibited Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary . Growing up as a provincial Manhattanite of the classic sort, I had never made it to the BM until this weekend, when we were visiting friends who live across the street. This ignorance was a mistake, as it’s a very nice museum, manageable in size, with a tradition of doing yeasty, edgy stuff that keeps it salient in the very competitive New York art world. And Brooklyn is certainly a happening place.

In this line, it is the home of The Dinner Party, around which it has established several galleries of a Center for Feminist Art . Currently showing: a large survey of Ghada Amer (sexy, feminist, inventive stuff with Islamic roots and a thoughtful political tilt); I love wandering into a museum and finding something I wouldn’t know to look for, and have to mull over because I don’t have a quick take on it.

This was the first time my wife or I had seen The Dinner Party and it was quite affecting. The piece includes a wall with a little information about each of the 999 historical women who didn’t make it to the table but are remembered on the tile floor under it. I don’t have any new artistic insight about this well-known and amply documented project, but on the way out I was struck by something I’m sure I would never have noticed before I moved to California: except for the goddess Kali, there’s not a single woman at the table from Asia east of the Levant, and while I may have missed someone, not among the 999 either! Some of us are more enlightened than others, or more enlightened than we used to be, but this is a good reminder that enlightenment and sophistication are processes without end, not states one can attain.

There’s also an exhibit about the women’s suffrage movement that fits nicely with the national back-and-forth about race and sex stirred up by the Democratic primary campaign. I was surprised to realize how little any of my education had attended to that history (and women’s rights more generally), compared to how much time we spent on racial equality and discrimination, and how little I know about it. I have a better idea why the prospect that the first black president will be elected at the expense of the first woman president is such a poignant prospect for some of my feminist blogger colleagues (and others I haven’t heard from). I also have a better idea why it’s so infuriating (because it should be!) that such a large percentage of feminists are women, who are actually no more likely to have daughters, nieces, aunts, sisters, and mothers, and much less likely to be married to women, than anyone else.

Is Barack Obama black?

Obama is not an African-American, but an African American: what this means.

Would Barack Obama be the first black American president? Yes and no. He is not an African-American, but an African American.

It is a painful curiosity that racial stereotyping is always dominated by the non-Caucasian parentage, so Obama is identified racially by his dark skin. Where does this come from? His mother, Ann Dunham, was a white mid-westerner. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was a Luo from Kenya.

The Kenyan Luo are a Nilotic people who migrated southwards from southern Sudan, 2000 miles from the Atlantic. No paternal ancestor of Obama’s (and probably no maternal one either) grew yams in a forest clearing in West Africa, spoke a Niger-Congo language, was enslaved, shipped in chains across the Middle Passage, sold on a block in Savannah or New Orleans, tended cotton, sugar or tobacco under an overseer’s whip, sharecropped in poverty after Emancipation, faced the brutality of the Jim Crow South, rode the tracks north to the ghettoes of northern cities like Chicago, and finally achieved real freedom through the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King. The epic story of African-Americans is not his by birth.

Continue reading “Is Barack Obama black?”

Perversity Training

Mandatory diversity training can feel pointless, but does it actually reduce workplace diversity?

In my experience, which I’ve been perfectly willing to generalize, mandatory workplace sensitivity training is a scam and a waste of time. The people who don’t need it are checking their watches, the people who do need it are fuming and not listening, and the trainers are speaking to the employees as if they were dull-witted third graders. It hadn’t occurred to me, however, that it would have perverse unintended consequences.

Shankar Vedantam writes (in his typically informative column on social- and behavioral-science research findings) that

A comprehensive review of 31 years of data from 830 mid-size to large U.S. workplaces found that the kind of diversity training exercises offered at most firms were followed by a 7.5 percent drop in the number of women in management. The number of black, female managers fell by 10 percent, and the number of black men in top positions fell by 12 percent. Similar effects were seen for Latinos and Asians.

The analysis did not find that all diversity training is useless. Rather, it showed that mandatory programs — often undertaken mainly with an eye to avoiding liability in discrimination lawsuits — were the problem. When diversity training is voluntary and undertaken to advance a company’s business goals, it was associated with increased diversity in management.

I’ve felt the same way about mandatory sexual-harassment training, but I don’t find any studies on whether it’s followed by increased sexual harassment.

Does Obama identify with the poor?

Yes and no.

A progressive colleague writes:

Based on Obama’s speeches, I don’t get a strong feeling that he identifies with the poor.

Based on “reading” The Audacity of Hope as an audiobook, I think that’s true, but it only expresses half of the truth of the matter.

Obama doesn’t identify with the poor in the sense that he doesn’t think of himself as poor, or formerly poor, or having poor relatives. He grew up without much money, but in cultural terms his upbringing was solidly middle-class. (Maybe he has poor in-laws.) So when he thinks about the poor, he’s thinking about other people: he thinks and speaks like, and as, a liberal, rather than a poor person.

But he isn’t, and doesn’t claim to be, so “post-racial” as to have forgotten that he’s black. And he’s explicit in saying that, as a black man, his attitude about poor people can’t be the same as the attitudes of middle-class whites. Lots of black people are poor, and lots of poor people are black. Non-poor blacks know perfectly well that the way the wider society views them is strongly influenced by the condition and behavior of the group that (according to Obama) whites, but not blacks, call “the underclass.” (The technical term, which Obama doesn’t use, is “reputational externality.”)

Moreover, middle-class blacks (says Obama) aren’t likely to forget the history of racism, and therefore &#8212 even when blaming the poverty of the poorest blacks partly on their own behavior &#8212 aren’t likely to forget that circumstances shape culture, or to blame the poverty of the very poor on innate and unalterable characteristics. To that extent, they (and he) do “identify” with the blackness of the black poor, though not with their poverty or some of their behavior patterns.

The African-American church has traditionally been a center, not just of religiosity and community activism, but of respectability. And Obama clearly identifies strongly with that part of the tradition. As he says, when middle-class black folks discuss the behavior of those still trapped in poverty, some of the language they use is very like that of the Heritage Foundation.

(The key word, which Obama doesn’t use but which, e.g., Bill Cosby does, is “ignorant,” which has a much stronger sense in Black English than it does in white English; it connotes not merely lack of learning, but intellectual and moral sloth, like the Russian nekulturny, with the dual meanings of “ignorant” and “rude.”)

But listening to Obama read his book, it’s impossible to imagine that he might decide to let poverty take a back seat to other issues. As the Republicans will (if he’s the nominee) no doubt remind us from here to November, he’s pretty much a hard-core liberal.

Footnote All of this makes me think of the way middle-class German Jews regarded my Jewish ancestors from Russia and Eastern Europe. They took seriously their obligations to help the Russian, Polish, Baltic, and Galician Jews, but they never lost sight of the distinction.

Second footnote I’ve always thought the following story, which I heard from my father, a very perceptive one:

The Lone Ranger, with his faithful Indian companion Tonto, is fleeing from a band of Comanches intent on taking his scalp. As they ride furiously over a pass, they confront another band of Apaches, evidently with the same intent. They are hopelessly trapped.

The Lone Ranger turns to Tonto and says, “Well, old friend, looks as if we’ve about had it.”

Tonto replies, “What you mean ‘we,’ paleface?”

Like Tonto in the story, a middle-class white liberal always has the option of deciding to worry about something other than the “underclass” problem. A middle-class black, not so much.

Class acts (or maybe not)

Joba Chamberlain, the Yankee whose fastball actually gets frayed stitching from air friction, and Jacoby Ellsbury, one of Boston’s stellar rookies, are Native Americans. I’m quite curious to know how they take having the Indians’ repulsive little logo put in their face in the playoffs. Come to think of it, aren’t a lot of the Latino players throughout the majors probably descended from Indians, given their home countries’ history? Cryptomundo noticed this a week ago, and Thursday Vernon Bellecourt died, reminding me of the dispute over team names and mascots.

Do Chamberlain and Ellsbury have some duty to speak up (either way, of course) in this situation? Or a duty, if offended, to bite their tongues and show they’re bigger than casual racism? Jackie Robinson was much lauded in his early career for a refusal to answer hate with manifest offense, behavior that could be criticized as doormattery or praised as dignity. Probably not a duty either way (I’m not at all sure about this) but I would admire them if they spoke out.

In the Indians’ case, is their problem the name or just art criticism? If calling the Notre Dame team the “Fighting Irish” is OK, not to mention Celtics and Yankees, Indians must be OK, too, right? “Altoona Jews” is too weird to contemplate (why?), but I guess not objectionable where Yids or Kikes would be. Similarly for a Cleveland Squaws field hockey team, and Notre Dame is not about to go forth as the Micks. (It ought to count for a lot if a fair number of Native Americans really dislike calling teams Indians and Seminoles and Illini and such, but I don’t think well-intentioned discourse is subject to a veto by anyone who claims offense. Also I note that the ND teams actually were heavily Irish-American when the name was given; a self-descriptive team name is quite different from one that points at a group who has nothing to do with you.)

The problem with the Indians, I think, is the logo (in effect, a pejorative non-verbal name), not the name; it’s the same thing that sank Little Black Sambo and as offensive as Injun or Redskin (nb, DC fans). Sambo was actually the hero of his story who outwitted a tiger, but the illustrations of the book were a Golliwog stereotype whose historic association with the vilest racism made the whole work an anathema. The Indians’ logo is in the same cartoon tradition; it could just as well be a feather, an arrowhead, or a canoe for team identification purposes, and the persistence of the team management in putting this reminder of historic bad behavior all over their uniforms and publicity is just public rudeness.

Actually, I think Chamberlain and Ellsbury’s whole teams should have been in the commissioner’s office in the early spring (better late than never), warning that they would not take the field against Cleveland until this revolting behavior was cleaned up, with duct tape if necessary pending new uniform acquisition. It’s not in the canon of sport that you have to be insulted to your face to play baseball.

Now, is the Seahawks’ adoption of the graphic language of the Northwest tribes in their neighborhood a compliment, or a ripoff, or disrespect? In general I favor artistic cultural exchange and borrowing (without it I wouldn’t have any of my favorite music) but I may be missing something here.

Afterthought: OK, being insulted to your face is part of the deal in sports, at least in sports among males. But the rules for this kind of insult/trash-talking are quite elaborate and subtle. You can tease almost any batter with yells of “no hitter, easy out”, but not one of the two legitimately worst batters in the club. Indeed, without this culture of carefully blunted insult, male society would probably grind to a halt because it is the discourse of affection. You do have to be generally tolerant of things blurted out carelessly. However, you don’t have to stand still for insults based on your ethnic or racial identity, or sexual identification, except when offered from a member of the same group, when they automatically take on a flavor of affection and bonding.

The foregoing are exceptions that prove, if not a rule, certainly the unacceptability of those caps. Nobody blurts out something in thousands of copies printed over years on programs and uniforms; it’s absolutely fair game for the politically correct police and sincere offense-takers.

A reader has found an Indiana bill passed unanimously by its house but sunk in the senate in 1897 wherein pi is 3.2

and a bunch of other awkward ratios are similarly tidied up.