Obama’s Speech, Stop & Frisk, and the Ideology of Color-Blindness

22 07 2013

Excellent piece on Obama’s surprise speech on the Zimmerman acquittal by Aura Bogado at Colorlines today:

The short speech stands out as one of the few times that the president has talked explicitly about race and the problem of racism. But Obama’s remarks are also notable for what he did not address, and what so rarely gets addressed when we discuss racism today: white America’s responsibility for it.

How can we expect to make progress around structural racism without talking about what structures it?  In her introduction to White Privilege, Paula Rothenberg writes:

White privilege is the other side of racism.  Unless we name it, we are in danger of wallowing in guilt or moral outrage with no idea how to move beyond them.  It is often easier to deplore racism and its effects than to take responsibility for the privileges some of us receive as a result of it.  By choosing to look at white privilege, we gain an understanding of who benefits from racism and how they do so.  Once we understand how white privilege operates, we can begin to take steps to dismantle it on both a personal and institutional level.

obamakellyBogado points out the contradiction between Obama’s earnest words on race and his endorsement of NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” commissioner Ray Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security.  As Colorlines covered last week:

But Obama told Univision on Wednesday that “Kelly has obviously done an extraordinary job in New York,” and that the police commissioner is “one of the best there is” — an “outstanding leader in New York.”

Here’s what some of that “extraordinary job” looks like, based on data from the ACLU.  Is this how “we bolster and reinforce our African American boys,” to quote our President?

Stop-Frisk

[Links to more on Stop-and-Frisk:  NYCLU, HuffPost, Racism Still Exists]

Presidential Color-Blindness?

Sadly, when President Obama speaks to the importance of individual soul searching, he invokes the ideology of color-blindness, both when he advocates not having a national conversation on race (“I haven’t seen that be particularly productive when politicians try to organize conversations,”) and even more so when he references MLK on “judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character.”

That same King quote was invoked by a caller when Makani Themba was a guest on KPFA’s Flashpoints last week, and we really liked how she responded, making important distinctions not only between color-blindness and privilege-blindness, but also race and racism, and most importantly about racism as a structural and not just individual problem.

“I think that’s an interesting point.  I think one of the things people do is confuse color-blindness with privilege blindness.  And I think that it’s important to treat people based on their humanity.  But basically we have a system where people are calling it color blind when it’s really blind to privilege.  It’s blind to bias, it’s blind to racism.

“And there’s a difference between race and racism.  I love being a black woman.  I think it’s a cool thing, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  And I think there’s a difference:  I want people to see me, because I’m actually pretty fly. Y’know, I have no problem with that.  I want them to see my skin.  I want them to know who I am.  I want them to know about my culture.  Let’s not confuse race and racism. […]

“I think it’s important that we recognize that racism is a system.  It doesn’t matter the color of the person who perpetrates it.  You can be in the system perpetrating it.  In fact, almost all of us perpetrate it just a little bit unless we’re pretty incredible people.  There’s some piece of the system that we’re holding up, and we have to work really hard to step out of it.

“So when you have a structural analysis, and that’s what I think of when I think of going deep, then you understand that even that sister in the welfare office can be engaged in internalized racism, and it’s not the same as what Obama does when he’s dropping bombs on brown people across the waters that we’re not supposed to care (about).  But all of it is connected, so hopefully we can see those connections.”— Makani Themba, The Praxis Project, interview July 15 on KPFA’s Flashpoints, (31:04-33:00)

Listen to the entire Makani Themba interview archived at KPFA for one more week.

As for the continued silence around whiteness and the role it plays in maintaining systemic inequality, here’s Paula Rothenberg once more:

But rather than providing reasons to avoid talking about whiteness and white privilege, these concerns actually underscore our need to do so.  Discomfort of this kind is a sure sign that we need to continue the conversation.  If education is about learning to see the world in new ways, it is bound, at times, to leave us feeling confused or angry or challenged.  And this is a good thing.  Instead of seeking to avoid such feelings, we should probably welcome a degree of discomfort in our lives and feel short-changed if it is not present.

All of which speaks to the powerful role conscious artists are poised to play in shifting the narrative around racial inequality.  To paraphrase Mark Brest van Kampen at “The Artist in Public Life” symposium at SF Art Institute a couple weeks ago:  Art stops normal life, and in that moment is possibility for people to see things in new ways.  It makes tangible something that people are not normally aware of.  In that moment is the possibility for growth, change, and mutation.  Calling all mutants!

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