Saturday, February 9, 2008

Obama and Race

Christopher Hitchens writes:

People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with. One does not banish this specter by invoking it. If I would not vote against someone on the grounds of "race" or "gender" alone, then by the exact same token I would not cast a vote in his or her favor for the identical reason.


Far from taking us forward, this sort of discussion actually keeps us anchored in the past. The enormous advances in genome studies have effectively discredited the whole idea of "race" as a means of categorizing humans. And however ethnicity may be defined or subdivided, it is utterly unscientific and retrograde to confuse it with color. The number of subjective definitions of "racist" is almost infinite but the only objective definition of the word is "one who believes that there are human races."

I think this trends too far toward a tone-deaf inappreciation of the meaning of race in American politics. You can't just shroud its significance with a pedantic deconstruction of the word "race". My friend's sister is a teacher in the NYC public school system. She says she marveled recently that a gifted black student of hers who lives 25 blocks from Columbia University literally had no idea that school existed and that he had a good shot of getting in. An Obama presidency would have a galvanizing effect on those blacks today who are without real ambition.

But you can acknowledge the significance of race without promoting political pathology. Hitchens has a point when he writes, "People who think with their epidermis or their genitalia or their clan are the problem to begin with." Another friend of mine has been a high school teacher in NYC for some years, and he dismayed me by approving something one of his Education professors said: "It doesn't matter where you came from or what your self perception is, when you get off that boat you're either black or white."* This is soft-Marxist pablum oviposited in liberals' heads by New Left hecklers of the civil rights movement.** It's refried historical determinism with class superseded by race.

One of the reasons I would vote for Obama is because he would propel us into a kind of "postmodern" phase of our history with regard to race. There is no question inequalities persist in America, but nothing I observe demonstrates that more than a handful of extreme examples -- literally, the few people each year who are murdered in hate crimes -- are caged by race, ethnicity or anything. This endless and needless detour from the mountain top would cease to make sense, both to the quiet racists and the members of the NPR class who piously accept its inevitability. An Obama presidency will banish determinist cant about race to the academic realm, where it will maunder like an underworld ghost with the rest of the Marxian geegaws. This sure as hell ain't the only reason to vote for Obama, but it's a good one.

* What boat is he talking about? The Mayflower? The Stugots?

** Here I'm borrowing from Stanley Crouch, who often aptly refers to Malcolm X as a "heckler" of the non-violent and civil rights movements.

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