Posts Tagged ‘race’

For the National Republican Congressional Committee, Anh “Joseph” Cao was a diamond in a shitpile.  The 41-year old Vietnamese lawyer, (pronounced “Gow”), knocked off scandal-plagued Democratic incumbent William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson in a bright blue, majority black district.  Cao’s three point victory made him the first Vietnamese-American in Congress, and the NRCC immediately trumpeted his success as a harbinger of better days.

So who is he?  Cao was born in Saigon, son of an ARVN officer.  His father was captured by the Communists, and spent seven years in prison as his mother fled with her children to the United States.  After being released, his father rejoined the family in America.  Joseph moved to Louisiana in 1997 for law school, and lives there with his wife and two daughters.  Thus, your template:  A refugee from a Communist country, member of a politically conservative ethnic group, also happens to be a convert to Catholicism.  On the surface, Cao has all the trappings of a far-right Republican.

Thing is, he’s not.  Cao has a fascinating background.  Following his Jesuit training and MA in Philosophy at Fordham (Go Rams!), Cao moved to Virginia where he worked with Boat People S.O.S. (BPSOS).  BPSOS is a community-based organization dedicated to helping Vietnamese refugees in America.  After earning his J.D., Cao took a position as BPSOS’ in-house counsel.  After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his home and office, Cao returned to New Orleans where he joined the board of the Mary Queen of Vietnam (MQVN) Church’s Community Development Corporation.  MQVN has earned a strong reputation for community development work in the aftermath of the hurricane.  Its leader characterized the situation:

“Before the storm, I guess you could call us libertarians,” Father Vien said. “Our attitude toward government was: ‘you don’t bother us, we won’t bother you.’ But Katrina changed all that. We had a responsibility to speak out.”

With MQVN, Cao fought to have utilities turned back on as quickly as possible in storm-damaged neighborhoods.  He also worked against a landfill project that would have dumped a quarter of Katrina debris in New Orleans East.  Eric Tang’s excellant Huffington Post profile notes praise for MQVN’s work from African-American leaders including local progressives.  Senator Obama visited the church in February.  Overall, Cao’s religious perspective informs a social gospel:

“When I was in Mexico helping the poor, I had a struggle with the issue of poverty and of evil in the world,” Mr. Cao said. “I told my spiritual director about my struggles, and basically he told me that God sends good people to help with human suffering – people like Gandhi and (the Rev.) Martin Luther King (Jr.). I thought the best way I could effect social change was to go to law school and into politics.”

Until 2007, Cao was registered independant.  He frequently cites Aristotle’s definition of virtue: “To walk in the middle line.” Cao says he “is not a hardcore conservative,” and there’s absolutely zero Republican branding on his website.  In an interview with the New York Times, the incoming Representative explained his overall view of things:  “Life is absurd but one cannot succumb to the absurdity of it.”  How often do Republicans channel Camus?

What about social issues?  Whither God and gays?  Cao spoke with U.S. News:

How important were traditional family values issues, like abortion and marriage, in your race?
Very little. I was focusing on the need to rebuild the Second Congressional District so the issues of abortion and marriage were not the focus of my campaign at all.

That’s refreshing, as was this follow-up:

Are those values issue high priorities for your first term in Congress?
My main priority in the first couple of years is to focus on rebuilding the Second Congressional District in Louisiana. Three and half years after Katrina, there are areas that remain devastated. The healthcare system is in need of reform. The educational system is in need of reform. We need to develop economically, need to look at the levies and at coastal restoration. Those are the issues right now that concern the majority of my constituents, so that’s what I’ll be focusing on.

As a devout Catholic, Cao will likely be a reliable pro-life vote.  That said, he strikes me as someone who would vote against gay marriage but might just oppose a Constitutional ban.

Most importantly, the tone of his campaign has been heavily focused on the needs of his constituents.  This might be a matter of necessity in the 29th-bluest district in the country, but his record does show a powerful commitment to community development.  Cao has expressed interest in joining the Congressional Black Caucus, arguing that he represents a majority-black district.  It won’t happen, (outstanding progressive Steve Cohen of Memphis already tried it and failed), but Cao’s record suggests this is a real, good-faith effort to strengthen the voice of his voters.

The incoming Representative is noticeably new to the political game.  He admitted to CNN that his victory was aided by low voter turnout due to Hurricane Gustav.  (Note to new members:  You are happy with turnout, you think it represents a strong mandate for change, etc. etc.)  Republicans have crowed about Cao with tacky headlines (“the future is Cao!“,) but he is unlikely to be re-elected if the Democrats offer a strong challenge.  Besides which, he’s hardly a useful model for future races.  All Cao’s victory proves politically is that Republicans can win blue districts if the Democrat has been caught with $90,000 cash in his freezer, is under indictment on election day, and if a hurricane drops turnout to approximately 1/3 of the 2004 vote total.  If that’s Boehner’s plan, well, good luck to you, sir.

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Our local (American) football club has a uniquely unpleasant history.  Consider this image of an elderly black fan dressed in faux-native garb.  What makes it so incongruous is not simply the appropriation of someone else’s culture; it’s the fact that the Redskins are historically the most racist franchise in football against blacks too.  Owner George Preston Marshall, the franchise’s patriarch, brought the team to Washington in 1937.  NFL clubs began signing black players in 1946, but Marshall held out until 1962.  He rationalized being the last franchise to sign black players, long after all other teams had:  “We’ll start signing Negroes when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”  He eventually backed down when JFK’s Secretary of the Interior threatened the lease on his stadium on grounds of discriminatory hiring practices.

This was only part of Marshall’s southern strategy.  When they came into the NFL, the Redskins were the league’s closest thing to a “southern” team.  (Franchises in Texas, Florida, and elsewhere would come later.)  Marshall aggressively marketed them to the south, and mostly drafted players from southern colleges.  His wife composed the lyrics to the team’s Dixie-lovin’ fight song “Hail to the Redskins.” Renowned sportswriter Shirley Povich once described Marshall as “one of pro football’s greatest innovators and its leading bigot.”

(In a possibly apocryphal story, head coach George Allen once called a play requested by Richard Nixon.  Allen’s son went on to greater fame.)

The Redskins obviously aren’t Marshall or Allen’s team anymore.  I like seeing them win as much as the next guy.  That said, the historical context still makes it a little incongruous seeing African-Americans old enough to have been raised under segregation all decked out in ‘Skins gear.

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The Obama effect

For months we heard rumours that Obama was some kind of closet Panther, hiding his afro pick while plotting revolution.  Starting around 11 PM on November 4, the same people who made these claims suddenly decided he was actually a center-rightist, that his victory reflected America’s inherant conservatism.

Obviously, this put actual black nationalists in a weird spot. Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured a piece by Muhammad Yungai, a Decatur, Georgia artist and self-identified member of this group:

“As a black nationalist I have considered myself an American only as a technicality or an accident of birth. I’ve never hoisted the red, white and blue, only the red, black and green. I gave up on the American dream a longtime ago. I have worked and looked forward to autonomy and self-determination in our communities. I never imagined that I would live long enough to see an African-American president. I never even believed that I would live to see a black Miss America. But America fooled me! Even as I predicted an Obama nomination and then a presidential win, the reality of what happened on Nov. 4 still has me totally stunned.”

Yungai, whose excellant website is as aesthetically threatening as a puppy wrapped in a blanket, goes on to express his optimism at this development:

“And now we have a President Obama! The mold has been irrevocably broken! The possibilities of opportunity in American life have been exponentially expanded.”

The ongoing structural inequalities in American socioecomics keep Yungai appropriately skeptical.  However, he describes the election as “psyche-shattering” and, as per the title, is “revisiting [his] stance.”

The article is here.  The cynic notes of course that the Journal-Constitution would never have run this piece of Yungai had attacked Obama as a race-traitor; it’s much more palatable as an inspiring conversion to Americanism.  That said, it’s a notably unique perspective.  I will paypal $2 to any commenter who can find another mainstream editorial featuring the phrase: “As a black nationalist…”  So good on Yungai and the Journal-Constitution for expanding the discourse on the op-ed page beyond the usual suspects.

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The Washington Post reported on the variety of racist remarks about Obama by European leaders.  Here’s one lowlight:

“Jürgen Gansel, a party leader and an elected lawmaker in the German state of Saxony, blamed Obama’s victory on “the American alliance of Jews and Negroes.”

Which led to the following Gchat conversation between myself and, (sound the hipster racism alarm,) my black best friend:

me: “Jürgen Gansel, a party leader and an elected lawmaker in the German state of Saxony, blamed Obama’s victory on “the American alliance of Jews and Negroes.”
friend: HOORAY!
friend: The war is over! Now we’re allies! Someone call Farrakhan!
Jews + Negroes > Whites. WIN ! WIN!
friend: And we’ve taken all the good humor and music with us. HAHAHAHA.
friend: Where’s the link to that article. Please god link me.
friend: Does this mean I can get in on that whole “Zionist Conspiracy” thing?
me: let me tell you, there’s less money in it than they promise you
friend: I’d argue that there’s more cash in it than there has been in our 250-year plot to destroy white people through self-harm and affirmative action.
that’s true, your plan to destroy the white man through liberal guilt and quotas really hasn’t delivered.
friend: We’re still reworking it. It sounded much better on paper. Well, not really on paper because Africa only has an oral tradition but you know what I mean.
me: hahaha
your plan is not worth the oral tradition it’s written on.

So yeah.  Jews, blacks, let’s get going on this.  Here’s a primer.

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Think Culture has a brief yet thoughtful explanation of our contemporary post-racial climate.

Postmodernity has become an horror show of lazy irony. I indulge in the aethetic because of my place and time; education economics but find the stagnant nihilism and laissez faire just-for-lols approach to things that are worth earnestness overwhelmingly problematic. That isn’t to say there aren’t thinks about the pomo that I don’t adore–the playfulness with narrative structure in literature, the damn-near anarchical splintering of personal taste spurn on by consumerism. The common people seek the refuge of solid things, nationalism, patriarchy and racial superiority, built on a false notion of tradition to escape the overarching anomie that has plagued the western world since the epoch of modernity began. As individuals, we must competantly navigate between absurdity ad nauseum and, yea fuck it, the straight up fucking fascist. It is your responsibility not because of it was ordain from on high but because it can foster a more cohesive, well ordered system of thought and living–a romantic dream in a world of ambiguity and chaos that is perhaps impossible but worth striving for. That is my concept of the progressive, my reason for caring about politics.

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Yes, they’re racist, chapter 53

Here’s an actual headline from Fox News…

“Hip-Hop-Dancing Colin Powell Fuels Speculation He’ll Endorse Obama”

And in case the meaning was unclear, the explanatory sub-header…

“Colin Powell showed off his hip-hop moves at an ‘Africa Rising’ celebration in London Tuesday, fueling speculation that the former secretary of state is about to endorse Barack Obama for president.”

…followed by the shuck-and-jive intro paragraph:

“Colin Powell has his dancing shoes on, fueling speculation that he’s gearing up to do the Obama Two-Step.”

Which part makes him an Obama voter?  The recognition of his African ancestors?  The dancing?  The hippity-hop musics?

Colin Powell is a former Secretary of State, and an extremely well-respected one at that.  An “I’m bored so let’s do meaningless hypotheticals” poll asked voters in August who they would pick in a Presidential match up between Powell and Senator John McCain:

“Powell, the best-known African-American in the Republican Party, beats McCain more than two-to-one, 54% to 26%, with 21% of voters undecided.”

Yet, Fox reduces this man and his long, prominent, (and checkered) career as a public servant to minstrelsy.  It’s a good thing the network lacks a functioning shame reflex.  (If there’s anything redeeming to this, it’s that the comments are largely negative.)

Fox News is basically an auxiliary of the Republican Party.  Which brings us, for the third time in the short life of this blog, back to Auric Goldfinger:

“Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”

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White racists for Obama

The New York Times recently ran a piece on Nevada canvassers for the Obama campaign. In lily-white rural Nevada, volunteers often find themselves facing voters more comfortable with the Senator’s policy positions than his skin tone. Canvassers have a number of ways to respond to situations like this:

“Among the people [the volunteer] found that night was Veronica Mendive, who seemed cautiously warming to Mr. Obama’s candidacy. But she had a thought.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m prejudiced,” Ms. Mendive said. “I’ve never been around a lot of black people before. I just worry that they’re nice to your face but then when they get around their own people you just have to worry about what they’re going to do to you.”

Mendive is a persuadable voter on issues, but has a racial hangup. The easiest thing to do would’ve been to ignore that and change the subject — as canvassers are normally trained to do:

“Darry A. Sragow, a political consultant based in Los Angeles who has worked on various Democratic campaigns, said volunteers were generally trained to “shift the discussion from anything that sounds like it may be race-based to arguments that are working best for the Obama campaign, like the economy.”

This response, however, ignores the voter’s central concern. Because of this, some volunteers prefer to address the racial issue head-on. For white canvassers speaking to white voters, there’s an easy way and a hard way: the easy way is to assuage the person’s worries:

Ms. Vance responded: “One thing you have to remember is that Obama, he’s half white and he was raised by his white mother. So his views are more white than black really.” She went on to assure Ms. Mendive that she was so impressed with Mr. Obama the person, that she failed to notice the color of his skin anymore.

Another example:

“I’m canvassing for Obama. If this issue comes up, even if obliquely, I emphasize that Obama is from a multiracial background and that his father was an African intellectual, not an American from the inner city. I explain that Obama has never aligned himself solely with African-American interests — not on any issue — but rather has always sought to find a middle ground.”

To summarize: White canvassers are using racist arguments to persuade white racists to vote for a black man. (In other news, dogs and cats are living together.)

There is an alternative tack: Challenge racist voters directly.  One blogger over at Racialicious tells a personal story about converting a suspicious voter by literally asking “Do you think you are a racist?”  After initially denying, the person turned introspective and went on to accept a policy pitch.  Problem is, this is an uncomfortable lead.  As delicately as you may ask the question, there’s a strong likelihood of having a door or three slammed on you.

Remember that the job of the canvasser is to win votes for a candidate, not to make racists think.  From a cold-blooded campaign perspective, a sales pitch of “he’s not really black” is a lot more time-efficient than opening a dialogue; and asking voters to consider their own racism might turn fence-sitters explicitly away from Obama despite a receptiveness to his policy message.  So while there is no quantitative data on this, bear with this hypothetical question:

Is it better to win over 2 in 10 racists to vote for Obama by assuring them that he isn’t “really” black; or to win only 1 in 10, but convince that individual to reconsider his entire worldview?

The morally upright person argues that coopting racist language to win votes sullies the outcome.  On the other hand, a good deal of these racists live in swing states (Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana come first to mind.)  One could counter that the American racial discourse would benefit more from witnessing an Obama landslide than from some young white liberal volunteers questioning the backwards dogmas of a handful of people who are willing to listen.

This is obviously a treacherous ethical question.  The comments thread at Racialicious has more or less reached a concensus of “don’t pander.”  (As inspiring as this is, remember that it’s a self-selected group…who are all reading Racialicious in the first place.)  Obviously there are canvassers out there right now employing any and all of the three approaches: ignore, pander, or challenge.  Which voters deliver on November 4, we’ll only know on an anecdotal basis buried beneath an avalanche of polling data; let alone knowing how many people seriously reconsidered their views of race so much as an hour or a week after their well-meaning canvassers moved on.

And yet, a note of optimism:  no matter what the result, Senator Obama’s candidacy has forced people to consider this dialectic between personal biases and structural racism.  Senator Obama’s candidacy has forced white liberals to ask this of themselves, while simultaneously asking it of other whites.  And that, in and of itself, is some approximation of progress.

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