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Lauren -

I admit that in my response I did you a disservice, with snarky ad hominem remarks; and I muffed my point, to boot.

Let me point out, though, that I never mistook your use of "charity" for the common one, and didn't mean to indicate something given or granted. I meant instead to deny, in interpreting Biden's comments re Obama, that this 64-year-old attorney and Senator had shot far of the intended mark, in speaking. I'll cop to the same "rejection of that more simple interpretation in favor of the more complex" which you attributed to Patricia Williams: Biden's remark was discriminative (in the very general sense), and not some great bearhug of the all-inclusive America-to-be.

Here's the lesson Biden failed to learn (he seemed only slightly chastened, when he appeared on Bill Maher's "Real Time"): picking out a prodigy from ANY "minority" to cite the specimen for his/her certain bright spots - the clean eloquence of Obama; the ballsy resolve of a female executive; or the butch/un-flamboyant demeanor of a gay man, and so on - lands you immediately in the mire of intolerance & stereotype. The self-conscious graciousness in the offer of the compliment does not extend to, is not shared by, the compliment’s object (Clarence Thomas or Dinesh d’Souza or Ann Coulter aside). This may hurt, if ever you’ve offered such a compliment only to be rebuffed, and even many full-blown racists are stung to be recognized as such—but them’s the breaks. To grant approbation to that one black-man-who-isn't-really-"black" is to reject even that rare prodigy or ideal specimen--a kind of socio-political "observer's effect"...

With regard to what I said regarding work, housing, health care, and so on: I meant to say that those things ARE the sum of race, of being "black." And a call for transcendence of differences in skin color/tone, or for a bridge between "cultures" doesn't approach the plain reality of American racism, which is all in the numbers. Differences in color, dress, speech, mores or whatever mean nothing when compared with matters such as zoning, Congressional districts & budgeting, environmental issues, bank lending patterns, quality of health care, policing, etc. I think that it is only at the level of those things that talk about "race" becomes more than a discourse on angels on the head of a pin.

Greg Little

North Plainfield, NJ

Mar 7 2007 - 5:23pm

Web Letter

A Reply to Greg:

If you're going to use my words to prove some point, you should perhaps understand them first.

You asked rhetorically,

"On exactly what authority has Ms. Donnellan come to teach us that "not everything said about race is 'racist'"?"

I had no intention of "teaching" anyone anything; I was merely stating what I believe to be a non-controversial premise. Surely it is possible for one to say "Let's talk about racism," without the suggestion itself NECESSARILY qualifying as a racist remark. It would be a linguistically bizarre world in which the very mention of "race" proved inherently a racist act. I meant NOTHING MORE than that -- as I said, it is a trivial starting point. So do I really need some special "authority" to assert it? The real discussion begins when you take the difficult next step, and try to decipher just WHICH comments regarding race are truly racist (that being where I actually took issue with Patricia Williams' article).

You said,

"Criticism of this 'transcendence' has nothing to do with charity -- charity be damned -- but has everything to do with the hard facts of real experience. Quite a lot of us are chained down here on American ground to a host of particulars: in work, housing, health care, political empowerment, and so on."

Does this have anything to do with MY use of the word "charity"? Quite simply, no. I said explicitly I was talking about a "philosophers principle of charity" (regarding how we interpret others speech acts), and like it or not it applies to speech in coal mines and speech at Versailles, to the words of transients, miners, kings, authors and senators alike.

Now, as for the kind of charity YOU were talking about, here's a place where it WAS relevant: you implied my comments must have arisen out of some insensitivity to, or ignorance of, issues of work, housing, health care, empowerment, etc. You assumed the poorest motivations without knowing ANYTHING about me or my life's experiences or life's work (given my actual history, the irony in your comments is lovely really). Point being: had you engaged with a bit more charity (and epistemic modesty) you might have found your way closer to the truth in my case, and perhaps others as well. Perhaps on the topic of "racists", we might ALL use a bit more of those two.

Lauren Donnellan

Savannah, GA

Feb 23 2007 - 4:36am

Web Letter

Patricia Williams' article is the cleanest and most articulate piece I've yet read on the protean Sen. Obama.

Having said that, though, some of the readers' responses go a long way towards proving what Ms. Williams states in the article:

Lauren Donnellan, for instance (and she's probably a kind of paradigmatic "liberal," in this): On exactly what authority has Ms. Donnellan come to teach us that "not everything said about race is 'racist'"? And how exactly is transcendence of race (say, as Sen. Biden clumsily formulated it) in Sen. Obama's campaign a true or a good thing?

Criticism of this "transcendence" has nothing to do with charity--charity be damned- -but has everything to do with the hard facts of REAL experience. Quite a lot of us are chained down here on American ground to a host of particulars: in work, housing, health care, political empowerment, and so on. The hard data on each of these particulars, the very distinct and ugly reality they convey, make irrelevant all modish, abstract discussions of race-as-identity. (And this talk of the "self-identified" black man is even richer than Biden's "clean and articulate"!)

Some are stung by the criticisms of Biden's remark because they are SURE it's only a compliment to Obama, however clumsy. But Biden's happy storybook example of the "articulate" black man stinks of tokenism and essentialism. Many of us--certainly others among that class of "clean & articulate" blacks--took Biden's "compliment" in the same way we've taken every such "compliment" offered with due charity from whites.

It is not Biden's place to mark out the salvagable portion among the great unwashed African-American, to note Obama as a fine specimen: I mean, he's offering this "praise" to his better (let's be honest)--So where does he draw the nerve, if not from the lazy, racist core of white "objectivity"?

Transcendence of race is an antique trope; a primitive, stupid notion which has no place in 21st century socio-political theory or policy. When I think of racial transcendence, I think of Desdemona's declaring that she "saw Othello’s visage in his mind,/And to his honours and his valiant parts/Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate." Or of William Blake's "Little Black Boy" in Songs Of Innocence, who anticipates shunting off the cloud of blackness on his death, to shine white in Heaven...

On the other hand, Chris Kruger's parsing of the Reagan Democrat phenomenon, of the defection of "ideologically progressive white males" from the "Balkanized" Left is as convenient and selfish and slippery as...a Reagan Democrat.

Yes, I know it's common wisdom--like a bedtime story you've heard a million times but can't get enough of; but where you see stung idealists alienated by militant minorities, I see quislings and opportunists and an orgy of self-interest.

The post-Reconstruction "Redeemers" of the last quarter of the 19th century rose a century later in the form of Reagan Democrats, and since then also the plague of DLC (Repub-lite) types who lament old hassles over the knotty issue of race.

But I don't believe that concern over race and racism is self-interest--quite the opposite: the rush to *abdicate* public concern over race and racism is the assertion of self-interest ($$$) over general social or political well-being. And it'll be interesting to see how tenable Obama will find race-transcendence to be...

Greg Little

North Plainfield, New Jersey

Feb 21 2007 - 1:34pm

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Very good article. I am afraid that Mr. Obama's campaign will be covered and analyzed in an "O. J. Lite" frenzy, with the same ridiculous context of race/racism applied.

I am particularly disturbed by otherwise intelligent Black Americans who apply a 'blackness gauge' to each other. The danger of racially identifying yourself by your station or your behavior is quite obvious. Who draws the line? When does character become caricature? Who sets the rules and standards?

We may think that we do, but we don't--it's the people in charge, and that ain't us. Who do you think the term "acting white" came from? Some weeks ago I was listening to a white Radio host talk about Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. He said that Frazier was 'blacker' than Ali because he had lived poor and was the son of a sharcropper.

Trust me, someone else is setting the standard of what being "black" is--just ask Joe Biden.

Solomon Arrington III

East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania

Feb 20 2007 - 2:43pm

Web Letter

The author makes some good points, however, perhaps it should be remembered that not everything said about race is "racist:" for example, saying that Obama's candidacy "transcends race" is simply not the same thing as saying that the candidate has transcended his skin color.

The issue of race arises as a more salient one in this case, because Obama would be the first "African American" (self identified) to hold the office, should he win. Certainly it is not condescending or racist to notice that fact, and too to identify its symbolic importance.

What many have noted is how, in spite of the symbolic significance of race (in this race), a great many Americans of every racial makeup seem ready to talk about the candidate without focusing on race. We argue about Obama's experience, or his focus on process rather than policy, etc.

In this one case, it is argued, we the public have begun to rise above our own fixations on race. You may disagree with the claim, but it is in this sense that Obama's candidacy has been claimed to have "transcended race". I think anyone with as sharp an eye as Patricia Williams', could not help but see that meaning. So, I must ask if there is some other reason for her rejection of that more simple interpretation in favor the more complex, and jaded. I think the answer may lie with charity.

A philosopher's "principle of charity" is said to underpin all reasonable interpretation (knowing what another means requires we assume the speaker speaks at least some truth). And this takes on a double meaning in the case of interpretation under suspicion (we are especially charitable in our application of that principle to those we have reason to suspect of falsity).

The author might have benefited from a more adequate application of both sorts of charity.

It is a good thing to imagine a day when our politics truly "transcend race"; and to the extent a candidate like Obama continues to be judged on his strengths and weaknesses, I am encouraged to believe that day will come.

Lauren Donnellan

Savannah, Georgia

Feb 16 2007 - 11:48pm

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You have written an astonishingly eloquent and erudite article revealing that "race still matters", whether we want to own it or not.

Without question, in my opinion, Mr. Obama is certainly "black enough". The debate about his worthiness to lead America as a "black man" is evidence of that. In addition, his own life experience could hardly divorce him from issues about race.

My test for any candidate is their putting their votes and influence where their rhetoric is. Mr. Obama will have to put some meat on the bones of his "more hopefull America" theme and outline what he intends to do about race as well as the other crisis facing our crumbling national fabric and our nearly disintergrated international relations.

I believe that the interest of Black Americans have value for all Americans and should not be considered "special interest issues". Black Americans want the same things as anyone else; opportunity, equity and safety. The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and now globalism have entrenched much of this community into an "underclass status." This trend can also be said of the poor and working poor in general and now the disappearing middle class in America! However, the granddaddy of exceptions if you will is always race which marginalizes even the brightest and best of African decent.

Surely, Mr. Obama will bear the brunt of many of these questions. It is his contest to honor who he truly is and ours to judge unfortunately through race colored glasses.

Sherletta McCaskill


Feb 16 2007 - 11:10pm

Web Letter

It would be a good thing to see an article focused on the issues and proposals of candidates instead of focused on racial stereotyping. It is symptomatic of our obsession with race that Obama has people on both sides of the color line asking if he is "too white" or "too black." How about, is he human/humane enough?

As a white person who has voted for Harold Washington and Jesse Jackson,I believe at some point the way to move beyond race stereotypes is to discuss them less, not more.

What profit do those of us who call ourselves progressive derive from going after Joe Biden? Joe Biden has "voted right" over 90% of his tenure in Congress. If we can elect a better progressive who happens to be black, lets do so. Joe Biden is not Strom Thurman.

I personally witnessed the New Left implode/disintegrate from wearying conflicts between single-issue interest groups, including black/affirmative action, feminist, environmental, gay, and the remainder who wanted to keep our eyes on the prize of the re-distribution of wealth, worker rights/human rights. These were sincere people who did a lot of good things, but ended caught up in a vanity about who/what was more oppressed and exploited- a single-issue chauvinism.

This Balkanization of the Left directly caused the Reagan Democrat phenomenon, as all except the most ideologically progressive white males saw nothing to identify with in the Democratic party, much less the Left. This also of course coincided with the decline of the unions.

The single issue folks, both Left and Right, have contributed to political discourse de-evolving into the so-called wedge issues of today. It misleads those whose narrow focus can't get past their personal situation, and distracts the rest.

I believe race, religion, ethnicity is a proxy for class, wherever you go. If this were Northern Ireland, more Catholics would be in prison than Protestants. The same stereotypes, the same jokes are repeated when Sunnis talk about Kurds in Iraq. Poor people get screwed everywhere. In the US, a lot of them happen to be black. In the final analysis all issues are economic issues.

Every time the Democrats win anything, I am happy for about ten minutes. Then the dialog shifts from this common enemy, robber baron class, this one percent who control ninety percent of the wealth, to devisive in-fighting.

Divide and conquer is the modus operandi of the ruling class in every society. The less we define ourselves by our differences, the more we can thwart rascism, sexism, and all other kinds of exploitation.

Lastly, I am not a former "f*cked-up, middle-class college student"--I am a compassionate human being. I don't think labels, whether they come from above or below, from left or right, advance any discussion.

P.S. I happen to be favoring Obama at this point in time.

Chris Kruger

Evanston, IL

Feb 16 2007 - 2:30pm

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Ms. Williams,

Your perspective is so refreshing. Your capacity to review Barack Obama's life situation from many dimensions is welcome. He is really an extraordinary individual who I have watched as he has grown in Illinois politics.

At the age of 68 and having voted for John Kennedy as my first Presidential vote at 21, I must say that Senator Obama has even more to offer our nation. He chose to be a community organizer in the worst of Chicago neighborhoods. He has experienced real life and it was his choice.

There is nothing more basic and tough than being a community organizer and doing it well. Thank you for contributing such a sensitive piece to what will certainly be an interesting dialog.

Sandra F. Taenzer

Elgin, IL

Feb 16 2007 - 12:49am

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Dear Ms. Williams,

What a great article! I always wonder why a black candidate has to be black enough for black people. It is insane. We want someone who is black, but don't want him to exhibit his intelligence or want him to be a shouter à la Al Sharpton. By the way, I did not know Obama was from Hawaii. Was he born in Hawaii? If he was, then that's what is intriguing to me. It would be refreshing to have someone in the White House from one of the non-contiguous United States. Well done, Ms. Williams. I really hope they turn this into a blog. Being that the majority of people posting are not people fo color. I would be very interested in their thoughts on the subject. Also, I am very disappointed in Stanley Crouch even participating in such a conversation? The man is a noted scholar yet he lowers himself/standards to speak about the "blackness" of Barack Obama. Mr. Crouch loses credibility with me in that respect. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading more of your writing at The Nation and elsewhere.

Kelli Francis

Atlanta, GA

Feb 15 2007 - 3:58pm

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