Race, gender, politics, religion and our struggles.
Madness was a recurring theme in American politics last year. I received daily calls, emails, texts, and tweets from folks on the Left declaring "these Republicans are crazy," "the GOP has gone mad," or simply, "this county is nuts." "Wingnuts" became a common way to describe vehement, political opponents on the Right.
Americans have an interesting history of conflating our political disagreements with diagnosis of mental illness. In a terrific new book, psychiatrist and historian Jonathan Metzl tells one of these fascinating stories. Metzl's book, The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease is exceptional and unexpected.
The text's central argument is that mental illness is not solely (or even primarily) a biological or medical reality; it is largely a social construct. Madness is often diagnosed in those who do not conform to social norms, especially norms governed by identities like race, gender, and class. Illustrating this point, Metzl reminds readers that in the 1850s, American psychiatrists believed enslaved blacks who ran away from white enslavers were suffering from a mental illness called drapetomania. This illness, psychiatrists maintained, could be cured by excessive whipping.
Lest we snicker at the obviously racist and primitive assumptions of 19th century mental health professionals, Metzl spends the rest of the text tracing the 20th century story of schizophrenia.
At the turn of the 20th century schizophrenia was a diagnosis typically given to middle-class, white women whose behavior was deemed embarrassing, distressing, and inappropriate by their husbands and families. This disease of the double-mind was often attributed to white, intellectual geniuses as well. (Think of the popular book and film A Beautiful Mind) Throughout the first half of the 20th century, medical professionals diagnosed white patients as schizophrenic and typically described these patients as docile, non-threatening, and in need of therapuetic nurturing.
A dramatic change occured in the 1960s. During this era schizophrenia was increasingly diagnosed in "Negro men." As black men were more firmly associated with the disease, psychiatric communities and popular culture came to understand schizophrenia as a disease marked by violence, hostility, aggression, and requiring powerful psychotropic medication.
Metzl draws his book title from a 1968 article in the Archives of General Psychiatry where leading physicians describe "protest psychosis" as a condition where black men develop hostility, aggression, and delusional anti-whiteness after listening to Malcolm X, joining the black Muslims, or engaging in Civil Rights protests.In short, when African Americans experienced anger, distress, and disillusionment when faced with the crushing realities of Jim Crow and second-class citizenship, the medical establishment labeled them crazy and dangerous.
In the 1850s slaves seeking freedom were described as mad. In the 1920s women unwilling to conform to the constraints of domesticity were treated as insane. In the 1970s black people who wanted equality were thought to be nuts.
Metzl writes, "the transition of schizophrenia from a disease of white, feminie docility to one of black, male hostility resulted from a confluence of social and medical forces."
This insight is a powerful intervention at this historic moment. It forces us to reexamine our beliefs about the nature of disease, the process of medical diagnosis, and the influence of the political world on our racial ideas. Implicitly, it also cautions us about the consequences of deploying "madness" as a description of our political adversaries.
Metzl is a practicing psychiatrist. He intimately understands how people with mental illnesses suffer. He is a physician who prescribes medication, and acknowledges the dramatic, positive effects biomedical intervention can have to alleviate that suffering. But he is also a historian and a political theorist, keenly aware that the dramatic changes in definition and diagnoses of mental illness are as political as they are medical.
On nearly all matters of policy and politics I disagree with the birthers, the deathers, the tea baggers, most GOP office holders, a significant number of Southern Democrats, and more than a few members of my own academic department. While I judge them to be stunningly wrong-thinking, I am hesitant about labeling my adversaries "crazy."
Red-faced screaming at town halls, audacious lies about President Obama's citizenship, and incomprehensible obstruction tactics by legislators might be symptomatic of mental instability, and they are clearly indicative of deep human suffering, but the "crazy" label does more to obscure our understanding of our differences than to illuminate them.
Metzl's book is a reminder that diagnosing individuals encourages blindness to the social structures in which these individuals operate. Slavery was the madness, not the escaping slave. Racial inequality is the illness, not the Civil Rights Movement.
We learn more and can more effectively influence social change when we consider the situation of our conservative opponents. Their "craziness" might seem more reasonable when we consider the tactics of fear-mongering and race-baiting that have long characterized American politics. A decade of unaccountable government might explain some of the paranoia. Shouting matches that pass as nightly news are implicated in the lack of civility with which they engage. It may not be our opponents who are insane, but instead the zero-sum, winner-take-all approach to politics, which is truly crazy.
Let's be careful as we diagnosis the problems.
As the mother of a 7-year-old daughter, I knew I'd have to see the film. I went to the theater prepared to deconstruct troubling racial images, which Disney has a history of producing, and distorted notions of womanhood, which Disney makes its fortune creating. But I was mostly delighted by the music, characters, and plot. I found neither race nor gender the driving concerns of this animated film.
I read The Princess and the Frog as a forceful and insightful allegory about the restoration of New Orleans.
Like many children's stories, this one is a morality tale. Parents read to our kids not only to encourage their literacy, but also to impart lessons about our shared cultural and social values: kindness, honesty, courage, thrift, hard work, normative heterosexual relationships that result in lifelong, happy, state-sanctioned marriage. The basics.
This particular morality tale conveys lessons about the city where it is set: New Orleans.
The Princess is Tiana. She grows up in a shotgun house, in a tight-knit, black community, the child of laboring parents. Together they dream of owning a restaurant. Tiana works night and day toward this goal.
Tiana represents the spirit of the people of New Orleans. She lives in the Big Easy, but her life is hard. She has family, community, sharp wit, tremendous talent, and the willingness to labor in grueling conditions. She works and saves her money, but local lenders refuse to honor her bid on a location for her restaurant. (A historic building she hopes to restore.) She is childhood friends with a wealthy family, and while they give her opportunities to work and earn, it never occurs to them to underwrite her dream of owning her own business. Everywhere she turns her dreams are blocked by a system that appears benevolent, but is actually stacked against her.
The Prince is Naveen. He comes to New Orleans seeking good times and jazz music. Naveen is the city's tourist industry. He lands in New Orleans with a romantic vision of carefree living, good music, and a burden-free existence. The city is excited to welcome him. They view his visit as an honor, but early in the film Naveen is ignorant of the city's complexity and disrespectful to his hosts.
When Naveen encounters the true New Orleans, in the person of Tiana, he slowly, but assuredly, is converted. New Orleans becomes the place where he wants to settle down, pursue a dream, work hard, and become one with the city whose culture he loves.
Tiana and Naveen's love story is, in part, the story of many New Orleanians. Even before Katrina, and certainly in the years since the storm, many who began as casual visitors have become committed residents. They, like Naveen, fell in love with the people of New Orleans.
The villain is the sinister Dr. Facilier. Facilier turns Naveen into a frog, and transforms Naveen's bitter manservant, Lawrence, into a replica of the prince. Facilier's plan is to dupe sweet, but shallow, Charlotte; to steal all of her wealthy father's money; to grab power in the city; and turn its residents over to the forces of evil.
Facilier is the New Orleans political establishment. He seeks wealth, power, and influence. He relies on duping naïve and trusting voters (Charlotte) by presenting candidates that are not truly what they seem (Lawrence). He uses sleight-of-hand to try to convince Tiana that he can make her dreams come true without all the hard work (campaign promises).
There is a happy ending. With the help of friends that she meets in the Bayou (rural/urban partnerships) Tiana defeats Facilier, marries her prince, and opens her restaurant.
The lesson of the allegory is clear. The corrupt political establishment that makes false promises, and pursues personal wealth, must be defeated by the hardworking, big-dreaming people of New Orleans. Tiana forms a multiracial coalition with Charlotte, she builds strong ties with her rural neighbors, and she inspires a casual visitor to invest his life and labor in the city. Tiana's story shows that the talent, drive, and love necessary to rebuild the city are already present in the people of New Orleans.
Drawing on the lessons of her laboring parents and in partnership with her uptown friends, Tiana's local business is the allegory of a restored New Orleans.
The Princess and the Frog is a love story. It is the story of a city I love. A city that can yet be saved with investment in local talent and coalitions across lines of differences.
*Author's note: I've kissed my own frog prince and I am currently supporting my partner, James Perry, in his mayoral campaign in New Orleans.
On Sunday night I indulged two of my favorite obsessions, the Christmas holidays and sentimental Americana, by watching Oprah Winfrey's special "Christmas at the White House."
This televised tour of the decorated White House immediately evoked my holiday musings from last year. In the month after Obama's election I felt like a kid at Christmas, with visions of a black president dancing in my head.
I have always been an over-the-top lover of all things Christmas: cookies, stockings, carols, lights, twinkly trees, sappy TV movies, egg nog, and wrapping paper. I was raised in a secular, humanist household. I came to Christianity as an adolescent. This means Jesus is a second string character in my holiday memories. It is Santa Claus who occupied the central iconic position of Christmas during my childhood.
And for me Santa Claus always was, is now, and always will be a black man.
Part of my investment in Santa's blackness derives from my personal biography. My father is a brown-skinned man who smokes a pipe and has had a full beard of gray hair since my infancy. Black Santa looks like my dad, so I am drawn to him. But my father is nothing like a jolly elf. Professor Harris is a stern disciplinarian and a politically engaged intellectual. I can't imagine anyone less likely to hang out with toy-building magical creatures while wearing a fur-trimmed red suit.
My attachment to black Santa is rooted in a fierce racial consciousness I have nurtured since childhood. In my adulthood I have revised much of my unthinking, black nationalist assumptions. My feminist commitments, interracial political work, and emerging cosmopolitan sensibilities make me somewhat less likely to exercise an automatic preferential option for blackness. This journey of political consciousness is also reflected in my holiday choices.
In college I added Kwanzaa celebrations to my holiday calendar. It was a way of countering Christmas commercialism and asserting my connections to black culture. Later I learned the brutal, misogynist history of Kwanzaa's founder, Malauna Karenga, and I became less enthusiastic about the holiday. I have experienced similar shifts in racial consciousness as a researcher, writer, political advocate, and Christmas enthusiast.
But through it all my insistence on and attachment to black Santa has never wavered.
As a kid, black Santa represented a benevolent spirit of goodness and kindness directed toward African American children. Black Santa cared about little girls who look like me. I did not need blue eyes or blond ringlet curls for black Santa to find me adorable. Black Santa did not put a blond baby doll under my tree. He knew that I needed to rock, hold and nurture a baby doll with brown skin and kinky hair. Black Santa expected Nat King Cole to be playing on the stereo when he arrived on Christmas Eve.
The election of Barack Obama has changed my thinking about black Santa a bit. I am now convinced that black Santa is equally important for white Americans. Barack Obama is now the President of the United States. He is a deeply imperfect president. Racism still exists during his presidency and will persist when it is over. Obama cannot cure racial inequality. But he, Michelle, and the girls have altered the face of the first family.
Symbols matter. They help shape our understanding of national culture and identity. A president is not a country, but he embodies the national identity. Santa is the secular, commercial symbol of a religious holiday, but he nonetheless embodies the popular imagination of the holiday.
It is time for Americans to get comfortable with black Santa.
I'd love to see far more African American Santas in multiracial public spaces. Just as white Americans are learning to experience a world with a black man making foreign and domestic policy, so it is time for white children to wait with unrivaled anticipation for a black man to bring benevolent gifts. It is time for white mothers and fathers to snap smiling photographs of their sons and daughters on black Santa's knee. Just as a black man took the oath of office in January, so it is time for a black man to hail "Merry Christmas" from the final float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade.
(And for all of you who will want to argue that President Obama is "multi-racial" rather than black, I disagree, but I'd be happy to take a mixed race Santa too.)
Black Santa will not cure the fundamental inequalities that shape the lives of black children and poor children of all races. He does not bring justice in his sleigh. Sill, racism's assault on black life is not just substantive and economic; it is also symbolic and psychological. Navigating the symbols of whiteness during Christmas always make the holidays a little harder for many of us.
As I watched Oprah Winfrey chat with the Obamas in the beautifully decorated White House, I felt like this holiday season was a little brighter in a darker hue.
On December 2, the New York Senate passionately debated marriage equality. It was a compelling display of legal, moral, and political reasoning. Compared with the anemic, corporate-sponsored ramblings of U.S. Senate during the health care cloture discussion, the New York senate looked like the Continental Congress yesterday.
On the same day of this debate, my niece sent to me the draft of her personal essay for college admission. In it she discusses her experiences of being harassed and threatened as a gay teen. She writes:
I was only fourteen at the time. I arrived early to school that Monday morning, still exhausted from my weekend basketball tournament. As I entered my locker combination and pulled the latch that released the door from its position, a small piece of folded paper floated to the floor. I picked it up, unfolded it, and read the words, speaking them out loud, "Die dyke," I heard myself say in the empty hallway. The words startled me as I folded the paper as it had been before, and crammed it in my pocket. I quickly ran down the stairs into the counselors' office where I waited about an hour until my counselor arrived. At that moment I felt worthless. I felt as if no one cared about me, and that I should just give up on the things I believe in, and ultimately give up on myself. The harassment continued over the cycle of a month.
She goes on to write about the failure of her elite, private school to shield her from the attacks or to provide adequate protection or support for her. Despite its reputation as a bastion of liberal, educated families, this school became a space of terror for my niece.
The notes continued, and my school locker as well as my gym locker had both been vandalized with graffiti. In the final note that I received I was told that I would be killed on the last day of school. After coupling me with a woman three times my age and half of my size to accompany me to my classes so that I would feel "safe", my principal looked me in my eyes and told me, "Shake it off, and go to class." After my final exams I went home and never visited the school during my summer. A day before my sophomore year I un-enrolled [from the private school] and transferred to a [public school] to start my life over again.
Because of my beloved niece's experiences, I recognized the pain and urgency in the testimony of the New York senators who bore witness to their own loving same-sex relationships, and to the painful challenges faced by their gay family members and friends.
Because of my niece's experiences, I felt the stinging blow of having these testimonies ignored as the New York senate easily defeated the measure for marriage equality.
I have written before that empathy is the foundational political emotion of a diverse, democratic society.
Empathy allows us to create a cohesive national identity rooted in something beyond militarism. We are citizens of a state to the extent that we are born within defined geographic boundaries. But the writings of Benedict Anderson reveal that we are participants in a nation only to the extent that we imagine ourselves to be part of a community or a people. Empathy is an important part of what allows us to engage in that imagined sense of linked fate, shared identity, and common purpose. Without empathy we cannot enter into a social contract, whereby we are willing to subjugate some of our selfish impulses in order to abide by the rule of law and the dictates of a civil society. Empathy has also been our country's critical mechanism for social change, justice, and expansion of democratic participation.
Our country faces a serious and destructive empathy deficit, when the life experiences of our fellow citizens are easily ignored by the institutions we commonly share.
One can argue that marriage equality is not the most important civil rights issue facing LGBT communities. The violence and harassment that gay and transgender persons face is vicious and horrifyingly common. In most states, gay and transgender families and individuals face open, legally-sanctioned discrimination in housing, employment, and in the family courts. Homelessness, poverty, abuse and deep social vulnerability are core human rights issues that marriage equality cannot solve. I don't believe marriage equality could have saved my niece from the terrorism she experienced in her own school.
Still, the marriage equality debate is an instructive example of our failings as a democratic polity. It reveals our willingness to ignore and turn away from one another in order to protect our unearned privileges. Each time we refuse to recognize LGBT persons as first class citizens, deserving of all the rights and protections of the state, we make the world more harsh, more dangerous, and more difficult for my niece and for all gay and transgender young people. They deserve better.
I was in a pew at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Illinois, on September 16, 2001. Although I was never a member of this now infamous congregation, I did attend Trinity regularly during the seven years I lived and worked in Chicago.
September 16, 2001 was the first Sunday after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, DC. On that Sunday Reverend Jeremiah Wright preached a sermon whose often-distorted excerpts became fodder for attack on candidate Barack Obama. Most people in America remember it as the "Chickens Coming Home to Roost" sermon.
For me, Wright's sermon on that Sunday will always be the sermon of Psalm 137.
On the clear, blue morning when terrorists took down the World Trade Center towers, destroyed the Pentagon, and murdered thousands of my fellow Americans, I was six months pregnant with my first child. As an expectant mother I felt a particular kind of terror in the aftermath of the attacks. Like other Americans, I knew the world was forever changed; the reality into which my daughter would be born would be marked by this violence in ways I found scary and unpredictable. Like many others, I was confused, angry, sad, and deeply terrorized.
In this state I found my way to church. I remember how sad and unusually quiet we were as a congregation. I remember that many of us were looking for meaning and for comfort. I remember Reverend Wright preaching from Psalm 137.
Here is what he said:
"There's a move in Psalm 137 from thoughts of paying tithes to thoughts of paying back. A move if you will from worship to war. A move in other words from the worship of the God of creation, to war against those whom God created. And I want you to notice very carefully the next move. One of the reasons this psalm is rarely read in its entirety because it is a move that spotlights the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred.
Look at the verse, Verse 9: 'Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks.' The people of faith, by the rivers of Babylon, how should we sing the Lord's song if I forget thee? The people of faith have moved from the hatred of armed enemies, these soldiers who captured the King, those soldiers who slaughtered his sons and put his eyes out, the soldiers who sacked the city, burned their towns, burned the temple, burned their towers. They moved from the hatred of armed enemies to the hatred of unarmed innocents. The babies. The babies. Blessed are they who dash your babies' brains against a rock. And that, my beloved, is a dangerous place to be."
I was an expectant mother, and those are the words that have stayed with me for more than eight years: happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks.
Reverend Wright went on to warn that, in the shadow of our anguish, fear, and confusion after September 11, we stood on the precipice of a dangerous political reality, one where, as a nation, we could easily move from hatred of armed enemies to calling for revenge against the innocent. Such a move, he warned, would be destructive to all nations involved.
I thought of Reverend Wright's sermon today when President Obama decided to deploy 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan. I am not surprised by his decision. As a candidate, Barack Obama made it clear that he believed Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the most important theater in the war against terror. Strategically, I am not distressed by the decision. Even as he deployed more soldiers, President Obama, unlike his predecessor, offered clear objectives, an exit strategy, and a timeline for withdrawal. Politically, I am less worried than some on the Left, who perceive Obama's decision as equivalent to Johnson's choice to escalate in Vietnam. The parallels are not as straightforward as televised versions of American history would lead us to believe.
I am not surprised, strategically opposed, or politically distressed, but I am profoundly, morally uneasy with my nation's escalation of a war that began as a terrified, revenge response. I am a Unitarian Universalist, and certainly not a biblical literalist, but there is important insight available in Psalm 137. This is the story of a dispossessed people terrorized by their enemies, who find joy in the possibility of killing the innocent in revenge for what they have lost.
If there is a parallel to be made with Johnson, perhaps it is the need listen again to the prophetic voice of Martin Luther King, Jr, who spoke forcefully against the war in Vietnam. He did so despite the fact fact that Johnson was his ally on domestic matters. King did not speak against his rival or enemy, he spoke to a nation he loved, led by a president he respected. Still, King stood in the pulpit at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, and said "it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war." He made the case for our shared humanity across national borders and the urgent need to reimagine non-violent solutions for our deepest conflicts.
Jeremiah Wright is certainly not Martin Luther King, Jr. I have never agreed fully with Reverend Jeremiah Wright theologically or politically. I have been openly critical of Wright. But his invocation of Psalm 137, as a warning against the destructive force of revenge, has been a basic moral framework shaping my responses to American intervention in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Today I thought of it again as we move even more deeply into this ill-advised war.
President Obama is a thoughtful and careful leader, but he is constrained by deep and old expectations about war, conflict, and national security. I believe we have already destroyed too much of ourselves and of our so called enemies. I mourn this decision to feed the dogs of war and to bash the heads of babies against the rocks.
With Michelle Obama in the White House, consciously and conspicuously serving as mom-in-chief, I expected (even somewhat dreaded) a resurgence of Claire Huxtable images of black motherhood: effortless glamour, professional success, measured wit, firm guidance, loving partnership, and the calm reassurance that American women can, in fact, have it all.
Instead the news is currently dominated by horrifying images of African American mothers.
Most ubiquitous is the near universally celebrated performance of Mo'Nique in the new film Precious. Critically and popularly acclaimed Precious is the film adaption of the novel Push. It is the story of an illiterate, obese, dark-skinned, teenager who is pregnant, for the second time, with her rapist father's child. (Think The Color Purple in a 1980s inner-city rather than 1930s rural Georgia)
At the core of the film is Precious' unimaginably brutal mother. She is an unredeemed monster who brutalizes her daughter verbally, emotionally, physically and sexually. This mother pimps both her daughter and the government. Stealing her daughter's childhood and her welfare payments.
Just as Precious was opening to national audiences a real-life corollary emerged in the news cycle, when 5-year-old Shaniya Davis was found dead along a roadside in North Carolina. Her mother, a 25-year-old woman with a history of drug abuse, has been arrested on charges of child trafficking. The charges allege that this mother offered her 5-year-old daughter for sex with adult men.
Yet another black mother made headlines in the past week, when U.S. soldier, Alexis Hutchinson, refused to report for deployment to Afghanistan. Hutchinson is a single mother of an infant, and was unable to find suitable care for her son before she was deployed. She had initially turned to her own mother who found it impossible to care for the child because of prior caregiver commitments. Stuck without reasonable accommodations, Hutchinson chose not to deploy. Hutchinson's son was temporally placed in foster care. She faces charges and possible jail time.
These stories are a reminder, that for African American women, reproduction has never been an entirely private matter.
Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison, chose the stories of enslaved black mothers to depict the most horrifying effects of American slavery. In her novel, Beloved, Morrison reveals the unimaginable pain some black mothers experienced because their children were profitable for their enslavers. Enslaved black women did not birth children; they produced units for sale, measurable in labor contributions. Despite the patrilineal norm that governed free society, enslaved mothers were forced to pass along their enslaved status to their infants; ensuring intergenerational chattel bondage was the first inheritance black mothers gave to black children in America.
As free citizens black women's reproduction was no longer directly tied to profits. In this new context, black mothers became the object of fierce eugenics efforts. Black women, depicted as sexually insatiable breeders, are adaptive for a slave holding society but not for the new context of freedom. Black women's assumed lasciviousness and rampant reproduction became threatening. In Killing the Black Body, law professor, Dorothy Roberts, explains how the state employed involuntary sterilization, pressure to submit to long-term birth control, and restriction of state benefits for large families as a means to control black women's reproduction.
At the turn of the century many public reformers held African American women particularly accountable for the "degenerative conditions" of the race. Black women were blamed for being insufficient housekeepers, inattentive mothers, and poor educators of their children. Because women were supposed to maintain society's moral order, any claim about rampant disorder was a burden laid specifically at women's feet.
In a 1904 pamphlet "Experiences of the Race problem. By a Southern White Woman" the author claims of black women, "They are the greatest menace possible to the moral life of any community where they live. And they are evidently the chief instruments of the degradation of the men of their own race. When a man's mother, wife, and daughters are all immoral women, there is no room in his fallen nature for the aspirations of honor and virtue…I cannot imagine such a creation as a virtuous black woman."
Decades later, Daniel Patrick Moynihan's 1965 report "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" designated black mothers as the principal cause of a culture of pathology, which kept black people from achieving equality. Moynihan's research predated the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but instead of identifying the structural barriers facing African American communities, he reported the assumed deviance of Negro families.
This deviance was clear and obvious, he opined, because black families were led by women who seemed to have the primary decision making roles in households. Moynihan's conclusions granted permission to two generations of conservative policy makers to imagine poor, black women as domineering household managers whose unfeminine insistence on control both emasculated their potential male partners and destroyed their children's future opportunities. The Moynihan report encouraged the state not to view black mother as women doing the best they could in tough circumstances, but instead to blame them as unrelenting cheats who unfairly demand assistance from the system.
Black mothers were again blamed as the central cause of social and economic decline in the early 1990s, when news stories and popular films about "crack babies" became dominant. Crack babies were the living, squealing, suffering evidence of pathological black motherhood and American citizens were going to have to pay the bill for the children of these bad mothers.
Susan Douglass and Meredith Michaels, authors of The Mommy Myth explain that media created the "crack baby" phenomenon as a part of a broader history that understands black motherhood as inherently pathological. They write: "It turned out there was no convincing evidence that use of crack actually causes abnormal babies, even though the media insisted this was so…media coverage of crack babies serves as a powerful cautionary tale about the inherent fitness of poor or lower class African American women to be mothers at all."
This ugly history and its policy ramifications are the backdrop against which these three contemporary black mother stories must be viewed.
Undoubtedly Mo'Nique has given an amazing performance in Precious. But the critical and popular embrace of this depiction of a monstrous black mother has potentially important, and troubling, political meaning. In a country with tens of thousands of missing and exploited children, it is not accidental that the abuse and murder of Shaniya Davis captured the American media cycle just as Precious opened. The sickening acts of Shaniya's mother become the story that underlines and makes tangible, believable, and credible the jaw-dropping horror of Mo'Nique's character.
And here too is Alexis Hutchinson. As a volunteer soldier in wartime, she ought to embody the very core of American citizen sacrifice. Instead she is a bad black mother. Implied in the her story is the damning idea that Hutchinson has committed the very worse infraction against her child and her country. Hutchinson has failed to marry a responsible, present, bread-winning man who would free her of the need to labor outside the home. Hutchinson does not stay on the home front clutching her weeping young child as her man goes off to war. Instead, she struggles to find a safe place for him while she heads off to battle. Her motherhood is not idyllic, it is problematic. Like so many other black mothers her parenting is presented as disruptive to her duties as a citizen.
It is worth noting that Sarah Palin's big public comeback is situated right in the middle of this news cycle full of "bad black mothers." Palin's own eye-brow raising reproductive choices and parenting outcomes have been deemed off-limits after her skirmish with late night TV comedians. Embodied in Palin, white motherhood still represents a renewal of the American dream; black motherhood represents its downfall.
Each of these stories, situated in a long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood, serves a purpose. Each encourages Americans to see black motherhood as a distortion of true motherhood ideals. Its effect is troublesome for all mothers of all races who must navigate complex personal, familial, social, and political circumstances.
On Sunday I went to the Prudential Center in Newark to hear President Obama make the case for Governor Jon Corzine's reelection here in New Jersey. Already a strong supporter of Governor Corzine I wasn't going to be convinced. And I wasn't particularly excited about standing in a long line, on a chilly afternoon to listen to two men I've heard speak dozens of times. But I was determined to go. One year ago I'd been in Newark to hear candidate Obama make his closing arguments, and I wanted to check out what an Obama rally looks like one year later.
Some elements of the atmosphere were familiar: insanely long lines, intense police presence, surprisingly jovial mood despite the chill. One thing was noticeably and distressingly different: the crowd waiting to see President Obama in Newark on Sunday was much less diverse than the crowd that greeted him in the waning days of the 2008 election. By my estimation the supporters in Newark yesterday were not exclusively, but certainly predominately, African American.
The event mirrors recent trends in the polls. Presidential job approval polls by Gallup have tracked two consistent trends in President Obama's ratings: overall decline and a widening racial gap between black and white Americans.
As a public opinion researcher, I am not surprised by this racial gap. Political science has convincingly and repeatedly found a wide and persistent gulf between the political attitudes of white and black Americans.
For example, one of the most consistent finding of public opinion research is how African American partisanship differs from that of whites. African American allegiance to the Republican Party of Lincoln was solid for the decades between Emancipation and The New Deal, but by the 1940s black Americans had become overwhelmingly Democratic in affiliation. At the same time, white voters increasingly moved to the Republican column, particularly in the South.
African Americans are unique both in the direction of their affiliation and in the homogeneity of the attachment. But despite the strength of this attachment, black Democratic partisanship is quite different from that of white Democrats. There is marked racial division of opinion within the party ranks and leadership. The Congressional Black Caucus often finds itself at odds with party leadership, and among voters, black and white Democrats differ on issues of economic redistribution, domestic public policy, and even foreign policy.
This means that President Obama is not the first contemporary president to experience a noticeable racial approval gap. African American animosity toward Presidents Reagan and Bush, who were well liked by most whites, was a salient feature of the 1980s. African American attitudes toward Clinton were quite different. In 2000, black respondents reported average warmth toward Clinton of 79 points, a presidential score, that for the first time, outstripped black American ratings for Reverend Jesse Jackson. The approval ratings among African Americans for George W. Bush made history when they plummeted to single digits in some polls during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
This history suggests that black voter support of Obama is not driven solely by his identity as the first African American president, but instead is rooted in more persistent racial differences in American politics.
Therefore, while my academic-self is unsurprised by this racial gap, my citizen-self is distressed. One of the distinctive and exciting features of the Obama candidacy was the appeal of its multi-racial coalition. I appreciated the Obama yard signs in Hebrew and Arabic, the bumper sticker that read Older White Woman for Obama, the sustaining role of hip-hop music in the campaign, and watching Americans of all backgrounds chant Si Se Puede.
I have always been more impressed by the Obama coalition than by Obama himself. Perhaps this is because as a Hyde Park, Chicagoan I began following Obama's career when he was a smart, but awkward, state senator who endured a tough congressional loss. Perhaps it's because I've always secretly like Michelle better. Whatever his shortcomings, I was thrilled by Obama's 2008 campaign because his candidacy became a space where a real, winning, multi-racial, electoral coalition emerged around progressive issues on the national stage. My greatest hope for this campaign-built-on-hope was for America's racial possibilities if this diverse coalition could be sustained.
I was not alone in my enthusiasm. In the weeks immediately following the election of President Obama, Americans reported significant optimism about the future of race relations and racial equality. But late last week Gallup reported that post-election racial optimism has waned among all Americans, and particularly among black people.
On October 29, Gallup reported responses to the question: "Do you think that relations between blacks and whites will always be a problem for the United States or that a solution will eventually be worked out?" Responses reflected patterns similar to 1963, with 40% of Americans expecting race always to be a problem. And though black Americans had become more optimistic a year ago, they are now significantly more pessimistic about race in America.
These Gallup findings mirror decades of public opinion research showing that African Americans and whites differ dramatically on their perception of the existence of discrimination, and in their assessment of the potential for realizing a racially fair society. These differing perceptions of racial discrimination translate into enormous gaps in support for public policies. These gaps have effectively stymied effective coalitions for progressive policies for decades.
Despite the presence of white and Latino voters at the Newark rally on Sunday, this racial divide felt troubling and present.
Black Americans have become significantly more supportive of President Obama and more pessimistic about the country as the President has endured attacks that seem personal and racially motivated. This trend is potentially troublesome for several reasons. If black voters feel the need to rally around the President to protect him from racial attacks, then they are less able to function as full members of the coalition. Black voters need to be able to both praise and criticize the President in order to ensure their individual and collective interests are voiced.
Further, if President Obama's poll numbers are primarily bolstered by an enthusiastic, but racially isolated core, then his administration becomes more vulnerable to unfairly racialized attacks from opponents. Those opponents could seek to cast President Obama as a protector of identity-group interests, rather than as a broad representative of American interests.
President Obama and his administration may seek to distance themselves from the negative implications of racialized support by enacting social conservatives policies. This was a strategy used by President Clinton during the second half of his first term. It has the perverse effect of punishing African Americans for their political support and loyalty.
Even as Democrats seek to pass health care reform they need also to aggressively rebuild the foundation of mullti-racial enthusiasm that drove the 2008 election. President Obama's efficacy is seriously undermined to the extent that his base shrinks and divides along racial lines.
Even more important, Americans' faith in our capacity to find common ground and achieve collective aims is eroding--quickly.
Feminist author Jessica Valenti's marriage to Andrew Golis of Talking Points Memo was the lead wedding story in the New York Times style section this Sunday. It was odd to see this Full Frontal Feminist not only marry, but also submit to a romantic short story about her union. Indeed the Times seemed intent on portraying Valenti's marriage as a morality tale: tough feminists may talk about social equality, but all girls really want is a good man and note-worthy bustle. For some, Valenti's wedding became a lens for assessing her feminist credentials.
Valenti's story, as written by the Times, is an interesting companion to last week's National Equality March in Washington, DC. The National Equality March was clearly defined by organizers and participants as a demand for equal protection in all matters governed by civil law. It was a demonstration for justice in housing, employment, property, citizenship, and family law, but media nearly exclusively reported the event as a march for same-sex marriage equality.
For Valenti and for the National Equality March participants, as for many in America, marriage is the terrain where the personal is indeed political.
Marriage as the intersection between the personal and political is not new in the United States. In an upcoming book, ‘Til Death or Distance Do Us Part: Love and Marriage in African America, Frances Smith Foster challenges the received wisdom that black families were destroyed during American slavery. She marshals convincing, historical evidence refuting the assumption that enslaved people accepted that their marriages were not "real" because they were not recognized by the state.
Her study of slave marriage does not reveal fragile, transient attachments; rather Foster uncovers a rich legacy of love, struggle, and commitment among enslaved black people. By choosing whom to love, how to love, what to sacrifice, and how long to stay committed, black Americans carved out space for their human selves even as enslavers tried to reduce them to chattel.
In spite of the fact that their marriages were not legally sanctioned, many enslaved people formed lifelong attachments, sacrificed personal security and freedom to maintain their relationships, protected their fidelity despite unthinkable obstacles, and remained deeply attached to their identities as married persons.
Some black men and women chose to remain in slavery or to submit to more brutal enslavers in order to stay married to their chosen partners. Foster's stories of these marriages challenge any idea that marriage is just about health insurance and burial rights. Clearly marriage is rooted in something far more personal and spiritual. To sustain marriage some were willing to endure slavery.
I'd just finished reading Foster's book when I discovered the story of Keith Bardwell, a white, justice of the peace in Louisiana who makes it a practice to refuse marriage licenses to interracial couples, despite the Supreme Court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia. Bardwell explains his resistance to interracial marriage not as racism, but as a protective measure for the potential children of these unions who, according to Bardwell, are not accepted in any racial community.
It is impossible not to laugh aloud about the utter absurdity of defending the tragic mulatto narrative in the age of Tiger Woods, Mariah Carey, Ben Jealous, and Barack Obama. The hilarity is exceeded only by Bardwell's quaint assumption that refusing a marriage license to a heterosexual couple would block their ability to procreate. It is clear that Bardwell is not protecting children; he is protecting a particular understanding of marriage rooted in old American bigotry.
Together Foster's text and Bardwell's policy are reminders that marriage is a complex interplay between private choice and public practice. Marriage is never exclusively about loving attachment and commitment among consenting adults. It is also about state recognition of and ability to confer a specific bundle of privileges on particular individuals and relationships. But these privileges and state recognition are not enough to explain why people desire and chose marriage. The power to love, commit, and consent is more deeply human than that.
Enslaved people desired marriage, performed marriage ceremonies, and understood themselves as married, but without the protection of the state their marriages could be disrupted without their consent. They fought back, resisted, and sacrificed in order to stay married, but without the state they were vulnerable both as persons and as spouses.
To be gay in America today is not the same as being a slave in the 19th century. Despite the civil inequality faced by LGBT communities, little in human history compares to the realities of intergenerational, chattel slavery. But there are important connections between the realities of marriage for the enslaved and for contemporary gay men and lesbians.
Today, many same-sex couples in the United States live in a fraught, contingent space of loving attachment, unprotected by state recognition. My fierce commitment to marriage equality derives, in part, from my personal biography as an interracial child, descended from American slaves, and raised in Virginia, beginning less than a decade after the Loving decision. Even though I am heterosexual, marriage equality is personal. I learn from the history of racial and interracial marriage exclusion that the denial of marriage rights to same-sex couples is wrong.
But, there is more than one lesson to be learned from the parallels between racial and same-sex marital exclusion. Today, black Americans can securely marry one another. And despite the bigotry of officials like Bardwell, they can legally marry opposite-sex partners of a different race. But despite this formal, legal equality, marriage has never been more rare or more insecure among African Americans.
Marriage is now a minority lifestyle among black people. African American women in all socioeconomic categories are the group least likely to marry, most likely to divorce, and most likely to bear and rear children alone. And although marriage has fallen most precipitously among black people, it has declined throughout the United States. Since 1970, marriage rates in the United States have dropped more than 15% overall, and divorce rates have climbed steadily during this same time.
Fewer people who can marry are choosing to do so. More people who do marry are choosing to exit. This is not solely about selfish individuals unwilling to sacrifice for joint commitment. Marriage itself is still bolstered by a troubling cultural mythology, a history of domination, and a contemporary set of gendered expectations that render it both unsatisfying and unstable for many people.
In short, despite the fierce battles for marriage, contemporary heterosexual marriage is a bit of a mess. The current state of straight marriage is a reminder that simply having the right to marry is not sufficient to generate social equality, create economic stability, or ensure personal fulfillment. Marriage is a crucial civil right, but not a panacea. Even as progressives fight for marriage equality for same-sex couples, we need also to reflect on marriage as a social and political institution in itself.
Our work must be not just about marriage equality, it should also be about equal marriages, and about equal rights and security for those who opt out of marriage altogether.
As LGBT communities were organizing for the D.C. event some LGBT activists were expressing concern that an exclusive focus on marriage rights obscures other pressing issues of civil inequality and ignores the contributions of non-traditional families. These critics pushed back against the assimilationist impulse of same-sex marriage advocates in favor of a celebrating the social, cultural, and political contributions of queer individuals and communities. Their arguments sounded quite a bit like the feminist critique of marriage offered by Jessica Valenti, before the NY Times style section got to her.
So what are we to make of marriage? It is both a deeply personal relationship for which people will make almost unthinkable sacrifices, and it is a declining social institution offering little security for most who enter it.
As a black, feminist, marriage-equality advocate I reside at an important intersection in this struggle. This movement must acknowledge the unique history of racial oppression, while still revealing the interconnections of all marriage exclusion. This work must reflect the feminist critique of marriage, while still acknowledging the ancient, cross cultural, human attachment to marriage. This work must be staunchly supportive of same-sex marriage, while rejecting a marriage-normative framework that silences the contributions of queer life.
Typically advocates of marriage equality try to reassure the voting public the same-sex marriage will not change the institution itself. "Don't worry," we say, "allowing gay men and lesbians to marry will not threaten the established norms; it will simply assimilate new groups into old practices."
This is a pragmatic, political strategy, but I hope it is not true. I hope same-sex marriage changes marriage itself. I hope it changes marriage the way that no-fault divorce changed it. I hope it changes marriage the way that allowing women to own their own property and seek their own credit changed marriage. I hope it changes marriage the way laws against spousal abuse and child neglect changed marriage. I hope marriage equality results more equal marriages. I also hope it offers more opportunities for building meaningful adult lives outside of marriage.
I know from personal experience that a bad marriage is enough to rid you of the fear of death. But this experience allows me suspect that a good marriage must be among the most powerful, life-affirming, emotionally fulfilling experiences available to human beings. I support marriage equality not only because it is unfair, in a legal sense, to deny people the privileges of marriage based on their identity; but also because it also seems immoral to forbid some human beings from opting into this emotional experience.
We must do more than simply integrate new groups into an old system. Let's use this moment to re-imagine marriage and marriage-free options for building families, rearing children, crafting communities, and distributing public goods.
My reaction to Barack Obama's Nobel Peace Prize elicited some decidedly "un-peaceful" responses from my friends and followers on social networking and blog sites.
As readers here at The Notion can attest -whether with glee or disdain-I have been an ardent supporter of President Obama. Despite some disagreements, I have urged the left to view this administration as an opportunity for genuine change and to regard it as friendly to progressive aims. But my response to the Nobel Peace Prize announcement was not particularly celebratory.
Yesterday I indulged in some Nobel Prize humor on Twitter. "Maybe Obama was awarded the NPP because he didn't smack Joe Wilson." I also made a joke on Politico.com "Maybe Kanye West will show up and grab the mic in protest."
I criticized the idea of awarding a Nobel Peace Prize to a president whose short presidency has included drone attacks with devastating civilian causalities, the escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and a painfully slow response to the basic human rights issues facing LGBT communities. I respect the President's accomplishments in diplomacy but believed these issues were relevant to assessing his record on peace.
The criticisms were not meant as a sweeping indictment of President Obama's administration, nor do they indicate my faltering support. I was using the occasion of the Nobel Peace Prize award to ask what the international community recognizes as indicative of a broad commitment to peace.
I was stunned by the swift and angry responses from dozens of readers, followers, and friends. Some suggested I was a "hater." Others felt my jovial tone was disrespectful of the President. Several fretted that conservatives would justify further attacks on President Obama using my words. I have disagreed with and criticized Obama as both a candidate and president before, but I have never elicited this kind of anxiety from readers.
In these responses, I detected a very particular American racial anxiety. Let's call it the "Affirmative Action Dilemma." Beginning in the 1980s, conservatives, led by African American thinkers like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, began to argue that affirmative action has a deleterious psychological impact on African Americans. Affirmative action, they lamented, leads black people to always wonder if their success is real, deserved, and meritorious, or simply illusory, unearned, and political. Yesterday's anxiety about my critique of the Nobel Peace Prize Award appeared to echo these worries. Some felt that by raising my disagreement I was implying President Obama did not deserve the prize, and that politics, not merit, was responsible for the committee's decision.
I heard the unspoken Affirmative Action Dilemma lurking. "Please professor, don't make them think we have things we didn't earn"
Generally the response to affirmative action anxiety is to list all of the individual's accomplishments and thereby prove the individual is actually worthy of the award or position. Most Obama faithful pursued this tactic yesterday. Many demanded that I tune into The Rachel Maddow Show and several sent me lists of all President Obama's accomplishments in the area of diplomacy. Uh...ok, but that strategy is limited. (Particularly because it doesn't really negate the whole two wars, drone attacks thing)
I think a more effective counter to the Affirmative Action Dilemma is a little honesty about the wages of whiteness.
I am an affirmative action baby (born in 1973), and I have never felt any dilemma about the policy. I did not sit in my college classroom fretting about whether my white peers thought I deserved to be studying beside them. I have never lost a night of sleep worrying about my colleagues who regard my tenured position at Princeton University as a policy decision, rather than a scholarly accomplishment. This is not because I am so sure of my personal worthiness- that ebbs and flows-rather my general lack of affirmative action anxiety is derived from my clear sense of the continuing reality of white privilege.
White privilege is the bundle of unearned advantages accessible to white people in America. White privilege is not equivalent to racial prejudice. All whites share certain element of racial privilege regardless of their political or racial views. This does not mean that life is perfect for all white people. I was raised by a single, white mother, so I certainly know that white American face real barriers and struggles based on class, opportunity, gender, education, sexuality, and other cross-cutting identities. But white privilege exists and has powerful consequences. This does not mean that race is more important than socioeconomic class. It does mean that in the United States there is a preferential option for whiteness, and this preference means racial privilege produces a certain wage of whiteness.
Simply put, not everything that white people have was earned by merit. Some was, some was not. Some of the wealth, access, prizes, goodies, and political power currently held by white people are ill gotten gains from centuries of accumulated white privilege. Knowing this makes me a lot more relaxed about having to prove that I "deserve" every success, acknowledgement, or position I have.
I encourage my friends and readers to calm down a little about having to prove Obama deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. The point is that he has it now. I, for one, have been doing a little "impeach that suckers" dance ever since I heard. This one is in the history books. No turning back.
Rather than give into the racial anxiety to prove the President's worthiness let's celebrate that President Obama responded to the prize with humility and grace.
"I will accept this award as a call to action, a call for all nations and all peoples to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. These challenges won't all be met during my presidency, or even my lifetime. But I know these challenges can be met so long as it's recognized that they will not be met by one person or one nation alone."
This is an instructive response for everyone who experiences the benefits of privilege and access. Imagine how different our world would be if, instead of proving that we deserved our prizes and positions, we chose to earn them through the service we offer our fellow man.
Richard's piece asks for emotional maturity in our politics. I only partially agree. Yes, we need to halt the characterizations of Obama as savior or as anti-Christ. And we similarly should moderate our memories of the Bush years as evil or perfect. Still, I believe that the Obama win is important precisely because it injects a certain emotional valence into our electoral politics: a much needed revival of American hope. Obama won, in part, by encouraging us to feel good, to be optimistic, and to believe. The problem is when we direct that hope and belief onto the character/candidate rather than investing that optimism in the movement itself.
There is a way to hold onto hard won optimism while still demonstrating emotional restraint in the public sphere. There are some ways to intervene in this moment with optimism and effort.
Within days of Obama's election, progressives began talking about "holding Obama's feet to the fire." This is an old fashioned way to approach being part of a governing coalition. The left has been trained in adversarial techniques. Shout from the outside. March through the streets. Make lists of your demands. Demand to have your interests taken into account. These can be very important strategies. A healthy democracy should nurture and protect protest politics as much as it provides opportunities for electoral and organizational politics.
However, the tea parties and town hall shouting matches are emblematic of the limitations of this approach. If the people screaming are now on the right, what tools remain for the left? This new moment calls for new ways of engaging politically.
When Obama suggested that we change politics in this country it was more than a call to change the political party in the White House. It was an indictment of a winner-take-all mentality that has led to tyrannical governance, which fails to protect the interests of political minorities. We won an election; we did not stage a coup. The left will get some, but not all of what it wants, and that is OK. It is better than OK, it is the heart of democracy. Winning does not give us a mandate to ignore the interests of those we defeated. It gives us the responsibility to try to build greater consensus for our viewpoint.
I want universal, single-payer health care. I want a federal election law requiring consistency in voting rules and technology across all 50 states. I want low-cost, widely available child care for all families with children under five. I want the appointment of federal judges who will protect women's reproductive freedom. I want full constitutional guarantee in all 50 states of the right to same-sex marriage. I am ready to work on these issues. In fact I have worked on many of them for years. But I also know that government grinds along slowly and I will not consider the Obama administration a failure if I don't get everything I want immediately.
The power of the campaign was not Obama: it was us.
By retreating to outsider angst the left forgets one of the most exciting lessons of the Obama campaign: that ordinary people working for common purpose wield tremendous power. For those of us who work for our income and have modest means, it was unbelievable to watch ourselves become donors to a political campaign and find that those donations made a difference.
There is no reason to stop now. If you found $50 for "Obama for President," then you can find $50 for an advocacy organization that fits your political interests. If you started an "Obama for President" Facebook group, then start an "Americans for Public Option" Facebook group.
Obama started running for his second term on the night he won the election. He told us that he can't accomplish everything in one term. Good. If he is running, we have influence. Get friends to commit $50 to Obama 2012 if he commits to saving the public option.
Did you make an Obama-inspired YouTube video? Make one today for universal health coverage. Send it to everyone, get it to go viral. Did you have a pro-Obama blog. Make in an Obama-watch blog and keep people informed of the opportunities we have to impact policy. Did you knock on doors or make phone calls? Then join a local advocacy group and put that energy into pressing for fair housing. We elected Obama. We can change America.
Put down the hammer and try a screwdriver.
We have a sacred responsibility as citizens to hold all of our elected leaders accountable. But we have a unique opportunity to do more than that with Barack. We could actually help him succeed. There is an important difference. Accountability language is all about making demands and screaming for the government to meet your needs and interests. That is fine, but it is only one tool. Let's call is a hammer. A hammer is a great tool if you are faced with a nail. Bang away on a nail and you get good results.
But we should not assume that all our problems are nails. Some are screws. If you bang away on a screw you get a big mess. So instead of always assuming we are faced with a problem that requires complaint from the outside, why not ask what we can do to help Obama achieve a new direction for America? How can our energies and efforts on a local level move us toward a better and more accountable government?
Are you ready to run for the local school board to help change education policy in your community? Are you ready to turn down your thermostat, refuse to drive 5 days a months, and recycle to help reduce your carbon footprint? Are you ready to spend your weekend building homes with Habitat for Humanity? Are you ready to find the contact information for your member of Congress and write monthly letters encouraging her to support specific actions? Are you ready to write OpEd pieces for your local paper?
Are we ready to see if a screwdriver might be more effective than a hammer? Of course we are not throwing out the hammer, because sometimes a nail needs a good smack.