By Omar Ricks
…for a man whose only weapon is reason there is nothing more neurotic than contact with unreason.~Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks
I don’t know about you, but I have stopped believing that Black people will ever get the respect that we are owed as human beings, here or anywhere in the world, by voting. Contrary to Chris Christie, I don’t believe that Black people will ever vote ourselves into having the basic so-called universal human rights we deserve. Perhaps there are possibilities not yet explored. (For example, we may be overdue for a 100-year slave rebellion.) Electoral politics, sort of like women’s tennis, doesn’t usually grab my interest. As with women’s tennis, I watch in order to see how whites, non-blacks, and Blacks negotiate the presence and achievements of Black people in a space where Black people are “not supposed to be.” (I haven’t watched men’s tennis since James Blake was ranked, but Serena I will watch because she’s so full of surprises, especially when she doesn’t even seem to try.) As much as I ache for what I see President Obama (or Venus and Serena Williams) going through, seeing him go through it is instructive about the way Black folks are positioned as fungible objects, easily substituted and exchanged, in the US political world today. And that is why I must say this: I am tired of liberal and progressive left pundits engaging the Republicans’ race-baiting rhetoric as if it is based on reason.
The stock set of phrases you tend to hear from the mainstream left is as nauseatingly predictable as is The Help.
That’s so ignorant of Rush to say that! I have the facts and they say something different.
I can’t believe so-and-so said/did that!
It’s the 21st century. Aren’t we past this by now?
As much as I wish the sheer number of times these phrases were repeated would blow the racism of the right away, it never seems to go that way. Sing it with me now: How does it feel to be a problem?
One way to look at the problem is to say that such phrases are trying to give Unreason some kind of grounding wire. In other words, many on the left seem to think that if they can cast the right’s racism as something so concrete and resolvable as a matter of ignorance, a violation of social taboo, or a soon-to-be victim of inexorable historical progress, it can convince Black people that we have something at stake in the future of the USA. Where I see people who approach me as though I am somewhere between human and beast, liberals see someone who is “ignorant” and should be conversed with over coffee and beer. A good example is the FactCheck.org report on Newt Gingrich’s food stamp claim.
FactCheck recently released a report on Newt Gingrich’s fondness for calling President Obama the “food stamp president.” The report finds untrue Gingrich’s claim that “more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history.” The report generously overlooks the obvious flaw in the rhetorical flourish Gingrich uses: that it is not within the president’s constitutional bailiwick to “put” people on food stamps; people apply for food stamps. But, the report says, on a strictly factual basis, Gingrich’s claim is wrong because the program has so far grown by 444,574 fewer recipients during Obama’s time in office than during Bush’s. The story has been picked up by a number of news sources on the left, like Al Gore’s TV network Current, whose Countdown anchor David Shuster said to Gingrich, “Please clean up your sloppy rhetoric…The voters deserve better.”
If you correct someone, it is likely because you have some hope that she would behave differently “if only she knew better.” And how will she know better if she doesn’t have a mystical possession at her disposal called “the facts”–a possession that you will generously impart to her? Responses like these have all the hallmarks of great liberal speech. The liberal speaker is driven by such optimism to seek out the facts that will eventually lead the conservative to admit defeat. But, what is the point of engaging anti-Black racism on the terrain of liberal debate? If, as theorist Nahum Chandler writes, anti-Black racism is “a dogmatism in the midst of the Enlightenment”–that is, fundamental Unreason underwriting a movement supposedly about Reason and human dignity—liberal discourse can obviously coexist quite snugly with anti-Black racism. (Remember the old comic of Thomas Jefferson writing, “All men are created equal” as his wife enters the room and says, “Shall I feed the slaves now?” Remember also that John Locke, one of the prime Enlightenment figures, from whom Jefferson got many of his ideas, was himself deeply invested in the slave trade.) Why would one ever think that the liberal discourse derived from the Enlightenment would be sufficient to engage anti-Black racism? To paraphrase Al Sharpton (something I will rarely do), if you find yourself arguing with a crazy person, the odds are good that he does, too. Find him a fool, leave him a fool, as the elders used to say.
Facts may be facts, but the fact that Gingrich’s claim is utterly made-up and that there are more white people are on food stamps is beside the point. It would be a bullshit claim even if factually accurate because THERE IS NO SHAME IN BEING ON FOOD STAMPS. Food stamps are a means-tested program, so the number of people enrolled is an indicator of the current state of the economy and, even more, of how messed up capitalism is. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) addresses a basic necessity for continuing to metabolize. To live. In that way, it differs very little from what Republicans and blue-dog Democrats say about the US military. It is a necessity for fending off certain threats– starvation from poverty in one case, invasion from enemies in the other– and the need for it shifts across time and place. But, of course, if someone had accused George W. Bush of being the “military buildup president,” or even the “Americans-dying-in-terrorist-attacks president” (or, as Bill Maher said, “the planes-crashing-into-buildings-president”) they would have just looked crazy. In saying “food stamp president,” Gingrich is doing more than using a tactic. He knows that he transcends economic reality when he says that. The reason he continues to do it is because he knows that it taps into what he really cares about: a structure of feeling that underwrites that reality. In “food stamp president,” using a punchy, quasi-coded way of saying “Obama’s black. Therefore, vote for me.” Period.
Gingrich’s campaign trick works because of how little explaining he has to do about why being black is supposedly such a bad thing. So when the left engages him on the terms of debate he sets, it’s akin to accepting the premise, even if, in doing so, one is saying, “But Black people are good! See! They’re not all on food stamps!” But everyone knows that even if we were all on food stamps– heck, even if we were all CEOs– it would not matter. Gingrich’s language is crystal clear. Blackness is the thing that must be resisted, pushed away– whether it is rich, poor, or otherwise, whether it is Harvard-educated, single-mother-raised, or both.
If the contrasts Gingrich made in South Carolina between himself as a “jobs president” and President Obama as a “food stamp president” are any indication, the association between Black and food stamps will continue, and might well become the main calling card Gingrich uses if he receives the nomination (as Bush did by repeatedly casting Kerry as “flip-flopper”). For Gingrich, Blacks not only are on food stamps, but it is as if we somehow are food stamps. We embody food stamps. The equation is Black=food stamps=bad. Gingrich is basically saying, “America, Obama will make you black.”
The standard left response generally has two moments: first, the moment of showing the Republicans that this food stamp claim is inaccurate, and second, the moment of reminding them that it is racist to even be making that claim– or, as one white liberal friend of mine put it, saying “your racism is showing.” Fine. But what about the racism that isn’t showing? Specifically, what about the racism of the person accusing the Republicans of being racist? I suspect that liberals and leftists engage claims like those that Gingrich made because at some level they are speaking the same language as the right in relation to what they think blackness is. The left’s eagerness to engage in the conversation about Black people and food stamps reveals a certain complicity in the assumptions about Black inferiority.
It’s like there are three points on a triangle: Black, food stamps, and bad, each connected to the other two. The left hacks away at the connection between Black and food stamps so much that it fails to address the connecting lines between Black and “bad” or between “food stamps” and “bad.” I don’t think that’s a failure of the left’s performance. There are too many anti-black discourses on the left that one would have to overlook to think this omission is an accident. Harry Reid’s famous words about Obama being just Black enough, but not too Black in his speech; white liberal-dominated Hollywood’s elevation of the Mammy type (and concomitant rejection of the rest of Black cinema, except when directed by white men; the racist abuse of some Black people within the Occupy movement, and the movement’s overall anchoring in the momentary urgency of a crisis for white people that has been far worse and damn-near permanent for Black people, are just a few examples. I therefore don’t think it’s an accident that the left doesn’t seriously address the anti-blackness on which this country was founded and that continues to undergird the political discourse of the right today. To do so would expose its own assumptions to be every bit as invested in anti-blackness as those of the right.
In many ways, the Obama-era mainstream left has gotten dumb in its discourse on race because it can’t see its own investment in anti-blackness. In all fairness, it has shown that it will work with people of many different racial and ethnic groups– and Black people, as long as we are calling ourselves something other than Black people (low-income residents of the inner city, union members, people-of-color, or other proxy categories). Its well-reasoned response to Gingrich, however, shows that the left keeps trying to reason with the Unreason of anti-black racism by using facts and figures, a rhetoric of outrage, and the vote. This engagement fails to question the fundamental reasons why, in America (let alone in the world), Black equals bad– why being associated with Black people, as such, is a bad thing. And as long as the Unreason behind this association of “bad” with “Black” goes unexamined on the left, food stamps will continue to signify a bad thing in the minds of most Americans.
Racism is, of course, not reducible to the words and speech-acts of racists. If Gingrich told the truth about Black people, it wouldn’t make things any easier on us. Racism is bound up in structures that form us as political beings and shape how and whether we look at power. Listening attentively to the words/acts of racists in government can nonetheless help us get a sense of the contours of the specific type of racism we are dealing with so that we have a correct analysis of the problem and understand how to deal with Unreason.
Omar Ricks is a doctoral student in Performance Studies at UC Berkeley. His work uses filmic, new media, and literary representations to theorize the ethical questions underwriting the performance of Black leadership in the twentieth-century United States. He earned his B.A. in History from Johnson C. Smith University, his M.A. in US History from University of Illinois, and his M.F.A. in Drama (Performance) from UC Irvine.