Sunday, June 29, 2008

Until Florida Is Free, None Of Us Is Free

One of the workshops at History Camp featured three wonderful young southern historians who are writing about late twentieth-century political mobilizations in the former Confederacy. A conversation which I love to have, with colleagues and with students, is: does the South still cohere as a region? If so, what is "regional" about it and -- given the vast emigration of black and white southerners to northern and western industrial cities in the twentieth century, what characteristics of the "south" are shared by other places? And to what extent does the contemporary South draw on its past for distinctiveness?

I thought of our conversation when I saw this story on the Associated Press wire, which describes an attack last night on city-owned vehicles in Orlando, Florida. Cars were sprayed with anti-Obama slogans such as "Obama smokes crack" and what the AP reporter described as "a racial epithet."

Funny the reporter did not consider "Obama smokes crack" to be a racial epithet.

At any rate, the other feature of this was that there were also anti-McCain slogans left by the vandals as well (on "business cards"); but cards were also left that indicated the damage had been done by disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters. And this all occurred hours after Clinton and Obama campaigned together for the first time.

Strange times we are living in, no? My first response was, "Don't forget that Florida is in the South," and by this I do not necessarily mean the racism alone. Clearly by including McCain in the attacks, the vandals intended, despite the use of racial epithets, to target Clinton (in the guise of "supporting" her) as both "racist" and "sexist." And we should not forget, as the reporters did in this story, that McCain was himself the target of racist leaflets in 2004, when activists either supported or inspired by the Bush reelection campaign there went after his adopted child as the "secret daughter" McCain had supposedly fathered with a black woman (what's wrong with a white man having a biracial daughter out of wedlock, you ask, and then taking her into his home? The short answer is that it's not the having, or the keeping of her, it's the telling of it that is a political and historical sin.)

The intent, as I understand it, is to foment explicitly racial and gendered antagonisms in the Democratic party, and to remind voters on the radical right that a vote against Obama is a vote for everything that white supremacy has and does stand for. I was thinking about the potential for this kind of attack while watching the Unity Event last night, since it is impossible for me to watch the news without going into historian mode. Clinton and Obama touched each other and embraced lightly now and then; they whispered intimately in each other's ears (which political candidates are inclined to do even, or especially, when of the same gender and/or race.) And this thing that was happening publicly between a black man and a white woman was like history hitting me smack in the face. That, my friends, is where Southern history still has us by the throat: that for some people, this image of a black man and a white woman together, whether in a political or an actual marriage, will be the image that has the power to mobilize irrational and dangerous rage. And it will be used.

So this is my response. I think we all have to commit to the principle that until racial violence masquerading as politics no longer happens in Florida, we are not free of it in the United States either. By this I wish to emphasize that those of us who live in places like, say New England, are quick to stigmatize places like Florida. But Connecticut had its Jim Crow too, and it still does: look at the difference between schools in New Haven and schools in Greenwich; the percentage of people who can and do vote in Bridgeport and those who can and do vote in Stamford, only a few miles down the road? I used to think about this during the Pennsylvania primary, when reporters talked about the vast "Alabama" between Pittsburgh and and Philadelphia: well, I don't know what Pennsylvania they were looking at, but when I was growing up in the Suburbs, for many black people, North and West Philadelphia were Birmingham. And just because they vote for Democrats in the wealthy suburbs now doesn't mean it isn't Alabama in some respects. Or Florida.

Perhaps it is because I am engrossed in Barbara Ransby's wonderful biography of Ella Baker, but I have to say, I do not think it is working for us not to talk publicly about race, particularly since when I am with groups of white people they are talking about it a lot, in both productive and scary ways. One white woman I have known for a while, a New Englander, repeated every single crazy lie all of us have heard about Obama ("How," I found myself stuttering in shock,"Can Obama be both a devoted parishioner of the Reverend Wright and a madrassah-educated Muslim simultaneously?") And why did she say these things to me, of all people? It was not until later that I recalled the context -- we were alone, two white women, in a private space where no one who was not "one of us" --as it were -- could overhear.

What we white people who have become, or have always been, Obama supporters must decide is: are we willing to break the racial contract of silence that has more or less held for years (witness our endless use of the euphemism the n-word as if somehow our white lips suddenly became unable to make those sounds after 1964)? And if so, how will we break the contract, without putting ourselves first, as we often have in other historical moments? Despite the fact that Obama would be wise to talk about race as little as possible, how do the rest of us, and particularly white women, pursue a specifically anti-racist agenda in this election season? And to what extent are we willing to take responsibility for the fact that if this is happening in Florida, it is being countenanced elsewhere?

Coda: click here for young white kids who are taking the name "Hussein" as an everyday act to eliminate the stigma right wing crazies have attached to it.

Cross posted at Cliopatria.


Anonymous said...

when I saw this on the news last night, my first thought was that these were republicans trying to stir up more controversy in the Democratic party. My second, was that the number of white women who have come out in support of H. Clinton, not b/c of policies or other politics, but b/c of the oft-repeated mantra that gender trumps race makes it easy for republicans and supremacists in general to use these tactics for this very reason. (both non-racist white women who supported Clinton and all of the women who supported Obama have also been eclipsed by this narrative and I find myself wondering why they are not acting as a larger voice to counter the way gender is being constructed by the media and politicians for this election.) I'm glad to see that while the reporter I was watching clearly did not get it, reporting the incident as "angry Clinton supporters," that other people did.

Anonymous said...

Yeah--this smells like a classic Republican rat-effing job, and the media are very eager to fan the flames of division among Democrats. (Never mind that large portions of the Republican base hate McCain and have for a long time--look over there! A catfight!)

Tim Lacy said...


When I read your post headline and saw the picture, I thought this was going to be a story about how the "unity" meeting fell apart with supporters sniping about the Florida democratic primary. Thank God that's over.

But, yes, racism is sadly going to be a part of this election---and not just in the South. I'm seeing rumblings in the Midwest too (meaning outside of IL). And for that matter, will south Boston go for Obama?!

In addition to race, watch out for the pro-life ideologues. Despite McCain's weakness on this (as recently as 1999 he seemed to support Roe), abortion activists will use it as a wedge issue---despite Obama not being as hardcore/ideologically pro-choice has some would like him to be.

It's going to get interesting between now and November.

- TL

vanessa said...

Very interesting post on what my friend from New Orleans, a PhD in Social Work, calls "regionalism." I emailed the post to her. She and I both live in Chicago, and she is very quick to point out when people are making broad generalizations about the south. I like your point about how there was a mass migration of workers to the north, and of course, there was still Jim Crow here. My mother remembers many places she was either not allowed to enter in downtown Chicago, or where, as a Black woman, she would be expected to wait until all of the white customers were served. That said, driving from NYC to FL a few years ago, I admit that there were some stops I made where I was frightened by peoples' stares and glares. However, I have also experienced stares when holding a white guys' hand in the middle of Chicago. And it is frequent here for restaurant hosts to try and seat my mother and I separately (I have very light skin as my father is white), but in NYC, it's never happened. So I think there are regional trends, however only very generally.

Anonymous said...

I have lived in the South all my life, and I think you are making a mountain out of a molehill. This was a random event -- I am sure that before this election season is over, we will also see instances of McCain being publicly trashed. When that happens, will you ascribe it to white rage because the McCains adopted a nonwhite child? Yes, there will always be haters -- but in my opinion they are proportionally spread among races, sexes, ages, classes, political persuasions, and regions of America.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for this post--especially the last part about calling on white people, especially white women, to talk about race and racism, as this topic is hitting us square in the face in various forms (and forums) right now. I think we NEED more conversations about race, especially from white Americans and from white allies who want to work on an anti-racist agenda.

Now, I have to politely disagree with the comment by "anonymous." As a recent transplant to "the South" and as someone in a relationship with a Southern man and his Southern family (who are all yellow dog Democrats who have been involved in state politics in the Democratic party for decades--and they are all predicting a heap of nastiness with respect to racist ads and Obama) I can tell you that I have found a difference in the culture of racism here in "The South" versus "The West" (or maybe specifically CA) and New England (spec. VT and MA).

I'm not trying to say that people in the South are more racist than people in other places , but the airing of it in public and the social acceptability in certain circles is what strikes me as markedly different.

And I'd say that while I am learning to appreciate the subtle differences of region in the various ex-confederate state that comprise "the South" there is a cultural attitude, based in history, no doubt, that permeates this region. I KNOW I'm not in Boston or in San Francisco--and I've spent my adult life in various small college towns, but life in my particular small SOUTHERN college town is distinctly different.

Andi said...

As a Southerner, I'm going to stay out of the debate about whether the South is more racist than other parts of the country. I'm kind of tired of that debate since the U.S. as a whole operates as a racist system (although I see your point wholly here), but I will say that I absolutely agree that people need to talk about racism and race. Until we can say openly what we feel quietly, then we can't move forward. And perhaps, that's the difference between the forms of racism in various parts of our country.