I was getting the oil changed and tires rotated on our Mazda today, and since I’d forgotten to bring along my own reading material, I was paging through an issue of Newsweek to pass the time. Although I can’t find a reference online (update – I found it: the writer’s name is Devin Gordon, and here’s a link), a little item from a recent issue struck me as a perfect illustration of the way some Americans are incredibly small-minded, and why Barack Obama has an uphill battle not necessarily against conscious prejudice as such but against the sort of racism that’s enculturated so deeply it’s barely recognizable as a thought.
The item that occasioned this thought was a short comment about all the publicity attending Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bump prior to his nomination speech. The writer said that with all that publicity, they’ll never be able to do that again, since it would seem contrived, stagey, etc.
And I thought, really? Michelle Robinson Obama grew up in a primarily black neighborhood in Chicago, and Barack Obama lived and worked in similar neighborhoods for much of his life. The fist bump or “dap” is an established and normal aspect of black American culture (and not just black American culture), so it’s entirely possible that the famous (or infamous, if you’re a Fox News imbecile) dap was completely spontaneous.
But here’s the thing: If Mr. White Guy from a Good Home in a Good Suburb is nominated for his party’s presidential ticket, and he hugs his wife, or shakes hands with a close friend or advisor, no one makes anything of it. Certainly no one suggests that, you know, since he shook hands at that moment, he won’t be able to do it again, because that would imply that he’s just trying to repeat the moment of hand-shaking that generated all that publicity.
Because, of course, a white guy shaking another white guy’s hand would generate no publicity at all. It’s considered utterly normal, totally unremarkable, not worthy of any press at all. And that, obviously, is because shaking hands is so integral a part of white male business and political culture (and not just white culture) that it’s about as worthy of notice as the fact that a politician was wearing a suit and tie.
I doubt that our Newsweek columnist is a bigot – yet his arch little observation about the showbizzy nature of politics illustrates the way racism can persist, in the form of “othering” those whose actions, speech, or thoughts seem alien to us. (I was about to remove that “us” – since it repeats the same thing I’m complaining about…but I’m leaving it, because my point is not that this middle-class white guy is better than everyone else, but that even when we’re trying to not act like a jerk sometimes these little things poke through.)
The problem Obama faces is that for parochial Americans, black culture just is not “American culture.” Increasingly, in fact, “American culture” is only what’s comfortable and familiar to some sort of vaguely middle- and working-class white suburban cohort – too much education, any sort of unusual tastes (latte, arugula, ad nauseam), and you’re no longer a “real” American. And Obama confounds these folks further both by being black and by being a Harvard Law grad: for such increasingly narrowcast “Americans,” that notion simply does not compute.
The dangers of such parochialism are not just hypothetical, nor are they only an anomaly faced by this year’s Democratic presidential nominee. Law professor Jacqueline Stevens points out that panic over immigration effectively votes Latino/as off Citizenship Island, even if they are citizens: although the law says that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) has no jurisdiction over US citizens, Stevens outlines numerous cases in which citizens were caught up in ICE sweeps and imprisoned, sometimes for years, until they could prove citizenship. So much for “innocent until proven guilty.”
Stevens also notes a disturbing and little-noted aspect of America’s grotesquely high rates of imprisonment: a 2006 Justice Department report says that “about 40 percent of the incarcerated population has ‘symptoms of mania,'” and nearly one-quarter of inmates suffer from psychotic disorders. Those with untreated mental illness are far likelier to make poor decisions when confronted with law enforcement, and of course their illness, poverty, and (often) racial or ethnic identity limit their employment options. It is unsurprising that many such people end up committing crimes.
Fortunately, no one takes seriously Fox News’ suggestion that the Obamas’ dap was a “terrorist handshake.” Other people who don’t fit in that sort of definition of “American” are not so fortunate.