Oh dear, it must be summer again because my blood pressure's on the rise.
That is, my perennial rollercoaster ride through the Catholic-martyr enterprise of cheering for the Detroit Tigers (yes, they stir me emotionally so much it demands mixed metaphors) has me awake nights with tightness in my chest. And for two weeks now I've felt myself getting tense as I watch another season of our continued inability to talk meaningfully about race unfold.
First, I got to hear Jesse Jackson compare LeBron "I'm taking my talents to South Beach" James to runaway slaves, after disgruntled Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert went on an anti-King James rant over his star player's exodus to the Miami Heat. Really, Reverend Jackson? Look, I admire you to know end. I keep one of your 1988 campaign buttons on my desk at work to remind myself of your historic and important moments of political engagement in trying to make the United States a better democracy. But really? You're going to compare a 90-million-dollar-endorsement-baby-and-celebrity-athlete to men and women who risked their lives to pursue the supposedly inalienable rights white Americans had withheld from them? That's not to say, of course, that I am letting Gilbert off the hook as an altruistic defender of Right and Good either. He's a rich guy pissed off that he's going to lose a lot of coin in his pocket because his biggest gate-draw is gone. It's no great psychoanalytical challenge to ascertain Gilbert's intentions in directing some vitriol LeBron's way. But Jesse Jackson's comments frustrated me because they fell back, it seemed, on a reactionary discourse around race that has great historical applicability in many instances but in this case lacks nuance entirely: namely, white = empowered, black = disempowered. The formulation was overly simplistic, and Jackson's comments seemed to be the misplaced words of a man who's devolving too much into one of those pithy-provocative-soundbite-peddlers that noisy up the cable news stations every evening. (The more shocking thing is that I'm surprised, at this point, given that the comments game from the same fellow who rather indiscreetly once remarked that he wanted "to cut [the president's] nuts out.") Had Jackson left it at, say, "Dan Gilbert is trying to make LeBron's leaving Cleveland personal when really their relationship was always an ongoing business transaction, and what's more American than that?" I'd likely have agreed with him through and through.
Then this week I've watched the Mark-Williams-Takes-on-the-NAACP saga unfold with all the bombast and idiocy I've come to expect around racially provocative debates. There's little I can say critically about Williams's various ignorant turns of late, I guess, that haven't been articulated at length (and better) by other people. (The shortlist he deserves thrown his way, just in case you've been on another planet of late: "The NAACP uses the term "colored people" because it's related to a name for African Americans that had great currency at the time of the organization's founding, you dumbass, not because they're 'racist';" and "Hey jerk, what better way to prove that the Tea Party 'movement' is not clouded by the residue of white supremacy and unbrotherly love than to post a racially divisive piece of 'satire' on your website in which you denigrate the NAACP's president as 'Tom's nephew' and offer a mock plea to Abraham Lincoln to restore slavery?") What I do think is worth saying here about the Williams debacle is that it speaks to the tired way that accusations of racism have become such a throwaway barb and a smelly smokescreen whenever a moment pushes us toward confronting the unresolved problems of a long white supremacist past. Rather than confront how we have all inherited a society infected with the ugly legacy of colonialism's racial inequalities and economic exploitation, we fall back on simplistic accusations of racism. Jesse Jackson did it. Mark Williams did it, inexplicably, in trying to discredit the NAACP's suggestion that Tea Party rhetoric is tainted by white supremacist notions by saying in return that they were racist for deigning to bring race into any political discussion about the Tea Party's aims.
Racists, we all know, are ignorant and irredeemable, the thinking goes. In order to preserve our otherwise smoothly running society, we must banish these infiltrators to the margins since they don't represent our equality-loving, sophisticated society very well. (Why else do we so thrive on pointing fingers at the Michael Richards and Don Imus types who slip up and let their inner Klansman come to the fore, rather than look more closely and comprehensively at the ubiquity of racial assumptions across the board?) And curiously, as the Williams fracas revealed again, to introduce a critical lens on race to any political debate is merely to be some kind of anti-democratic, pot-stirring racist oneself, since obviously racism is over (hell, the president is black, people!) and we don't need to talk about that stuff anymore. (I must email Williams and ask him when this revolutionary moment occurred--the end of racism and white supremacy--so I can pencil it into my planner and celebrate the date each year.)
So, today, Williams tells us--with another backhanded dig at the NAACP--that he urges us all to "fight those who divide us by race, no matter the color of the racist." Golly! My heart feels full with hope now that the next great civil rights leader has emerged: behold, the new face of diplomacy and equality, ready to preserve freedom and opportunity across racial lines. Such nobility!
Yeah, right. And maybe I could step in and replace Lebron at the small forward position for the Cavaliers.