Race: February 2007 Archives

I've been reading Tommie Shelby's We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity. After an excellent Ralph Ellison quote about how much mainstream American culture is influenced and produced by black people, Shelby raises an interesting question about a common enough attitude among many black Americans. Enough people think that anyone who is black, merely from being black, has a positive duty to embrace black culture as one's own culture. Part of Shelby's critique lies in questioning whether someone, by being black, automatically ought to embrace black culture. But along the way, in the context of Ellison's point, he raises a difficulty about what even counts as black culture:

Moreover, there are aspects of black culture that whites have played a constructive role in maintaining and developing -- such as musical forms and literary traditions. Do their efforts make the culture any less black? Or are we operating, absurdly, with a reverse "one-drop rule" of culture -- with a criterion that holds that a cultural trait is black if and only if blacks alone had a hand in its creation?

This point is very close some of what John McWhorter simply calls separatism, although Shelby probably disagrees with McWhorter on some of that larger phenomenon. But Shelby and McWhorter are coming from very different places politically. McWhorter, while no Republican (he donated $3000 to John Kerry's campaign for the presidency), tends to have more conservative views on race than most blacks in the public light (although I myself consider him fairly moderate compared to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas or libertarian economist Thomas Sowell). Shelby, on the other hand, is a Marxist, and his views on political policies that will help black people are very left-wing in the American political scene. His aim in this book is to appeal more to a much broader political base, so it's unsurprising to find some arguments that moderates and even some conservatives might go for, but this isn't some pragmatic argument on the basis of premises he doesn't accept. He thinks the position he's critiquing is truly absurd, and his reasons aren't that far from McWhorter's.

What struck me most about his statement, however, was not its appeal to more moderate and conservative views but its rhetorical move comparing this tendency among some blacks to the racist one-drop rule that classifies people as black merely for having one black ancestor several generations back. Blackness is like an infection of impurity, according to the one-drop rule, and it can't be removed no matter how you dilute it. According to the reverse one-drop rule for culture, it's (cultural) whiteness that's an impurity infecting black culture. Even aside from the issues of mainstream culture vs. black culture (see my separatism post linked to above), there's something disturbing about seeing white cultural elements as impurities, even if whiteness as a concept stems from evil ideology. That doesn't mean cultural traits white people happen to have should always be bad and can never be adopted by black people willingly and as good things.

Joe Biden and Barack Obama

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Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE) has gotten into trouble over the following statement he made about Senator Barack Obama's (D-IL) run for the presidency:

I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy

There have been all sorts of reactions to this. I agree that it's racially insensitive, for most of the reasons people have given. It's a typical example of Senator Biden shooting his mouth off without thinking how it would be heard, and he may be right that people are taking it in ways he didn't intend. Whether that excuses him depends on if their way of taking it is more reasonable than his expectation of how they'd take it.

There is the problem with 'articulate', which hasn't received as much of the focus from what I've heard. I think there might be a way for him to say what he meant without using that word, but it would be difficult to be very widely-read on race issues in this country without knowing that many black people find that word offensive, for the reasons I discussed here. That puts him in the same category as Trent Lott. While he almost certainly did not intend anything negative by it, he is way out of step with the black community and their perceptions of how people describe them.

I also don't think his explanation of what he meant by 'clean' is very plausible. You don't refer someone's being fresh in terms of a clean start by saying that person is clean. I'm not sure what he was thinking, but that's almost certainly not it. It may not necessarily reflect any negative views about black people, but I have to hear a more plausible account of what he was thinking to be satisfied. James Joyner suggests that Biden had intended to say "clean-cut" or something similar. If so, I want to hear it from him. It's not what he said he meant. I do think Biden is excited about Obama's campaign and thinks he'd be an excellent president, and I don't think he intended to suggest that Al Sharpton doesn't take regular showers. But I'm not sure what he said he meant is very likely to be what he meant. His response thus sounds a little strange.

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