Without a doubt, when we get into the role of race in our society and in its formation, we will deal with narrative, but all of our institutions have a narrative. In America, the narrative of the cowboy and its concomitant tags of Indian fighter, pioneer, and primarily, rugged individual dominates so much of our discussion. Our politics are awash in these images, made all the more powerful and pervasive by the media. Who do we think of first when we think of the American rugged individual? John Wayne. I saw him once, at a bullfight, and he was indeed an imposing figure but as a person, he managed to avoid military service other than starring roles in war movies. His image was adopted by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan as well as by Marlboro cigarettes
The reaction on the part of conservatives to provocative statements on the part of non-Whites tells us a lot about them, the conservatives. I label it projection. Why the silly overreaction to a Louis Farrakhan, to two guys calling themselves the New Black Panthers, to a school in Tucson teaching Mexican-American students who refer to themselves as “dumb Mexicans” about their heritage? The Republican Superintendent of Public Education ripped the long-standing school program out; Fox News stayed on the Black Panther menace story; Farrakhan is trotted out as evidence of Black hatred for Whites……. or better, “Whitey” – an expression I’ve never heard a Black person use, BTW. My opinion is that Whites are projecting their own centuries long fear of Blacks especially that turns naturally to hate onto the Blacks themselves. It falls on deaf ears when you point out that freed slaves not only did not harm the former slave-holders but even returned to the devastated farms and plantations with food they had scrounged. That simply is not the narrative. Conservatives groan when we Liberals trot out Birth of a Nation, but those images of rampaging Blacks were imprinted on the mind of a nation.
In our house, typical of Black homes in this regard, we have pictures of both MLK and Malcolm X. Now we have Obama. Many homes of older people also have a picture of JFK and, because Black Americans are the most religious ethnic group in the country as measured by social scientists, a picture of Jesus.
So why do we have a picture of Malcolm X? Wasn’t he a radical? Does that then make us radicals? The “palling around with terrorists” theme struck by Sarah Palin provides an excellent insight into the superficiality of the conservative mind. First of all, MLK was considered a radical militant before sainthood was bestowed upon him. My state newspaper, the Arizona Republic, printed an editorial cartoon by our premier, Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist of MLK driving the Civil Rights Movement off a cliff. That was the predominant attitude, “the most dangerous Negro in America.” Then Malcolm came along and scared the bejeezus out of everybody, including Black folk. He didn’t invoke Jesus but someone named Allah. So soon after, the Civil Rights bill and the Voting Rights bills were passed, blanketing the country with tyranny or making sure people had their constitutional rights respected by the authorities, depending on your pov. Narratives are more flexible than institutions.
Another source of pique among Conservatives and conservatives is programs or workshops or whatever sort of presentations that go on in which a group of non-Whites have explained to them in stark tones the injustices committed against their people. At times, those presentations go over the top and it is difficult to correct these because such correction is read as suppression. In the process of overcoming the negative stereotypes attached to non-Whites, the attempts were sometimes awkward. I always recall with a chuckle when I worked for a very militant Black organization and I got selected to teach the ethnic minorities class to our trainees. Talk about outrage! I had a good time anyway and the trainees liked the class. Nevertheless, I am sure that some Conservatives would object to the way I framed the experience of non-White minorities in America. Too bad. Narratives need to be overturned or corrected sometimes and overshooting or undershooting is to be tolerated.
Our stereotypes derive from narratives. A good deal of the dissension among the members of the grouplet revolves around daily experience with African-Americans. The nexus is not the mistreatment of African-Americans but rather the one-note impression of them that clouds perception. I wonder what the conservative who thinks Black people have one dimensional views of society in its relationship to Blacks would think of the Larry Wilmore show where the Black woman on the plane is charging discrimination, that she is being forced off the plane. Part way through her high dudgeon the steward, also Black, pokes his face in and explains that the plane has been on the ground for some time and is now empty except for her. She explains that she is waiting for the in-flight movie Happy Feet to end, that’s all. Such a send-up of discrimination complaints coming out of a show that is not at all shy about excoriating White racism with vicious satire belies the “everything is about Black people being mistreated” theme. Black people can laugh at themselves. We hope Whites do, too (they do) when it comes to interactions with Blacks – the clutched purse, the phone call to the police about a “Black guy in my neighborhood”, the politicians who catch themselves as the word Black comes out of their mouth. You cannot judge Black people by only watching on TV spokespersons for the cause; of course, they are going to focus on misdeeds and mistakes. But sitting around watching the game, mowing the lawn, going to a ball game? No. One caveat: when a Black host cuts too close to the bone, the network may panic as was the case with Melissa Harris Perry and MSNBC. Her piece on Beyonce angered a lot of people and thus everyone is cut off from what Black people really think. Too bad. The MSNBC line-up is very good, but Blacks now appear only as guests and need not be invited back. Only Al Sharpton is keeping it real over on MSNBC and he’s been cut back to one show a week from five. As we move to the segment My POV we will see what it means to have people like Sharpton and MHP to counter the American Exceptionalism and Post Racial themes so embraced by an unknowing public.
The GOP is in fact deeply embarrassed that their preferred narrative of racial innocence has been shredded by the rise of Trump. He has “besmirched the movement’s long record of racial innocence,” said Bret Stephens in the WSJ. Laughable. Reagan starting his campaign in an out-of-the-way place known for only one thing: the lynching of three civil rights workers with the complicity of local authorities, was as loud a dog whistle as you can find without hearing the bark. Watching the GOP struggle to get just a taste of Jewish, Asian, Native American, Hispanic, and Black votes is a lesson in narrative building. You can read about that effort in detail and see the headwinds it is going against.
The model minorities are a part of the American narrative that cuts out Blacks. Ignored are the significant protest movements among Asians (with their references to bananas – yellow on the outside but white on the inside). It doesn’t fit the narrative, so “poof”, there it goes. The media cooperates by showing miserable illegal border-crossers and gang-bangers every night but where are the employers who hire the undocumented, the financiers who bankroll not only businesses employing “illegals” but the gun manufacturers who knowingly put cheap guns into high-crime areas. Specials, exposés, etc. do appear and must be applauded, but they do not contribute to the narrative. Constructing a narrative is a complex and largely unconscious process and takes scholarly work to unearth. The narrative of our distinct, ancient and sacrosanct national borders has played a spectacular role in the current campaigns and for some time now, but other than Bill Moyers and other Liberals, who else explores this notion in order to teach? More frequently we get the “get off my property” notion expressed, enraging someone in South Dakota that a Mexican would dare step foot on “his property”. My favorite anecdote about the border is one I came up with myself, listening to NPR during Pat Buchanen’s campaign in which border insecurity and the threat to Western Civilization posed by Mexican fruit pickers took front stage. A fervid supporter living on the border voiced his total support for Buchanen – except for that border stuff. Ol’ Pat didn’t know much about the border ’cause it ain’t that simple. I hope that voter pursued others of Buchanen’s claims to see how bogus they were, too. It’s amazing what knowledge can do in shaping your pov.
A nice quote on narrative comes with a discussion of campus protests by certain students: Students of color are not imagining hurt. They are not creating false history. They are not exaggerating pain. They want White people to understand how reflexively resistant we are to surrendering our American narrative. It is a narrative that disconnects us from our past and obscures our present . It lets us honor slave holders and supremacists, glamorize emancipation – and dismiss angry, passionate, visceral voices of dissent as childish drivel.*
Marvelously said. I wrote in the early parts of this essay that I would eschew humor and satire but let me throw in one piece I thought hilarious and poignant. A few years ago a young, blonde, White woman went missing on the island of Aruba. The media coverage was similar to that of the missing Malaysian airliner. Finally, having had enough, someone came up on NPR with a suggestion for a new news network: WWW – Where are the White Women? That was funny – a whole network devoted to missing White ladies, as if there were not already dozens of TV programs about such matters. But the poignancy came in when the spoofers got very pointed: there were many, many missing girls of color who never get mentioned. How is that narrative? I have written in several places that back in the forties, newspapers in the South would print the names of car accident fatalities and if the victims were Black, would print (colored) after the names. The purpose of that was not to alert the community of the loss of a valuable member of the colored race – I’ll leave it to you to parse their purpose, but my POV, on which a lot more later, is that Black girls don’t count, Native American girls don’t count, Mexican girls don’t count………… This gives a new face – “new eyes” – to the BLM movement but this lack of coverage shows Black Lives Don’t Matter. Narratives are strong and persistent.
Since the grouplet is made up of foreign language teachers, I will from time to time mine linguistics for analogies, parallels and comparisons. The history of English has a canon. English is an Indo-European language belonging to the Germanic subfamily. In an unbroken record from the lowlands of Northern Europe to the shores of England, the early English speakers brought the language we speak today. To show this, Frisian is spoken of as the bridge to our continental siblings. Dutch is a bit removed and German even more so but all part of the West Germanic group (a kind of grouplet); two other groups align themselves with West Germanic: North Germanic and East Germanic (now extinct). Once entrenched on the island of Britain, English slowly evolved over time from its Anglo-Saxon roots via strong influences from Latin and French but with little to no influence from the indigenous Celtic languages into a trimmed down version of Germanic with an almost overwhelming Latin-based vocabulary but a stubbornly Germanic core vocabulary. Moving inexorably toward more analytic and periphrastic forms, it grew via trade and empire into a world language bearing the high tech culture of the globe.
Romantic, traditional, scholarly, and very patriotic. A language meant to carry the burden of empire. But looked at closely, a good deal of this turns out to be a bit forced, as if to conform to a ………. narrative. The narrative of global dominance and cultural mastery. I can only recommend books like Alternative Histories of English by Watts and Trudgill.
Where do our narratives come from? The media, yes, but schooling is paramount. Our textbooks tell a story. I just finished a book on language change (The Development of Language by David Lightfoot) in which the author compares the writing of the history of languages to other fields, including the writing of history. Using the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution as the screen upon which historians wrote, he tells us first about the Whig historians who saw the unfolding of Englishmen’s love of liberty and the eventual inclusion of the middle and working classes. Their desire to limit the power of the monarch, secure free speech rights and so on drove them.
The social historians saw class war as bourgeois capitalists wanted to secure their property rights and participate more in national affairs. The major forces were economic, demographic and social rather than high politics. The revisionist historians came along and eschewed grand historical trends and looked to contingent factors, chance events and dynamic personalities as drivers of change.
And then the counter-revisionists came along…………
But which of these or yet others get into our national narrative? How do Americans read our Civil War between North and South, as states’ rights or human rights? Some school districts want the war excised from public school textbooks. Can we as a people select and agree on a national narrative? And is it one of American exceptionalism or one of contingent factors?
In our own political culture, the Liberal view is that Blacks vote Democratic because not only have Democrats championed civil rights but the Republicans have consistently come down on the side of states’ rights which is nothing more than freedom to reimpose segregation, something seen recently in the reimposition of voting restrictions in the wake of SCOTUS striking down the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The C/conservative view is that Blacks vote for Democrats because Democrats “give them stuff”. The understanding there is that Blacks don’t want jobs or education but welfare and affirmative action to get jobs and education????? Yes, you heard right. The Right is confused.
A knowledge of our national narrative helps us hear dog whistles. I missed one the other day that Nina Turner of Ohio pointed out. In the Republican debates Chris Christie and Marco Rubio referred to Obama as a child. Turner put this in perspective as the dog whistle version of “boy”, and anyone reading this who does not know the power of the word “boy” used of a Black man need read no further. Most of this will go over your head. But that is the very point of using a dog whistle: deniability. “I didn’t call the President a boy, I called him a child.” But such is the power of narrative.
This power can enthrall a people and deprive them of something surprisingly taken up by Fukuyama: dignity. He says that behind the identity politics so many deplore lies a quest for dignity. The force of that quest can be seen in the incident Fukuyama cites. the Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in protest against his arrest by the police. Being treated without dignity was too painful for him and he set off the Arab Spring with this act. Monks in Viet Nam sparked uprisings and children put into the civil rights protests in Birmingham, in the face of admonitions from almost everyone, turned the tide against the White South as the country reacted with revulsion to the barbarous treatment of children. A daring stroke of genius as the jails filled with adults, leaving only the children. Protest is frowned upon by Conservatives because they fear it will lead to the destruction of private property, so they condemn it or call it the Boston Tea Party.
Identity politics would not arise were it not for blanket attacks on an identified group; that’s why it is called identity politics. Thought experiment: the conservatives list of principles align perfectly with the list of principles most African-Americans would pull out. So why do African-Americans not vote for Republicans? Because the only item on the two agendas where agreement cannot be reached is civil rights and Blacks know that if deprived of those rights, they have no way of enacting the other items on the agenda, even though the Republicans may enact those items, they would exclude Blacks from the polity.
Which brings me to…………