29 July 2009
This century, decade and year have witnessed the exercise of power by persons of African descent in the Americas at previously unprecedented and virtually unimaginable levels.
May I call the roll?
Thomas Clarence, Condalezza Rice, Colin Powell, Donna Brazile, and Barack Hussein Obama, just to name a very few in just one field.
These black women and men wield and wielded their considerable power with the authority and endorsement of majority white (in power if not always in numbers) constituents and sponsors.
Their successes and those of many, many more bear witness to the great distance this nation has progressed from its slave-holding roots, slave-owning presidents and slave-dependent economic system.
But we have not moved any great distance from the racism that spawned the conquest of the inhabited Americas, rape and pillage of Africa, its nations, inhabitants and their descendants and continuing xenophobia manifested in Islamophobia and white supremacist ideologies.
The simple fact is that Americans of color - are black brown and beige - are regularly treated as second class non-citizens.
I remember how surprised was Oprah Winfrey when interviewing Shoshanna Johnson, the first African American woman prisoner of war on record, after her release in 2003 that the white soldiers who came to the rescue of her unit initially tried to leave her, doubting her nationality until a white soldier vouched for her. (Ironically, it was easier for them to believe that she was a black Iraqi - they do exist - than a black American.) She simply did not look like what they believed an American, or American soldier looked like.
I am not surprised by the arrest of Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. or the surrounding discussions. I am appreciative for the class implications of that discourse. For all of those who say that if this could happen to a man of Skip Gates' standing (class) then it could happen to anyone, it does. Everyday.
Now the stories are pouring out, particularly those of women and men who have access to the media. Both Dr. Rice (who had to argue with a jewelery salesperson that she wanted to see real, not imitation, pearls no matter the price) and Gen. Powell (who had to prove that he was the National Security Adviser to a person who did not believe that a black person held the job) have entered such stories in the public record.
Bloggers everywhere are posting the stories of lesser known persons who have been the victims of racial profiiling, particularly by the police.
President Obama has appealed for a national conversation on race, first after the high-tech lynching of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright and after the fraudulent arrest of Dr. Gates. Black folk have been having this conversation sice we got here, voluntarily or involuntarily.
It's well past and high time for white folk to have this conversation among themselves in comparable numbers. While the work of theorists and social critics is invaluable to this end, these conversations need to happen in white enclaves, congregations, clubs and around dinner tables.
One of the first topics: the acquisition of power by a few black and brown persons does not signal the end of racism or the advent of a post-racial society.
As Lani Guinier put in her 30 July post to the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"The undisputed historical backdrop for the porch encounter includes 240 years of chattel slavery, 100 years of Jim Crow, and 400-plus years of intergenerational wealth transfer during most of which time black people not only owned little property—they were property. In roughly 50 of the first 72 years of our country's first century, the presidents of the United States themselves owned slaves. In the infamous Dred Scott case, in which the U.S. Supreme Court declared that a black man had no rights that a white man need respect, five of the justices were from slaveholding families."
Power to the people.