Daily Archives: June 19, 2008

A Post-Racial America?

By Dr. Christopher J. Metzler

                 In a June 13, 2008 Op Ed in The Wall Street Journal, Ward Connerly proclaimed that “Obama is no ‘Post Racial’ Candidate. Connerly’s conclusion is based on the fact that Obama acknowledges the continuing significance of race in an ostensibly ‘post racial’ America. More importantly Obama does not support Connerly’s attempts to outlaw Affirmative Action. Thus, in Connerly’s mind; he is “one of the same tired voices who peddle arguments about institutional racism.” Connerly’s article exposes his own internalized racial inferiority as well as his fidelity to white privilege. He writes, “As millions of whites cast their votes for him in predominantly white states, I held out hope that, perhaps, he was a truly transformative leader.”

Connerly’s subtext is clear. Whites voted for Obama. In exchange for their votes, the expectation is that Obama must deny the continuing significance of race (at least in Connerly’s mind). Although not white, Connerly, it seems, has appointed himself to speak for millions of whites. Hence, he is arguing that since whites have voted for a black candidate, then race no longer matters. Since Obama is the presumptive Democratic Party nominee, racism has simply disappeared. Obama is victorious, thus racism has disappeared. 

Mr. Connerly’s argument fails for at least three reasons. First, Obama cannot be a post racial “candidate” since America is still a racialized society. Second, the undeniably historic nomination of Obama does not singularly eliminate racism in one fell swoop. Lastly, employing the post-racial moniker is nothing more than an attempt to sloganeer, rather than address the continuing significance of race.

                Connerly writes, “As many readers will know, I am intimately involved in the effort to enact race-neutral initiatives around the country.” Ever the racial apologist, Connerly is attempting to end Affirmative Action in states by voter referenda because he feels that whites are increasingly the victim of discrimination and must be protected. But, why would there need to be race neutral legislation in a ‘post-racial’ America? “Post” suggests “after,” doesn’t it? So, doesn’t the need for this legislation at all suggest that America is still a society that is marked by race?

Connerly’s logic fails. The question is not whether we live in a “postracial” America, but how race affects us all as Americans. Race is contested space and Connerly’s efforts further contest the contours of that space.  Under Connerly’s logic, Obama would be “postracial” only if he accepts the Connerly definition. Neutrality, according to Connerly, does not require one to resort to a detached, objective analysis of race (if such is even possible); rather, it requires submitting to Connerly’s definition, lest one be marked as “racial.”

                Connerly and others like him are advancing the argument that Obama’s election as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States is unequivocal evidence that racism in America has ended. Under this premise, whites in predominantly white states have voted for Obama and are thus cleansing themselves of centuries-old racial demons and achieving racial salvation. As important as Obama’s ascent is to the vexing question of race, it would be a mistake to assume it is the end of racism in America. Just as it was a mistake to assume that “major combat operations in Iraq had ended” when President Bush donned a flight suit and so declared.

Admittedly, Obama’s rise suggests progress on the issue of race; however, it does not suggest the end of racism in America. For those of us who experience racism in the academy, in retail stores, on trains, on planes and other public places, we cannot simply now respond to those perpetuators of racism with “Hey, we have a black Presidential nominee, didn’t you get the memo?”

                America is the land of spin over substance and ‘post racial’ is the latest slogan to find its way into popular culture and the cultural lexicon. While the term escapes precise definition, it suggests that racism has occurred in the past, and that enlightened whites have eschewed racism as “so yesterday.” It also suggests that blacks who raise the continuing significance of race in a ‘post-racial’ America risk being relegated to the political margins as modern day race-baiters. There is a difference between issuing declarative statements proclaiming America ‘post racial’ and the reality that racism still plays a part in American life. The ‘post racial moniker’ is designed to give comfort to those who have black friends, for whom race “does not matter” and those who believe that “merit” is the great equalizer. As seductive as post-racialism is, it cannot exist in a society where the color of one’s skin still matters. “Post-racial” is another in a series of politically correct terms in which Americans avoid acknowledging the difficult issues, but instead choose to ignore them. 

                Finally, Connerly for all his ruminations about the need for a ‘post-racial’ America is trapped by the racial thinking that he is supposedly attempting to eradicate.  Me thinks the gentleman protests too much.

 

 

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler is Associate Dean at Georgetown‘s School of Continuing Studies and the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a Post Racial America (Aberdeen University Press, 2008).

 

Ph.d.’s in African American Studies at HBCUs: A Response to Where are They?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

This week Diverse: Issues in Higher Education ran a story entitled “Black Colleges Still Lacking Ph.D. African American Studies Program.”  The article rightly told the story of the development and expansion of doctoral programs in African American studies at historically White institutions and chastised Black colleges for having no programs — none at all.

According to a must-read book by Delores Aldridge and Carlene Young entitled Out of the Revolution: The Development of Africana Studies, the first courses that truly addressed the African American experience can be traced back to W. E. B. Du Bois’s teaching students at Atlanta University (now part of Clark-Atlanta University) in the early 1900s.  Although courses, like those  Du Bois taught, spread to some other Black colleges, the momentum never caught on.  According to Aldridge and Young, to date, no Black college has “required institution-wide a course with the black experience as its exclusive or primary focus” (p. 299).  Without this commitment, it seems unlikely that Black colleges would consider establishing a Ph.D. program in African American studies.

Of course, there are other reasons that make it difficult for Black colleges to create an African American studies Ph.D.  First, many leaders of HBCUs argue that all of the classes at an HBCU are taught with an Afrocentric perspective given that the focus of the institution overall is dedicated to the racial uplift of African Americans.  Critics of HBCUs would argue that Black college curricula is not Afrocentric and relies too heavily on Western perspectives.  Still other critics would argue that many HBCUs are often too conservative and unwilling to take risks with their curricula.

Second, very few HBCUs have doctoral programs.  In fact, out of 103 HBCUs, only 23 offer doctoral degrees.  Most Black colleges are just that — colleges and are focused on undergraduate education.  As such, it would make sense that there would be few doctoral programs in African American studies — but none is hard to justify!

Third, and this is perhaps the most convincing argument on the part of Black college leaders, doctoral programs are expensive to run.  They are especially expensive because most elite institutions (where the majority of African American studies doctoral programs are housed) can offer large fellowship packages to students — packages with which HBCUs cannot compete. 

Regardless of these reasons, Black colleges should aim to establish doctoral programs in African American studies.  They should lead the nation in providing a doctoral experience that focuses on the African Diaspora.  And, more importantly, they should produce future scholars and faculty members who will shape and challenge the minds of African American students.  In the words of Alan Colon, “HBCUs have the obligation to help change assumptions that have prevailed about the sanctity of Western civilization and the conventional ideologies that emanate from it” (p. 304, Out of the Revolution).

 

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).

No First Amendment Right to Call for Obama’s Assassination

By Dr. Christopher J. Metzler

 

The 2008 Presidential election is testing how America deals with the enduring question of racism. With Barack Obama as the presumptive Democratic nominee, America is beginning to confront its racial pedigree. The results speak for themselves. One such test occurred recently when performance artist, Yazmany Arboleda, put race, penis envy and sexism on Front Street. The artist prepared for public showing an art exhibit in a vacant storefront on West 40th Street in Midtown Manhattan with the title, “The Assassination of Hillary Clinton/The Assassination of Barack Obama.”

The exhibit was shut down by law enforcement before it could go live. Arboleda protested, claiming that the exhibit was to be about “character assassination” of Obama and Clinton in the media. Arboleda also claimed “free speech.” The items in the Assassination exhibit included: hangman’s nooses, a picture of Obama and his daughters with the caption “nappy headed hoes,” masks of Obama with the title, “You too can be the next Negro President of the United States, a photograph of a large penis entitled, “once you go Barack…” and “Just Passing.” No such references were made to Clinton or her family in the collection. Despite representations to the contrary by the artist, this exhibit was intended to stoke racial animus, and did not raise a free speech issue and is further evidence that America is far from ‘Post Racial.”

There is no discernable connection between character assassination and nooses. When black men were being hung from trees it was not intended to assassinate their character. It was intended to assassinate them. Thus, it is beyond the pale to suggest that an exhibit ostensibly focused on character assassination would feature nooses. Are we to believe that the nooses are a metaphor for a sharp-tongued media who would engage in a “high-tech lynching of Obama?” To the contrary. The artist is using the nooses to advocate that Obama be hung by one. There is no other explanation.

The “Nappy Headed Hoe” card has already been played and there was nothing philosophical or metaphoric about it. Its meaning is clear: Black females, no matter their ages, are to be defined both by their hair styles and their propensity for unbridled and indiscriminate sex. Are we to believe that Don Imus and all those who use that moniker were doing so to engage in character assassination or to mark black women by gender, race and promiscuity? Moreover, if as the artist suggests, this exhibit is about the character assassination of Obama in the media, what does his daughters have to do with this?

The phallic symbol, its exaggerated size and the reference to going “Barack” all rely on the oft-held notion that black men are ruled by their penises, define masculinity by the size of their penises and that Obama is just another penis-centric black man. In fact, the artist it seems is paying homage to the pervasive stereotype from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation, Toni Morrison’s Sula and Richard Wright’s Native Son that black men are to be judged not by the size of their character, but by the size of their penises. The artist is sending a message to white men, that this election is not about substance; it is not about policy. It is not about the war in Iraq, high gas prices, economic devastation, and America’s image in the rest of the world. It is about penis envy.

The free speech argument cannot simply be evoked because the First Amendment allows us all to speak truth to power. The First Amendment states in relevant part, “Congress shall make no law …. prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Thus, any restrictions on speech must be examined carefully. In this case, is the artist right when he says that he has the right to exhibit this collection, no matter how vile or offensive people find it? Is the first amendment absolute? Under what circumstances can the government restrict speech? By shutting down the exhibit, is the government enacting a “content- based” restriction since it does not like the topic of the speech.

A complete legal analysis of free speech is beyond the scope of this post. It is well settled that free speech is not absolute and that there can be restrictions on speech. In Chaplinsky v. State of New Hampshire, the Supreme Court of the United States held that “Certain welldefined and narrowly limited” categories of speech fall outside the bounds of constitutional protection. Thus, “the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous,” and (in this case) insulting or ‘fighting’ words neither contributed to the expression of ideas nor possessed any ‘social value’ in the search for truth.” Moreover, in Brandenburg v. Ohio the Court held that government cannot punish inflammatory speech unless it is directed to inciting and likely to incite imminent lawless action.

In this case, given the history of racism in America, the history of the assassination of black men by lynching and the presence of race-based hate groups in America, some of whom have openly called for Obama’s assassination, there is no question that this exhibit is likely to incite imminent lawless action. While the artist has the right to express racial views, he does not have the right to incite violence and expect that the First Amendment would give him cover. This exhibit is ripe for the restrictions envisaged by Chaplinsky and Brandenburg.

Dr. Christopher J. Metzler, Esquire, is Associate Dean at Georgetown‘s School of Continuing Studies and the author of The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a Post Racial America (Aberdeen University Press, 2008).