Sunday, August 10, 2008

Gangs of America

The presidential campaign of 2008 has gifted the American lexicon with its own clutch of signature words and phrases. We’ve still got some 80-odd days before the election, but “metric,” “downticket,” “scorched-earth” and “dogwhistle” have been part of the political vocabulary for months.

But Sen. Barack Obama’s transcendent presidential campaign has led someone more inspired by Obama’s meaning than his message to come up with a gem of a phrase, a real flight of fantasy: “postracial politics” has entered not just the language but the national psyche in ways that are at least concerning, and maybe even disturbing.

The phrase suggests the ultimate Kum Ba Yah dream: that with Obama’s claim to the Democratic nomination, and maybe the presidency beyond, America will have officially retired the issue and impact of race in American life. The phrase’s gauzy promise also hints that black politics as we’ve come to know it for generations — a model of politics based on populist protest against the biases embedded in the national life — will cease to have a reason for being if Obama raises his hand to take the oath of office next Jan. 20.

“Postracial politics” is a fine idea, but one that fails to look at how black politics is as much a generational issue as a racial one. The flap over Obama’s disagreements with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright over interpretations of American racial history, and more recently the rather ugly disagreements Jesse Jackson had with Obama over the familial responsibilities of young black men, are proof that, whether Obama wins or loses in November, you can’t have postracial politics without first reconciling differences within the race.

It’s as much a matter of cultural assimilation as anything else. Black Americans of Wright’s and Jackson’s generation came to maturity in a United States in which race was the absolute dividing line of the national experience. Back then black people regularly encountered the great national No at every level of their daily lives. From eating at lunch counters to drinking from a water fountain, from getting a quality education to the act of casting a vote, blacks were faced with the persistence of No. Those who dared to try and violate that great No often paid with their lives.

Now, many of the old ways have passed away. Race may well have become less a third rail than a line in the sand: present but ever-shifting, subject to smudging and sometimes capable of being erased altogether. Aspects of black American culture and language are today more often revealed to be what they’ve always been: part of the national bedrock.

And for blacks of the Jim Crow generation, the change that Barack Obama represents is unsettling. For the first time in their history, they’re forced to think outside their comfort zone on matter of race and identity, to confront a social equation that doesn’t always equate blackness with protest and pathology. They’re required now to address the idea that race, while still a distinctive and inescapable fact of American life, doesn’t matter the way it used to.

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Matt Bai, writing in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, grasps the shift going on in black politics, a shift that points to a new perception of what black politics can be, and is in the process of being:

“The generational transition that is reordering black politics didn't start this year,” Bai writes. “It has been happening, gradually and quietly, for at least a decade, as younger African-Americans, Barack Obama among them, have challenged their elders in traditionally black districts. What this year's Democratic nomination fight did was to accelerate that transition and thrust it into the open as never before, exposing and intensifying friction that was already there.

“For a lot of younger African-Americans, the resistance of the civil rights generation to Obama's candidacy signified the failure of their parents to come to terms, at the dusk of their lives, with the success of their own struggle — to embrace the idea that black politics might now be disappearing into American politics in the same way that the Irish and Italian machines long ago joined the political mainstream.”

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This speaks to what’s been for years one of the basic failings of the Republican Party: its inability to look beyond the long-persistent power structure of America, its inability (or its unwillingness) to embrace the idea that the change Barack Obama represents — not change as campaign meme but as a foundational dynamic of America — is a perfectly natural thing, and nothing less than proof of the evolution of America.

But that Republican failing is just as true of older black Americans still trying to get their minds around the idea that the comfortable black politics they’ve known for years is becoming something they don’t recognize.

As the rise of the Obama campaign shows, what’s happening in this country is no accident, no sudden chaotic transformation sparked by a single event, or at the service of a revolution. This is supposed to happen. The Framers, among other architects and early champions of American democracy, counted on just such an organic shift in political fortunes taking place.

They couldn’t see the Obama campaign coming, and consistent with the mores of their time may well have rejected the idea of a biracial American president (Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, was a slave owner himself). But the Obama campaign and its broad multiracial appeal is the kind of ordered, principled, populist upheaval that makes America America.

You can’t help but recall the schisms of generation and class that Martin Scorsese brilliantly laid out in “Gangs of New York,” his 2002 film that explored, among other things, the intra-ethnic clashes between native-born white Americans and Irish immigrants arriving in America in the throes of the Civil War. The newcomers were assaulted and condemned by the nativists, who saw their immigrant brethren as opportunistic interlopers and invaders.

As events unfolded in real life, though, the high tide of American possibility lifted all their boats; over the next two generations, Irish Americans would achieve power at every level of American social and political life, just like the Anglo-Saxon immigrant Americans who preceded them.

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As Bai suggests, much the same thing may now finally be playing out for black Americans. Despite old clashes over strategy and how best to become part of the American mosaic, black Americans collectively may be on the verge of a new experience of black politics as something that hasn’t vanished but evolved to suit the needs and challenges of a new era. The internal disputes over strategy are giving way to recognition of the commonality of struggle and the social gains resulting from that struggle.

And to the extent that traditional black politics makes that pivot — as something integral to the national mainstream, rather than aggressively apart from it — other manifestations of identity politics are likely to go through the same change.

In such a scenario, the gangs of America we’ve come to know — the cohorts of population broken down along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and religious and sexual preference — may themselves not disappear; over time their reasons for remaining separatist factions almost certainly will.

“Postracial politics” may not be any more possible than postgender politics or postreligious politics, at least not yet. But Obama’s campaign — along with the successful mayoral campaigns of the late Tom Bradley in Los Angeles and the late Harold Washington in Chicago, and the successful gubernatorial campaigns of Douglas Wilder in Virginia and Deval Patrick in Massachusetts — reveal a nation that’s slowly getting comfortable with reaching toward post-identity politics. Whether we actually get there is anyone’s guess. But given the long and tragic national history on race matters, the reach for is as almost as valuable as the grasp of.
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Image credits: Jeremiah Wright: Public domain. New York Times Magazine cover: © 2008 The New York Times Company. Gangs of New York poster: © 2002 Miramax Films. Deval Patrick: Scott LaPierre, republished under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

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