Monday, January 11, 2010

Our national incoherence

Slavery, as Walker Percy says, is America’s original sin. The American people are a massa damnata, a “lump of sin,” which must be exorcised regularly. Thus Sen. Harry Reid’s comments from the 2008 presidential campaign, reported on Friday in Marc Ambinder’s Atlantic blog, that Barack Obama is a “ ‘light-skinned’ African American ‘with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one’ ” has set off the well-rehearsed routine of public accusation, confession, and forgiveness. In Christian theology, “concupiscence” is the result of original sin; in America, the result is a tongue-tied incoherence. None of us knows how to talk about race. We don’t speak our minds but the moral fashion, because we are deathly afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Sen. Reid’s comments were certainly impolitic, especially when uttered to a reporter, but why were they wrong? Both of his phrases are current in American conversation—at least when used in the publicly sanctioned ways.

Thus the term light-skinned can be used by “whites,” but only to establish that they are on the correct side of the “race question.” Just last month, in the St. Petersburg Times, Steve Persall pointed out that, “in early previews” of Disney’s new animated film The Princess and the Frog, Tiana’s suitor “was noticeably light-skinned, causing pundits on both sides of the race question to doubt Disney’s dedication to diversity.” To avoid trouble, Disney darkened his complexion before the film’s release.

The month before, in the Manchester Guardian, Hadley Freeman faulted Lee Daniels’s film Precious for “its depiction of skin colour. A particularly poignant expression of Precious’ self-loathing is her hatred of her dark skin: she dreams of having ‘a light-skinned boyfriend’ and when she looks in the mirror, she fantasises that she sees a white woman.”

African Americans use the term more pointedly. In a July article on “colorism” in the Washington Post, the law professor Alice M. Thomas was quoted in rhyme: “If you are light, you are all right. If you are brown, you can stick around. If you are black, get back.” Adopting more scholarly tones, the economist Darrick Hamilton observed that, among husband-hunting black women younger than thirty, there is “a premium associated with light-skinned complexion.”

So Sen. Reid’s wrong was to use the expression light-skinned while being “white”? Or to use it in reference to an actual person instead of cartoon characters, erotic fantasies, or generalized marriage preferences? I must admit that the exact nature of his moral offense is unclear to me.

Same goes with the phrase negro dialect. It was common in philological scholarship after 1870, although it was replaced in contemporary linguistics by “black English” after 1969 and “ebonics” by the mid-seventies. It is frankly more unusual in current speech, but shows up occasionally. In his musical “Passing Strange,” for example, the singer and songwriter Mark Stewart (known on stage as Stew) remarks that his mother liked to assume “the Negro dialect” when she scolded her son about his lack of religion. In this way, according to New Yorker drama critic Hilton Als, he “send[s] up the standard American theatrical device of making black performers sound more ‘real’ by substituting ‘de’ for ‘the.’ ”

“Whites” sometimes use the phrase too, and not ironically. In reviewing a novel entitled Orange Laughter for the Washington Post in 2000, Carolyn See complained that it was “populated by familiar figures and stock situations and Negro dialect as heavy as a migraine headache.” Earlier that same year, in his New York Times column “On Language,” William Safire informed his readers that the “earliest recorded uses of uh-huh were in the late 19th century by magazine fiction writers transcribing Negro dialect, more as exclamation than affirmation.”

Americans daily receive a mixed message. On the one hand, we are urged to consider race whenever we compile a reading list or celebrate achievement (Obama is “the first African-American President,” Wayne Embry was “the first African-American general manager in the NBA,” Michael Beach was “the first African-American to play a romantic leading role in a Shakespearean play on the main stage at Juilliard”); on the other hand, we are dissuaded from talking about race by the consequences of talking about it wrongly—and by the utter incoherence of what passes for right and wrong in race talk.

It is time to dispense with race, which does not exist in any event, as a classification of any kind.

Update: Peter Beinart defends Sen. Reid by saying that, except for his use of the word Negro, which was “unplesantly retro,” “everything else about his statement is undeniably correct.”

The problem, then, would seem to be that of a name. Since race does not exist as a scientific category—geneticists have found that skin color is controlled by just one of at least 19,599 protein-coding human genes, reducing it to a genetically insignificant difference between persons—the problem of trying to distinguish and designate a group variously known as Negroes and blacks and African Americans is magnified. There is no easy solution to the problem. What do we call “African Americans” who aren’t, well, from the U.S.? The most elegant solution is to expose the problem as a non-problem. We need to stop talking about race altogether just as we have stopped relying upon phrenology to make judgments about people.


R. T. said...

Perhaps the controversy arises because of sources. Or other dynamics may be at play.

Consider, for an example, the non-Jewish comedian who uses Jewish and Yiddish humor in his routine while working at a resort in the Borscht Belt in the 50s (though that may be too much of an oxymoron to use as an example). Can that comedian get away with that kind of material? Does he not need a certain cultural background in order to say certain things? Thus, if the non-Jewish comedian tells "Jewish jokes," is his routine perceived as mockery and insensitive? Audacious? Inappropriate? (By the way, this example has little to do with political correctness, but has a lot to do with the dynamics of communication among and within groups.)

Now, consider writers (like Harriet Beecher Stowe) who uses "negro dialect" in the narrative. Also consider Mark Twain when he employs similar dialect. Do those authors lack "credentials" (license by virtue of cultural background) for using that kind of material? Many late 20th century critics have heartburn about what the critics see as Stowe's and Twain's audacity and inappropriateness. Critics see the white author's strategy as mocking and derisive. Now we are entering into the realm of so-called "political correctness."

Add the foregoing examples to Senator Reid's remark and the reactions to his remark, and this all underscores the unresolved (inappropriate?) hyper-sensitivity that American's have to all things racial and ethnic.

So, I wonder--what is the solution? Must we ostracize the non-Jewish comedian? Must certain writers avoid certain dialects? Must politicians say nothing that a large percentage of the population is already saying? Must bloggers avoid certain subject? Has "political correctness" become an annoying restraint upon sensible commentary?

D. G. Myers said...

Consider, for an example, the non-Jewish comedian who uses Jewish and Yiddish humor in his routine while working at a resort in the Borscht Belt in the 50s

Were there such comedians? The only parallels I can think of, at the moment, are conversion novels of the nineteenth century (Portia-like “Jewess” converts her father in Charlotte Anley’s Miriam; or, The Power of Truth) or Updike’s Bech books.

The first had little impact upon the Jews; the latter struck many readers as an improvement upon Updike’s usual overwrought style. (Maybe he should convert, I remember thinking at the time. When he tries to write like a Jew, he’s actually readable!)

Stephen said...

to do what you suggest--do away with race as a classification or to suggest that it doesn't exist--would be to aid and abet racism. make no mistake. what you want is for racist comments and racist injustices to go unremarked simply because they have been rendered "irrelevant" or "laughable" by virtue of DG Myers' Magic Eraser of Race Distinctions and Latent And Sometimes Blatant Racial Tension, Discrimination, Bias, and Injustice. Dream all you wish, Myers, but as long as there are people prejudging, classifying, and limiting black people with their thoughts, words, and actions, as long as black people have a legacy, a history, and a skin color (that is, forever), race will be a necessary classification, and people's attitudes towards it will be relevant. Imagine if someone said "Jewish" was a nonexistent, unimportant distinction. That would be an equally laughable, deluded claim.

Stephen said...

Furthermore, your examples of uses of the phrase "Negro dialect" are besides the point and/or outdated. In general, you often reference extremely archaic events and quotations. Stop living in the past!

D. G. Myers said...

Phrases from not quite a decade ago are “extremely archaic”? Oh, my.

D. G. Myers said...

As for whether “race” exists. The best reading remains the great Jacques Barzun’s first book, from seventy years ago—Race: A Study in Superstition. There Barzun defines race as the “lazy man’s method of making sweeping and unsubstantiated generalizations about groups of people.”

Biologists have known for some time that races do not exist as genetically discrete groups. As Barzun suggests, “race” is merely the excrescence of human perception.

R. T. said...

My Borscht Belt example was intended as something like "irony of the impossible," and I had intended it as an amusing way of underscoring the absurdity of "political correctness" in our hyper-sensitive society.

I shall have to give more attention to the examples from literature that you have cited.

Meanwhile, as for Stephen's comments, I think stereotyping is a key concept that deserves attention in this discussion because it is one of the problems that divides cultural, ethnic, and racial groups. Is there a remedy for this? I suppose that it doubtful because stereotypes may have foundations in facts that have been distorted and magnified so that one cultural group feels a (false?) dominance over another cultural group. Groups--for a variety of reasons--always stake out differences in order to distinguish themselves from others. Sometimes this is a good dynamic; sometimes--as in the case of negative stereotypes--this is a divisive and damaging dynamic.

R. T. said...

Here is an example from the classroom that shows how the issue of race becomes problematic. Alice Walker's short story "Everyday Use" often is included in my Introduction to Literature courses; the story features a mother and her two daughters, but the narrator--the mother--makes a point of commenting ever so subtly (but significantly) upon the differences in her daughters' skin color. When I instigate class discussions in response to the narrator's observations, I feel that I must tread carefully. The "old, white guy" instructor (as someone has called me) feels that he must avoid explaining the narrator's point and must instead look to students--especially African-American students--for explanations. Now, I wonder why this "old, white guy" instructor feels that the subject (the narrator's observation) must be handled so discretely. You answer that riddle, and you have the beginnings of an explanation for the ways in which "political correctness" and issues regarding race have severely (and negatively) impacted society (as a whole) and university classrooms (specifically).

Dave Lull said...

Leo Wong pointed out* to me that Jacques Barzun's first book was The French Race (1932). Race was his second (1937).


Dave Lull said...

"A possibly interesting sidelight is that JB's original title was The French "Race". The publisher - or someone else - wanted the quotes removed. Also - not that it matters - the original title of the 2nd book was Race: A Study in Modern Superstition. The Preface to the 1965 edition says that "Modern" was needless and therefore docked in the revision"--Leo Wong.

KG said...

The problem with Reid's comments, ignoring syntax, is that they suggest a patronizing enthusiasm for Obama's "white" attributes.