Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Whose Country?

These are difficult times. I am not speaking of the great recession that is causing economic havoc. No I am referring to the crisis of belonging. Two stories to illustrate my point. The first is told through a recent video clip of a public meeting in Delaware hosted by Congressman Mike Castle. A white woman stands up and harangues him about Obama not being an American citizen. She is repeating the ranting of the right wing bloviators, but there is a moment of authentic grief in her voice when she says, “I want my country back.” She articulates an often understated yet strongly embraced white fear that somehow the country she knew and cherished is being taken away from her. The obvious intellectual retort is to remind her that this was never just her country: it was stolen from the Indians and developed by people of all colors from all over the world. The country has too complex a history to submit to easy readings or singular appropriations.

The other story concerns Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s run-in with the Cambridge police. We will never know the exact details, as it is a case of he said /he said. But what is clear is that the confrontation crystallized issues of class and race and probably age. It seems more the result of testosterone than skin color. But for many blacks it was just another example that police oppression is a clear and present danger that has not yet faded into history. For many whites, myself included, it seemed a more complex scenario of race and class with a privileged black man expecting more deference than he was receiving. In this case the privileged man is Gates, a very well paid Harvard professor who jets around the world, is a constant presence in the media, and can call upon the President of the Unites States as a character witness. Startled that a policeman would question his presence in his own home--and who would not be startled--he responded with the message of class--you are dealing with someone important--but also of race, when he remarked that this is how a black man is treated in America. Gates felt attacked. The policeman felt betrayed by a President who seemed to defend his buddy publicly without knowing all the facts.

A middle-aged white woman, a rich black guy, and a young white police officer: they all feel under attack; they share a sense of threat and dread that pervades our culture. The US has no single ethnic or racial identity. That fact is a source of strength but also a source of anxiety, and it is this anxiety that informs the delusions of a white woman who can question the national identity of her President, a privileged black professor who responds in class terms by invoking race memories and a white policeman in someone’s own house who fails to recognize the charged politics of a racial encounter. In each case, there is a profound sense that power and authority is somewhere else, controlled by the other. There is a crisis of belonging that we need to address. The “discourse entrepreneurs” of race and class and gender--the always available black spokesperson, the right wing ideologue, the routine racist--only add to our woes by coming up with the simplistic slogan, the easy remarks, the crazy claims . Some of the early commentators on the Gates incident repeated the need to have a discussion of race. No. Spare us the easy slide into comforting clich├ęs. We have had enough unsophisticated discussions of race that fail to understand the overlapping and often undercutting concerns of class and age and gender and sexual orientations. Gates to his credit addresses some of these issues in his writings, so it is ironic that while his work elicits the nuanced view, this one incident generates the simplistic response. We need more intelligent debate where the freighting of complex issues with simple slogans of race or political alignment is replaced by more complex understandings of the sources of difference in this country. Failure to address this complexity leads everyone to think that it is not their country. And when more people believe that, we really are in big trouble.