One of the workshops at History Camp featured three wonderful young southern historians who are writing about late twentieth-century political mobilizations in the former Confederacy. A conversation which I love to have, with colleagues and with students, is: does the South still cohere as a region? If so, what is “regional” about it and — given the vast emigration of black and white southerners to northern and western industrial cities in the twentieth century, what characteristics of the “south” are shared by other places? And to what extent does the contemporary South draw on its past for distinctiveness?
I thought of our conversation when I saw this story on the Associated Press wire, which describes an attack last night on city-owned vehicles in Orlando, Florida. Cars were sprayed with anti-Obama slogans such as “Obama smokes crack” and what the AP reporter described as “a racial epithet.”
Funny the reporter did not consider “Obama smokes crack” to be a racial epithet.
At any rate, the other feature of this was that there were also anti-McCain slogans left by the vandals as well (on “business cards”); but cards were also left that indicated the damage had been done by disgruntled Hillary Clinton supporters. And this all occurred hours after Clinton and Obama campaigned together for the first time.
Strange times we are living in, no? My first response was, “Don’t forget that Florida is in the South,” and by this I do not necessarily mean the racism alone. Clearly by including McCain in the attacks, the vandals intended, despite the use of racial epithets, to target Clinton (in the guise of “supporting” her) as both “racist” and “sexist.” And we should not forget, as the reporters did in this story, that McCain was himself the target of racist leaflets in 2004, when activists either supported or inspired by the Bush reelection campaign there went after his adopted child as the “secret daughter” McCain had supposedly fathered with a black woman (what’s wrong with a white man having a biracial daughter out of wedlock, you ask, and then taking her into his home? The short answer is that it’s not the having, or the keeping of her, it’s the telling of it that is a political and historical sin.)
The intent, as I understand it, is to foment explicitly racial and gendered antagonisms in the Democratic party, and to remind voters on the radical right that a vote against Obama is a vote for everything that white supremacy has and does stand for. I was thinking about the potential for this kind of attack while watching the Unity Event last night, since it is impossible for me to watch the news without going into historian mode. Clinton and Obama touched each other and embraced lightly now and then; they whispered intimately in each other’s ears (which political candidates are inclined to do even, or especially, when of the same gender and/or race.) And this thing that was happening publicly between a black man and a white woman was like history hitting me smack in the face. That, my friends, is where Southern history still has us by the throat: that for some people, this image of a black man and a white woman together, whether in a political or an actual marriage, will be the image that has the power to mobilize irrational and dangerous rage. And it will be used.
So this is my response. I think we all have to commit to the principle that until racial violence masquerading as politics no longer happens in Florida, we are not free of it in the United States either. By this I wish to emphasize that those of us who live in places like, say New England, are quick to stigmatize places like Florida. But Connecticut had its Jim Crow too, and it still does: look at the difference between schools in New Haven and schools in Greenwich; the percentage of people who can and do vote in Bridgeport and those who can and do vote in Stamford, only a few miles down the road? I used to think about this during the Pennsylvania primary, when reporters talked about the vast “Alabama” between Pittsburgh and and Philadelphia: well, I don’t know what Pennsylvania they were looking at, but when I was growing up in the Suburbs, for many black people, North and West Philadelphia were Birmingham. And just because they vote for Democrats in the wealthy suburbs now doesn’t mean it isn’t Alabama in some respects. Or Florida.
Perhaps it is because I am engrossed in Barbara Ransby’s wonderful biography of Ella Baker, but I have to say, I do not think it is working for us not to talk publicly about race, particularly since when I am with groups of white people they are talking about it a lot, in both productive and scary ways. One white woman I have known for a while, a New Englander, repeated every single crazy lie all of us have heard about Obama (“How,” I found myself stuttering in shock,”Can Obama be both a devoted parishioner of the Reverend Wright and a madrassah-educated Muslim simultaneously?”) And why did she say these things to me, of all people? It was not until later that I recalled the context — we were alone, two white women, in a private space where no one who was not “one of us” –as it were — could overhear.
What we white people who have become, or have always been, Obama supporters must decide is: are we willing to break the racial contract of silence that has more or less held for years (witness our endless use of the euphemism the n-word as if somehow our white lips suddenly became unable to make those sounds after 1964)? And if so, how will we break the contract, without putting ourselves first, as we often have in other historical moments? Despite the fact that Obama would be wise to talk about race as little as possible, how do the rest of us, and particularly white women, pursue a specifically anti-racist agenda in this election season? And to what extent are we willing to take responsibility for the fact that if this is happening in Florida, it is being countenanced elsewhere?
Coda: click here for young white kids who are taking the name “Hussein” as an everyday act to eliminate the stigma right wing crazies have attached to it.
Cross posted at Cliopatria.