There's a lot being said today on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech. Much of it seems very tired. Roger Clegg writes that seeing Al Sharpton speaking where Dr. King once spoke reminds him of Marx's dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.
Here's my two cents toward having a national conversation about race. "Race" is a social construct. What made the race-based slavery of the early U.S. and the Jim Crow regime that followed its abolition in the Old South so vile was that it constructed a social prison, a stigma, and herded all kinds of people into it. The "one drop of blood" rule meant that all kinds of people were reduced to mere "colored people" and then denied dignity as well as due process.
In light of the enormous progress made over the last fifty years, it is ironic -- a tragic irony -- that those who speak so loudly about "liberation" and "equality" are now the most ardent purveyors of that social construct. Any attempt to hint that being black is a richer, more complicated, more nuanced experience than what they describe -- and any attempt to suggest that various black people might have varied interests in the voting booth -- is met with outrage.
The purveyors of liberation also imply that all white people are the same, in that they are all privileged as regards all black people. But this just shows that they are socially constructing "whiteness" to include all sorts of people who don't perceive their commonality very much, just as they socially construct "blackness." They herd people into their category and forbid them to cross over in any direction.
But aren't white people all the same? No, my friend, they are not. Even here in Southern Indiana, the German American folk and the Scotch-Irish folk have different folkways, different perceptions of life, even as they have different histories as Americans. Don't forget: the Scotch-Irish of Appalachia are one of three ethnic groups that have been historically mired in poverty, along with blacks and American Indians.
People point out that Barack Obama is the first black President (pacé
Toni Morrison re: Bill Clinton). Yet Obama is as much white as he is black. His out-of-the-mainstream-ness is no greater than that of, say, President Martin Van Buren, who grew up speaking Dutch instead of English, or of Hoover's Vice President Charles Curtis, an enrolled member of the Kaw Tribe who grew up speaking Kansa on a reservation. In fact, Obama's biography makes plain that he deliberately set out to learn how to be "black." His father was Kenyan, not African-American, and he was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia; he didn't know how to fit in with American blacks. He had to figure out the secret handshake, so to speak, in order to make a political career as a "community organizer."
For that matter, who said all Hispanics constitute a single group? People whose ancestries and dialects and experiences are Mexican in origin are vastly different from Puerto Ricans, or from Cubans, or from Guatemalans. Why do we lump Japanese, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Hmong, and all into a catch-all category like "Asian-American." What do all these people have in common besides a desire on the part of someone else to reduce them to a single group so that they can be more easily dismissed by those who want to secure a bigger piece of the pie for their
I once asked a professor whose family came from Trieste if a Slovak and a Slovene were the same thing. "Oh, God, no!" was his response. Ask a Hutu to describe how he and the Tutsi across the way have common interests as Africans and see what his
response is. And don't think you can build bridges with Arabs by channeling the Middle Ages' image of the noble Saladin: Saladin was a Kurd, and the Arabs don't think highly of him or his people.
Ethnic pride is a wonderful thing, and every group gets to decide what their boundaries are. Everyone's Irish on St. Patrick's Day, they say, but other groups are a bit choosier. Still, the lines are pretty blurred at times -- and ought to be. The idea that confining people to just a few boxes to check off on your "ethnic identity" census line, and making that determinative when we're deciding huge policy questions and spending billions of dollars, is just nuts -- and keeping them confined in those boxes to bolster your own power is downright vile.