Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Case Against Empowerment

Prior to Obama, black presidential candidates were running for black presidencies. Melanin-forward!

Obama was a presidential candidate who happened to be black. And one could almost hear the foundational national "duh" as it became instantly obvious that that was the only smart approach. A fog had lifted, and I'd imagine it was excruciatingly embarrassing for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to suddenly realize how wrongly they'd been going about it.

The opposite of love isn't hate, it's indifference. And the opposite of being a discriminated-against minority isn't becoming an empowered minority, it's pluralism. Boring old pluralism.

The old model was "empowerment". That notion rings nobly in the ears of many Americans, but it plays to the dualism which gives birth to discrimination in the first place. That dualism needs to be transcended, not stoked. This is a profound lesson America learned in 2008, but I'm not sure it was fully digested.

Obama didn't offer, and hasn't run, a black presidency. Love him or hate him, he's about way more than melanin. Why on earth would I want a female presidency, or a Jewish presidency? Administrations aren't like novelty flavors of KitKat bars. I don't want some glorious rainbow, I want smart governance. I'll vote for a good president, period!

This lesson covers more than politics. The antidote to discrimination is (dull) pluralism, not (sexy) empowerment. Fight the duality, don't feed it! Down with empowerment!

(Note that I'm talking about today, not 1850 or 1950. Countless heroes absolutely needed to stand up solidly for rights when they had none. But in present day society - characterized by lingering and insidious discrimination rather than the more explicit and brazen sort - a tactical shift needed to happen, and Obama exemplified that shift. Lead with your quality, not your melanin...or gender, or ethnicity, or whatever issue you're worried people might be hung up about.)


Update:

See also postscript #1, postscript #2, and postscript #3.

4 comments:

vhliv said...

I think the issue is that minority empowerment movements have a hard time determining when and how when the shift from being advocates for their specific issues to representatives of "boring old pluralism." It was not just that Obama took a different approach, he was able to because he had experience because he got signals that he could campaign as a presidential candidate who happened to be black. It also helped that he was not identified directly as a civil rights campaigner. All other things being equal, Jesse Jackson could never have hoped to run in the same way precisely because he was so closely identified with the movement. As such he could not have run any other way. That said, the irony of the Obama presidency has been to highlight just how large the minority of people in this country whose politics is still driven by race.

Jim Leff said...

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"I think the issue is that minority empowerment movements have a hard time determining when and how when the shift from being advocates for their specific issues to representatives of "boring old pluralism."
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I think for most such movements, historically, the answer has been "Never". I think the answer is: "as soon as humanly possible". It's very hard to move your group ahead by being super group-ish. That just (as I wrote) feeds the polarity.

The reason gay rights have transformed with such miraculous speed is that this is exactly the tack they took. "We just want to love who we love, like any American." Not "a gay thing", just an American thing. The message was delivered by boring, well-dressed, reasonable people, not dudes defiantly flaunting their nipple clamps (which would have absolutely nothing to do with it anyway). Dull pluralism. THAT's the right tack, and we've just seen how very well it works

There were lots of reasons Jesse Jackson wasn't right. But I disagree that his past compelled him to be Group Guy. There've been many examples of people fighting explicit persecution who later transform into fine statesmen. It's the exception rather than rule, but it's possible.


vhliv said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vhliv said...

Jim, I don't think we are far apart, but I would argue is it is deceptive to say that the acceptance of gay marriage has been speedy. In the late 1980s this same sex unions began to be discussed in Quaker meetings, and I assume other religious denominations with a progressive bent -- though I cannot speak on authority about that -- and if you were talk to gay Friends they would tell how difficult it was in many meetings even though they were just asking to be treated as people like others. That is roughly a quarter century ago, and I don't know how many state bans on gay marriage later, but a lot. Perhaps had gays circa 1970 embraced marriage the situation might have been different, but I am skeptical.

As for Jesse Jackson, leaving any other issues aside, I think it is naive to think that a guy who groomed himself as MLK's successor, and led "I am somebody cheers" to largely black audiences in the 1970s could erase that past in the eyes of the electorate, even though there is no reason white youth could not or should not have joined in "I am somebody cheers." Let's imagine he had said directly, "I am running to be president of all Americans" and made that his theme. Indeed I would argue he did try since he did convince a significant number of progressive whites to vote for him. In any case, every opposition researcher would have and did dig up every shred of evidence to suggest that Jackson's past provided no evidence to back up his claim to want to represent everyone. hat could be used to argue that people who believed Jackson would be was not sincere about that. After all what was the publication of the "Hymie-town" quote or his ties to Farrakhan about, if not suggesting he was incapable of being the president of all Americans?

To point that out is not to defend Jackson. I would agree with most Americans that based on the MLK I knew (mostly from history books of course), "Jackson was no MLK," to borrow that line form Senator Benson. Yet, I think Jackson had those problems not just because of personal flaws, but because up to 1988 he had been focused on the narrow needs of the Civil Rights Movement and the need to stay relevant within the Black community that had lost a lot of confidence in the SNCC/NAACP path following the death of MLK.

To put it another way, Jackson was of the Moses generation, who helped sustain the flock during the dark days of the rise of the Southern strategy, but for that very reason could not enter promised land of being a politician who happened to be black, as Obama could.

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