Yesterday ABL kindly linked to my piece about Laura Ingraham, race and privilege in discussion of one Herman Cain. I’ve decided to post that here, updated with with observations on Lawrence O’ Donnell’s interview with Cain that aired Thursday night and the reaction to that interview on Friday.
Right wing radio host Laura Ingraham actually served a useful purpose this week with her charming comments on race, President Obama, Herman Cain, and American history.
And what happened with Obama is that he gets this job that he’s not qualified for… OK, so [Obama is] Constitutionally qualified for but he’s not really qualified for. And guess who pays the price? All of us. Because we had such a yearning for history.
Well I have a question. Herman Cain, if he became president, he would be the first black president, when you measure it by — because he doesn’t — does he have a white mother, white father, grandparents, no, right? So Herman Cain, he could say that he’s — he’s — he’s the first, uh — he could make the claim to be the first — yeah, the first Main Street black Republican to be the president of the United States. Right? He’s historic too.
Now you may be thinking “How is this useful other than as a window into just how awful a person Laura Ingraham is?” I’ll be happy to explain my theory. It goes something like this:
Ingraham’s comments show the difference between racism and assumption of privilege. They’re related, but they’re not the same thing. One specifically involves baseless assumptions, negative stereotypes and bigoted behavior specifically involving race, the other involves that a person believes a specific group that they don’t belong to should follow behaviors and be assigned criteria that they consider to be societal norms that the group in question should possess.
It’s entirely possible to assume privilege about a group, to “take it upon oneself,” on issues other than race (gender, sexual identity, religion or lack thereof, etc.) and it’s entirely possible to be racist without assuming privilege (propagating negative stereotypes about one’s own race, “self-hating” etc.)
What Ingraham is doing is very much in the category of assumption of privilege. She feels that she not only has the right to be the arbiter of the President’s racial identity, that she not only has the right to define what that identity means to all other racial identity groups (and that Barack Obama’s racial identity is different from Herman Cain’s racial identity based solely on her opinion) but given her statements in the past she feels that she knows what is best for the black community as well, even though she’s not a part of it. On top of all that, because the President is biracial (like myself) she feels that she can emphasize one race over the other when it suits her argument, and that his identity is mutable based on what she thinks at the time and from which angle she needs to attack him. The assumption that other African-Americans need her guidance and opinion in order to formulate their own perceptions of the President’s racial identity is pretty much the height of hubris.
But Ingraham’s technically not being racist. She’s not actually saying that being black is bad, she’s just defining what she thinks being black from a Presidential historical standpoint means and should be defined as. Having said that, her assumption of privilege here is repugnant, ignorant, arrogant, unacceptable and generally makes her a truly rotten human being. I’m pretty sure most of us would find her statements to be breathtakingly terrible and that most people find what she said to be unremittingly foul on pure instinct. Her statements in fact imply a great number of negative things about the President being biracial and that not being good enough to qualify the him for historical status, that somehow it makes Herman Cain “better” in her opinion, but her statements weren’t technically racism, only implied. There is a difference, and it’s one that has been exploited to great effect in history.
Now here’s where it gets fun: Ingraham’s defenders will no doubt say that her assumption of privilege is not racism, and that anyone who does attack her as being such is overly sensitive and should be dismissed. But this means that her assumption of privilege is acceptable to society because the racism is merely implied and not overt, and therefore a matter of one’s opinion and perspective. Implied attacks on minorities through the language of assumption of privilege have been used throughout American history.
It’s readily and painfully recognizable to various minorities, but has over the decades lost stigma and even become acceptable to those who regularly assume the familiar code phrases, tired arguments, and “dog whistle” semantics because they are in the majority and get to define in society what the acceptable norms are. When couched in the haze of opinion and point-of-view, attacks on such language can be easily discounted in order to maintain that majority hold on what is acceptable and what is not, and it’s done specifically to blunt criticism from minorities and to perpetuate the power in the majority. At its logical endpoint, it’s also designed specifically to anger the minority group in question in order to provoke a reaction by the minority that can be dismissed by the majority in order to establish dominance by being able to control what is acceptable in society.
It’s worked for a very, very, very long time. Ingraham is playing a game as old as human interaction itself.
Having said that, Laura Ingraham can kiss my biracial ass.
Madam, you are no more the arbiter of the President’s racial identity and what it means to America than the pile of fecal matter inside your cranium, and the poison-saturated sack of hypocrisy that constitutes your soul is not anything I would wish on my worst enemy. I am proud of being biracial. It does not make me any less pure or less worthy or less human than human, and I greatly resent the implication. I am exceedingly proud of my President because he is someone like me, and I live in a country where someone like me can in fact be the leader of the free world and govern a country of 310 million people, all of whom are better people than you are. If you cannot find the singular joy in a society that allows that to happen, your worldview is a hopelessly broken and bleak landscape of endless recriminations that is so exceedingly and perfectly empty that you will seek to fill it with shallow, sneering, venal attacks in order to find some way, any way, to stop the relentless pain that your daily existence must entail.
Now, having said all that about Laura Ingraham, she’s not the only media person to ever have assumed privilege over minorities in America. Lawrence O’Donnell did it Thursday night in an interview with Herman Cain. Granted, Cain had misrepresented his position about what he was doing during the civil rights movement in his new book and O’Donnell completely called him out on it. But then O’Donnell goes and says the following (about the 9:10 mark on this video):
Mr. Cain, in fact, you were in college from 1963 to 1967, at the height of the civil rights movement, exactly when the most important demonstrations and protests were going on. You could easily as a student at Morehouse between 1963 and 1967 actively have participated in the kinds of protests that got African-Americans the rights they enjoy today. You watched from that perspective at Morehouse when you were not participating in those processes. You watched black college students and white college students from around the country come to the South and be murdered, fighting for the rights of African-Americans. Do you regret sitting on the sidelines at that time?
To put it bluntly, O’Donnell’s position that any African-American could have “easily” participated in the civil rights movement in the mid-60’s is the same assumption of privilege, this time over the very real dangers facing the black community in the South in those years. The situation was far more complex, far more complicated, and far more dangerous than a binary choice that O’Donnell presents. And yes, I’m saying that he’s guilty of the same line of venal sin as Ingraham, his assumption of what it should be like for the black community according to his own perspective, and then he tells Cain exactly how he should have conducted himself during that time.
No offense there, Lawrence, but that’s just the same brand of inane “you know what’s best for us” malarkey that Ingraham so moronically peddled to President Obama about his racial identity. Herman Cain may be generally awful on his positions, he not anyone I ever vote for, he’s a liar, he doesn’t understand basic principles of macroeconomics despite being a pizza chain magnate and I’m particularly not fond of his complete failure to call out his Republican colleagues on using the same kind of launguaged couched in “he said, she said, we differ” obfuscation in order to provide cover for implied racism. Cain showed the mirror of Ingraham’s implications.
But Lawrence O’Donnell, doesn’t get to make that call about what Herman Cain should have done during that period, any more than Laura Ingraham gets to assume she knows how best to define President Obama’s racial identity. Herman Cain was in fact right to call O’Donnell out for that aspect of the interview. Yes, Cain went too far and called him a “plantation master” in response and showed a far more odious level of disregard than was accorded to him by O’Donnell. That part of Cain’s response was indeed foul and insulting as he did everything he could to wreck the racial discourse.
The difference however between Laura Ingraham and Lawrence O’Donnell (and it’s a massive, titanic difference) is that Lawrence O’Donnell openly admitted to what he said Thursday and took steps to expand the discourse instead of limit it like both Ingraham and Cain did. He opened a discussion on it on his show last night with Rev. Sharpton, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Goldie Taylor of The Grio. O’Donnell explained that he wasn’t trying to Herman Cain what he should have done, that it was a moral choice instead. (Part 2 of that discussion is here.) O’Donnell expanded the discourse, and seeing liberals openly discuss not only race and the implications of but the assumption of privilege is something we badly, badly need more of. It’s Melissa Harris-Perry who explained it best last night:
That said, and with no support for Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan or anything else on the Cain menu, I was squirming with discomfort watching this interview, Lawrence, between you and Mr. Cain, and my discomfort came from a couple of sources. One, just exactly as you said, the menu of choices, I think we have to be so careful. When we are not facing that imminent violence ourselves, we have to be extremely careful about even the implication that those who did not participate were necessarily cowards. Not, Mr. Cain may be a coward, I don’t know, but it was always simply a minority of African-Americans who were engaged at any point in the civil rights movement because it was a life or death question, and I can’t be certain what choices I would have made if I had faced that.
This of course is an excellent point. Dr. Harris-Perry is absolutely correct when she says all this, and even in 2011 we have a lot of assumptions to address before we can get to the actual discourse, the need for a point of origin on discussions like this usually ends up being 90% of the yelling and screaming without anything civil actually said. And for his efforts to publically correct that, I applaud Lawrence O’Donnell. We need more discourse like this, even if and especially because of the rocky road we continually need to travel in order to get there. Please do yourself a favor and watch both parts of the discussion, it’s very instructive, informative, and educational.
My theory ends forthwith.