President Obama and The Rules of Racial Standing

September 10, 2009

President Barack Obama has a problem. And no, it’s not just emotionlessness, or fringe evangelical conservatives, or his attempts at universal health care. President Obama’s problem is the same one that every person of at least some African descent faces in America. His problem: The Rules of Racial Standing.

Of course, President Obama should know what I’m talking about. After all, he studied under the author of these rules while at Harvard Law, the one and only Derrick Bell. Bell, a two-time New York Times bestselling author in his own right, devoted a chapter in Faces at the Bottom of the Well to these unofficial Rules of Racial Standing. Bell’s point: that few– if any — of those of African descent have the legal, political or social standing necessary to address deeply divisive issues such as race. At least, without being considered irrational and discountable. Below is my summary of Bell’s Rules of Racial Standing, as published in my Radical Society piece “Rules to Live By”:

First Rule
(“Rule of Illegitimate Standing”) …No matter their experience or expertise, Blacks’ statements involving race are deemed “special pleading” and thus not entitled to serious consideration.

Second Rule
(“Rule of Legitimate Standing”) Not only are Blacks’ complaints discounted, but Black victims of racism are less effective witnesses than are Whites, who are members of the oppressor class. This phenomenon reflects a widespread assumption that…cannot be objective on racial issues…

Third Rule
(“Rule of Enhanced Standing”) …The usual exception…is the Black person who publicly disparages or criticizes other Blacks who are speaking or acting in ways that upset Whites. Instantly, such statements are granted “enhanced standing” even when the speaker has no special expertise or experience in the subject he or she is criticizing.

Fourth Rule
(“Rule of Superenhanced Standing”) When a Black person or group makes a statement or takes an action that the White community or vocal opponents thereof deem “outrageous,” the latter will actively recruit Blacks willing to refute the statement or condemn the action. Blacks who respond to the call for condemnation will receive superstanding status…

Fifth Rule
(“Rule of Prophetic Understanding”) …Using this knowledge, one gains the gift of prophecy about racism, its essence, its goals, even its remedies. The price of this knowledge is the frustration that…that no amount of public prophecy, no matter its accuracy, can either repeal the Rules of Racial Standing or prevent their operation.

There are exceptions to these rules, such as when a prominent Black throws other Blacks under the proverbial bus in a way that is consistent with the views of a majority of Whites, or at least, conservatives regardless of race and ethnicity. Or by having someone White or of legitimate standing vouch for his or her otherwise controversial views. These rules not only apply in a legal proceeding. They have found their way into every corner of American culture and politics.

With President Obama, we have a living contradiction of Bell’s Rules of Racial Understanding. Not only is he technically multiracial yet considered by himself and others as Black. Obama holds the most powerful political office in the world, maybe in the history of the world. On most matters he has standing the equivalent of the Sun when compared with the Earth. But because Obama’s also Black, he also lacks sufficient standing on the most controversial issues of our age. Anything involving race, racial bias, prejudice, religion, the growing socioeconomic divide, terrorism, American patriotism, civil liberties, or social justice is potentially toxic for Obama. While being president gives him standing few on the world stage could imagine — much less enjoy, being African American dilutes Obama’s standing at the same time.

And we have neo-conservatives like Limbaugh and Palin — and as of last night, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) — evangelicals, and much more obvious bigots that remind us of this rather interesting contradiction every week, if not every day. Birthers declaring that Obama is an illegitimate president we allegedly haven’t seen his birth certificate. Folks accusing him and Congress of creating “death panels” for the elderly as a way to pay for universal health care. Madmen bringing guns to town halls or hoarding guns because they believe that Obama’s the anti-Christ. The last time I believed that about anyone was when I was eleven years old, and just about as naive about the world as the fully-grown nuts rolling around now.

To say that this has nothing to do with race or Bell’s Rules is to suggest that many of us are so narcissistic that we can conjure up denial at will. But it’s not just Whites or conservatives (or, rather, neo-reactionaries) who can knee-jerk themselves into nonsensical “it’s not about race” answers. Obama and his administration have done the same thing. They’ve treated the political discourse and discord of the past eight months mostly with academia-like silence. Great if one’s attempting to rise up the White male-dominated corporate ladder or trying to get tenure at a predominantly White university. Not so great if you’re the President of the United States. Obama either sees himself as T’Pol or Spock, a logical, emotionless Vulcan. Or he’s taking cues from Michael Douglass’ character in The American President. Both of which communicate a certain degree of cynicism about his opposition and the American electorate in general.

Does this mean that Obama can’t be post-racial, or overcome the thinly-veiled racial, pro-business and anti-intellectual proclivities of his opponents? Does this mean that Bell’s Rules of Racial Standing could place a stranglehold on his presidency? Only if Obama and those who support him take a pessimistic approach to governing and social justice. Despite all the wackos out there, the yellow-journalism that is offered up to the public, and our own hysteria about the decline of our once great nation, Obama has an opportunity. He holds the keys to the kingdom, something that wasn’t supposed to happen until I reached retirement age three decades from now.

This is where Bell’s Fifth Rule on Prophetic Understanding becomes important. Without an understanding that effort on the most gut-wrenching issues is necessary, even if it results in a loss. Otherwise, there would no need for an understanding of the first four rules in the first place. Maybe that’s what has been lacking in Obama for the past five months, at least until yesterday. That sense that striving and struggle — risk-taking — is needed out of our leadership, even when that leadership flies in the face of what is comforting and familiar to most, whether it be shameless supporters or venomous opponents. Hopefully, Obama will do more than give speeches and issue communiques in dealing with Bell’s Rules so that we can truly have change that we can believe in.


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