Most of this election cycle, I’ve sat on the sidelines and not expressed strong opinions about the presidential candidates or their positions on all issues foreign and domestic. I’ve been quite busy reaching out to agents regarding Boy At The Window, looking for more permanent work and the daily business of family, teaching and contract work. At the beginning of the year, I said that I thought that either John Edwards or Barack Obama would be the best candidates for president. In February and March, I talked a bit about the issues surrounding Obama regarding race, especially in the context of his pastor/mentor Jeremiah Wright. I put all of those things in a larger context, because I believe that for most thinking folks, the issue isn’t about what Rev. Wright has said as much as it is about Obama response(s).
As Obama has completely denounced Wright in the past week — and for good reason — I can’t help but think how unfair and dishonest our nation is when it comes to any issues that revolve around race. Not race as a obvious issue, mind you, but not so subtle that most average people don’t notice, either. It’s this notion that Derrick Bell discussed in his Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992), that there are “Rules of Racial Standing,” in which Blacks are held to a double-standard in the public spotlight. Bell applied them to the legal process (criminal and civil) in his book, but they apply equally well to other public spectacles. Without rewriting my article “Rules to Live By,” I can say that Bell’s Rules basically break down this way. If a Black person regardless of status or socioeconomic background says something that can does offend many Whites, expert Blacks — representative Negroes to some — are virtually required to come out and condemn both the message and the speaker thereof. The only major exception to this if it Whites — and not just White liberals — in fact back up what the offending Black person has said.
In the case of Wright v. Obama, the presidential candidate attempted to amend Bell’s Rules by separating Wright’s message from the reverend himself. He gave an uplifting and wide-ranging speech that most Americans should see as an excellent oration on Bell’s Rules and the need for our nation to confront them. But these rules really weren’t created by Bell in 1992. They’ve been in existence in this country for the better part of three and a quarter centuries. Forty-five years of civil rights and social justice work has done little to change that. Although Obama’s numbers did take a hit as a result of his nuanced high-road response to Wright, it was the media’s response and continued coverage that should be of more concern to most of us.
This ridiculous idea of the race card — made universally known as such by the O.J. Simpson trial of ’94- ’95 — is interwoven within Bell’s Rules. The notion that Blacks only cry about race or racism or bigotry in the public arena when it suits our purposes. To deflect attention from our own failings or missteps. To blame Whites or other folks for our lot in life. To get away with everything from affirmative action to murder. That’s what the race card is in the minds of most Americans. It’s as if any Black person who confronts race head on is shouting “Race!” in a crowded theater, no matter how erudite the statement or how reasoned the argument. We’ve somehow pulled a joker card out of the deck to make others laugh and cringe at the same time. But rarely do people ask about the deck of cards from which Blacks are playing. Or about who the dealer is.
As America has fallen in love with watching Poker on TV and playing it on the Web, it’s interesting to me that so many can take enjoyment out watching something that is so boring unless you’re actually playing. But that’s another blog for another day. At least with these shows, you know that there are other players, a dealer, a smoke-filled room with alcohol available. Or a computer with Internet connections keeping track of the cards. In the court of public opinion, the media in all of its forms deals the cards. And it’s a stacked deck. It almost always has been. It’s so strange how most Americans complain about the media, its liberal or conservative bias, its constant attempt to stir the pot on any number of issues, its inability to bring us real news. Yet when it comes to race, we suddenly become the docile consumers of objective news and information that we otherwise complain about these days.
So when it comes to something like Wright v. Obama, of course the deck is stacked. Once the YouTube video was posted and the media picked up on it, Obama was left with few cards to play. The media had a straight, and Obama needed a royal flush. He tried at first to take the high road, to not up the ante and pick up the card that would condemn the man who led him to spiritual salvation as a Christian. Wright, though, decided to play along with the media, at the National Press Club, no less, revealing himself as a egotistic and bitter man and not a shabby poker player at the same time, forcing Obama’s hand (pun intended). It wouldn’t have been any different if Spike Lee or Steven Spielberg had put together a script on this.
Certainly there are other examples. The recent decision to acquit NYPD officers of murder in a case that involved shooting or shooting at a groom at a wedding more than fifty times. But I guess I’m paranoid and irrational if I think that this is about race. Or how Bill Cosby has become the new voice of Black progress in the past four years. Yeah, a near-billionaire comedian who decided enough was enough as he entered his eighth decade of life. Cosby, by the way, is the other side of the coin around Bell’s Rules. His words support the general view that many Americans have of Blacks, giving him what Bell would call enhanced or superenhanced standing in the public eye. (That’s not to say that some of what Cosby says isn’t true — it’s far from the complete catalog on the realities of poverty and race in this country. Yet another story for another blog.)
But given what’s at stake between now and November 5, Wright v. Obama could well determine whether I want to keep playing poker in the voting booth or with the media at all. It’s a game that I’ve been forced to play all of my life, and I’m starting to get tired. I’m not sure if I want my son to have to play this game in order to grow up here. NAFTA or not, Canada and Mexico look pretty good right now. And to address the famous blogger who’d say that when Whites get tired of the state of affairs in this country, they often talk about moving to Canada, I say that I’m Black, and depending on how things turn, I plan to do much more than talk or play my hand.