Thursday, January 29, 2009

"My President is Black"

When I was in the 11th grade, my English teacher made a point about using words that actually mean something. His exhortation that day was specifically about using the terms “negative” and “positive” when describing how we might feel about something. For example, what does it really mean to say “I feel positive about our chances to win the game tonight?” His point -- terms like “negative” and “positive” describe an electrical charge but are only nebulous when describing emotions, since they are not meant to do so.

Often, our common vocabulary consists of terms that don’t mean what they should, but before explaining my point here, given the title above, let me first explain what it is not. It’s not about the legitimacy of Barry Obama’s citizenship; neither is it any comment about his diverse ethnical makeup; nor is it trying to figure out racism or getting into the lingering effects of slavery in America, etc. Any comprehensive attempt at those issues is not the scope of my topic, so comment on those things if you choose, but again—not my point.

I’ll admit that it’s not a safe choice to quote a popular Hip-Hop artist called Young Jeezy (a self-proclaimed leader of “thugs”) for a lesson on our culture. While his track “My President is Black” (which hit the waves back in the summer) has proven prophetic, you might assume that the term “Black” must be ghetto slang for “African-American” if your only sources of information were the mainstream media or the President himself.

I’m confused -- what does “African-American” mean? And how does the term “African-American” dignify a black man more so than just calling him “black” and an “American?” What is degrading about just being “black” and “American?” Someone please explain, cause otherwise I think mainstream America could learn something from a thug.

To the point -- If you want to start making progress on racism in America, then stop using the divisive, inaccurate and politically correct term “African-American.”

But I’m not convinced that progress against racism is really on anyone’s agenda.

Look, you’re either an American or you’re not—at least that is what some of our most meaningful American doctrines will tell you. Just take the first and sixth articles (there are only six) of the Military Code of Conduct that every “American” freedom fighter serving under our “African-American” Commander-in-Chief has seared into their brain:

“I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.”

“I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free. I will trust in my God and in the United States of America.”

I’m not very sentimental, and on another day we can debate some of the nuances of these words as well as the greater issues of war or pacifism or nationalism or Americanism. But these words, created for the sake of real, life or death, dire and desperate scenarios, beautifully convey something about what it means to preserve America when it is most threatened—namely, “I will never forget that I am an American.”

So, when the “American’s” Commander-in-Chief repeatedly refers to himself as an “African-American,” could that possibly call into question from his subordinates whose “way of life” they defend with their own lives? What does “African-American” mean that “American” does not cover? Further, how does this term of distinction promote unity within multi-cultural military units who must be unified? And could this possibly, even if remotely, cause divisiveness or at least confusion?

The reality is this--there are as many “African-Americans” as there are “Native-Americans” living in America in 2009—none. Sure, there are a relative few Africans living in America, and there are many descendants of now deceased Africans and Natives. We need to admit that these politically correct terms are antiquated and, if not encouraging racism certainly facilitate it.

Let me explain. Since I’m a white man, I’ll give the floor to a black man who gives two reasons from the black side, and I’ll suggest a third. Then I’ll give a simple explanation from the white side and be done.

From his article, “Driving Bentleys and crying racism,” the Rev. Jesse Lee Petersen (a black preacher in LA – suggests two motives for perpetuating racism amongst blacks: “the power of playing the race card” and the usefulness of being a “victim.”

According to Petersen, many blacks know that most whites are afraid of being labeled a racist to the extent that they will “offer great concessions to avoid that suspicion.” This gives some blacks the perceived license to make otherwise racist remarks, or in the case here proclaim the moniker “African-American,” since the unspoken threat that any white who might call them out would most assuredly be deemed a racist (see Petersen’s article for noteworthy examples). (Don’t misunderstand what is being said—I’m not saying that everyone who uses “African -American” is racist by any means, but it does open the door to racism on both sides). And as this scenario is more often internalized than spoken out against, the politically correct agenda only furthers the racism that it secretly feeds.

For the second reason, Petersen says that being a “victim” (which certainly the term “African-American” would represent) is both an “ego-boosting badge of honor” and “a ready excuse whenever one fails.” And who couldn’t use these to further their own causes, he says.

A third reason why racism might be (knowingly or unknowingly) perpetuated by blacks represented in the term “African-American” is related to these first two—a heightened sense of entitlement. “African-American” becomes a term less for the sake of remembering what the black race has endured in the past in order that they might be stronger and more unified, ie. the black heritage, and more about: remembering what whites have done to them in the past, so that whites should carry a continual guilt for horrible events which neither blacks nor whites today had anything to do with, and not treating blacks with dignity because they are men and fellow “Americans,” but treating them differently because they are “African-Americans.” Can these two attitudes be separated and the latter one eventually abolished? Perhaps so, but it isn't happening and “African-American” isn't helping either.

From the white perspective, it’s more about just keeping everything cool and PC, which are really just easy ways to say that we often don’t have the courage to stand up for what is right (even if it means calling out a black man or a fellow white man for racism), or the desire to promote and help preserve the dignity of all men, or the willingness to work towards limiting racism in America. Then again, many whites are just racists.

I realize that most potential readers of this blog are beyond living according to any politically correct agenda, but who among us is beyond the temptation to show favoritism to one man because of the way he looks? Certainly not I.

Perhaps if we followed James’ exhortations against showing favoritism more often, we’d see nebulous, PC agenda-laden terms like “African-American” less and less. Then again, perhaps not.

What is clear is this -- any real progress against racism starts with a genuine desire to be rid of it in the first place. And to that end we should start by getting rid of the term “African-American.”


Shane said...

The race industry thrives on controversies of the sort created by hyphenated cultures. Nothing pleases Jesse Jackson more than when a white guy declares that blacks should stop calling themselves African-Americans. Why? Because that stance enables Jackson and other robber barons of race to create white strawmen to bludgeon---declaring that we don't understand the culture, the history, the 400 years of slavery, etc.

Likewise, openly applauding the use of African-American as a term to remind blacks of how white people hate(d?) them, of slavery, and of the hallowed Civil Rights Movement (which wasn't all that civil at times). While not as appealing to the Race Industry as open opposition, the white who publicly endorses hyphenation still enables the Race Industry to have a platform from which to speak.

Here's a hypothesis: Let's try insouciance. Who cares what they call themselves? If we just act like we don't care, then will that make it more difficult for the Race Industry to profit by the hyphenation?

Hal Brunson said...

Interesting post, and right on in terms of the inherently racist term "African American." I do think Barack Obama may be termed ethnically black because of (1) his father (multi-racial children have a choice to make in terms of ethnic identity), (2) the woman he married and (3) the church with which he chose to affiliate, and (4) the political arena in which he chose to become a "community activist" working with inner city blacks; however, I do not think that Barack Obama is culturally black; he is, in fact, culturally white.

Consider the facts that, after his black father abandoned him, his white mother and white grandparents reared him in white culture; he attended a premoninantly white private school in Hawaii, and then on to the Ivy League, not Howard University. Obvious evidence of Obama's whiteness are his deportment and accent. His liberalism, I think, derives more from his wacko mother.

When the percentages of black men in prison and on welfare do not diminish, when black dreams of swift economic prosperity dissipate into the cold and hard realities of patience and hard work, and when Obama moves ever and ever to the political middle, the "Obama effect" will wear off and this new "black" messiah will be "crucified in the house of his friends."

Hippie Fringe said...

If a child were coloring a picture of President Obama they probably would not reach in their box of Crayolas for 13 Black #000000. They would probably pick 22 Brown #AF593E or maybe 116 Shadow #837050 since he is not actually black but more brown or possibly cappuccino to metrosexuals. If the same child were coloring a picture of me they would surely not pick 146 White #FFFFFF since I am not white but actually somewhere between Crayon 91 Peach #FFCBA4 and Crayon 45 Flesh #FFCBA4. Why Crayon would call this color FLESH (which could also be chosen to color a pig’s snout) draws Crayola into question. A child knows how to color and could easily tell you what color our President is.
Going back to your teachers lesson, I think it is often inaccurate or confusing to use colors to describe ideas. To label ideas as black, meaning ethnic, is dark indeed (dark in the sense of night or absence of light).

Beau Morgan said...


Guess I had inadvertently missed the hyphens in my original post, so thanks for pointing that out (want to make sure it is "legal," although I've seen it both ways in print).

Personally, I'd rather tell my black friends (some of whom are Rhodes scholars, former roommates, sister's boyfriends and guys who would probably take a bullet for me) why I'm tired of hearing "African-American" spew from every media outlet and PC conversation at the office or cocktail party for the next 8 years than "I really don't care what you guys call yourselves?"

I'd argue that "insouciance" feeds racism as much as anything else.

I really didn't have Jesse Jackson or "robber barons of race" in mind for this post -- do you think they really need another "strawman"? I think they'll always find one. Further, I could care less.

I do care about people who providentially come into my life, and I'm sure you are the same in that respect. To not be willing or prepared to talk about the types of issues discussed in the post is sort of a "conditional" care and akin to the analogy of sweeping dirt under the rug continually, isn't it?

Then again, maybe "insouciance" is a more peaceful way to live, as long as you're fine with having a large mound of dirt in the living room.

Shane said...


I wasn't trying to bust you on hyphenation---didn't even occur to me.

I'm not advocating my hypothesis, I just thought I'd throw that out as another option. I agree with you that the term "African-American" is detrimental to blacks, chiefly by discouraging assimilation into broader American society and feeding the victimization mindset of that culture.

At the same time, I'm struck with the notion that people ought be able to choose what they're called. And while I think we should share with black friends we may have (and I admittedly have none, though not purposefully) the idea that "African-American" as a term is detrimental, if that person still wants to be called "African-American," I think that should be honored. However, I'm not married to that position.

With regard to sweeping issues under the rug, let me just say I'm not positive I follow the analogy---what does the dirt represent?

I'm willing to discuss issues of race, but it's an exercise in futility. In that sense, then, I don't want to sweep the dirt under the rug, but I accept the floor's messy so I'm going to paint the wall. (That may be the worst analogy ever on my part!)

The Militant Pacifist said...

Crayon 45 Flesh #FFCBA4, pig's snout, me...thanks for the sermon!

Dougy611 said...

Subject: African American?

I have a problem with this definition also. Some “African Americans” have never or will never see Africa. Some that claim to be African Americans are in fact from other counties, having nothing to do with Africa.

Everyone with any knowledge knows this. However my questions to your pure hearts (as my brother, Dr Harold Brunson used to say) what about Muslims that come from Africa, are they African Americans? What about the Englishman that comes to this country, is he/she England Americans? Were all my kin folk Canada Americans when they came across the border into Vermont back in 18th century?

I would be very interested in someone commenting on this.

PS: I have always heard that God protects fools and idiots. He must look a well he has taken care of me,

Hippie Fringe said...

I would agree X American can be redundant or divisive. The only true Americans are indigenous peoples which have been so marginalized as to have no real cultural bearing on the words anymore. The rest of us are all from somewhere else which makes the X redundant but possibly of some benefit in defining that somewhere else. I guess in the grandest sense we are all Ethiopian Americans if Lucy is who and what they say she is.

Stating ones ethnicity before their nationality does not grammatically make them less American. An African American is an American. An American Indian on the other hand is an Indian (feather not dot). An Indian (dot not feather) American is an American.
I take no offense that people would want to hold on to a cultural identity, especially if that identity has been denied or demeaned. In response to your question, I would have to say that an African Muslim American is just as valid as an Irish Catholic American, both of which are grammatically Americans.

The Militant Pacifist said...

A Lesson in Politics