Ta-Nehisi Coates has an important post up today arguing that politicians who are identified as representing black interests will come to be racialized as black, regardless of their race. He starts with discussing Barack Obama and moves backward through time to Bill Clinton and Abraham Lincoln:
Even Bill Clinton did not exist in a bubble of neutralized racism. He was a product of American politics in the post-Civil Rights era, and thus had to cope with all the requisite forces. Racism does not merely concern itself with individual enmity, but with group interests. The men who killed Andrew Goodman did not merely hate him individually, they hated what he represented. By the time Bill Clinton came to prominence, his party was closely associated with black interests. This was problem. And Clinton knew it.
“The day he told that fucking Jackson off,” a white electrician told a pollster, “Is the day he got my vote.”
This association with blackness, in other words, becomes a way to delegitimize politicians, because they are seen as representing narrow racialized interest, rather than “America.” We see this echo subtly in campaign rhetoric about whether Democratic candidates will represent “all of America” or instigate some form of “class warfare.”
The subtext of these arguments reinforces several interrelated and pernicious ideas. The first is a fallacy: All politicians represent some coalition of interests that they hope will make up the majority of their constituents on election day. While they of course legally represent “everyone,” they tend to work to further the interests of the coalition that got them elected. This is no more or less true for Barack Obama than it is for Michelle Bachmann.
The second is the idea that American society is a zero-sum game, and that if black people are winning, white people must be losing. This is an line that tragically still carries weight at the ballot box. It encourages white voters to assume that Bill Clinton, nicknamed “America’s First Black President” with affection, would somehow abandon them, or that Barack Obama, who secretly might not even have been born an American citizen, does not care for them and will not represent them.Coates ends on a realistic, if hopeless note:
If Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will have to cope with being perceived as a woman representing the interests of black people and women of all ethnicities. Sexism will never be off the stage. Nor will racism.
Coates is right. We cannot all of a sudden wish away hundreds of years of history, nor can we, through simply willpower alone, erase the mental processes and cultural images that reinforce bias. It’s not hopeless, we are not doomed, but there is much work to be done.