Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Racism in the Age of Obama

I never bought the rhetoric of “post-racial America” that was promoted by some in the Obama campaign last year and more by the mainstream media. (Obama himself said several times that no one election could solve all our racial problems. He acknowledged progress–that’s all.) The increase in hate crimes since the election is major evidence that racism is alive and well in the U.S.A.  But I want to focus on 3 items for reflection:  1)The racebaiting (and phony calls of “reverse racism” ) in the opposition to the SCOTUS nomination of Judge Sonia Sotomayor; 2) The arrest and aftermath of Harvard historian Henry Louis “Skip” Gates; and 3) The “birthers,” those who claim that Barack Obama is not legally president because, allegedly, he is actually a citizen of Kenya and “has never shown an authentic U.S. birth certificate.”  All these show racism in America in fascinating ways that need to be addressed–not least by our churches, synagogues,  mosques and other religious institutions, but also by public leaders of various kinds, and  by ordinary people like you and me. (Thus, this blog post.)

!. Judge Sonia Sotomayor, soon to be Justice Sotomayor, was far from my first choice for an Obama Supreme Court nominee.  As a perusal of her nearly 20 years on the federal bench shows (and one can follow this at SCOTUSblog), she is a centrist jurist much like David Souter whom she is replacing–and a few issues maybe even more conservative than Souter.  I thought Obama should have nominated a liberal powerhouse to take on Scalia and Alito.  This is a woman centrist enough that she was first appointed to the State Supreme Court of New York by then-Pres.  George H. W. Bush (Bush I) and when Pres. Bill Clinton raised her to the Second Court of Appeals, she was easily confirmed by a Republican controlled U.S. Senate.  Were there legitimate issues to raise about her appointment by conservatives? Sure. That would be true of any nominee.  But here was a woman with a long judicial record–and it was almost ignored in her Senate Judiciary confirmation hearings.  Instead, they focused on a few lines from a few speeches she had given over the years and tried to make her out to be a “reverse racist” who hates white men.

Judge Sotomayor was probably unwise to ever make the remark that a “wise Latina could judge some cases better than a white man,” but placing that remark in its context it is not hard to see what she meant. We all come things, including the law, from our experiences and perspectives–and the experiences and perspectives of a working class Latina woman from the Bronx are not the same as the usual rich whites who dominate our courts.  The GOP HAILED this perspectivalism when during the confirmation hearings of Clarence Thomas–who came from utter poverty. They championed the “empathy” of Thomas, Alito, and Roberts.  Is empathy good in men but a sign of illogic and emotivism in women? (I do think sexism is also a factor in this case, but I want to examine it only in the context of race because  of the focus of this blog post.) Or is diversity only valued when it leads one to come to the exact same positions as held by conservative white men as with Clarence Thomas?

The attacks on Judge Sotomayor reveal that whites believe their perspectives should dominate. When they read the law, they are interpreting objectively–whether their judgments affect non-whites or not. That a Latina should presume to interpret the law in ways that will affect whites fills them with fear.  This is expressed in the false debate about “objectivity” vs. “activist judges.”  There is no “objectivity” in interpreting the Constitution or any other document–no “God’s eye view” (except for God!) or “view from nowhere.”  All interpretation, whether of the Bible or a Shakespearean play or a postmodern  novel or the U.S. Constitution is perspectival, shaped by our experiences and history–including our sex, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious commitments or lack thereof,  etc.  We bring all that TO any text we read.  This is well known in hermeneutics, the science of interpretation, and can easily be demonstrated in any book discussion group.  This doesn’t mean that the Constitution or any other text can mean  whatever we wish.  Good interpreters will be informed by the history behind the text, by the history of interpretation (in this case, by legal precedent), and the actual words of the text.  In 90% of cases, “liberal,” “centrist,” and “conservative” legal scholars come to very similar, if not identical, conclusions.  The remaining time, though, requires skills in interpretation, the practices of a reading community (in this case, Constitutional scholars)–and one’s awareness of how different readings have practical  import in human life.  So, one should value diversity on the bench–one should want a Supreme Court that more closely resembles the racial, gender, and linguistic diversity of the nation itself.  But the opposition to  Judge Sotomayor showed a fear of such diversity on the part of those (rich whites) who have long benefitted from having their perspectives dominate the law. That the attacks were led  in the Judiciary Committee by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) who, in 1986, was rejected by a Republican-controlled judiciary committee from an appointment as a U.S. Attorney because of repeated instances of documented racist behavior (from referring to the NAACP as “communist inspired,” to trying to block African-Americans in AL from voting, calling a white lawyer a “race traitor” because he defended civil rights workers, etc.) is more than ironic.  For Jeff Sessions to tell ANYONE that she “displays prejudices” is so far over the top that it isn’t funny.

One unspoken fear seems to go like this: “If I were treated as badly as women and persons of color have been treated by white males in this country, I would be full of resentment and likely to use any power I got for revenge. Therefore, surely that is how Sonia Sotomayor feels and she is just WAITING to hurt white males when she is on the Supreme Court bench.” Spelled out, most people would think this is ridiculous–but as an unspoken, barely thought, fear, I think it is real for far too many.  That’s why so little time was spent on Judge Sotomayor’s record and so much on a few lines taken out of context of a few speeches.  And sure, minority resentment exists and is sometimes acted on. But there is no evidence of that in Judge Sotomayor.  White guilt turns to fear and is projected onto others–and reinforces white fears.

More, I think these attacks on Sotomayor were deliberate. The Republicans can read polls. They know they lost the last two election cycles largely because of the growing Hispanic vote and that they were further alienating Hispanics. For some reason,  it seemed worth it to them because they apparently WANT to inflame feelings of alienation and resentment in whites,  especially working class whites who  think “their America” is being taken from them.  Case in point, the claim made that Judge Sotmayor belonged to a “white KKK without the hoods” in belonging to La Raza. La Raza is simply the largest Hispanic civil rights organization, far from radical. Nor is “la raza” simply Spanish for “the race” as too many whites claimed. It means “the people” and doesn’t have the same negative connotations as the English word “race,” just as the  English word “folk,” doesn’t have the negative Nazi-like connotations of the German “volk.”  This is a case of projecting onto others the feelings one has one’s self.  And it is designed to make Judge Sotomayor the “other” who is “not like us” and therefore should not be permitted on the nation’s highest court.  Our history shows that times of economic duress bring out fear and hatred of the other most.

2)The “Skip” Gates arrest. As everyone who follows the news now knows, Harvard Professor Henry L. Gates, an African-American, returned home from a trip to find the door to his Cambridge, MA home jammed. He was forced to “break-in” to his own house.  Soon, a white police officer named Crowley arrived because of reports of a burglary. Gates identified himself and said it was his  home. His luggage was clearly in the hall.  Perhaps frustrated, he was not polite to the officer, was quite rude by all accounts,  in fact, but did show his identification, gave his position at Harvard and said that the cop could call Harvard which runs the house for tenured professors (it has several). Instead, the cop arrested him for “disorderly conduct” because Gates refused to come out of the house with him and was “abusive in language.”  I don’t know what would frighten me more: that this was blatantly racist or that the police now had a policy of arresting all homeowners who aren’t polite to them!

In my mind there is no doubt that a white Harvard professor in the same situation, even doing the same things as Gates,  would not have been arrested.  This was not night, but the middle of the day. Gates’ luggage was visible and the officer’s own report shows that he was satisfied as to his identity and no longer believed a burglary was taking place.  But every African-American I have ever known, especially every black male, knows what Gates went through. They know what it is to be followed in stores to make sure they aren’t stealing merchandise.  They know what it is to be pulled over for “driving while black.” They know that if they live in the “wrong neighborhoods,” their neighbors are likely to report them for burglary.  They know to distrust the police because a primary function of police in American history has been to keep African-Americans (and labor activists, women, immigrants,  other minorities, but especially African-Americans) “in their place.”  They know that far too many police departments have arrest reports partially filled out already: Hair “black,” Eyes, “brown.” (I saw this in D.C. in ’89 when arrested for civil disobedience.  The officers typing reports were angry at having to get so many blank forms where this hadn’t been done. It became clear whom the jails were MEANT to house.) They know that if they show any rudeness to police they are likely to be shot and killed and the report will be “resisting arrest.”

Now, none of this may have been in Officer Crowley’s mind. I don’t accuse him of personal animosity.  I don’t want to count his black  friends (or Latino friends, Asian friends, etc.).  The system teaches him to be more wary of black males and that certain neighborhoods are “supposed” to be occupied by rich whites. (Never mind that Gates is probably the most recognizable American historian in the country, who has hosted several TV specials. A working class white cop probably didn’t tune into PBS to see “African-American Lives” I or II.) And doubtless class differences between a Harvard professor and a blue-collar cop played into the incident. (I come from the working class–although my parents both went on to earn university degrees AFTER I began my own university work–and despite my several degrees now once more work in a blue collar setting. I understand those tensions in my bones.) But there is still no doubt in my mind that a white person in Gates’ position, doing the exact same things, would not have been arrested.

This needs to lead to more rounds of “sensitivity training” in police forces.  Something also needs to be done to push whites in affluent neighborhoods to actually get to know persons of color who move in–so that they quit reporting them as burglars! (I once came into an academic reception at a big hotel with fellow Baptist theologian Miguel de la Torre,  a light-skinned Cuban-American.  Before we got to the reception area 3 white guests of the hotel assumed “naturally” that  Miguel worked there and asked him to run personal errands for them. This was in 1997.)   And we who are white have the majority burden of trying to keep these incidents from happening.

Yes, working on interracial understanding is something white folks have to assume the lion’s share of responsibility? Why? Our history.  It doesn’t matter if none of your ancestors owned slaves or none of them ever pushed Jim Crow laws. It doesn’t matter if you grew up with good friends from different racial/ethnic groups. The burden is still on you (me) as a white person–because we have benefitted and still benefit from the history of racial discrimination.  I would say the same to German Gentiles in any work on relations with Jews–Because of your history, YOU have the larger share of responsibility for working on a brighter future.  We are not born into the world with a clean slate–we are the product, good and bad, of what has happened before we got here.  Jeremiah 32 tells us that the sins of our ancestors still  affect their children for generations.

3) The “Obama birth certificate” conspiracy.  O.K., first the facts.  See Factcheck.org’s “Born in the U.S.A.”  Barack Obama was born in 1961 in Hawai’i.  His mother never went to Kenya.  He himself never went to Kenya until he was 12 for a brief visit.  The hospital duly gave a legitimate birth certificate to the State of Hawai’i as Linda Lingle, the REPUBLICAN governor of Hawai’i testifies.  The local paper ran a birth announcement at the time–no time traveler went back to doctor the paper’s account so that a Constitutionally unqualified Barack Obama could later “illegitimately” occupy the White House.  His birth certificate was shown as he registered to run for president–just as every other candidate has to–and the Supreme Court has now rejected several lawsuits about this as having no basis.

Look, the Constitution requires that any candidate for president be “natural born” citizens, rather than later naturalized. (The Constitution provided a loophole for George Washington and other early presidents who would have begun life as British citizens.) But Obama would have been a “natural born” citizen even if had been born in Kenya, because his mother was a U.S. citizen who never renounced her citizenship. Similarly, John McCain is a natural born citizen, although he was born in PANAMA, because his parents were citizens when he was born.  By contrast, neither Democratic governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan nor Republican governor Arnold Schwarzeneggar of California is qualified to be president because they are naturalized citizens–Granholm was originally a Canadian and AH-Nold was originally Austrian.  The presidency is the only office forbidden to naturalized citizens–but Obama IS a natural-born citizen.

But the facts aren’t the point for the birthers.  Conspiracy theorists are seldom convinced by the facts.  It is about legitimacy and it has everything to do with race. A new study shows that the majority of “birthers” are Southerners and the heart of the conspiracy theory is in Alabama, cradle of the Confederacy. Coincidence? Not on your life.  Since Obama won by just under 9 million votes, those who feel that “their America and everything it stands for” are threatend by him must find a way to claim that his presidency is illegitimate–and they can’t blame a brother as governor of a key state or the Supreme Court as aggrieved Democrats could (with more reason) in 2000.  The birth certificate conspiracy is a straw to claim that “this black man has no right to be in OUR White House.”  It goes along with the claims that he is a “secret Muslim” (from those who believe that this is a Christian country instead of a pluralistic country of religious liberty where Christians are a majority) and a “terrorist,” etc.  All of it is a way to say, “He’s not one of us!” and it is not hard to figure out who the “us” is supposed to be.

I, who grew up in the South and still live on the border between the South and the Midwest, am NOT claiming that all Southerners are racist.  Let it be said clearly: When I entered basic training, it was the lilly white boys from Midwestern places like Iowa, Wyoming, Idaho and the like who were scared to sleep in their bunks in the same rooms with African-Americans, not us Southern boys who looked at them like they were crazy.  Virginia, once capital of the Confederacy, elected the first black governor in America since Reconstruction in Douglas Wilder, who is now Mayor of Richmond.  Louisiana has elected Bobby Jindal whose parents came from India and who is dark-skinned enough to have been called the “n” word if he lived during segregation (and probably now by some).  In the 2010 election cycle two African-Americans are making credible runs for governor of Southern states: Rep. Artur Davis (D) in AL and Atty. Gen. Thurbert E. Baker (D) in Georgia.  Rep. Kendrick Meeks (D) is making a more difficult run for U.S. Senator in FL against popular governor Charlie Crist (R).  Southern whites have often been stronger champions of racial justice than those from elsewhere in the country where the problem is not so “in your face.”

Nevertheless, the history of Southern racism cannot be denied and it is hardly a surprise that the birthers’ strength is there.  Nor is it a coincidence that the vast majority of birthers are Republican. Part of this is not racial:  Republicans lost and few voted for Obama.  A majority of Democrats and Independents did.  So, those who voted for him are hardly going to want to entertain a conspiracy theory that he is not legitimately president.  (The leftwing conspiracy theory, equally stupid, that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney plotted 9/11 and were in league with Osama bin Laden likewise had most of its fringe supporters among Democrats. Most Democrats did not believe this wild view, but it is OBVIOUS why even fewer Republicans  would  believe it–if it was going to have any popularity, it would be on the left. )

But I do think there is somewhat of a racial dimension to Republican support for the birthers.  Far more elected Republicans support the birther conspiracy theory than EVER elected Democrats did the “Bush/Cheney planned 9/11” theory. Why? Neither has any support in fact. (Bush and Cheney were OPPORTUNISTS who took advantage of 9/11 for their own agenda. They did much that was evil. But  they did not plot attacks on their homeland–and I am convinced that they are sincere in believing that much of their evil was designed to protect this nation–which doesn’t make it less evil.) The answer has to lie in the “Southern strategy” first designed by Richard Nixon–whereby Republicans found a path back to the White House (and eventually to control of all the federal government for several years) by deliberately wooing racist Southern whites fleeing a Democratic Party that was cleaning house of Dixiecrats and firmly planting itself on the side of civil rights in the mid-’60s. (This was the end of the FDR coalition of liberal northern whites and southern white populists–with a racist dimension to their populism.  That Democratic Party was gone for good by 1965.) Many who became leaders of the Republican Party had been Dixiecrats who were famous for their racism and ties to white supremacy groups, including Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Jesse Helms (R-NC), Haley Barbour (R-MS), Trent Lott (R-MS), and Jeff Sessions (R-AL).  The strength of the Republican Party, such as it still is, is now in the South (plus OK, WY, ID, and AK)–the elected Republican birthers are either playing to their constituents (race-baiting) or believe the conspiracy theory along with them (delusions based on personal  racial prejudices and fears).  

The question isn’t about birth certificates, but about legitimacy. You could put EVERY birther in a time machine and allow them to watch Ann Dunham Obama give birth in a Honolulu hospital and they STILL wouldn’t believe he was a natural  born citizen.  Because their view is “he’s not one of us and isn’t entitled to that office.” They never had those views about John McCain, so no one ordered him to produce his birth certificate from Panama!  The birthers have a pre-set view about what an American president should look like and it isn’t like Barack Obama. (To be sure, they probably wouldn’t have thought the president should look like Hillary Rodham Clinton, either, but their acceptance of Sarah Palin shows that, although sexism is still very real, certain parts of our country are more accepting of  white women in places of power than of persons of color.  I live in one of those places.  KY elected its first woman governor in the mid-8os.  It still only has ONE African-American state senator.  KY is a “purple” state that is not firmly in one or other major political party. It voted twice in overwhelming numbers for Bill Clinton and then voted twice in overwhelming numbers for George W. Bush.  McCain won here  in a landslide, but I think Hillary Clinton would have had a better chance here. Sexism is real in KY–but racism is MUCH stronger here in a state that only has 8% African Americans and most concentrated in 2 counties.)

So, there we have it. Three different phenomena–but all intersecting the history and current reality of racism in America. We’ve come a long way–but we have a long way to go. Pretending that we live in a “post-racial society” doesn’t get us anywhere.  The  only way to go forward is to talk about these matters openly and to confront them–in ourselves, our families, our friends, places of worship, etc.  We have to get beyond our comfort zones and deal with the racist realities in our midst if they are ever to reside only in our past.


August 1, 2009 - Posted by | race


  1. We do have a long way to go, but getting the facts right is a start. Here is the race issue Judge Sotomayor repeatedly raised:

    “The focus of my speech tonight, however, is….to discuss with you what it all will mean to have more women and people of color on the bench…. [E]nough people of color in enough cases, will make a difference in the process of judging….[A]s a group we will have an effect on the development of the law and on judging….[O]ur gender and national origins may and will make a difference in our judging.”

    “Justice O’Connor has often been cited as saying that a wise old man and wise old woman will reach the same conclusion in deciding cases….I am also not so sure that I agree with the statement. …I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

    Questioning Judge Sotomayor on that gender-and-race-based judicial philosophy — which she admitted is an emerging and controversial one — was not only fair but essential. She attempted to walk it back. She is now on record committed to impartiality.

    Although I don’t share many of your racism theories, we certainly aren’t post-racial and one way to progress is to get to know one another better side by side in real life. The one-high-school small Southern town is great for that.

    Comment by K Gray | August 1, 2009

  2. K, I have read that speech in its entirety and I agree with Sotomayor. Impartiality is not the same as believing that everyone begins at the same place and will reach the same conclusions.

    I don’t think it was wrong to question her on her judicial philosophy, but I do think it was wrong to take it out of context, to hold a different standard for her than for both Thomas and Scalia (where their particular life experiences were both held up as giving them special insight–by the same voices on the judiciary committee who condemned Sotomayor) and it was HORRIBLY wrong to focus on these speeches to the exclusion of her judicial record.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 2, 2009

  3. Unlike K., I don’t find Judge Sotomayor’s speech even all that controversial. It is a GIVEN in most hermeneutics that one brings one’s perspectives to a text and that neutral objectivity (Robert’s “balls and strikes” metaphors) is impossible and not even desirable.

    What’s scary to me is that this is not obvious. Let me show by historical example. Do you think any person of color on the U.S. Supreme Court would EVER have ruled the way the Court did in Dred Scott or Plessy vs. Ferguson? Would any “wise person of color” have come to the conclusion that the white men, many slaveowners, did in those decisions?

    But Sotomayor didn’t just say the conclusions would be different but that a wise Latina’s could be, at least in some cases, better. Better how? Because they are informed by a perspective from “below” or from the margins rather than from power and privilege. Those kinds of marginalized perspectives are what I WANT on the SCOTUS to try to balance out the privileged perspectives of the powerful.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 2, 2009

  4. Racism exists in many nations of the world…And (some)people of every ethnicity are racists…What I am saying is that we all can be tarred with that brush…As for Sonia Sotomayor I reserve judgemnt of her until she acts from the Supreme Court bench – in her decisions…

    Comment by Paul | August 2, 2009

  5. I’m sure racism does exist in all nations of the world, Paul. But since this is my country, it’s the one I want to work on first.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 2, 2009

  6. Hermaneutics, yes, but the American judicial system, not traditionally.

    That’s Judge Sotomayor’s OWN point, not mine: that the gender-race viewpoint (judicial realism) is emerging and is NOT traditional American judicial philosophy. Quoting Yale colleagues, for example, she notes that “feminist theories of judging are in the midst of creation and are not and perhaps will never aspire to be as solidified as the established legal doctrines of judging can sometimes appear to be.” Judicial realism seems to be big at Yale, Sotomayor’s alma mater.

    Even the New York Times said that what Judge Sotomayor espoused differs from Judge Ginsberg’s and Judge O’Connor’s stated judicial philosophy. (Are they scary?)

    Roughly put:

    Traditional – rising above personal biases and prejudices and aiming for impartiality, the applicable law says ____ and means ________ in the case before us.
    Judicial realism – based on my background and experiences, the applicable law says ____ and means _______ in the case before us.
    Judicial activism – the applicable law means ____ because that’s what it should mean now. It’s up to us to make it so in the case before us.

    Perhaps judicial philosophies are changing. And she seems somewhere between traditional and realism. But Justice still has a blindfold. (Interestingly, Scripture is clear that God is “without partiality” — back to hermeneutics, which is not my specialty!)

    Anyway, IMO it would have been racist or paternalistic NOT to thoroughly question Judge Sotomayor as any other SCOTUS nominee.

    She’ll be on the court, and it will be interesting to follow her.

    Comment by K Gray | August 2, 2009

  7. I think she caved under pressure. Constitutional law IS a form of hermeneutics. The fact that few recognize this is a major flaw.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 2, 2009

  8. I think you created a tautology….!

    Comment by K Gray | August 2, 2009

  9. K, whoever you are, why don’t you create your own blog? I might even visit and comment from time to time. Instead, you play it safe by haunting me and hiding behind initials. I can’t tell who you are and you are never forced to defend yourself. You just hang around and carp. Isn’t the internet term for this “troll?”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 2, 2009

  10. I agree with you Michael…That’s why you know where to find me…I can say what I say and not hide behind anonymity…

    Comment by Paul | August 2, 2009

  11. Ouch. My apologies.

    Comment by K Gray | August 2, 2009

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: