Barack and Michelle Obama went on the Today Show this morning to perform some serious damage control following Monday’s performance by Reverend Jeremiah Wright before the National Press Club. Indeed, to be fair, we should view both television appearances as performances, one by Wright, the other by the Obamas, in a larger drama playing out several conflicts at once: between two generations of African Americans, between two strains of political philosophy on the American Left, and between Black political actors and the American media over how to define the image of political participation by African Americans. As an example of the latter, consider Maureen Dowd’s snarky portrayal of Obama as the Sort of Angry Black Man and Wright as the Really Angry Black Man. (Cripes, is she annoying.)

That is by no means an exhaustive list. For example, I have not mentioned Michele’s role as supportive wife, and the balancing act she has to perform as providing “strength” as his advocate while “softening” her husband’s image via her very presence. Better minds than mine can explore the implications of this role for women in political life, and Black women, especially in the context of this conflict over the image of Black political participation.

What strikes me is the relevance of a theory I recently came across in a new book written by communication and anthropology professor John L. Jackson, Jr., Racial Paranoia: The Unintended Consequences of Political Correctness. Don’t let that subtitle fool you; I think it was an editor’s choice, because Jackson is not ranting about the “excesses” of “P.C. culture” like some Limbaugh boor. Rather, he puts forward a rather thoughtful thesis:

Racism is characterized by hatred and power: the hate people express for other racial groups and the relative power they possess to turn that hatred into palpable discrimination or material advantage. The concept of racial paranoia, however, stresses the fears I’ve been talking about, the fears people harbor about other groups potentially hating or mistreating them, gaining a leg up at their expense. Racial paranoia is racism’s flipside, even if those two analytically discrete sides can sometimes effortlessly meet. (p. 4, Introduction).

Examples Jackson cites in the Preface and Introduction are Dave Chappelle’s perception that one of the crew member’s on his show was laughing inappropriately at his use of black face; and the Reverend Louis Farrakhan’s promotion of a theory that the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers had deliberately dynamited the dams near black neighborhoods in New Orleans to spare white neighborhoods from the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina. I thought especially of the latter when I read that Wright in his press conference had repeated the old theory that the C.I.A. had brewed the HIV virus and tested it on vulnerable populations, including poor working class people of color. Such assertions put Obama and any other Black politician attempting to appeal to “mainstream white voters” on the defensive. Indeed, much of Obama’s reluctance to distance himself from Wright stems not only from his personal relationship, but also from the differences in perception that Jackson identifies among Blacks and Whites regarding events that disproportionately affect the Black community, such as the spread of AIDS and Hurricane Katrina. Regarding the latter, Jackson relates an appearance by Chuck D. on Tucker Carlson’s thankfully now-kaput MSNBC show; typically, Carlson plays the Reasonable White Guy flabbergasted that anyone would believe Farrakhan’s theory and that Chuck D. – “a smart guy” in Carlson’s disingenuous words (p. 7) – would not immediately denounce it.

Carlson is a perfect example of America’s too-quick willingness to dismiss the significance of racial paranoia. Of course, such dismissal allows everyone to sleep better at night, believing that a few racial cranks say nothing meaningful about more general racial suspicions in American society, but we can’t begin to understand race today (or the volatile racial fault lines of contemporary national politics) without taking such beliefs (as wild as they may seem) quite seriously – not as points of fact but as organizing principles for how people make sense of their everyday lives and the forces potentially allied against them.

I have only begun to read this book, obviously from the source of my quotes, but I really appreciate Jackson’s approach. In calling such fears “paranoia” Jackson does not “mean that they’re not after you.” He doesn’t off-hand dismiss these fears, but sees them as rooted in a post-Civil Rights environment in which readily identifiable sources of discrimination such as Jim Crow laws have been largely eliminated, yet more subtle practices continue and social inequities along lines of racial and ethnic identity persist without a larger narrative to explain them. As such, the demand for Obama to completely renounce Wright – sever ties, hit him with a shovel and bury him in ditch, or whatever means would truly satisfy the Sean Hannities of the world – are inherently racist in nature, reflecting the institutionalized blindness Whites enjoy as a social privilege.

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