Orlando Patterson’s quiet revolution

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson makes two major claims in this stimulating op-ed piece in the New York Times. First, he suggests that racism has changed its shape without losing its power.  This means that a black president must never address the race issue directly.

Patterson understands the historical roots of American racism as well as any living American scholar.  Here’s his mini-lecture on the subject:

We became this way because of the peculiar tragedies and triumphs of our past. Race and racism scar all advanced nations, but America is peculiar because slavery thrived internally and race became a defining feature of personal identity.

Slavery was quintessentially an institution of exclusion: the slave first and foremost was someone who did not belong to and had no claims on the public order, nor any legitimate private existence, since both were appropriated by the slaveholder. The Act of Emancipation abolished only the first part of slavery, the master’s ownership; far from removing the concept of the ex-slave as someone who did not belong, it reinforced it. The nightmare of the Jim Crow era then extended and reinforced the public slavery of black Americans right up through the middle of the 20th century.

At the same time, the status of blacks as permanent outsiders made whiteness a treasured personal attribute in a manner inconceivable to Europeans. Whiteness had no real meaning to pre-immigration Swedes or Irishmen because they were all white. But it became meaningful the moment they landed in America, where it was eagerly embraced as a free cultural resource in assimilating to the white republic. In America race had the same significance as gender and age as defining qualities of personhood.

The civil rights movement opened up new opportunities for educated people of color by abolishing “the lingering public culture of slavery”, but while black people have made great strides in the entertainment, athletic and political fields, the social segregation in America has actually deepened.  African Americans are still perceived to be “culturally different”, Patterson writes, and “In the disciplined cultural spaces of marriages, homes, neighborhoods, schools and churches, these same differences become the source of Apollonian dread.”

Social isolation means that white Americans have a hard time grasping the individuality of black Americans.  As a result, the pathologies of the few are attributed to the many.  Although the relationship between social pathology and bad public policy is simply assumed in the academic community, a black president must never appear to be making excuses for absentee dads and street-hardened thugs if he wants white votes.

I’m not sure if Patterson is trying to describe the president’s thinking in this op-ed, or if he is telling Obama how he ought to think.  Maybe he’s doing both.  Obama, Patterson suggests, must never lecture white America about race.  In the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama had to speak out to keep the race issue from derailing his candidacy.  But since entering the White House, he has made only one foray into racial politics (his remarks about the Gates-Crowley affair) and Patterson sees that as an unmitigated disaster. 

Therefore, the professor says, America’s first black president “will not be leading any national conversations on race, convinced as he must be that they exacerbate rather than illuminate.” 

Patterson seems to agree with this stark assessment.

Are white Americans so ignorant and reflexively defensive that they can’t engage in an intelligent give-and-take on the subject of race?

So progressive analysts seem to believe.  So it has always been.  The NAACP was horrified by Martin Luther King’s practice of non-violent direct action because the strategy invited a violent white backlash.  King persisted because he knew the sheer pathology of the typical white reaction to marches, buoycotts and sit-ins exposed the irrational hatred at the heart of racist public policy. 

Similarly, the Freedom Rides of 1961 received negative reviews from the mainstream press.  It was generally assumed that anyone foolish enough to sit in the front section of a bus in Alabama or Mississippi had only themselves to blame if they received a brutal beating.  But every Freedom Rider sent from Jackson to the notorious Parchman prison in the Mississippi Delta weakened the position of Southern politicians.  Ultimately, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission into changing the law.

Only after non-violent and inter-racial strategies were abandoned did a conservative backlash against civil rights take hold in America.   For an entire decade, the conflict between civil rights and states rights shaped the way Americans thought about the past and the present.  The living narratives unleashed by non-violent direct action seized white America by the throat.  The strategy was daring, dangerous and uniquely effective.  Civil rights activists created a social crisis in America and waited for the truth to surface.

The narrative strategy Friends of Justice employs is rooted in the early civil rights movement.  By taking hold of the narrative surrounding actual criminal cases we spark an intense conversation about race and justice.  Initially, public officials ignore us.  When that doesn’t work they attempt try to spin the story in their own favor.  In the resulting clash of narratives the truth ultimately rises to the surface.  Not everybody sees it, of course.  Some folks remain convinced that Tom Coleman made good cases in Tulia or that the nooses hanging from a tree in Jena held no racial significance.  But Jena changed the way school administrators think across America, Tulia led to widespread reforms and the Colomb case (though it gained less publicity than Jena and Tulia) exposed fundamental flaws in federal conspiracy law

Orlando Patterson hopes Barack Obama can “quietly” reform the criminal justice system.  Not by himself, he can’t.  Our punitive justice system was shaped by tough-on-crime politicians exploiting and feeding public fears at the top of their lungs.  There was nothing subtle or “quiet” about this process.  Divisive and damaging narratives about crack babies and inner city thugs built the present system and only healing justice narratives can take it apart.  

Conservative politicians could afford to be speak loudly because they reflected the zeitgeist.  White people were angry, afraid and in the majority.  Progressive leaders must wait for somebody else to change the tenor of the conversation, but if everyone is quiet nothing will change.

White skin is no barrier to reflection and repentance.  Given the right environment, all people can learn.  But there will be nothing quiet about the process.  “You shall know the truth,” Jesus tells us, “and the truth shall set you free.”  Politically nuanced fudge phrases are good for winning elections but they will never reveal truth or expose lies. 

Orlando Patterson is right about one thing: a sitting president can’t be the standard-bearer for a twenty-first century civil rights movement.  Barack Obama shouldn’t take the lead in the conversation about race and justice–but he has already changed the context in which that conversation unfolds.  It’s up to the rest of us to speak the loud truth without apology.

9 thoughts on “Orlando Patterson’s quiet revolution

  1. Alan…Let me just apologize right now for the length of my comment. I am just too “full,” and more than a little weary of missives like yours and especially Mr. Patterson’s to be brief.

    I have followed your writing since Jena because – your Canadian beginnings notwithstanding – I thought you really had at least a clue about “Blacks in America” and the injustice by the White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy that attends. But as I followed, I increasingly came to believe that you do not.

    Your efforts to help “frame the narrative” appear (to me anyway) as little more than the whitened machinations of publicity pimp extraordinaire, the Right Rev. Al Sharpton (albeit on a smaller scale). Never thought I’d say that about you given how he and Baisden stormed into the Jena situation – not even knowing the whole story – and overshadowed the efforts of the FOJ which had lain the groundwork for what ultimately became a modern-day incarnation of a “real” civil rights march (I know, I was there and tried unsuccessfully to get them in touch with you). But there, I’ve said it.

    Nothing ticks me off more than to have white people tell me what we’ve been through (I’m 53, I lived it) – and continue to go through every single day (while the ongoing personal battles of me and mine are deemed not big or “newsworthy” enough by “framers” such as you, they are ongoing battles nevertheless. I know, I approached you). True partners in resistance would understand that they’re preaching to the choir as it were and instead, preach to their “unconverted white bretheren.”

    “Are white Americans so ignorant and reflexively defensive that they can’t engage in an intelligent give-and-take on the subject of race?…
    So progressive analysts seem to believe.”

    Yes, and I don’t need “progressive analysts” to tell me that (not one for that dividing lanuage of labels – no matter how many alphabets follow a name). Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve experienced that same reflexive defensiveness, lies and not “owning” from a white Dallas woman who entered the conversation asking Black America to forgive her – and whites. She too wanted to tell me what we went through, how we feel as a result and how we should feel now. The “conversation” ended because of her defensiveness AND her tendency to not tell the truth – even when called on it (though she asked that I do just that).

    “King persisted because he knew the sheer pathology of the typical white reaction to marches, buoycotts and sit-ins exposed the irrational hatred at the heart of racist public policy.

    Which is why Obama is no MLK, – not even close. And even though he liberally sprinkled Dr. King’s words when it was politically expedient, he will never accomplish, not even 1/2 of 1% of what MLK did for Blacks in America. Here’s an interesting piece from Chickenbones that succinctly explains why: http://www.nathanielturner.com/impotenceneednotbepermanent.htm

    “A Black overseer wielding the whip did not change the social conditions one iota for the majority of our people. No slave was fooled into thinking that the creation of Black overseers was an objective improvement for the enslaved majority. Everyone knew the Black overseer had cast his lot with the slave master in exchange for personal gain. Was this Black overseer The Man? NO! The Black overseer was a servant at best, a flunky and traitor at worse. What of today’s civil servants?”

    Hope you can read it when you have time in order to get an understanding of how plenty of us lowly, non-analysts really feel about the Changeling.

    “Orlando Patterson hopes Barack Obama can “quietly” reform the criminal justice system.”

    Alan, that is not freedom – it’s slave behavior. Just more “wearing the mask” games we had to play just to survive when “whites reflected the zeitgeist.” Where’s the pride in that, here in 2009 with a society-identified Black man in the White house?? Can you not see the continued foot-on-neck meme writ-large in that behavior??

    “Progressive leaders must wait for somebody else to change the tenor of the conversation, but if everyone is quiet nothing will change…White skin is no barrier to reflection and repentance. Given the right environment, all people can learn.”

    Well at least we partially agree on something – if everyone’s quiet nothing will EVER change. Funny how when the Changeling was campaigning, particularly in my home state of SC, “the urgency of now” was the drumbeat, but now that he’s got what he wanted/needed, we must “WAIT FOR SOMEONE ELSE” to change the tenor. Please! And to what “environment” might you be referring? The one that delineates the “tenor of the conversation,” telling Blacks we MUST ALWAYS be submissive and Lord knows “NOT LOUD,” when addressing hundreds of years of foot-on-neck injustice? Again, Please!

    “But there will be nothing quiet about the process…Politically nuanced fudge phrases are good for winning elections but they will never reveal truth or expose lies.”

    On this at least, we are in total agreement.

    “Orlando Patterson is right about one thing: a sitting president can’t be the standard-bearer for a twenty-first century civil rights movement. Barack Obama shouldn’t take the lead in the conversation about race and justice–but he has already changed the context in which that conversation unfolds.

    If not a sitting president, then who? Seems you and Mr. Patterson believe we should continue to teach our young men – in particular – that the “mask wearing strategy” versus truth is an effective means of standing up for onesself. Man! That s some kind of esteem-building “freedom.” To quote an old Negro spiritual, “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

    And exactly how has he changed the context in which that conversation unfolds? As a “highly-paid Overseer?” These are really serious questions whose answers just escape me. White America has been making eunuchs – both political and personal – of Black men for 100s of years – and with the help of Mr. Patterson and people like you, it continues.

    Thanks for hearing me out. And when you want to change the paradigm under which nothing has been accomplished since MLK – let’s talk – as “true partners in resistance.”

  2. Deb:
    Thanks for sharing. I must apologize, but I’m still not sure why you are so angry with me. Is it because I suggested that Obama, as a sitting president, isn’t well positioned to lead a new civil rights movement? Politics is the art of the possible and Obama lives with that reality.

    Or is the problem that you have been so deeply wounded by the injustice you have experienced that you are unwilling to give a white man the right to speak? Sure, I write as a white man–and a Canadian white man at that. That’s who I am, and I’m certainly not going to be silenced because you have a problem with white people.

  3. Alan..You’re quite welcome. Not angry with you, just weary – as I said. That you took it as anger is, however, not surprising. What IS surprising is that you missed the whole purpose of the comment, choosing “defensiveness” rather than trying to at least understand another point of view different from your own.

    And if, as you say, “Politics is the art of the possible and Obama lives with that reality.” I have to ask again, why is it not possible (given he holds the highest “political” position in the land) for him to “take the lead in the conversation about race and justice…”

    “…you have been so deeply wounded by the injustice you have experienced that you are unwilling to give a white man the right to speak? “

    Alan, this is your blog! How can I take away your right to speak?? I am more than wiling to listen to what a white man/woman or anyone has to say, as long as they are willling to sincerely reciprocate and instead of “preaching to the choir (Black folk) as it were, preach to their “unconverted white bretheren.” Telling us what we already know doesn’t shift the paradigm.

    And as for me having been deeply wounded by injustice – yes, it is absolutely through that lens that I view America. How could I not? But on the other hand, please – do not get it twisted – I have been married to a white man for 29 years this month. A white man, who came to the marriage with a lot of ideas that mirror your own, but who – after having been the direct object of some of that same “injustice” on numerous occasions simply because he married a Black woman and fathered two bi-racial children – realizes that what he thought he knew, was really only the tip of the iceberg.

    “Sure, I write as a white man–and a Canadian white man at that. That’s who I am, and I’m certainly not going to be silenced because you have a problem with white people.”

    Don’t know how you got here from there, but rest assured, I am by no means trying to “silence” you, or anybody else. Silly me, I thought the purpose of blogs was to faciitate the exchange ideas to move forward together – better.

    My reference to your being Canadian had more to do with my belief (sure you’ll correct me if I’m wrong), that DESPITE not having been born – in America – I thought you certainly had a better handle on what being “Black in America” was all about, much more than many white men I’d encountered in this country.

    As for “writing as a white man,” you’re right – that’s what you are and I don’t remember asking that you do anything else, other than write as white man – with discernment. Apparently that’s not allowed to be a part of any discussion on race.

    Pardon me for taking up so much of your time and space for what I THOUGHT would be a “discussion.” I’ll not darken your blog’s doorway (no pun intended) again, but I will keep reading.

  4. Deb:
    My real problem is that I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. I never see black people as my primary audience; I’m more concerned about influencing white people because, as you suggest, most black people (though by no means all) understand what I am saying. Your comments suggested that you were deeply disappointed by my comments but I’m still not sure why. If you would like to write a guest post I would love to read it. I certainly wasn’t trying to cut short the conversation.

  5. Apologize for taking up all that space – not to be clear! 🙂 I would love to write a guest post to expound on my frustration, but I’m not sure how to go about doing that. Thanks for the offer though.

  6. Deb, I hope you renege on your promise not to darken the doorway of this blog. We need to have the discussion about race. It is an uncomfortable discussion. Whites in general think we don’t need it; I think we do. (I am a white, southern, “progressive” for want of a better description. We need these discussions face to face. When that is not possible I suppose a blog post is an alternative. I hope you will write the guest post which Alan has invited.

  7. charles…There! I’ve reneged. 🙂 I’ve been flat on my back for a week or so battling my first cold of the season (no H1N1 fears here – just a bad cold). Thank you so much for your comment. I agree wholeheartedly. Uncomfortable as it is bound to be, it is a discussion we need to have if we want to stop settling for the kind of world we have now. And you’re right, it’s best done, face-to-face – though I know from personal experience, THAT can be particularly emotionally-charged!

    I created and moderated a bi-weekly dialogue on race relations in a small, south FL town where I wrote for the local daily for about 3 years starting in 2001. It was borne out of the “quiet riot” I always feel rumbling deep in the pit of my stomach when something is so patently wrong and/or unfair. I’ve no “credentials” or alphabets following my name that make me uniquely qualified for such an endeavor – just a deep and abiding faith in who I am and the rightness of things, along with a willingness to try and do something about it. It was a wonderfully, moving and energizing experience to be sure.

    But as you say, that kind of interaction is often not possible. But, blogs certainly can serve as an effective substitute. I am working on that post for Alan and, barring any craziness going on around here, I’ll be done very soon. I appreciate his graciousness – in the face of that full-frontal attack above – to allow me to “be clear” as to the reasons for it.

    I look forwad to “talking” to you soon. And Alan, thanks again.

  8. Deb, thanks for reneging. Even God reneged on his promises on occasion. (See the Book of Jonah, as one example.) And hope you are soon over your cold.

  9. good morning: we have lost our way, both blacks and whites. DECEPTION. i, often, wonder how i would initiate change if i were in barack’s position. educating the masses in federally funded, enhanced environments would be high on my personal agenda. too much of our funding is being siphoned off to political thieves leaving crumbs for the american people. the mental anguish that many experience has led to moral decay and civil unrest. this is Spiritual Warfare. talking black and white should be on the “back-burners” by now, i know it is with me. its the political economics that is allowing school re-zoning, concentration of poverty and re-segregation. if the people who have moved into these cheap habitat for humanity “row-houses” in back of me had money and were better educated with disciplined children, they wouldn’t be huddled in back of my house like 2009, plantation victims. barack and no one else needs to start a lot of hysterical talking about black/white issues. END THE WAR and spend those billions of wasted dollars RESTORING AMERICA and HER PEOPLE TO SANITY.

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