Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Obama's speech on the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin verdict.

Race relations in the U.S. have often been characterized by what psychoanalysts call "splitting." The very notion of "black" and "white" is a prime illustration of splitting, which occurs when "never the twain shall meet."  In fact, black people and white people form a continuum, both in terms of color and genetically, but we categorize them in black-white fashion so we can believe that there is an absolute separation between "us" and "them".  Politics, especially in a two-party system, tend also to be characterized by splitting: Democrats vs. Republicans, Tea Party Republicans vs. Old Guard Republicans, and so on.

Psychoanalysts speak of a process by which these splits are overcome, as it is recognized that the complexity of anything in life cannot be captured in a simple binary.  Yet, these binaries are essential as well: they simplify an overwhelming reality for us; binaries allow for taking positions, emotional and/or political.  It is hard to talk about anything without invoking binaries, language is full of them.  We need to use a lot more words to be true to the complexity of things than to put them into widely used baskets. When we do try to bring binaries together into a more complex view of reality that recognizes opposing views and feelings, psychoanalysts speak of the process as "containing".

So when Obama talks about race and the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, his starting point is splitting on two levels.  Race is split into black and white, and his listeners tend to be split into pro and con on the verdict.  Obama's goal, politically, is to bring pro and con together into a "more perfect union".  In terms of race relations, his goal is to bring black and white together by presenting how many black people, including himself, feel about the verdict, without reinforcing splitting (and damaging himself politically) by alienating too many white people.  (Note how I am using the words "black" and "white" reflexively, and to save words.)  He is seeking to "contain" both intellectually and politically.

Obama seeks to accomplish this goal by a strategic use of vagueness, and by countering most of his assertions of a "black" point of view with a qualification, wording that moderates his position.  For example, Obama said:

"Now this isn't to say that the African-American community is naive about the fact that African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; that they're disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence. It is not to make excuses for that fact---although black folks do interpret the reasons for that in a historical context.  They understand that some of the violence that takes place in poor black neighborhoods around the country is born out of a very violent past in this country, and that the poverty and dysfunction that we see in those communities can be traced to a very difficult history."

Obama gives a nod here to a range of feelings that are often set in opposition.  "African-American" is a less polarizing term than "black" and "white".  Black people are African and American. Violent crime is often a black on black problem (giving a nod to a wish on the part of some whites to disassociate themselves from the problem of U.S. violence).  He gives a nod to the idea that to look at the historical context, or roots, of that problem in white racism is seen as making "excuses", by some people, white and black.  He then invokes an "historical context" for violence in "poor" black neighborhoods, consisting of a "violent past".  Here is the vagueness.  He does not say explicitly that the violent past to which he alludes consists of white racist violence against black people.  He goes on to "trace" the "poverty and dysfunction" in poor black neighborhoods to this "very difficult history".  Obama thus manages to acknowledge a white defensiveness that aims to disassociate whites from collective responsibility for racially based violence, AND to connect black on black violence to an earlier history of white on black violence.  Again, he does so without calling white on black violence by its right name, and so he does not put white collective responsibility in whites' faces.  He avoids language that could have been taken as  blaming whites.  In fact, he does not blame whites.  He blames no one, in that he "traces", he makes a connection without implying simple or direct causation.  In this way, Obama offers an alternative to "poor black" internalization of a violent self-image, to self-blame, without blaming whites.  To have done so would have been to initiate a cycle of accusation and defensiveness that would have been damaging both politically, and to his own goal of containing the feelings of a wide range of white and black people.  He would have reinforced, rather than undermined, splitting. The politically astute statement, and the containing statement, coincide.

Nonetheless, Obama does not shrink from exposing an underlying racial bias in those who would defend the acquittal of George Zimmerman while denying that race was a factor.  He asks: "---if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?  And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman who had followed him in a car because he felt threatened?"  This last "he" is ambiguous grammatically.  It could refer to either Zimmerman or Martin.  And that is precisely the point.

I suspect that behind Obama's question is a thought that is familiar to most African-Americans, but that would take aback most Euro-Americans (I include myself here) who stopped long enough to think about it.  Barack Obama, has once again created a mental space capacious enough to include the racial sensitivities and biases on all sides that few Euro-Americans want to admit still deeply divide this nation.

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