Vertical Solidarity is nonsense

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a (long) essay at The Atlantic that has been passed around quite swiftly online for something so large. In it he describes a couple things: first, how it seems as if every political subject once it is touched by the black guy that happens to hold the nuclear launch codes at the moment becomes some racially polarizing flare-up. Take him commenting on Trayvon Martin, for example:

The moment Obama spoke, the case of Trayvon Martin passed out of its national-mourning phase and lapsed into something darker and more familiar—racialized political fodder. The illusion of consensus crumbled. Rush Limbaugh denounced Obama’s claim of empathy. The Daily Caller, a conservative Web site, broadcast all of Martin’s tweets, the most loutish of which revealed him to have committed the un­pardonable sin of speaking like a 17-year-old boy. A white-­supremacist site called Stormfront produced a photo of Martin with pants sagging, flipping the bird. Business Insider posted the photograph and took it down without apology when it was revealed to be a fake.

Newt Ging­rich pounced on Obama’s comments: “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be okay because it wouldn’t look like him?” Reverting to form, National Review decided the real problem was that we were interested in the deaths of black youths only when nonblacks pulled the trigger. John Derbyshire, writing for Taki’s Magazine, an iconoclastic paleoconservative* publication, composed a racist advice column for his children inspired by the Martin affair. (Among Derbyshire’s tips: never help black people in any kind of distress; avoid large gatherings of black people; cultivate black friends to shield yourself from charges of racism.)

Now, the murder of Trayvon Martin never really needed much help becoming a racial football. Prior to that though, there was the idiocy of Henry Louis Gates being arrested at his own damn home after some neighborhood busybody called the cops assuming it was being broken into by a burglar.  Observation of how stupid that was should’ve been swift, obvious, and unobjectionable on basic property rights grounds. Yet, Obama does it & we get yelling that eventually leads to that goofy “beer summit”.

The trend goes into very absurd territories from there, to the point where there’s actually been a survey showing correlation between ones racial views and what they think of his dog, ffs!

As ridiculous as all this is, Coates also briefly observes the flipside: blacks approaching Obama gingerly out of sympathy for him as a black man regardless of his actions as president. At one point he speaks with Shirley Sherrod, the ex-USDA official who was fired after a video of remarks she made at an event was edited out of context & released to make her seem racist against white people, and even she appears to apologize for Obama, fearing that her words will hurt him. Ta-neishi engages in this himself in the same article, acknowledging the reality of his presidency in passing only to wave it off for the most part:

The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. […]

Of course someone who has actually experienced the world and knows what it is like to be defined as Other should know better. Yet, that he does not — or worse, knows and simply doesn’t care — should shake to their very core anyone who still believes in the great lie at the heart of continued allegiance in general, and particularly those who bought the “Change!” gimmick. Fearing name-calling that takes place anyway (there’s still “apologizing for America” garbage going on, and ads suggesting the OBL hit wasn’t his call somehow. One look at who those drones have been catching in the crossfire though, and maybe somebody should apologize…) is no excuse for the onward thrust of hegemony. Coates basically says here that the small, self-serving case for maintaining the empire is a correct one.

When 9/11 happened, I wanted nothing to do with any kind of patriotism, with the broad national ceremony of mourning. I had no sympathy for the fire­fighters, and something bordering on hatred for the police officers who had died. I lived in a country where my friend—twice as good—could be shot down mere footsteps from his family by agents of the state. God damn America, indeed.

I had nothing in particular against them at that moment. At least in running into buildings that civilians were trying to get out of in order to help they were doing what on paper they are supposed to do. Though, beyond a sense of the true roots of the attack and worry about what the response would be — at the time I was about 90% sure nuclear weapons would be involved — I just felt…numb. Another turn of the wheel for us hamsters. This continues to be a country where what Coates describes happens, and indeed always has been, as are all states in some form.

I grew. I became a New Yorker. I came to understand the limits of anger. Watching Barack Obama crisscross the country to roaring white crowds, and then get elected president, I became convinced that the country really had changed—that time and events had altered the nation, and that progress had come in places I’d never imagined it could. When Osama bin Laden was killed, I cheered like everyone else. God damn al‑Qaeda.

My response to both events was, shall we say, a bit more subdued. This is because I realized what had not changed: the surveillance state, militarism, & state-capitalism remain. It’s not to say I saw absolutely nothing in the former case since it occurred in a nation where some people still remember lynchings — there was some surprise. However, a black man obtaining the keys to the empire isn’t exactly cause for popping bottles when the desire is for it to be dismantled.

Living vicariously through a political elite because they look like me, like Obama observed his hypothetical son looking like Trayvon, does nothing for me. It’s not like I am, or any other black person, or any other person period is closer to freedom, peace & prosperity because the president is black. The drug war rumbles along, the economy continues to suck for most people even during a so-called “recovery”, and the dying breath of the last threat is being drowned out by the seeds being sown of the next one.

Yet we can’t talk about it, because all that isn’t enough to convince some people that they’re still in Kansas. Which is the problem.

What are any of us gaining here, other than a headache?

(Props: Nob Akimoto for informing me of Coates’ post)

(* – ideological identification error corrected)

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8 Responses to Vertical Solidarity is nonsense

  1. Todd S. says:

    I live in a fairly lower-class area. Not destitute by any means but what would have once been called working class. Maybe you could still call it that, but in my mind that term paints images of an America that no longer exists.

    Anyway, my area has black, white, hispanic, asian (Pakistani mostly) all living in relatively close proximity. Whenever the idea of vertical solidarity comes up – which I take to mean racial solidarity transcending class lines – I always wonder how people think of that. How is it you identify less with your other-colored neighbor, who you wave to every Saturday while he’s mowing his lawn and you yours, and more with Mitt or Barry?

    • B Psycho says:

      It strikes me as another way that politics resembles sports. The most fanatic of sports fans act like their favorite team represents their own hopes, values and dreams, even those of the city as a whole. That players come from all over and could leave at any moment & for the most part the owners would stroll past them carrying bottled water if they were on fire are neatly filed away.

      (Speaking of sports fans: you ever seen “Big Fan“?)

      Yeah, that is what I meant by vertical solidarity. Turn of phrase came from thinking about racial sympathy towards ruling class members (in this case, blacks towards Obama) as like throwing kisses upward, compared to how when talking about how politicians treat each other it’s said to be wasteful for one to “punch down” at another on a lower rung. Meanwhile some whites as observed punch up not because of the power but who happens to hold it — like “you don’t belong there”. Well, nobody does.

  2. Good essay.

    As for the Martin case, in my recollection it was clearly racialized before Obama got involved. It came to national attention over allegations (and the related protest rallies) that the police had failed to prosecute the shooter due to racist indifference to Martin’s death. The timeline of how this national discussion developed has been hopelessly mangled by partisan hacks on each side (such as Coates, apparently).

    As for the group-identity and solidarity, I think it is understandable and maybe even rational. I think that most people approach politics in an intuitive and subjective manner, while people like us are a bit more analytical and objective (partly due to our dissociation from any influential political movement). Given that the purpose of the state is to allow a small group to dominate society, there’s good reason for people to be concerned that they are being excluded from the ruling class based on some trait that there are unable or unwilling to change.

    Historically, the ruling class has been defined by race and ethnicity, and there are still many people who want to continue that system (see this tailer for “Obama’s America 2016″*). The genius of the American ruling class is that it has been willing to recruit from outside the ruling class and allow some accountability to the broader population (more than many other systems). This gives people hope that even if the system will never be just, they are their family won’t always be the victims of injustice.

    You ask why a sense of vertical ethnic solidarity can be stronger than a sense of horizontal class solidarity. What’s your choice when a member of the ruling class tells you “we’re gonna screw over your neighbor; you can either join us and share in the spoils or you can be left out”? Most people don’t have the courage to side with their neighbor over the elite. We deal with that shit day in and day out, generally in pretty subtle forms, but it is still the backdrop of our lives. In that context, people derive substantial comfort from seeing “their group” in power, and in the long run it is important to see that we don’t get screwed over when other groups are in power, and that alliances between members of different groups can be productive.

    I wish people could change more quickly, but we’re stuck between the struggle for our ideals and covering our own asses in the current reality.

    • B Psycho says:

      Adam: true about that timeline. The politician responses didn’t even show up until the protesting started — honestly, first I heard about the case was from coverage of a protest over it.

  3. Don’t you know that throwing race into the equation makes ANYTHING at least 4 x, but up to 10 x, more interesting. That is simple popular media 101…

    • B Psycho says:

      It sure makes a nice smokescreen…

      That isn’t to say it’s somehow dormant as an issue, obviously. Rather, I think to an extent race is deployed these days to obscure problems that actually rest on class. The more people are at each others throats thinking in ethnic terms, the less realization there is that most folks in general regardless of race are getting screwed.

  4. Pingback: Why I’m not voting for the black President « Phil Ebersole's Blog

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