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May 11, 2007


Speaking of magazines this one caught my eye the other day, THE PRINCETON ALUMNI WEEKLY, with a profile of one of the university's popular professors, Melissa Harris-Lacewell. The subject: Talking About Race. It seems the professor has created a safe place for her students to discuss this explosive topic.

We know just how explosive by thinking Don Imus or Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh recently broadcast a piece by the impersonator, Paul Shanklin, singing in Al Sharpton's voice as a parody of a LOS ANGELES TIMES column titled, "Magic Negro Returns". I want to play a clip from that Limbaugh broadcast, before you meet Melissa Harris-Lacewell. Warning. You might find this offensive but remember that millions heard it on Rush Limbaugh.

THE RUSH LIMBAUGH SHOW: "Barack the 'Magic Negro' lives in D.C.
The L.A. Times, they called him that
'cause he's not authentic like me."

BILL MOYERS: Now here's another clip, this one from last Sunday's THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS on ABC. He's interviewing Barack Obama.

THIS WEEK WITH GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: You have a very cool style when you're doing those town meetings where you're out on the campaign trail, and I wonder, how much of that is tied to your race?

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: That's interesting.

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: One of your friends told THE NEW YORKER magazine that the mainstream is just not ready for a fire-breathing black man so do you turn down the temperature on purpose?"

SENATOR BARACK OBAMA: You know, I don't think it has to do with race. I think it has to do with when I'm campaigning I'm in a conversation.

BILL MOYERS: No one's better qualified to talk about all this than Melissa Harris-Lacewell. You'll find her CV on our web site. After seven years at the University of Chicago, she is now an associate professor at Princeton. She wrote BARBERSHOPS, BIBLES, AND BET: EVERYDAY TALK AND BLACK POLITICAL THOUGHT, and she co-authored this 2005 report on the Katrina disaster. She's working on a second book called FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO CONSIDERED POLITICS WHEN BEING STRONG WASN'T ENOUGH. Welcome to the JOURNAL.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS: What buttons were those clips pushing?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, you know, the Barack Obama piece is interesting-- because the question of Barack Obama's racial identity and racial authenticity is both a question of sort of white-- anxiety about a black Presidential candidate, but also a lot about black anxiety about a black Presidential candidate in the person of Barack Obama. Now I think what this button is about more than anything else is that we don't know what race is. There was a moment in American history when we decided that race meant you were black if any traceable ancestor was black. We asserted that during slavery. We asserted it again at the turn of the century. You would be subject to slavery. You'd be subject to Jim Crow if anybody that we could identify in your history was black.

But now, blackness is complex. An awful lot of black Americans are actually recent immigrants from Africa, recent immigrants from the West Indies or are people of multi-racial heritage like Barack Obama. What do we do with that? Are we sticking by this one drop racial rule? Are we developing a more race-interesting society?

BILL MOYERS: Yes? You're the professor.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Right. These are the questions that we are like fighting through right now. There's not sort of one moment where we get to decide it. Barack Obama becomes a place where we can project our anxieties about race.

BILL MOYERS: So, is it even accurate to say that Barack Obama is a black man running for office?


BILL MOYERS: Running for the President?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, absolutely. Yes, Barack Obama's black. He's, I mean, first of all, he's black, because he would have been enslaveable. He's black, because he would have been subject to Jim Crow. He's also black, because none of us get to choose our parents, right? You have a tall parent, you have a short parent, you have a conservative parent, a liberal parent, whatever. He has a black parent and a white parent. But in every thing in which Barack Obama had volition and choice, he chose to connect himself with African American communities. He lives on the South Side of Chicago. He's married to a black woman, and I like to say Michele Obama is black from a distance, right?

So, whatever anxieties you have about Barack Obama, he's married to a black woman. He's raising black children in a black community. He was a, you know, community organizer on the South Side. He's an elected official, elected by tens of thousands of African Americans to represent them, both as their State Senator and now as their U.S. Senator. How could he not be black?

BILL MOYERS: So, is he going to stimulate a new conversation about race, as you've just defined it? Or is he going to be a victim of the old conversation?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think Barack Obama's going to try really hard not to have a conversation about race, because he's legitimately running for the Presidency, and he doesn't want to talk about it-

BILL MOYERS: Yeah, he-- he sa--

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: from a strategic position.

BILL MOYERS: Of the Rush Limbaugh clip, he said, "I don't do Limbaugh." You know? That's not even worth my attention. And he took the question from George Stephanopoulos and turned it into has nothing to do with race. It's about a conversation I'm having on the campaign trail--


BILL MOYERS: Can he get away with that?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well he's, I don't think Barack Obama's going to win the American Presidency in 2008- right now he's this kind of opportunity for lots of Democrats to say, "We want something different, we want something new." But my bet is that, that sort of notion of new and different doesn't quite carry over in the general election. I'd love to see him as the Vice President even though I know this irritates a lot of people. I'd love to see him as the Vice President because my bet is that he could win eight years later. And the reason is because we know a lot about black elected officials at other levels-at mayors, congressmen. And it turns out white voters get really comfortable after a black person has been incumbent when they realize that, in fact, no one opens up-- black officeholders don't increase welfare payments or open up the jails and let all the black criminals out.

In fact, black people govern just about the same way that white people govern, and it tends to reduce white anxiety and increase the likelihood of white support when it's a black incumbent.

BILL MOYERS: Did I hear you say that you think he won't get the nomination or be elected for other reasons than race?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That's right. I think that he will not be elected, because of reasons other than race. But I do think that race will always be there. No one is missing the fact that Barack Obama's black. No one is not noticing it. It's not whispered. Everybody gets that Barack Obama is black. And that still really matters in America.

BILL MOYERS: Limbaugh and Imus clearly the most visible sparks, but what about the media at large? For example, if you look at the Sunday talk shows on the networks, rarely a Hispanic, occasionally a black, mostly all white people.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yes, and mostly all white men of a certain age. And in fact, the African Americans are pretty clearly it's either someone who's holding an official position like Condoleezza Rice clearly manages to make the Sunday morning shows, or similarly a Latino who holds that sort of position, or those who are quite conservative. So black Americans who are pretty unrepresentative of the rest of the black population, because they hold extremely conservative views. I think this goes though to our question of whether or not black Americans get to count as citizens. You know, I rarely get called on to talk about elections or politics generally. The networks or the radio shows will call me to talk about race which I'm happy to do. It's something I study, and I'm passionate about. But I know more about the electoral college than most American citizens.

BILL MOYERS: We're going to change that then. We're going to give you plenty of opportunity to talk about--

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, and not just me, but you know--

BILL MOYERS: No, no, I know what you mean --

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: --lots of folks who, you know, really can speak on kind of broad issues. The best example of this, Martin Luther King, when he had won the Nobel Peace Prize and then he spoke out against the war in Vietnam, the American media said, "You have no right to be speaking on this issue. You're a civil rights leader. You should be talking about civil rights."

But he was a leader, and he understood questions of war and peace. And he had a right to speak on that. And so I think we similarly are constrained in our idea of who ought to be talking about all kinds of different ideas.

BILL MOYERS: So, how do you expect change to come?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Slowly and through pressure. So--

BILL MOYERS: But kids don't go out and protest the way they did in the '60s.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, have you listened to hip-hop?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I've tried to, and I've had people try to explain it to me.


BILL MOYERS: But what do you mean? Why is hip-hop bringing this change?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think that hip-hop has the insurgent possibilities and capabilities. Now there's a little bit of a problem with hip-hop, and that is it's a commodity that's bought and sold. And any time you're a commodity that's bought and sold, you-- have at least one aspect of your culture that can sort of go in a profit motivation.

But I will say that hip-hop music like Gospel music, like Blues music, like jazz music is the voice of a generation. And it has within it the insurgent capacity, the capacity to say, "Look, I'm not happy here, this is not enough, I expect more, I'm worthy of more." And over and over again in hip-hop from the mid-1970's until today, there's a strain of it that is saying that.

BILL MOYERS: But why do so many people say-- accurately it seems to me, reading the lyrics, that-- that hip-hop puts down women-- puts down the race, in fact. That it's a venomous language.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, there is a clear misogynist and sort of-- I would say aspect that is just about, you know, making money and commodifying women. But I will say that that came at a very specific moment, and it came at a moment in hip-hop when hip-hop went from being kind of a street-based, musical art form of urban, young people to a corporate entity, purchased mostly by white suburban boys who were interested in generating and consuming a particular form of blackness. But even as hip-hop went in that direction, there's a whole 'nother, very well articulated and well loved element of hip-hop which black urban youth continue to not only produce, but consume.

BILL MOYERS: The popular perception was that Imus was quoting hip-hop.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: No, he wasn't. No, seriously, he really wasn't. I mean--

BILL MOYERS: when he referred to the basketball…

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, no, really, he wasn't. No. So there's a couple of reasons why Imus could not have been quoting hip-hop. First-- it wasn't as though hip-hop taught America how to degrade women or particularly how to degrade black women. America had figured that out long, long, long before hip-hop. Secondly, although hip-hop often uses the word "ho," it rarely ever calls someone a "nappy-headed ho." So we talked a lot about "ho." But we haven't talked much about "nappy-headed." And "nappy-headed" is a way of saying you, black woman, in your natural, physical state in, who you are -- are unacceptable, ugly, valueless. Now, that's not hip-hop.

Actually hip-hop tends to dress up black women in long, straight wigs, much more likely than it is to go to this place which is a very old place around, slavery, around Jim Crow that says, "Your physical self is an unacceptable, sort of orientation of blackness. I can see that you're black from across the room, and that's unacceptable to me."

BILL MOYERS: You surprise me, because I know how interested and committed you are to politics. That you love politics.


BILL MOYERS: And yet when I ask you how change is going to come, you said music, not politics. Not-

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, no, what I'm suggesting is we are experiencing a new form of racial inequality. So I often say that Jim Crow, we could think of Jim Crow as a nail. And the protest against Jim Crow were a hammer. A hammer is an extremely effective tool when you're dealing with a nail. Contemporary racial inequality is structural. It's undercover. It is connected with, also with sort of black achievement which is also going on at the same time. Contemporary racial inequality is a screw, and if you take a hammer and start pounding on a screw, you just end up with a mess which means we have to live with the fact that a new generation is going to have to innovate a screwdriver to deal with the new problem. And that screwdriver might not look anything like the hammer. And we can't keep yelling at them to use a hammer for a new problem.

BILL MOYERS: So, when you look at your class, do you imagine for them and this growing minority population in America a full participation in the American promise, you know, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: It's so funny that you say pursuit of happiness. This is one of the big things that we've talked about together as a class. What does it mean to say that as Americans we have in our founding documents the idea of the pursuit of happiness. And although Thomas Jefferson may have meant to have said property and was made not to say it because of the problem of slavery, we end up with pursuit of happiness in our documents.

Does that mean that we expect that citizens have a right to not only have kind of basic, human structural questions, but also a right to fulfillment, the capacity to be sort of all of who they are as human beings? And if so, how do our notions of race end up constraining human beings from being all that they, you know, really want to fully be as persons?

BILL MOYERS: Would we interpret the Constitution differently if nine black lesbians were on the Supreme Court?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yes, so this is the question I often ask of my students--

BILL MOYERS: I know that.

BILL MOYERS: I'm a fly on the wall --

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: That's right. I say to them, "Look, you know, we assume that Constitutional interpretation handed down by all white male presumably heterosexual courts are appropriate understandings of the Constitution. Would you feel the same way if the court were made up of all gay, black women? Do you assume that gay, black women can be-- representative citizens in the same way that a heterosexual white man can be? And I can tell you this throws them, they cannot answer this question right away. It takes them a while to really say, "Okay, each of these human experiences is, in fact, allowable to stand in as the representative experience of-- an American."

BILL MOYERS: Will you come back and continue this conversation with me?


BILL MOYERS: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, thank you very much for being on The Journal.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, thank you for having me.

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