Sunday, July 21, 2013

Obama, Holder, and the Matter of Race

I don't have any problems with Rich Benjamin's article at, the one where Benjamin poses the question, does Attorney General Holder represent the President's "inner nigger"? I wonder if the folks expressing outrage and offense over the article read past that question. 

Benjamin's piece addresses the same topic as an old, eloquent poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask. Benjamin isn't calling the President nor Holder a nigger; he is addressing the duality of consciousness written about by diverse voices from Carl Jung to W.E.B. DuBois.

Being black and participating in a white culture creates a sort of duality of nature for many black people. We must be careful not to be too black in our attitudes and behaviors because that frightens and disturbs white people. In Benjamin's words, "As such, what black person doesn’t understand duality and double consciousness, especially when s/he speaks to multiple publics and circulates in multiple contexts?" (

Many otherwise rational people have taken issue with Benjamin's critique of Obama's speech. Bob Cesca offers a rambling and accusatory commentary on Benjamin's piece that essentially consista of repetition of variations of, "what the fuck?" (Bob Cesca, WTF is this?) Some liberals seem particularly bent out of shape because they perceive the article as accusing the President of being a coward, afraid or unwilling to speak out on race. This obtuse misconstruction of Benjamin's thesis reflects the general lack of familiarity with the body of work dealing with race theory and race consciousness. Most relevant is the concept of "double consciousness" as defined by W.E.B. DuBois.

In DuBois' Souls of Black Folk (a summary), he describes double consciousness as follows:
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
It is this double consciousness that is the underlying theme of Benjamin's thoughtful post. Discussions of race are rare in this country; meaningful discussions of race are virtually nonexistent. When we do talk about race, there is a focus on agreeing that the narrative stay in safe territory so as not to offend anyone, especially white people who are sympathetic to issues of race and racism. President Obama said all of the right things. His words can only be construed as offensive by windbags like Beck and Limbaugh, and those who continue to enjoy dressing up in bed sheets and attending tea parties.

However, Rich Benjamin does not fail to recognize that Obama made the speech that he needed to make. The point of his post is not to bash Obama but to highlight the complexities of America's race problem. Benjamin fully recognizes that an angry back man is not a readily acceptable image for the President of all of America. In Benjamin's words:
Where Trayvon Martin is concerned, the president is also wise to sweep a racial discussion under the rug, because that discussion tarnishes his political capital. Politically, he seeks to run-up his party’s Latino support, by burnishing his reputation for historic inclusion and racial reconciliation. In discouraging too much diversity talk or racial gripe, the president’s image management promotes him as a racial icon with no racial agenda. His image management shrewdly polishes his racial identity even as it downplays it.
The disturbing reality is that even President Obama's measured and thoughtful words have left many white Americans up in arms and crying reverse racism. I've debated with friends since Obama's election in 2008 about the careful steps that Obama has had to make in navigating the minefield of race in America.

Benjamin's question shocks in his choice of language. I think that it is intentional and appropriate. Racism is the insidious scourge of the United States that has long survived the chains of chattel slavery; its continued presence should shock and disturb us. Benjamin suggests that Holder and the President are the flip side of the same coin, or as he puts it, Holder is the President's doppelganger, the voice that expresses the unpalatable truths that the President cannot. It was Holder who put a less than rosy spin on the state of race matters in a 2009 speech in which he accused Americans of “...retreating to our race protected cocoons, where much is comfortable and where progress is not really made.”

The divisiveness reflected in public reactions to the Zimmerman verdict belie that we have entered into the golden age of a post-racial society. Rich Benjamin never suggests that President Obama is weak or ineffective only that perhaps the President has to repress all that he would and could say and that Holder voices the deeper frustrations that the President may feel. It's an interesting theory and adds another layer to the matter of race and identity in this country.


Mark said...

Lord I posted so much on your FB thread today that I am plumb out of words on this topic today.

Ken Riches said...

Such a fine line our president must walk, he has done a fine job!