Thursday, October 23, 2008

assume that birds of a darker feather naturally stick together, and that birds of a white feather don't

Regular SWPD reader Phoebe Caulfield recently wrote in a comment, “I've noticed a lot of white ire over Colin Powell's endorsement. Claims that it's ‘obvious’ why he endorsed Obama. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.”

Thank you Phoebe, I’ve been wondering about that white ire too, and especially about where such thoughts and comments about Powell’s endorsement come from.

Powell made his endorsement four days ago, but with so much else going on these days, including the rising tides of racist swill currently threatening to swamp all other issues in this election, Powell’s endorsement already seems like a historical footnote.

Nevertheless, this blog’s primary mission is to tease out, and then spell out, common white tendencies, and one that’s been appearing again and again lately, especially in “white ire” over Powell’s endorsement, is this one: the common white belief--really more of a suspicion at times--that blacks and other groups of non-whites are “birds of a feather,” who just sort of naturally stick together, and who watch out for each other with a reflexive, impulsive, irrational loyalty. The flip-side is a common white belief, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, that most white people are free-floating, independent-minded individuals, who are never brought together by their racial whiteness.

It's no surprise to me that when Powell offered his measured, detailed, and convincing endorsement of Barack Obama on Sunday, conservative pundits quickly dismissed it as nothing but a Black Thing--“yet another” case of a black person reflexively, irrationally standing by another black person. Predictable simpletons like Rush Limbaugh, Kathryn Jean Lopez, George Will, Michael Savage, and Pat Buchanan are often quick to resort to that kind of reductive, relatively open racism.

There’s probably another white tendency at work in such reactions as well. That is, I think it’s difficult for some white people to really listen to a black person discuss issues that have, or in the case of Powell's endorsement, seem to have, something to do with race. I’ve been in professional meetings, for instance, where a solitary black person will make a suggestion, the whites will nod their heads and move on, and then a few minutes later a white person makes the same suggestion, and suddenly everyone thinks it’s just a great idea!

But the common white tendency that I want to bring into focus here is the assumption that blacks and other non-whites just naturally, and rather irrationally, stick together. Immediately after Powell's endorsement, Rush Limbaugh fired off a sarcastic email to his dittoheads that said this: "Secretary Powell says his endorsement is not about race. OK, fine. I am now researching his past endorsements to see if I can find all the inexperienced, very liberal, white candidates he has endorsed. I'll let you know what I come up with."

Never mind all of the endorsements by notable conservative white people for white candidates, or for that matter, for Obama--it would never occur to Rush, nor to most other white people, to wonder whether a famous white person's backing of a white candidate has anything at all to do with racial solidarity, nor whether a famous white person endorsing Obama would do so for racial reasons.

The issue here is not so much whether Powell and other black people, or other non-white people, or white people for that matter, do stick together and watch each other’s backs. Instead, the common white tendency I want to spell out here is a double standard commonly deployed from a white perspective—that of supposed non-white (and “irrational”) togetherness, versus supposed white (and “commonsensical”) individualism. This assumption can be summed up as, “birds of a darker feather naturally stick together, but birds of a white feather don’t.”

Soon after Powell's endorsement, white-solidarity enthusiast Pat Buchanan gave truculent voice to this assumption during a panel discussion on "Hardball," where he engaged in "analysis" of Powell's endorsement with Joan Walsh and Chris Matthews:

Buchanan: All right, we gotta ask a question. Look, would Colin Powell be endorsing Barack Obama if he were a white liberal Democrat?

Walsh: Oh, Pat, I'm really sorry you went there.

Buchanan: Look, General Powell started off by saying it would be electrifying if we elected an African American, and it is naive, Joan, to suggest it had nothing at all to do with his decision.

Matthews: What about . . . Just to finish this point, and it is very tricky. He said that if that were his driving motive, he would have done it weeks ago because the guy looked African American weeks and months ago.

Walsh: And Obama's been courting him. He's been courting him for months.

Buchanan: Chris, this explains why--this is why he threw in the whole kitchen sink! A lot of things that are silly and ridiculous. Economics and Supreme courts justices--

Walsh: That's not silly. . .

Buchanan: It's that, we've got all the motives, except for the one everyone is wondering about!

Matthews (who’s been doing a much better job lately) at the end of the segment: You oughta--you and I can agree on one thing, the hardest thing in American life is to figure out someone else's motives. Because it's very hard to figure out your own motives sometimes, let alone somebody else's. Look, I think that's about as profound as I can get on a Sunday night.

Buchanan: [derisive, smirking chuckles]

Notice that aside from assuming that Powell’s endorsement must be a “black thing,” Buchanan dismisses Powell’s extended and detailed reasoning as merely “silly”—it’s like he can hardly even hear the content of Powell’s words.

In terms of race, Buchanan has long been a notorious fear-monger, which is something that I think lurks behind the common white perception of “irrational” non-white solidarity, especially that being flung at us from the low road by the McCain/Palin ticket: white fear that Obama is a Manchurian candidate” who's going to tear off his mask if he wins and “paint the White House black,” by instituting unprecedented levels of support and “handouts” for black people. And white fear as well that masses of embittered black people will rise up and finally seek revenge for what the collective white psyche paradoxically knows is true, which is that white supremacist America has yet to account for centuries of ongoing racial exploitation and abuse.

So the common white tendency here, which makes conservative interpretations of Powell’s endorsement resonate with a lot of white people, is the common belief or suspicion that black people compulsively stick together and watch each other’s backs; that other groups of non-white people, like those Arab Muslims, do that too; and that they're doing it with anti-white intentions.

Like a lot of conservatives before them, the McCain/Palin camp knows how this sort of submerged racism works. Making any sort of negative association between Obama and someone else is much more effective with a lot of white voters if that someone else is not white.

As blogger blackgirlinmaine concisely observes, they can’t use the “n-word” for Obama, so they use the racially coded word “terrorist” instead--“terrorist is the new n-word.” So it's sad indeed for Republicans that sixties-radical-turned-respected-professor Bill Ayers is white!

And in a rather bizarre racial twist, “Muslim” is another new n-word, which again wouldn’t work nearly so well for McCain’s efforts to tar Obama as a Muslim if the Democratic nominee were instead a white person with childhood Islamic connections. (And on this subject, Colin Powell made a great point during his endorsement by basically asking, why in the world it would be a problem if Obama were a Muslim?)

The submerged, racist tendency at play here--the assumption that “darker” people stick with “birds of a feather” for irrational or sinister purposes--is perfectly crystallized in the following image. This is a recent campaign advertisement for a state-level race in Texas, sent through the mail by “Empower Texas,” a group of Republican swiftboaters.

The white guy among the black “crows” is Joel Redmond, the Democratic candidate being attacked in the ad, presumably for sympathizing somehow with black leaders and causes.

As Glenn Smith writes at Open Left, “Anyone with any racial sensitivity gets the meaning of the mailer: Redmond has betrayed whites by befriending people of color. He can't be trusted.” I would add that white recipients are also supposed to sneer at Redmond because he’s a “race traitor,” and that his traitorous crime’s include that of betraying his whitened individuality, by joining a darkly sinister flock of like-minded, irrational (and thus animalistic) . . . sorry, but there’s no other word that fits here—“niggers.”

Those crows are, you know, "black" crows. Pretty much like these, from the 1941 Disney "children's classic," Dumbo:

Oddly enough, and despite a lot of evidence to the contrary, white Americans rarely think that white people naturally flock together and watch each other’s backs. When white folks cluster together into lily-white towns, or into white-bread suburbs like the one I grew up in, or into all-white churches and nearly all-white schools, or into boardrooms and "Fortune 500" lists, and then work in assorted covert ways to keep out people of color, that’s supposedly just a sort of coincidence, and surely not evidence of white racial solidarity.

On the other hand, as Chris Matthews pointed out above, the general issue of racial solidarity is "tricky." For a variety of reasons, various groups of non-white people sometimes do stick together, and they sometimes do watch each other’s backs. But when they do so, there are good reasons, and they usually do so in very different ways from the unacknowledged forms of white solidarity.

“American” culture and society--which are actually “white” or “white-framed,” instead of just “American”--have encouraged a bleaching away of non-white traditions and ways of being that a lot of people would just as soon hang onto. So, non-white people often get together or stay together so they can do just that. At the same time, whitened American society has also pushed non-white people together in many ways, and it continues to oppress and exploit them, making it a good, realistic idea for them to watch each other’s backs.

All of which is not to say, however, that all African Americans, for instance, naturally or irrationally stick together. And it’s especially not to say that if a lot of them support a black politician, they’re doing so thoughtlessly and impulsively, merely because they’re black too.

The main problem I see with this ironically reflexive and irrational white perception of black solidarity is that it ignores and discredits the kind of individual thought and careful consideration displayed so thoroughly in Powell’s endorsement. That kind of informed consideration was also on display early in the Democratic primary, when a majority of black voters supported Hillary Clinton instead of Obama.

Many of those supporters clearly saw in Clinton a candidate whose beliefs and favored policies fit well with their own, and as I understand it, a major turning point came when Clinton and her husband Bill started engaging in some of the same “birds of a feather” race-baiting against Obama that McCain and Palin have been using recently.

So yes, the topic of racial solidarity is a tricky, complicated issue, and it's resulted in a really long blog post. I’ll conclude by referring to a useful characterization of Rush Limbaugh’s most recent racist remarks by David Neiwart, who writes for Crooks and Liars:

Limbaugh is the guy at the sports bar who carefully tabulates the racial composition of every team on the screen and roots accordingly. If a team has a black quarterback, he predicts they're going to lose. Heaven forfend that any black player demonstrate too much enthusiasm over a touchdown or a dunk or a home run, or that any black linebacker should level a white quarterback, because then the "thug" and "jungle" references come out. He hates Tiger Woods with an inexplicable venom (mostly because he's too uppity "full of himself").

We all know that guy. (Some of them are in our families.) And anyone who's even moderately serious about sports, and moderately knowledgeable about them, knows that that guy is completely and hopelessly full of shit.

Neiwart sets up a pretty large target here, and he does proceed to land a bull's-eye, but I think he misses the larger target. That’s the proverbial white elephant in that bar, and in our living rooms, and in America at large.

Digging a little deeper beneath the white skin of Limbaugh/Joe Sports-Bar reveals that his thought processes are not all that different from those of most other white folks. Like Limbaugh and his cawing, conservative white crows, most white folks think that blacks or other non-whites flock together, and that they do so naturally, impulsively, and irrationally.

Many white folks would pat themselves on the back for being different from Limbaugh and those white racists represented by Neiwart’s Sports Bar Guy.

How different are we, though, in those moments when we don’t really listen to what black people have to say? Or when we assume that blacks and other non-white groups just naturally stick together, and even belong together, and that they belong together over there? And how different are we when we also assume that nearly all-white gatherings and settings have nothing at all to do with racial solidarity?


  1. Guys like Rush Limp-boy and Pat Buchanan really make me want to wring their necks. The Republican Titanic is sinking and everyone is jumping ship including Colin Powell and many many white conservatives. The fact that Colin is black has absolutely nothing to do with his endorsement of Barack but Rush Limp-boy revel in their own ignorance.

  2. Did Joe Leiberman(who was a Democrat before losing in his party's primary) suuport McCain because McCain is White.

  3. I think that many whites say that blacks stick together because that is their greatest fear. White supremacy would suffer a severe blow if blacks and other POCs actually stuck together. By stating that blacks stick together and framing it in a negative manner, blacks and others instinctively shy away from the very appearance of doing so and white supremacy lives on for another day.

  4. You are absolutely right... terrorist is the new N word, making the N word almost totally acceptable now. Love your blog!

  5. Predictable simpletons like Rush Limbaugh, Kathryn Jean Lopez, George Will, Michael Savage, and Pat Buchanan are often quick to resort to that kind of reductive, relatively open racism.

    the real problem is that the Limbaugh's just say in puplic what most whites think in secret. White supremacy needs "foot soldiers" to disconnect from: white supremacists, "real" racists, they are the voice of the silent masses and these silent masses feel comfortable with disconnecting from white supremacists because, as they want to believe, they have nothing in common with them and exactly this manipulated disconnection from the "real" racists keeps white supremacy so powerful.
    There is no liberal approach to end white supremacy, when this liberal approach exactly works with the tools of white supremacy.

  6. Great post Macon, and yeah, it's scary how much the Republican playing of the "race card" is working, and as you said, threatening to swamp all other issues. What a sick absurdity. It's only going to hurt people and I don't mean like that faker who claims she got a backwards B carved into her cheek.

    Your questions at the end are important. We shouldn't let racism be just a five-letter word (that word being "bigot"). Bigots get help up for gaudy, garish display, but the bright lights on them leave ordinary racism in the dark. Thanks as always for trying to bring light to it.

  7. Thanks a billion for posting on this. I knew how I felt about it but I couldn't quite put it into words. you said it just right. Now I'm armed when my white supremacist cousin says something horrifying at the thanksgiving table this year.

  8. I wasn't surprised that Colin Powell supports Barack Obama, but not because of their race. Colin Powell waited and gave his support to the candidate he felt would do the best job. I wonder how many of the White people who would say this stuff support McCain because he's White and don't really think he's the better person for the job. I don't think I can get the people I work with to admit that, though.

  9. First off, excellent post. And thanks to Phoebe's post for bringing me here.

    I didn't even know white people were able to think this objectively. Just kidding (okay, not really).

    By stating that blacks stick together and framing it in a negative manner, blacks and others instinctively shy away from the very appearance of doing so and white supremacy lives on for another day.

    Anonymous, you hit it dead on. Also, the probablem with assuming that we [Blacks] stick together, is the fact that we often DO NOT stick together. In fact, racism and oppression has destroyed us and continues to wreak havoc within our community--evidence by violence and self-hatred. I have to tell you that it is not UN-common for us to vote AGAINST our own race.

    Somebody write about that one. I don't feel like articulating it right now.

    Let me give you an example of a different nature:

    In a crime of rape, if an all female jury is selected, the prosecution KNOWS that the accused will be found not-guilty. Why? Because women are the harshest critics and re-victimizers of women.
    Why? I think, because of the denigration of women and oppression in society--women as a "minority group"--so we are against each other because we hate ourselves.

    Damn, sorry so long, did I make my point?

  10. rj, the problem is not whether or not black people stick together. It's the assumption by whites that all other people are in their own little groups--white people being the only individuals.

    When you(presumably black) jump into a conversation like this and start making it about black/gender issues than what the real issue being discussed is, you divert attention and make black people/females the issue.

  11. Interesting tag, Pyro. Are you trying to start a flame war? I have no problem with what rj wrote. rj, I think you did make your point, and that it's a good one--the effects on the dynamics within a community of an oppressive, overseeing "gaze" in terms of race can be clarified with reference to parallel (and intersecting) examples that happen in terms of gender, and of other categories. Such parallels are rarely a perfect match, but again, as in this case, they can be clarifying and instructive.

  12. Eh?? I leave a comment about a post on a thread about white people being diverted to non-white/females and your first thought is about a flame war....because of my tag?
    Cute... rj's comments were not relevant to the topic, though, they do contain points worthy of discussion. I was not shooting at those. Read the comment again.

  13. In a crime of rape, if an all female jury is selected, the prosecution KNOWS that the accused will be found not-guilty. Why? Because women are the harshest critics and re-victimizers of women.
    Why? I think, because of the denigration of women and oppression in society--women as a "minority group"--so we are against each other because we hate ourselves.

    where is the evidence for your claim? "In a crime of rape, if an all female jury is selected, the prosecution KNOWS that the accused will be found not-guilty."

  14. Pyro, maybe I feel entitled to say these things because I'm Black...and a female...maybe not.

    Macon D., Thanks. I'm so exhausted from domestic violence awareness month, election stuff and all these murders that I can't clearly wrap up my points. Well, at least that's my excuse for October.


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