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The Peculiar Class Solidarity of Barack Obama and "Skip" Gates
Sean Bell and Oscar Grant were shot down like dogs, but that was none of Barack Obama's concern. But when a local cop racially profiled Dr. Henry Louis Gates as if he were just another Black man, Obama's world shook. "To be subsumed within the Black mass means class death. No one was safe!"
By BAR executive editor Glen Ford
July 27, 2009 - blackagendareport.com
"If Dr. Gates could be treated like any other middle-aged Black man, the entire Better Class of Blacks was threatened."
What compelled President Barack Obama, the great practitioner of the art of dodging racial issues, to put precious political capital at risk in defense of Dr. Henry Louis "Skip" Gates, whose run-in with a Cambridge policeman threatened neither the Harvard professor's life nor freedom? At no time in his candidacy or brief tenure as president had Obama displayed the slightest inclination to voluntarily come to the defense of Black folks in general or to interpose himself between white power and any individual African American. In this sense, he has been studiously "race-neutral" — or some would say, downright hostile to Blacks in the mass.
Surely, Obama is skilled enough to have easily parried a reporter's question on the Gates affair. U.S. presidents, including this one, routinely deflect questions bearing directly on critical issues of war and peace. Why was the apparent racial profiling of Dr. Gates an occasion for Obama to characterize a local police action, and the police officer himself, as "stupid" — thus bringing down the certain wrath of the white public he has so assiduously courted?
The answer lies in the deep-felt class bond between Obama and Gates. Although Obama graduated from Harvard the same year Gates joined the faculty there (1991), in a profound political/cultural sense they are classmates. The class to which they belong is only loosely linked to material wealth. Rather, it is largely negatively defined — that is, Gates' and Obama's shared class status is based on the perception of what they are not. They are not like the rest of Black folks; they are different, a cut above the rest, in their own and in white people's estimations.
"Gates' and Obama's shared class status is based on the perception of what they are not."
To paraphrase the U.S. Marines recruiting spiel, Gates and Obama belong to that sub-group of African Americans (or uber-group, as they imagine) that believe themselves to be The Few, The Proud, The Better Class of Blacks. This self- and white-appointed class strives to prove they are also The Brave by launching periodic assaults on their nemeses, the lesser classes of Blacks. That's how members of this peculiar class make themselves known: through ritual distancing from the larger mass of African Americans.
Better Class of Blacks' credentials must be constantly updated, for white re-certification.That's why Barack Obama takes advantage of every opportunity (Father's Days are ideal) to "bravely" point out the moral failings of the lesser classes of Blacks.
Dr. Gates is equally aggressive. As Paul Street writes in this issue of BAR ("'Skip' Gates: A Curious Martyr in the Struggle Against Racism"), Gates once declared that Blacks must undergo nothing less than "a moral revolution and a revolution of attitude" or risk a permanent schism between the "huge underclass" and the "relatively small" group of Black people like himself. As a fomenter of this "moral revolution," Dr. Gates presumably sees himself as a brave revolutionary. Just ask all his rich white patrons.
"Better Class of Black credentials must be constantly updated, for white re-certification."
In profiling Dr. Gates, the Cambridge police were attempting to erase the line that his class has labored so mightily to draw between themselves and what they consider the moral turpitude of the mass of African Americans. If Dr. Gates could be treated like any other middle-aged Black man, the entire Better Class of Blacks was threatened. To be subsumed within the Black mass means class death. No one was safe!
When New York City police went unpunished for killing unarmed Sean Bell in a barrage of 50 bullets, President Obama tersely stated that Blacks should "respect the verdict that came down." Obama had nothing at all to say when a Bay Area transit cop was video-taped fatally shooting Oscar Grant in the back as he lay face down and handcuffed. And why should Obama have spoken out, anyway? These were not his people. Oh no, they were the problem people, a problem for everybody, but especially for the Better Class of Blacks, who would now have to work even harder to disassociate themselves from the Bells and Grants of Black America.
But the "Skip" Gates case cried out for solidarity. Obama stood up for his class (at least briefly), the political fallout be damned.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.
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