The South is like America's funhouse mirror when it comes to race -- everyone outside the South likes to point and laugh because the image seems so distorted they can't see they're actually looking at themselves. So Nicholas Dawidoff's New York Times piece about the racial status quo in the South is shocking, except where it's familiar.
There are certainly differences of degree between Cullman County, Alabama, and most of the rest of the country that I think are hard to imagine for most people -- such as state Rep. James Fields having to grin and laugh at "nigger jokes" made by his white constituents. But for a piece that's supposed to be about how different the South remains compared to the rest of the country, there are a lot of similarities between the informal requirements for a black man running for office in Cullman County and the rest of the country. To win office, Fields had to signal to his white constituents that he wasn't a threat to their way of life, that his election wouldn't mean some revolutionary upheaval in Cullman County's social structure, that his intention wasn't to exact some kind of revenge for black mistreatment at the hands of whites. Frankly, Barack Obama had to do the same thing before he got elected president.
The political calculus for how to exploit racial anxiety hasn't changed much -- part of the GOP strategy against Obama still consists of trying to persuade whites to understand themselves as a group identity whose interests are aligned against those of the president and the ethnic community he belongs to (see Glenn Beck). But at any rate, consider the words of shop owner Rickey Peek discussing Fields:
Once, when I visited Peek’s shop alone, Peek told me: “James is not like any black man that I know. He’s just different. He just don’t have that mentality, anybody owes him anything. He just gets out and works and helps people, earns what he gets. If James wasn’t black, you’d think he was white. That doesn’t sound right, but you know what I mean.”
This qualitatively isn't much different from Chris Matthews saying that he forgot Obama was black. What both Matthews and Peek mean to say is that they've grown to be able to conceive of one person as a human being rather than a concept. And I think that most of America, regardless of how they feel about the president, is beginning to form this kind of understanding of who he is -- that because they see him as a person, he is black but somehow apart from other blacks by definition. What's happening is that the rational justification for Peek's beliefs about race has broken down by his relationship with Fields -- but he holds those beliefs so dear that ultimately Fields must be an exception. Worldviews can suffer grievous blows to their logic that still leave their foundational lies intact. The black folks of Peek's imagination do not exist, but he clings to them because their existence defines him.
Now again, there are serious differences of degree in this part of the South and elsewhere. Fields is able to do what he is able to do in the South because of his proximity to his white constituents -- he is able to assuage their fears in a way that it would be impossible for Obama to do. The president is so distant, and his office is of such symbolic significance that he will always remain a concept to them, while Fields can be a person. In parts of the South, where the frank language of racism is still acceptable, they might refer to Obama by epithet--but as Dawidoff writes, that kind of overt racial appeal is losing its power, even in Cullman. Everywhere else they call Obama a racist. In Fields' case, an overt tribalist conflict is reflected in the dehumanizing language of racism. In Obama's case, that struggle is hidden behind the nominal acceptance of racism as a bad thing -- but the underlying math is the same: When blacks win, whites lose.
Obama's approach to race -- and Fields' -- is to neutralize that sense of competition. Make it irrelevant. But it remains relevant in the South, with its history of violent enforcement of white dominance and large black populations that make reasserting that authority so "urgent." It takes an extraordinary political talent to neutralize that sense of competition -- particularly when some people have staked their political futures on the ongoing existence of tribalist struggle. It's the reason we've seen only four black senators and two black governors elected since reconstruction. Still, I think ultimately those who rely on such tribalism as a sustainable political strategy are throwing sandbags at a tidal wave -- Obama and Fields' success, no matter how conditional, is evidence of that.
-- A. Serwer