Let us imagine for a moment that a woman came forth claiming that Barack Obama had sexually harassed her fifteen years ago. What would the reaction be from liberal partisans, and assorted other supporters? We can easily imagine that there would be urgent questions about the motivations of the woman who came forward, and the media outlets that broke the news. There would likely be a furious attendance to the possibly “racist” aspects of the coverage.
In the early part of the 20th century, when Jewish entertainers like Al Jolson would toss Yiddish references to gedaempfte Rinderbrust (beef brisket) and the like into their routines, it was widely seen as an expression not of anti-Semitic baiting, but as a cocky sort of pride. Yes, the performers were intentionally making a point of their ethnicity, but it was in the form of a shout-out to the Jews in their audience, not as a wink to their would-be persecutors.
The protests against the Berkeley College Republicans’ mock “Diversity bake sale” last week, in which minorities were charged lower prices than whites, are illustrating that history is all about taking a step backwards for every two steps forward. Back in the day, when I started speaking out about affirmative action in 2000, to even question racial preference policies was to be tarred as a moral degenerate. The conversation has moved on since then.
The past two weeks have seen two notorious examples of what we might call the swivel-tongue syndrome—starkly graceless verbal incoherence—and from public figures no less. First was Rick Perry’s cringe-worthy attempt to demonstrate basic knowledge of South Asian geopolitics during the most recent GOP candidate debate; and, more recently, we have apparently caught President Obama mixing up Jews and janitors at a speech before the Congressional Black Caucus. We do, these days, exert an unrealistically high standard on public figures’ oratorical abilities.
Last Monday in Brooklyn at a West Indian Day parade, two black people walking through a blocked-off area were stopped by the police, wrestled to the ground, and detained for a half hour. In most instances, this would have been a lamentably unextraordinary event. But in this case, the two detainees were Councilman Jumaane Williams and his public advocate aide Kirsten John Foy, both of whom had received permission from the police to be in the area where they were arrested.
In the week since its release, The Help, a movie telling the story of a group of black maids in the South in the early 1960s, has been derided repeatedly in blog posts and reviews as a lazy collection of racist tropes, an irredeemable expression of naive bigotry. In an article in the New York Times, film critic Nelson George condemns the filmmakers for failing to properly “come to terms” with America’s racist past.
It was five years ago now that Mitt Romney and the late White House spokesman Tony Snow both spent time in the hot seat for using the term “tar baby.” Romney was referring to the Big Dig highway project in Boston, and Snow to an abstract debate. But there are those who consider the term, originally referring to something difficult to free oneself from once touched, a racial slur.
“Iconoclastic” as I am thought to be on race, I have been struck by how equally unexpected one view of mine has been considered: that much of Shakespeare’s language is impossible to comprehend meaningfully in real time, so much so that most first-time viewers of a Shakespeare play are understanding grievously less of the meaning than they are aware. Of late, I had a chance to retest my impressions, since the Royal Shakespeare Company is currently doing five Shakespearean plays in repertory in New York and I just caught their magnificent As You Like It.