comments_image Comments

Ironically, Tim Graham is More Right Than Wrong in His Insight About Karen Finney and "Blackness"

Tim Graham should be hired to hold up brown paper bags against the skin of African-Americans in order to determine, to his satisfaction, if they are sufficient "black." Tim Graham could also perhaps be hired to help coordinate the next census as he trains others in this most important of tasks.

Despite the howls of his critics, Graham is (ironically) in some ways more accurate than not in his description of the relative "blackness" of Karen Finney, the newest host on MSNBC.

Race is a true lie and a social construction. The meaning of race, and how different people are located within its shifting boundaries and categories, is a function of the politics of the moment, and the type of "social work" that race does in a given society.

While not as infamous or well-known as Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Taney who ruled over the Dredd Scott case, Judge Sutherland was also instrumental in how race was made in the United States during the early 20th century.

In his decision about Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh who petitioned for citizenship on the grounds that his people were "scientifically white," what was the legal prerequisite for naturalized citizenship, Judge Richardson rejected his claims and argued that "whiteness" was a category wholly determined by the "common sense" judgement of white men.

He wrote:

What we now hold is that the words “free white persons” are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word “Caucasian” only as that word is popularly understood. As so understood and used, whatever may be the speculations of the ethnologist, it does not include the body of people to whom the appellee belongs.

It is a matter of familiar observation and knowledge that the physical group characteristics of the Hindus render them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons in this country commonly recognized as white. The children of English, French, German, Italian, Scandinavian, and other European parentage, quickly merge into the mass of our population and lose the distinctive hallmarks of their European origin.

On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that the children born in this country of Hindu parents would retain indefinitely the clear evidence of their ancestry. It is very far from our thought to suggest the slightest question of racial superiority or inferiority. What we suggest is merely racial difference, and it is of such character and extent that the great body of our people instinctively recognize it and reject the thought of assimilation.

It is not without significance in this connection that Congress, by the Act of February 5, 1917 . . . has now excluded from admission into this country all natives of Asia within designated limits of latitude and longitude, including the whole of India. This not only constitutes conclusive evidence of the congressional attitude of opposition to Asiatic immigration generally, but is persuasive of a similar attitude toward Asiatic naturalization as well, since it is not likely that Congress would be willing to accept as citizens a class of persons whom it rejects as immigrants.

In the United States a person's status as "black" was determined by the "one-drop rule." This phrase signaled to how race is/was made by commonsense folk wisdom enforced and made real by pseudoscience, Power, and the State. One "drop" of "black blood" in the United States makes a person "black." Historically, this could mean the difference between slavery and freedom, life and death, or that one's children will be deemed the property of some other to be sold at auction.

These stakes were high. And however circumstantial and contingent, they had a great impact on life chances in the most basic ways possible. Even in the post civil rights era, a person's being "marked" or "raced" as white or non-white influences, all things being equal, if they will be socially stigmatized, more likely to be incarcerated, their lifespans and education, as well as wealth and income. Race remains real even in the Age of Obama.

Tim Graham's lazy and failed quip about the blackness of Karen Finney hints at other complications along the colorline.

What of how African-Americans can travel to other countries, Brazil for example, and be viewed as anything other than "black" because those countries use a reverse system where any amount of "white blood" makes a person "non-black?"

What do we do with dark-skinned Europeans such as Tom Jones? Is he black? What about Sicilians? Are they somehow "black?" Many South Asians are also darker than many African-Americans. Yet, the former are categorized "racially" as "Caucasian" or "Aryan." And how what does one do about the "race science" that deems "Arabs" such as Syrians and others to be "white?"

Race is a social construct that is an exercise in personal identity, as well as how society assigns meaning to certain types of bodies in relationship to one another. These are inherently political projects. Tim Graham's error is a reflection of a contemporary type of Right-wing politics that is deeply invested in racism denying and furthering a narrative of white victimology, while also having an almost prurient and sick fascination with the race-making business.

Contemporary conservatives profess a deep devotion to colorblindness. Despite their claims otherwise, they are almost pathological in their commitment to a version of old-school racism which has been updated to fit the contemporary sensibilities of the post civil rights era.

The Right's obsession over the politics of black authenticity has been a fixture of the Age of Obama. Determined to rob the American people of the symbolically triumphant moment of electing their first black president, many on the White Right, complained that Obama was not really "black" because he had a white mother. They have also wallowed in race based conspiranoid projects such as "Birtherism."

Others on the Right pivoted on their ideological brethren's fascination with black authenticity in order to gin up white racial resentment by suggesting that Barack Obama hates white people--and by extension his white relatives--in order to earn racial political capital from black folks.

Some among the American public mirrored this fantastical thinking by claiming that Barack Obama, despite how he self-identifies as a black American, is really multiracial, and that he is somehow "denying" his white ancestry. Thus, Obama is robbing white America of the opportunity to credit-claim for his election and subsequent successes. Here "reverse racism" can even be twisted into a cognitive schema that explains the electoral success of a black presidential candidate.

Tim Graham's ugly statement that Karen Finney is not sufficiently black is a reflection of a political moment in which conservatism as a movement and philosophy is increasingly and more clearly inseparable from white racism. The contemporary Right despises identity politics--except when it is useful for mobilizing white racial resentment. Consequently, conservatives like Tim Graham do not "see" race unless it can be used to marginalize and delegitimate people of color who occupy positions of authority, influence, or power.

Historically, race and race-making are not games in the United States. As joked by Tim Graham, John Boehner has died-red skin from a bad spray on tan. This color can fade or be removed. Boehner is still "white" and male: as such, he enjoys all of the privileges which come with such an identity in this society.

African-Americans who look like Karen Finney are still considered "black" in these United States. In a moment, not so long ago, a woman of her complexion would suffer under Jim and Jane Crow. Her mother's mother would likely have been deemed a slave because of the one-drop rule.

To riff on comedian Paul Mooney's great observation, the complexion was not necessarily any source of protection for black Americans and other people of color in the United States. By contrast, a man or woman could have John Boehner's ruddy red glow and still be considered "white" with all of the privileges that came with it--including the "right" under the law to own black people as human property.

Tim Graham likely does not know this history. I doubt that he cares. Tim Graham's play at being "he who referees the brown paper bag test" is no less ugly because of his cultivated ignorance.