“Neglecting the Base,” or the Meaning of “We”
Bob Herbert and Paul Krugman―both of the New York Times―are the nation’s two best pundits today. Herbert covers the social and political, Krugman the economic (with a Nobel Prize winner’s quantitative flair).
Both are superb writers, able to encapsulate complex ideas in simple sentences and occasional brilliant turns of phrase. In a Twitter world of short attention spans, that’s an invaluable skill.
You could get an accurate idea of where we are as a nation if you just read those two and nothing else. But of the two, Herbert gets my nod. I disagree strongly with Krugman on trade and protectionism. I don’t believe (with him) that appreciation of the renminbi will solve our structural economic problems, let alone our political ones.
And however insightful Krugman may be in his speciality, economics is a bloodless, abstract concern, a matter of cold expertise. Herbert hits us where we live. More to the point, he writes what many are thinking but don’t dare say. On days when he writes, his column is the first thing I read. He rarely disappoints.
Today’s piece was like that. One of Herbert’s best, it dealt with a long-neglected topic, at least in the mainstream press: the President’s “base” among African-Americans. I’ve stolen his title for the first half of my heading above, which is why it’s in quotes.
Herbert argues that the President has not done enough to recognize and inspire that base. His last sentence is the most powerful: “We need to be careful not to corrode the joy and pride felt by blacks in the triumphs of African-American leaders.”
For me, that single sentence captures the agonizing sensitivity of racial politics in America today. The “we” at the beginning presumably includes all of us―the President, his mostly white Cabinet and advisors, and the still-mostly-white (but not for long) electorate. Yet when Herbert gets to the “joy and pride” part, that’s the property of “blacks.” Why?
I know, I know. Herbert was making a point about the President’s “base.” But on reading his last sentence, I felt excluded. I wondered whether he understands the immense joy and pride that tens of millions of other voters—vastly more numerous—also felt and still feel. I wonder whether the President understands, too.
As far as I know, I’m 100% white. I have already written how my own joy and pride―and hope―brought me to unstoppable tears on the night of the President’s 2008 electoral triumph. Embarrassed, I covered up the tears with a lackluster, abstract title: “Meritocracy Restored.”
The sources of those strong emotions were many. There was hope for the future. There was relief that the long nightmare of Dubya (and forty years of misrule) would soon be over. There was a sense of triumph for the intellect and education that the President represented—a sort of “Nerds’ revenge”—something I don’t think American intellectuals have felt as strongly since the election of Woodrow Wilson.
But there was more. There was the joy and pride I felt in my country at the election of the best candidate, despite persistent racism. There was the exuberance of coming closer to Dr. King’s dream. The content of the President’s character outshone Hillary’s and McCain’s, and I was glad that voters saw the light.
And then there is the underdog syndrome. Hundreds of movies attest to Americans’ sympathy for the underdog. In a country that prides itself on being “Number One” like the New York Yankees, rooting for the underdog is something of a paradox. But it’s there; it’s real; and it’s persistent. It’s part of our national character.
African-Americans have been underdogs on this continent for close to four centuries. They’ve been subject to unspeakable mistreatment, neglect and disrespect, which didn’t stop with Emancipation or with the President’s election. So why shouldn’t every red-blooded American stand up and cheer for “their” triumph, especially when the “underdog” is by far the best candidate, smart and good enough to advance and ennoble us all?
The simple fact is I, a white, would die following people like the President, Eric Holder, Colin Powell, Artur Davis and, yes, Adrian Fenty before I would live under the rancid tyranny that the likes of Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, and Rove have in mind. There are tens of millions of Americans who feel precisely the same way. Such differences in character make color irrelevant.
I don’t fault Herbert for omitting this point. He did us all a great service by bringing the President’s apparent neglect of his “natural” constitutency out in the open, where all of us can examine it. That’s the kind of service he does us regularly and brilliantly.
In my essay on the President’s inauguration, I wrote that the joyful crowd standing around us near the Lincoln Memorial was more than half white. But I was wrong. I went back and reviewed my photos recently and counted. The crowd there was actually more than 90% white. All those people, of all hues, braved frigid temperatures and sardine-can subways (the only way to travel on that day) in order to share the joy and pride. (The huge crowds of African-Americans were much closer to the podium.)
That someone as savvy as Bob Herbert should, even inadvertently, divide Americans into “we” and “blacks” when writing for a national audience is a sign of our times. Fox Propaganda, the Kochs and other right-wing billionaires, racists, and demagogues have sought to divide us. They appear strangely to be winning, and the President’s seeming indifference has done nothing to call them out.
“Divide and conquer” has been the tool of the gangster class for our entire history, indeed world history. In a melting pot like ours, there are plenty of racial, ethnic and religious fault lines to exploit. Isn’t it about time we all wised up?
There is no division into “we” and “blacks, “we” and “whites,” or we and any other hue. There is only “we”―at least if this embattled Republic is to survive.
Didn’t the President make that very point in the 2004 keynote speech that catapulted him into the White House? The only ones “we” should exclude are those who want it all for themselves.
But that doesn’t mean that we should fail to recognize different constituencies with different origins, histories, and personal stories. It only means that we should inspire them all to work together for the common good. Sometimes that inspiration will take different forms for different audiences. If someone as smart and good as Herbert can fail to make this point, then maybe the President can fail to see it.
I would never presume to compare my political understanding with the President’s. I’ve second-guessed him and been wrong too many times. But I can only say with confidence what I myself feel. If the President gave his “base” more to fight for, that would inspire me, too. And that includes every element of his base: women, African-Americans, the middle class, the jobless, the foreclosed, voiceless immigrants, and the poor.
My head voted for the President's education, judgment, character and intellect, and it will again. But my heart voted for justice.
I don’t think justice has any color or gender. And I’d bet millions of Americans think the same way. So I hope and trust that the President, by inspiring his “base” among African-Americans with a call for justice for them, will inspire, not repel, the rest of us as well. At least his doing so should attract those of us who have any reasonable prospect of voting Democratic this November.
Of course the President must tread carefully and inspire delicately, without alienating anyone. But who knows how to do that better than he?
We are all waiting for the paeans to justice that still ring in our ears 47 years after Dr. King’s speech. Few good Democrats forget that, as Dr. King was martyred, he was fighting for economic as much as racial justice. He was fighting for all of us against those who want it all for themselves. Missing the opportunity to renew his inspiration at this critical time would be a grave mistake.