There are few arguments than I despise more than the assertion that one can only be really black/white/Asian/Latino/whatever if one accepts/believes/supports a given proposition. This week, it's deeply flawed human being Jesse Jackson making that argument:
“We even have blacks voting against the healthcare bill from Alabama,” Jackson said at a reception Wednesday night. “You can’t vote against healthcare and call yourself a black man.”
And it's not like this is something new. Bill Clinton nominated a candidate for Attorney General who wrote that black Republicans could only be "descriptively black," and didn't really count as black representatives.
I accept that race is largely socially constructed — that is, what it means to be white/black/Latino/Asian in America is not inherent or absolute, but based upon society's collective views of ethnic groups. That's why so many arguments about President Obama are so very, very silly. Some folks like to emphasize, for instance, that his mother [ed: not father. I'm a dummy.] was white — as if that means the racial invective against him is 50% milder, or he would find it 50% easier to get a cab in New York. The same goes with arguments that he is the son of a recent African immigrant, not a descendant of slaves — as if that means he (or anyone so situated) faces less discrimination and hatred.
In other words, I accept that labels like "black" and "white" carry more meaning than simply skin color. That does not make it excusable, however, to set out to create a litmus test for membership in an ethnic community. When I hear words like Jackson's, I hear echoes of the cries of "race traitor" and "nigger lover" that were once directed at whites who supported civil rights or the fundamental humanity and equality of all races. The notion that one has a racial duty to think a particular way is deeply pernicious. For one, it erodes credibility and makes us all simply a reflection of our skin color. If you conclude that of course I oppose affirmative action because I am white, there's no point in engaging me on the topic. If I believe that naturally you support government-run healthcare because you are black, there's little chance that I will consider the arguments you may muster on the topic — even though your intellect, your experience, your innovation may make your arguments better than others.
Minority groups frequently complain — and not without reason — that the Democratic Party takes them for granted, like the needy, clinging date you can always call at the last minute on Saturday even if you treat her like shit all week. But when leaders like Jackson use rhetoric like this, they are asking the Democrats to take them for granted. They are sending a clear message: "we expect members of our community to toe your party line, Democrats, and if they stray from it, we will tell them 'you are not one of us.' Have no fear that any of our leaders will look for another political home — if they do, we will tell the world that they are not really black." Of course Democrats will take you for granted if you invite them to do so. Of course the polity will dismiss your votes are racially determined if you punish dissenters with rhetorical expulsion from the race.
If Jesse Jackson wants to push health care reform, he ought to argue it on its merits. When he acts like this, all he is pushing is the notion that skin color is the sum total of our outlook. That's not helpful to anyone — except, of course, people whose power depends on the politics of race.
Hat tip: Patterico.
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