Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The (Mythic) ‘Sister Souljah Moment’

America’s ‘first black president’ confronted America’s ‘black community’ when he took the stage in front of the Rainbow Coalition and denounced the remarks of one of the ostensibly monolithic community’s leaders spokespersons, Ms. Sister Souljah. In so doing, he distanced himself from an ‘extreme element’ of the Democratic Party, offending some of its members but establishing himself as a moderate. Thus, Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination, and eventually, the general election.

This year, though there has been much ‘Sister Souljah’ calling, there will be no such moments. Why? Because there never was such a moment. To borrow heavily from a generic meta-narrative of the blog community, the media proffered the previously articulated narrative in order to explain why a white candidate would disagree with a rapper who argued for a ‘week to kill white people’ following the 1992 LA riots. Although I wasn’t there and haven’t yet been able to contact an official representative of the ‘black community’, I can imagine that there weren’t too many in the Rainbow Alliance audience who stood up to defend Sister Souljah’s right to kill white people. I think I know why; because while the ‘black community’ is an extremely intellectually and politically (and ethnically/racially) diverse imagined ‘community’, there isn’t much of a movement within the ‘community’ for racially motivated killings. As I said, I wasn’t there, but the primary reason for objecting to Clinton’s statement was probably was more along the lines of questioning why an alleged ally of the community needed to inform a pacific group of advocates for justice that killing people was wrong. So while the media generated a historic precedent, attendees of the rally wondered what Clinton had said that distanced himself from their political beliefs. They hadn’t endorsed Sister Souljah, or even contemplated picking up arms. There was a response against Clinton; not because he denounced killing, but primarily because Clinton did not warn organisers that he would be speaking out against Sister Souljah.

Despite the dubious nature of the moniker, its memory and precedent(ial) quality hovers over the current batch of Democratic presidential candidates. Incredulously, the biggest bout of ‘Sister Souljah!’ calling that I have witnessed has been over remarks by Barack Obama to that same ‘black community’, albeit twelve years later. Apparently, a candidate telling people that parent’s should be more involved in their children’s educations distances the candidate from the listeners. As if black parents are the sole guilty ones of excessively leaning on the TV to parent children. Or that Obama, a father of two daughters, only mentions the importance of parents to people whose skin colour doesn’t look like most of the rich and powerful of the world. Perhaps it was simpler for the media (including, I might add, many left leaning bloggers) to continue the flawed narrative by making the connection over racial lines. Ostensibly, this is because the ‘community’ is monolithically out of sync with mainstream American politics, holds incredible influence, and other voters may not support a candidate too close to such a dangerous monolith. (The second is rather interesting claim against a group that has only been allowed to vote for about 40 years.)

Of course, much of this commentary may stem from caffeine enhanced paranoia about the state of our nation and the media of convenience, but don’t dismiss it. Instead, look for ways that candidates substantively distance themselves from groups (or not), rather than citing actions that seem like distancing according to racially focused narratives. For example, Obama and Edwards distancing themselves from lobbyists, especially in contrast with Clinton not creating the same distance; or Obama’s speech to automakers in Detroit. These are easy examples by a rather uninvolved observer, I’m sure that you can find more.

Just don’t reference Sister Souljah when you do.