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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Afropublicrats and a More Perfect Love (Or, Living Wrong and Voting Right)

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love. (1 John 4:17-19)

My young daughter and I went to church today. My husband, who usually accompanies us, was unavailable, so she and I braved the frigid weather and went to visit a nearby church that we have visited a few times. The theme of the sermon today was fear, which, I think , is a really good topic, in light of the mournful economic times in which we find ourselves. The minister started by offering a message to the children, gathering them together and asking about the things that they feared most. “Spiders,” said one child. “Bats,” said another. “Doctors,” offered a third child, to the amusement of the entire congregation. The sermon went on to discuss how each one of us, adult and child alike, fears something. The goal was to call upon faith to master our fears. I was in the midst of enjoying the sermon when I was blindsided by the minister’s lashing out at black ministers’ opposition to gay marriage and domestic partnership. The comments in summary were:

--Black ministers who preach against domestic partnership are fearful and ignorant
--Black ministers should tend to their own community's problems, such as the 70% of children born to single black mothers.

Indeed I'm sure that the minister did not intend it, but the tone during the delivery of this portion of the sermon was both scornful and arrogant. This impression wasn't helped when some parishioners in attendance laughed when the minister mentioned the rate of black out of wedlock births. The laughter was, I suppose, in response to the seeming irony of a community plagued by unpartnered women being opposed to domestic partnership. The comments and the laughter hit me like a bucket of cold water. A few nearby persons turned to look at my daughter and me (perhaps thinking that I was yet another of those oft-maligned black women with out of wedlock children.) The discomfort and embarrassment I felt were only exacerbated as I looked up at another black woman, a relatively young woman who sat in the balcony. The grim look on her face told me that she hadn't received the message any better. I'm a pretty cool customer usually, but I have to say that it took lots of restraint for me not to take my daughter's hand and walk out.

While I understand that many social progressives (and I count myself among them) feel deeply about the issue of opposition to domestic partnership and gay marriage, assailing the position that black ministers are taking from the pulpit of an overwhelmingly white, prosperous church does little, I think, to advance the dialogue on this matter. Since it is likely that the position of black ministers on this issue is fueled by their faith-based ideas on homosexuality, whether they are right or wrong in this matter, God only knows. Assuming (as I do ) that the ministers have it wrong, it would seem to me that the Christian approach to the issue would be to mention the opposition of the ministers and pray that they reach a better understanding and more perfect love of all of our brothers and sisters, regardless of their sexual orientation or family structure, and leave single black mothers out of it. This approach would also, I'm sure, have spared the feelings of the few black congregants, especially black women, who may have felt as I did.

How did black women get into the political cross-hairs on this issue? After the recent success of Proposition 8 in California which revoked the right of same-sex couples to wed, many pundits on both the political Right and Left have argued than blacks in general and black women in particular were largely responsible for this outcome. While this claim was inaccurate to some degree, polls suggest that large numbers of blacks, especially black women, supported the measure. These socially conservative blacks, termed “Afropublicrats” by New York Times columnist Charles Blow, have moral views that are virtually indistinguishable from those of Republicans, according to Gallup Poll surveys. So, I guess if we’re going to assail black opposition to domestic partnership or gay marriage, maybe it makes sense to throw brickbats at all those black single mothers who are living wrong and voting Right.

Not so fast, though. The tenor of this discussion threatens to further spread the myth of the black/gay divide. While much of the public assumes that blacks are more homophobic than their white counterparts (see e.g. homophobic rap music), this is not born out by most longitudinal research conducted on the issue. This research suggests that while religious blacks often see homosexuality as a sin, they have also been more likely than whites to vote in favor of matters that they perceive to be important civil rights issues for the gay community. At the end of the day, a lot rides on how a particular issue is framed. I think that when it comes to the issue of being gay, many blacks, both gay and straight, simply feel that one's sexuality ain't nobody's business, and it defies reason and common sense that anybody would feel the need to vote to undermine the way that adults want to live their lives. As comedian Wanda Sykes recently stated at a rally protesting Proposition 8: "You know, I don't really talk about my sexual orientation. I didn't feel like I had to. I was just living my life, not necessarily in the closet, but I was living my life. Everybody that knows me personally they know I'm gay. But that's the way people should be able to live their lives."

Yeah, it ought to be that way. Oh, that we may reach a more perfect love.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Dialing Mrs. Murphy (Or, Me Talk Pretty One Day)

I began the search for temporary housing by scouring Craigslist. I had been making calls for months, but now it was time to nail something down. I found a promising ad: fully furnished, all utilities included, Internet and parking. The pictures looked great. Maybe a little more heavily decorated than I’d like, but the place looked well kept. I made the call. Someone picked up on the first ring, whereupon I stated my reason for calling, trying to sound at once business like and warm and friendly. After listening patiently, the person on the other end asked me to hold while she switched phones. She returned and began telling me about the apartment.

“It’s my father’s place. He’s away visiting in Ireland. We figure we may as well make some money since he’ll be gone for so long. It’s part of my house, downstairs. It’s in the nice part of town so you don’t have to worry about security.” The woman had an Irish accent which grew more pronounced as she continued. “We want someone who doesn’t smoke, has no pets, and is the right sort. It is my home, you know. You’ll have to call back and talk to my husband and he can schedule the showing. You sound respectable, you said you’re a law professor, is that right?”

“Yes, I teach in Cleveland. I don’t smoke, and while I like pets I don’t really have time for or interest in caring for any so I have none.” I said it all rather too quickly. After her comments, I felt as if everything I was saying was a lie. Am I the right sort? Will I be a blight on the neighborhood's niceness and security? Am I respectable, or do I just sound as if I am?

Why would I wonder such about such things? Then it hit me.

She probably thinks that I’m white. Why wouldn’t she? I speak crisp, standard, Northeastern U.S. English with, I’m told, a vague hint of Californian that betrays my Los Angeles upbringing. Most people who speak as I do and have the job that I do are, statistically speaking, white. They are also probably men, but the register of my voice no doubt gives away my gender. So, if she thought I was white, she could certainly be forgiven for thinking so. I struggled mightily to curb the impulse to say: “I’m black; will that be a problem?” I didn’t want to ask because I didn’t look forward to any of the three possible responses I envisioned hearing: 1) stunned silence then a stammered “no” which really meant “yes” 2) stunned silence followed by “Yes, it matters”, followed by polite dismissal (or a click as the receiver was hung up) 3) stunned silence followed by righteous indignation at having been asked about whether race figures in such matters (“We’re all post racial now!”). None of the three possible outcomes seemed attractive. I suddenly feared that I had called the wrong number. Could it be...Mrs. Murphy in the flesh?

Many of you know the hypothetical Mrs. Murphy of Fair Housing Act fame.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act (FHA) proscribed discrimination in most housing transactions on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin. It contained a noteworthy exception, the so-called “Mrs. Murphy” clause found in 42 U.S.C. §3603(b). This section, in brief, allowed landlords who were owner-occupiers of small scale multiple dwelling units or owners of few rental properties to discriminate. Mrs. Murphy, so named during the legislative debates surrounding the clause, was the hypothetical small landlady who ran a boarding house, or perhaps owned a duplex apartment building and resided in one unit while renting the other. Such persons, legislators argued at the time of the enacting of the FHA, should be able to rent their housing as they saw fit, given the small, intimate settings in which their rentals occurred. The exceptions in the FHA, however, did not include discriminatory housing statements or advertising. Under the FHA, Mrs. Murphy could discriminate racially but could not advertise or state that she was doing so. Mrs. Murphy could, for reasons of race, silently turn down applicants who presented themselves. (There are other legal non-discrimination norms that might proscribe Mrs. Murphy’s silent but racist inspired refusal to rent; these I leave for another time.)

I have had my share of racist experiences while searching for housing. (See my blog post How Now, Brown? Parents Involved in Community Schools and the Triumph of Color Blind Ideology.) In recent years, however, when I have mostly sought short term accommodations, I have generally avoided such incidents by dealing with large, impersonal entities such as corporate housing providers who really only care about whether I can pay. When I do deal with smaller, private providers of accommodations, I generally am known to the provider or am otherwise “pre-approved.” In short, I try to avoid the potential Mrs. Murphys of the world altogether.

With the advent of Craigslist, people who would have advertised their housing with a sign in the yard or maybe an advertisement in the local newspaper can now offer their housing to a national or even international Internet audience. So, Mrs. Murphy now has global reach. Really, anyone may dial her number. A caller’s manner of speaking may often reveal gender and sometimes race to her. Thanks to a greater number of integrated social and educational interactions than used to be common, all too often people of diverse racial backgrounds sound like, well, people of non-diverse racial backgrounds. They sound white ("Speaking Standard English is not 'sounding white'," you say! Yeah, I know that song...). When these people telephone out into the world, whether they set out to do so or not, they are phone passing.

Black people know that I mean. Phone passing is when you call to order goods or services and you breeze through the interaction using your best Standard English voice, knowing that in many cases the person on the other end of the line probably assumes your whiteness and treats you accordingly. Not treating you well, necessarily, just neutrally. You get that nice, even, default customer service mode. There’s nothing funnier (in that wry, sad-funny way) than when you arrive to claim the book you placed on hold at the book store (the last one of its type in stock) or to get your vacuum cleaner fixed after talking to the repairman on the phone (who stayed late to accommodate you) only to be confronted with a puzzled “Oh, was that you who called ?” Most such vendors shrug it off and continue to offer the same level of service they offered on the phone. Some are visibly perturbed by what they no doubt see as racial identity fraud and set about giving what is clearly an inferior level of service.

Phone passing presents a thornier situation when it comes to negotiating for longer term arrangements such as housing or jobs. On the one hand, there is an ethic of non-discrimination that theoretically prevails which would eliminate the need for one to announce one’s race. On the other hand, there is the sober reality that race may especially matter in smaller, more intimate situations and the sooner one puts it on the table, the better. I came to that conclusion years ago when first applying for legal jobs. I attended a good number of interviews with interviewers who were clearly flummoxed by the seeming mismatch between my face and my resume. I learned to avoid awkward interactions by prominently listing on my CV items such as “Black Law Students Association Co-Chair” and “National Urban League Scholarship Winner” in order to tip off potential employers.

In the case of my potential Mrs. Murphy, I chose not to give any indication of my race but, the truth is, I have no intention of calling back to schedule an appointment. Am I being unfair in not giving this a try? Maybe. But there’s just too much chance for unpleasantness, and that would be unfair to both of us, non-discrimination norms notwithstanding.

Too bad. She sounded like a nice lady.

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Monday, November 10, 2008

Teacher, Teacher I Declare (Or, From My House I Can See London and France)

Recently reported by the Associated Press:

< <Republican National Committee lawyers are still trying to determine exactly what clothing was bought for Palin, what was returned and what has become of the rest. Palin's father, Chuck Heath, said his daughter spent Saturday trying to figure out what belongs to the RNC.

"She was just frantically ... trying to sort stuff out," Heath said. "That's the problem, you know, the kids lose underwear, and everything has to be accounted for.

"Nothing goes right back to normal," he said.>>

Pretty sobering stuff.

I admit that I laughed with my husband a few days ago after joking that the RNC would soon be going through Sarah Palin's underwear drawer and checking the tags on her panties. (Oh, that p-word! Always sure to evoke laughter with its frisson of both the forbidden and the familiar. ) As an Obama supporter, I was still on a victory high and relished laughing heartily at the expense of the opposition. But you know, it wasn't really that funny. Or rather, it was funny, but mostly in that really sad, outrageous kind of way. It's even sadder to imagine that it's even close to being true.

The RNC needs to stop. And we, progressive women of all colors, need to tell them to stop.

The presidential campaign of 2008 won't be soon forgotten. For black feminists it offered some particularly interesting dilemmas that caused us to query our racial and gender loyalties. First there was the epic battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. (See my blog post Barack and Hillary Once Upon a Time in America). After Obama snagged the nomination, a number of women Democrats, mostly white, vowed not to support him, even if failure to do so meant cutting off their gendered noses to spite their progressive faces. Or is that progressive noses to spite gendered faces? That's the problem--is sexual difference more fundamental than any other identity marker, as philosopher Luce Irigaray once posited, and if so, should it mean always voting your gender, no matter what?

Some women, again, mostly white, said yes. So, when John McCain cynically/thoughtlessly selected as his running mate a woman who seemingly lacked the preparedness generally found among nominees to high national office, they felt that a vote for the McCain-Palin ticket was a vote for women's collective rights. But as Sarah Palin, via the opinions she expressed, revealed herself to be the anti-Feminist (sort of like the anti-Christ but with lipstick), many progressive women balked and joined the Obama camp.

Camp Obama is a pretty nice place to be these days. There are lots of activities from which to choose. There is no riflery like there would have been at Camp Palin, but the campers are more diverse and they sing in much better harmony around the campfire. Around the campfire there is lots of laughter, mostly the earnest, kindly sort. Only occasionally is the laughter ironic or ambivalent.What's that smell? Hey Judy, is gender burning? Gee, I hope not, we'd better pull it off the fire/pyre. We'd better put some fiyah in the wiyah and call for help to extinguish the flames. Gender may be hard to locate sometimes and even harder to describe but it's definitely not dead or disappeared.

No disappearing act--that's what Sarah Palin is currently guilty of. The attempt to undress her is in the hope that like the invisible man of science fiction (see H.G. Wells, not Ralph Ellison, but really, either one is instructive here), she won't be there when the clothes come off. What could be better than a ritual public stripping?

Better be careful, laughing at Sarah Palin's clothes debacle could be the death of us.