Politics can bring out some very interesting statements from candidates. Candidates can offer very insightful analysis and prescriptions. Candidates can also offer analysis which is is not grounded in demonstrable facts. Even the most seasoned candidate and politician is subject to offer statements causing the listener and watcher to offer a “What did they just say?!”
2020 has already demonstrated it will be a year seeking to squeeze as much pain out of people as possible. Why not make it an election year for the highest office in the land? I like to call it the “silly season” because men and women running for office and supporting those candidates are subject to silliness. (I’m being very charitable because I may be in this position one day!) Nonetheless, momma’s words still ring true, “Think before you speak young man.”
Well, the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party, Joe Biden, needs to hear from my mother. Twice this year and in the span of two months, Mr. Biden has offered analysis of individuals who are categorized as Black, two public analyses which are far from the facts of life.
On the Breakfast Club, Mr. Biden stated, “"Well I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black.” On an interview this past week with Mr. Biden offered an analysis of Black Americans in contrast to Latino Americans.
“Unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly diverse attitudes about different things," Biden said. "You go to Florida, you find a very different attitude about immigration than you do in Arizona. So it's a very diverse community” (Joe Biden, August 5, 2020)
My intent for this essay is not to judge whether former Vice President Joe Biden would be an effective President, such a discussion is beyond the scope of these paragraphs. We have an opportunity to seek understanding regarding the ideas which inform the above statements but as well as provide a perspective on how we as Arkansans approach race in general.
Stubblefield, describes a person with “essentialist conceptions of race holds that the characteristics of physical appearance referred to by racial terms are indicative of more profound characteristics of personality, inclinations, culture, heritage, cognitive abilities, or natural talents” (p.341). When I see person A and assign to them to a group, I begin a process of depersonalization. The group defines the individual instead of him or her being a stand alone person whose interaction with me offers information as to who he or she is as a person. According to Gates (1986), groups are the result of societal discourse. The group is representative of an idea the society has arrived at through a series of discussion and thus by implication any member of the group embodies the societal idea.
The phenomenon of racial essentialism has it consequences. A 2013 study investigated the relationship between racial essentialism and creativity. The researchers hypothesized that once activated, an essentialist mindset would lead to a reluctance to consider alternative perspectives, resulting in a generalized closed mindedness.
There is a counter approach to racial essentialism and it has been practiced by others such as Frederick Douglass. A non-essentialist conception of race claim similarities and differences in physical appearance do not entail further similarities and differences (Stubblefield, 1995). I am favorable to Stubblefield’s Gates, and yes, Douglass’ approach to race. It is an approach to maintain the individualism of persons with the freedom of identification on the basis of justice rather than the narrow confines of race designated by phenotypic traits. In other word, the context of character rather than the color of my skin. This in no way means I reject the history of my family and those closest to me, rather it allows me the opportunity to respond to persons as they come to me rather than cosign them to an identity which they may not themselves ascent.
Mr. Biden is a person who expresses an idea about men and women who are societally categorized as Black in America. His racial essentialism showed on the Breakfast Club and the most recent interview. He is an individual who uses racial characteristics to conclude a particular behavior in voting and thought patterns. If we would be honest, and I am still working through this, we are all complicit in racial essentialism, a phenomenon which needs to be confronted with hard data.
For example, Pew Research conducted a study between June 16-22, 2020 regarding voting during the Covid-19 pandemic. When asked, if elections rules were changed to make it easier to register to vote, would it affect election security, 27% of Blacks responded less secure and 70% responded not any less secure. One month prior to the death of George Floyd, a study was conducted regarding confidence in the police force. This study conducted between April 20-26, 2020 reported 16% of Blacks had a great deal of confidence and 41% of Blacks had a fair amount of confidence. When the study looked at age differentiations within the Black participants a great deal/fair amount of confidence increased with age. Ages 18-39 reported 49% and 55 and older reported 68%. Finally, on immigration views, a study was conducted last year, January 9-14, 2019. When asked about the status of immigrants now living in the United States, 47% of Blacks believed such persons were here illegally and 43% of Blacks believed such persons were here legally. When asked about the building of a wall, 79% of Blacks opposed such construction and 20% were in favor. The data on the ground suggest there is diversity of thought between men and women categorized as Black in America.
What benefits can be obtained as individuals and institutions pursue a non-essentialism view of human beings in America? We want to avoid what Stubblefield identifies as the practical problem of labeling and the problem of truth. On the latter, the truth is just because I have particular phenotypic traits does not mean I walk in lock step with other who have similar traits. On the former, labeling depersonalizes individuals. Labeling necessitates individuals making decisions off a set of assumptions which may actually not be true. What happens to those who vote different or think different? They are met with the invective, “You are not Black enough.”
We should pursue activities which respond to injustices by aligning with people-regardless of skin color-who desire justice for all persons in our society. Hopefully, we will have candidates who will demonstrate how this is done in office.