Wednesday, November 19, 2008

THE MELANIN OBSESSION

Sam Smith

It's hard to remember, but not so long ago white liberals and blacks thought judging someone by their skin color was racist. Barack Obama has changed all that. Skin color is not only being used to judge him but the prospective future of the whole country as well.

Yet, if race doesn't matter, if we're purportedly moving into a post-racial society, then it cuts both ways. People can't, on the one hand, criticize those who blame blacks for crime while they place their own faith in one black for salvation. The latter is just a more benign use of the same faulty assumptions.

To keep this all straight, it helps to remember a few things:

- Race is a unscientific concept that was developed to promote prejudice. To even use the term caters to this dismal history.

- The far better terms are ethnicity or culture. Each of those groups popularly described as races reflect a large variety of cultures. The 9th Ward of New Orleans is not Dakar. And the west side of Manhattan is not the west side of Iowa.

- There is more physical (including DNA) difference between different cultures of the "black race" than there is between the average white or black. Our infatuation with skin color blinds us to this

- Barack Obama's black father left him when he was two. His mother was a white Kansan. He was raised from the age of ten by white grandparents in Hawaii.

A few days ago, a black friend said to me that now that Obama had been elected I was going to have to show him more respect. I replied that since Obama was half white we were even on that score and, since Obama and I both went to Harvard, it was I who came out ahead on the mutual identity scale.

Silly, but no more so than the highly successful effort to turn Obama into a racial icon despite his multicultural background, done by the very people who claim that race shouldn't be important.

It is wonderful that a presidential glass ceiling has been broken, but it is also worth remembering that Jack Kennedy also did it - and we haven't have a Catholic president since. Nor are we making the slightest progress in integrating the Senate. When I make the lonely argument for increasing the number of urban states, I sometimes note that if the Senate were a school system it would be under court ordered bussing, if it were a private firm it couldn't get business from the federal government and if it were a private club you'd want to resign from it before seeking public office.

But because of our American Idol approach to politics and change, the texture of the Senate doesn't even get mentioned while that of our new president becomes an obsessive symbol.

Living in DC, I have mostly voted for black candidates most of my life and know they range from virtuous to despicable as much as any bunch of white pols. I also know that the color of their skin is the worst possible predictor of how they will treat others less fortunate but of the same melanin density.

There is another problem with making such a big deal of ethnicity: it encourages others to do the same, others who may have been taught that those who do not look like themselves are lesser beings. White liberals tend to regard these people with contempt, but multicultural sophistication is nowhere near as widespread as some would like to believe and priggish disapproval is no more effective in such cases as it would be in teaching a child math. In fact, it helps to keep racial myths on the table by adding to the resentment.

It would be wiser if Obama's supporters could see themselves more as guides towards a successful multiculturalism than as triumphant members of one of America's many cultures. A good start would be to stop calling Obama black and celebrate the fact that he represents an ethnic complexity that increasingly will define our country. It's not as much fun and self-satisfying but it would better help America get on the right track.

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Your editor has been a musician for many decades. He started the first band his Quaker school ever had and played drums with bands up until 1980 when he switched to stride piano. He had his own band until the mid-1990s and has played with the New Sunshine Jazz Band, Hill City Jazz Band, Not So Modern Jazz Band and the Phoenix Jazz Band.

NOTES ON THE MUSIC

Here are a few tracks:

SAM SMITH'S DECOLAND BAND

'SHINE' 

JELLY ROLL

PHOENIX JAZZ BAND

APEX BLUES   Sam playing with the Phoenix Jazz Band at the Central Ohio Jazz festival in 1990. Joining the band is George James on sax. James, then 84, had been a member of the Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller orchestras and hadappeared on some 60 records. More notes on James

WISER MAN  Sam piano & vocal

OH MAMA  Sam piano & vocal