Saturday, March 15, 2008

French Prejudice Towards Obama?

Jim Johnson at Politics, Theory and Photography posts this image that accompanies an article on the US presidential race in the French popular economics magazine Enjeux-Les Echos. The article is titled, "After Bush: Financial Crisis, Social Fragmentation, Immigration, Environment: Why America Must Reinvent Itself." (Jim translates it as "...should reinvent itself." That's wrong, and the difference is subtle, but perhaps meaningful. The conditional should would be "Pourquoi l'Amerique devrait...").

Jim, another blog (Lens Culture) from which he got the image, and the commentors at Jim's place all find the image patronizing, if not racist. I don't see it, and I commented as much at Jim's blog. One common interpretation seems to be that the image plays on the theme in the US political campaigns that Barack Obama is inexperienced and so on, and then rubs it in by portraying him as a boy, and even as a "boy," as Southerners interpret the term. That would be particularly offensive, but French readers or editors at least aren't likely to interpret the cover in those terms.

As for Jim, after comparing the image to earlier UNICEF images published in Germany (here) showing children in blackface, he says,
In this instance as in that, what seems troubling is less intention than thoughtlessness. That does not make the cover less troubling, it merely shifts the grounds for objecting to it.

At present we in the U.S. have what many consider the first serious black candidate contending for the presidency. We also have the first serious woman candidate contending for the position. The latter has repeatedly criticized the former on grounds that he is relatively 'inexperienced.' I myself think those charges are baseless at best. At less than best they trade on both fearmongering and on racist stereotypes of blacks as naive and childlike. This magazine cover, in my view, trades on precisely the same patronizing and paternalistic stereotypes.
We all agree that the Clinton campaign has made use of racist stereotypes. While this is execrable, I don't see how it's the issue here unless, perhaps, the editors of Enjeux-Les Echos are Clinton fans. Not having access to the actual article, I have to set that aside. I do read French newspapers regularly, and - anecdotally-speaking - I haven't gotten a sense that the subtle racist tweaking in the US campaign has seeped into the minds of French readers. That doesn't mean that the magazine isn't trying to create these themes; simply, that it would be difficult to say one way or the other. The comparison to the blackface images, however, sets up a further interpretation of the above cover not implicit in the image itself. (I wonder also whether the fact that this is a French magazine plays a role particularly in American interpretations.).

For example, if I show you this UNICEF-Germany image first:

And then I show you the magazine cover at the top of this post, your impression of the Après-Bush cover will be much different than if I show you the following image and then the Après-Bush cover.

Bracketing out the image comparisons, which do too much over-determining work on the original image in question, I see the Après-Bush image as saying something more like this: Boy=youth=future. Note that the commentors all focus primarily on the boy being black, not that he is primarily a boy, nor even an apparently patriotic boy. If we want to take particular notice of this boy being black, we might interpret the image as saying something like this: after Bush and his cronies, with all their disasters, the US has to move to a different vision of the future on a number of fronts. This future will be multiracial, multicultural because, after all, America is a pluralistic society. (Note also the patriotic buttons on the lapel. In a curious twist, Obama, remember, doesn't wear lapel flag pins and this has raised the hackles of the simpleton-patriots). I see the cover even as implying that Bush's vision of America was overly white or non-pluralistic. The contrast is with the Bush years, after all, and the man is hated worldwide. What do you see?

Apparently, the magazine article spends little time discussing Obama. But that might be unimportant in interpreting the image itself. Maybe Jim's right and the Après-Bush image plays on the stereotypes we're dealing with in the US campaign. I think the whole thing, however, raises a number of interesting issues, not only about our typical American manhandling of the role of race in American society and politics.

Many in the US aspire to "colorblindness" in American institutions. That's the very soul of American liberalism when it comes to racial identity, the core philosophical grounds of the American founders, even if their historical context was one of slavery and overt racism. The logic of the liberalism of "all men are created equal," is more powerful than the historically contingent nature of Jim Crow. But Americans do have that terrible history that required not only the prohibition of slavery, but also a civil rights movement nearly 200 years after the inception of the country. Today, even if we're not racists, all of our perceptions of races different than our own and the issue of race itself are colored by that history. The colorblindness of the liberal institutional ideal is nevertheless enmeshed in a history colored in glaring hues. Apart from a few superficial biological distinctions like color, race is largely a cultural construct, after all. But cultures and histories are powerful things and, crucially, provide the background framework through which we interpret the world, for better and worse. This is ineluctable. With some hard work, we reshape and reconstruct bits and pieces of that background framework in the face of contingent events, experience, learning, and so on. The US, like many countries, has inherited a terrible part of its history that is taking and will take a long time to overcome.

What's fascinating about the case of this particular image is that the interpretations and discussion are built upon another axis as well. This is a French magazine. The US has just gone through a period in which the public discourse was filled with expressions and images of hatred towards the French as an entire people (the same dynamic as racism). On the other hand, the French have just gone through a period of suffering that abuse, while at the same time very often being guilty of their own insulting stereotypes of Americans. We all peel one layer of scales from our eyes only to find another.


troutsky said...

color blindness is an incredibly loaded term, currently in the employ of power seeking legitimization. In this post-racial hypothetical, I just look at a "person" and see everyman/anyman. It is crafted alongside the concept of "political correctness" to build a supposed unity in the service of authority.It needs serious de-construction so keep peeling, please.

lova said...

with respect to French's view on Obama, even the quite liberal "le Monde" seems to feed on Hillary's anti-Obama rethoric. (fr).
Here is an analysis on the underlying biais of the article.
"Et pourquoi tomber dans le piege des Clinton : reduire la candidature d’Obama a sa race ? Corine Lesnes doit etre pro-Hillary ! Sentiment renforce lorsque je lis les citations choisies de Kai Wright et Glen Ford. Des Noirs qui pensent qu’Obama est naif et se fourvoie.

helmut said...

Thanks for the links. The article does feed on Clinton anti-Obama rhetoric. The author basically goes through the whole list of Clinton supporters to cite doubts about Obama. But I don't see in this article the racist undertones. It's just a short-sighted journalist citing folks like Krugman, Kos, and Steinem on their doubts about Obama, particularly that worn theme about cult-like Obama followers. But there are many supporters of Obama, myself included, who find the groupie elements kind of embarrassing. Clearly, the article does a favor for Clintonites. But if you read through the other pieces Corine Lesnes has written, you basically just see that peculiar French journalistic penchant for trying to turn a phrase at the expense of journalistic substance.

However, some of the people she cites talk about race, but I don't see how she herself turns Obama into "black man," nor how this would suggest that "The French" view him as merely black. She's citing American hangups about race.

Troutsky - you're right about the term "color blindness." But at least in the liberal system it's a key notion. "Justice is blind," for example. The core idea is that institutions ought to be fair in their adjudication between individuals' competing concerns, basing outcomes on desert rather than arbitrary signifiers such as race, wealth, gender, etc. That's the ideal, at least. We know it's far from actual practices, as well as the Machiavellian language of power that conceals itself behind rhetoric to the contrary. But I'm not so sure it's inherently corrupt as an idea.

Nonetheless, one way "colorblindness" is a loaded term is that there are at least two ways of thinking about color embedded in it. One is the malicious, racist view of "color," or race, as a way of marking out inferior/superior. A "blind" system, then, seeks to break that arbitrary distinction as it appears in institutions and policies (assuming good faith, for the instant). The other version is "color" as a stand-in for difference. Colorblindness in this case then becomes rhetoric for reducing differences, divergences, disagreement, etc. to sameness where that sameness is defined in advance by power. That's what I think you're referring to.

In other words, it's double-edged (and probably more complex than that). But it's also helpful. We can see that what we're working for are more just/equitable institutions while at the same time celebrating difference. Without the latter, life would suck for all except those who wish to make servants out of everyone else. That distinction helps to collapse the apparent contradiction between the two senses. But that also entails the hard work of deconstructing/reconstructing those historical perspectives through which we view race, which are both social and individual.