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Friday, April 28, 2017


On being clueless

by Tom Sullivan

Driving home from a meeting in Raleigh takes over four hours. There is a lot of time to kill. On this particular drive, a friend from the New York City area via Los Angeles was riding along. She is an elegant woman with presence. You notice her immediately when you enter a room. She and her husband had run a travel-related business in southern California and retired in western North Carolina, we knew, but not much else.

So my wife and I started talking about how we had come to the South and a little about our family histories. I talked about how on both sides of my family were Irish Catholic, my father's family from Dublin via Ontario, my mother's from the Cork area (we think). My mother's background is working-class. Her father was a fireman and a union man. My father's family had been in shipping on the Great Lakes. My wife's mother traces roots back to the Mayflower while, my wife jokes, her father was the bastard son of a coal miner. And a WWII combat veteran. Then it was our friend's turn.

She grew up in Brooklyn, she said, but her family is from Puerto Rico. Her great grandmother was from Puerto Rico, she knew, but before that there was nothing. We didn't have to ask why. She is black. The car went silent.

It hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. It's a common thing, family history. It had never occurred to us someone (other than an adoptee) didn't have one, and our friend does not. There are websites devoted to geneaology, and online records.* It is something the two of us simply took for granted. Is that white privilege or simply white cluelessness? Whatever, it clued me in to how clueless I was and still am.

So the lefty upset over Barack Obama's $400,000 fee for a prospective speech to Cantor Fitzgerald gnawed at me this week. A retweeted piece from Marcus H. Johnson got to part of why. (My Our Revolution friends won't like his take, but for me it brought back a little of that conversation in the car.) Johnson writes:

In late 2016, nearly 9 out of 10 Black voters approved of President Obama. To many Black voters, he is the symbol of success for Black America. You might not agree with everything he has done, and I certainly haven’t agreed with everything, but you have to respect him for what he means to Black Americans — making it to the height of American politics and withstanding eight years of racist attacks. Sanders and his movement see Obama as symbolic of evil neoliberal corporate interests. Therein lies the disconnect. The far right holds disdain for Obama for some of the same reasons that the far left does: They see him as beholden to special interests instead of “those of the people.”

Black people can see this, they aren’t stupid. They see that the political fringe on the left and most of the right hates Obama for some of the same reasons. So when the far left comes out and says that the first Black President should be held to a different standard than Presidents before him — that he doesn’t deserve to get paid for his post-Presidential work or shouldn’t be compensated — the Black community feels that one of its largest symbols of success is under attack from an overwhelmingly white political movement.


Do you see how Black people see this? How we look at this and say “They don’t want Black people to succeed or to be represented in politics, business, or media? They don’t want Black people to make money?” This is a movement that hates identity politics, refused to campaign in the diverse southern states, and calls out prominent successful Black people for getting paid for their work. Vox wrote an article saying that Obama shouldn’t have taken the money not because it was corruption (it clearly wasn’t) but because the optics could make it appear so. Well, think about how the optics of how the far left appears to Black people. From a Black perspective, you can see how the far left and the far right’s criticisms of prominent Black people appear very similar?
What I can see isn't the issue. Are Johnson's views typical of his community? Maybe and maybe not. But I'm sure mine are not. Maybe his criticism that the "far left" (whatever that is) is "moving down a path that doesn’t get them the white working class and pushes away Black and Brown voters," is unfair and maybe not. But having been blindsided once, memorably, by my own white cluelessness, they give me pause. My perspective is not right. It's just mine.

* In 2013, a friend digitized and posted online a searchable archive of slave deeds from our county's past, perhaps the first such record in the country.