Brooks and Gump Have a Tea Party
by Ken Jolly
In his New York Times editorial “No, It’s Not About Race” on September 18, 2009, David Brooks writes of his accidental epiphany on race while jogging from the Lincoln Memorial to the U.S. Capitol the previous Saturday. It was during his run that he, like movie simpleton Forrest Gump, by mere coincidence “found himself” at the center of a history-defining moment. While he initially suggests that he simply “found” himself “plodding through tens of thousands of anti-government ‘tea party’ protesters,” Brooks maintains a Gump-like innocence and disingenuous naiveté about the event and its historical context throughout the editorial. It is Brooks’s superficially selective explanation of his experience among the protesters, and shallow conclusion of what the protest means by way of criticism of President Obama, that is our primary concern here.
Brooks ran farther along until he “came across” a scene that “several thousand people had gathered to celebrate African American culture.” Brooks notes that it was his discovery of the Black Family Reunion Celebration, an annual event organized by the National Council of Negro Women, Inc. that finally compelled him to abandon his fitness regimen, swapping out his Forrest Gump jogging gear for a sociologist’s tweed. Brooks states, “Because sociology is more important than fitness, I stopped to watch the interaction.” What ultimately strikes Brooks is the “mingling” between the “mostly white tea-party protesters… with the mostly Black family reunion celebrants.” Brooks goes on to report “the tea party people were buying lunch from the family reunion food stands. They had joined the audience of a rap concert.” In his reporting Brooks is quick to point out that he does not, however, observe any “tension” between these two groups and suggests that the personal interaction he was witnessing could have been taking place anywhere, such as a park or sports arena. From his observations Brooks thus concludes that, when it comes to Obama’s critics, “race is largely beside the point.” Rather, Brooks asserts that the real driving force behind Obama’s critics are age-old ideological debates concerning the role of government, the trajectory of national development, and old class antagonism between the “fat cats” and “the folks.”
Put simply, Brooks reaches the conclusion that race plays no role in these protests and criticism against President Obama based on the fact that whites were consuming African American produced food and music without any tension discernible to him. Drawing this weighty conclusion based on such flimsy and specious evidence raises significant concerns about how one analyzes race relations, the operation, location and existence of racism, as well as the role of race and racism in the formation and development of ideological debates concerning the role of the government, national development and class identity formation. If white consumption of African American produced food and music with no discernible tension is evidence of harmonious race relations and the criteria for identifying and measuring the influence or existence of race and racism on behavior and ideas, than racism has never existed in the United States. White folks have always enjoyed food cooked by Black folks and have always been entertained by music produced by Black folks. To suggest that these demonstrations against Obama are nothing more than reflections of long-standing political squabbles rooted in our national history, yet are uniformed by race, is to deny history and reality.
Indeed, these protests do represent age-old divisions rooted in traditional splits early in our nation’s history and do indeed reflect a history of populist protest, agrarian radicalism, and class tension, but one must not deny how critical race and racism are to these phenomenon. Brooks rightly locates current “culture wars” and conflict in long-standing quarrels between “ordinary people,” “fat cats” and the “educated class.” But Brooks fails to consider how race fundamentally informed class identities and shaped these class antagonisms. Scholar David Roediger explains in his 1991 Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class how “free labor” was dependent on “unfree labor”, and charts how appeals to a working class consciousness were very much dependent upon appeals to “whiteness” as well as a projection of “blackness.” Roediger’s work demonstrates the construction of the “working class,” and how what some identify as “real America” or “real Americans” is intimately connected and bound to the construction of “whiteness.” Roediger simply states, “white working class formation and the systemic development of a sense of whiteness went hand in hand for the U.S. white working class.”
To further suggest that white consumption of the cultural productions of African Americans is evidence of the absence of racism, racial animosity, proof of harmonious race relations and subsequent verification that race and racism play no role in anti-Obama reaction is specious and provides no bona fide or realistic basis for Brooks’s conclusion. White consumption of African American cultural production—food, music, language, art, humor—even white consumption of African American bodies—does not and never has been a monolithic or accurate measure of race relations. Whites have always consumed African American produced food and music but such consumption never ended slavery, lynching or Jim Crow. In fact, one could point to numerous examples, past and present, of reactionaries consuming and enjoying the cultural productions of groups of people they despise and the limits of social interaction and cultural consumption in challenging structural inequality. White consumption of African American produced food and music has never suggested and should not suggest that whites are not racist...or are racist, for that matter. We need to use a more sophisticated tool for measuring and locating race and racism.
While Brooks mentions the role of past figures, including Louisiana Senator Huey Long and Michigan radio priest Father Charles Coughlin as examples of “populist backlash”, he fails to mention contemporary figures stoking, exploiting and profiting from current “populist backlash.” In addition, despite his authorship of two successful cultural studies and routine appearances as a political pundit on television and radio, Brooks fails to identify his own place in this history. Much like Forrest Gump, Brooks presents himself a mere passive observer naively running through this historical epoch making shallow pronouncements on the complexities of politics and human interaction.
I wish the ideas presented here were completely original and unique, and that I was the first to make such a rebuttal to Brooks’s editorial. But the Monday following the publication of Brooks’s editorial, numerous like-minded rebuttals were printed in the New York Times, most of them also pointing out the central role that race plays in the construction of class, and many similarly criticizing Brooks’s superficial analysis and conclusions.
Ken Jolly is Assistant Professor of History at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.
Graphic by Bad Subjects 2009