Baldwin, Arizona, and the Tea Party

I said in my last post that I blame Joshua for me reading James Baldwin, and, indeed, he’s been nudging me in that direction for a while. The tipping point, however, was reading a post by Tim Wise on Facebook, quoting No Name in the Street.

The paragraph he quotes in the context (primarily) of the new Arizona immigration law is, as he says, a powerful message “for those who think white supremacy, and American supremacy, and Christian supremacy are forever.” The perspective and near prescience Baldwin brings to the discussion is provoking – enough so that I bought the book right after reading Wise’s post.

“Force does not work the way its advocates seem to think it does. It does not, for example, reveal to the victim the strength of his adversary. On the contrary, it reveals the weakness, even the panic of his adversary, and this revelation invests the victim with patience. Furthermore, it is ultimately fatal to create too many victims. The victor can do nothing with these victims, for they do not belong to him, but–to the victims. They belong to the people he is fighting. The people know this, and as inexorably as the roll call–the honor roll–of victims expands, so does their will become inexorable: they resolve that these dead, their brethren, shall not have died in vain. When this point is reached, however long the battle may go on, the victor can never be the victor: on the contrary, all his energies, his entire life, are bound up in a terror he cannot articulate, a mystery he cannot read, a battle he cannot win–he has simply become the prisoner of the people he thought to cow, chain, or murder into submission…the excluded begin to realize, having endured everything, that they *can* endure everything. They do not know the precise shape of the future, but they know that the future belongs to them.”

I dove into the book right away. Any plan I had to search for the paragraph above was abandoned when I became engrossed in the story Baldwin tells. One morning last week, on the bus, I came across a paragraph so powerful that I read it, filled with awe, several times:

“But for power truly to feel itself menaced, it must somehow find itself in the presence of another power — or more accurately, an energy — which it has not known how to define and therefore does not know how to control. For a very long time, for example, America prospered — or seemed to prosper: this prosperity cost millions of people their lives. Now, even to the people who are the most spectacular recipients of the benefits of this prosperity are able to endure these benefits: they can neither understand them nor do without them, nor can they go beyond them. Above all, they cannot, or dare not, asses or imagine the price paid by their victims, or subjects, for this way of life, so they cannot know why the victims are revolting. They are forced then, to the conclusion that the victims — the barbarians — are revolting against all established civilized values — which is both true and not true — and, in order to preserve these values, however stifling and joyless these values have caused their lives to be, the bulk of the people desperately seek out representatives who are prepared to make up in cruelty what both they and the people lack in conviction.”

I couldn’t help but think of the connections between the formation and rise of the Tea Party and our “post-racial” America, as proved by the nation’s first Black president. The rush and urgent need to “take America back” has undertones of racism and fear. Certainly, it’s ridiculous to say the election a Black president signals the end of racism in America and ushers in a post-racist era, but it’s easy to see how it might be seen as a menace against (white) power. Reacting to this menace, though conscious or not, could be manifested in portraying President Obama as a witch doctor during the course of the health-care debates or calling health care for all “the beginning of reparations.” It could be why, while insisting they are not a racist movement, Tea Party rallies often have strong, unchallenged racist messaging.

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