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Most of us remember the widespread atmosphere of optimism that followed Barack Obama’s victory over John McCain. Many also remember statements from some groups on the Right that America was now “post-racial,” coupled with charges that, on the rare occasions Obama alluded to race, he was not living up to his end of the bargain. And it wasn’t only conservatives waving—or should it be brandishing, in their case?—the post-racial flag. Prominent African Americans from Will Smith to Black Enterprise publisher Earl G. Graves, Sr. were soon suggesting that there were “No More Excuses” for black people. Even Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in an editorial published the day after Obama’s acceptance speech in Lincoln Park, described what he had seen the night before as the “symbolic culmination of the black freedom struggle, the grand achievement of a great, collective dream.” These statements may reveal more about class divisions in black communities than a monolithic assumption of success, but two years later, few outside the original group of conservative commentators would still maintain that the struggle is over. And if they do, they shouldn’t. In Henry A. Giroux’s words, “‘post-racial’ may mean less overt racism, [but] the idea that we have moved into a post-racial period in American history is not merely premature – it is an act of willful denial and ignorance.” We may not even be witnessing a time of less overt racism, but there is little doubt that in the minds of most, the openly expressed idea that America could be post-racial had its genesis in that moment of 2008. Obvious fallacy though it may be, the Post-Racial Age is the Age of Obama.
What has this meant for the Obama administration, or advocates for racial equality since its advent? As Elizabeth Abel points out, the Right has managed to employ the supposed success of black America as a means to curtail discussion on persistent structural inequalities. Some conservatives would have us believe that having moved beyond race, any people who identify racism must be playing that card for cynical gains. Neoliberals who claim to be truly colorblind—in a specific appropriation of the language of the Civil Rights Movement—when accused of racism, become the victims, they claim, of Obaman racial discourse. Note the performance of New Left-era protest rallies by tea-partiers or Beckites, not to mention persistent connection made between the Left and Nazism by various Republican pundits. They are victims of a creeping social trajectory that history tells them—a unique brand of history—leads to race war and Holocaust, and they are the last bastions of equality. Victimhood is loosed from its material moorings and appropriated by conservatives in a dazzling rhetorical sleight of hand. In what is actually a kind of resurrection of Reconstruction era politics, tales of powerless whites suddenly in need of protection from vengeful black figures in positions of authority pervade the conservative press. Performance of victimhood is coupled with the constructed illusion of power wielded by the (in reality) underprivileged social group. Constrained by the power of this performance, and fear of being accused of playing that race card, many on the Left have remained silent on issues of racial injustice.
In the midst of discussion around the post-racial, Hawaiian birth certificates, or “Obamacare,” it is easy to forget today how close the 2008 Democratic primary was: the Age of Obama almost wasn’t an age at all. If Hilary Clinton had edged Obama to the nomination, and assuming she then beat McCain, would we be told, or be telling ourselves, that we are “post-gender”? What would that mean? Considering that at least one woman may run in 2012, these questions deserve some attention.
The absence to date of the first female president has prevented most optimists from proclaiming the last glass ceiling smashed. But even without Clinton receiving the party nomination, National Public Radio (NPR) used her speech at the Democratic National Convention—in which she urged support for Obama—as an opportunity to ask whether the United States was then post-gender. Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court prompted similar discussions in The New Republic. It’s as obvious that we are not post-gender—particularly in terms of having transcended gender discrimination—as it is that we are not beyond race and racism, and to their credit, both NPR and The New Republic make this clear. If neutral and left-leaning media have explored the idea of the post-gender tentatively, it has already gained considerable cultural and rhetorical currency, despite rarely being uttered explicitly, among some more militant neoliberals. Coming from them, this subtle discourse represents more than a desire to ignore or forget gender, which would be troubling in itself; it signals something wholly more sinister, and it began long before Hilary Clinton.
But before we consider its origins, we should note how the post-gender manifests in current political discourse. Three much publicized recent examples illustrate its development: the attempt by Rep. Bobby Franklin (R) to rewrite Georgia rape law to redefine rape victims as “accusers,” the billboard posted by Life Always in New York that read “The Most Dangerous Place for an African American is in the Womb” (deconstructed by Aliyyah I. Abdur-Rahman on The Feminist Wire), and a New York Times article reporting on the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in Cleveland, Texas that garnered significant criticism from Alternet and Mother Jones, among others, for implicitly blaming the victim for her assault.
If right-wing claims of being post-racial allow their makers to play the imaginary victim of racial prejudice, the remarkable verbal gymnastics at work in each of these examples must be a sign of what the post-gender truly means. Women, even those who have been raped, are by definition no longer capable of being victims. But this is not gender equality—in this distortion of the material effects of social power relations, previously marginalized women are suddenly in superior positions. Rapists need protecting from these powerful, vindictive women, whether by legal codes or intrepid reporters. If we follow the logic of this new gender order, men in these examples are powerless to resist the sexual advances of women (or 11-year-old girls) who wear revealing clothing and visit inappropriate places to “draw” them into acting. Once compelled in this way, these men then find themselves further subjected to the frivolous whims of their abusers when women accuse their victims of rape. Not even children are safe, particularly from black women, who callously kill the offspring of these unions without a second’s thought.
As ridiculous as this assessment may seem when openly articulated, it is gaining increasing salience in some quarters. Yet some of the tools used to build this bizarre alternate reality are as old as rape itself. I chose the New York Times article as one of the more recent and better documented examples, but the particular brand of blame-the-victim ideology that undergirds it has been seen all too often in discussions of rape, not to mention social welfare or criminal justice. And as Abdur-Rahman says of the pro-life billboard, it carries clear echoes of the Moynihan report and its destructive misconceptions of slavery. But another historical parallel also seems appropriate, and when pseudohistorical discourse can be employed to label any opponent a “Nazi” or “Communist,” a substantial comparison is necessary.
In her brilliant book on nineteenth-century slavery, Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman argues that slaveholders often justified the rape of their slaves by positioning themselves as victims of the “strength of weakness” their slaves exhibited. Slaves were so powerless, so desperate for “compassion,” that their masters could not help but oblige. Their sense of paternalism manifested in sexual domination; domination that was actually submission. It was the woman’s fault; if she hadn’t wanted to be abused, she should not have made herself so attractive in her frailty—as if it was her choice in the first place.
Sound familiar? Now as then, racial and gender oppression intersect. Now as then, rapists position themselves as victims of a woman’s power. Now as then, those rapists are supported by legislators and journalists. Now as then, the articulation of the “strength of weakness” is simultaneously a performance of the weakness of strength. The rhetorical sleight of hand exhibited in claims made to an artificial victimhood is just as effective today as it was centuries ago. The best preventative measure remains gauging who is truly a victim by the material effects of social relations. Coupled with that, we should note that when conservatives talk about being post-gender or post-race, they are often imagining and (re)creating a particular past rather than present or future.