Saturday, November 22, 2008

"House Negro" is not a racist term

At least, not in the way that everyone seems to think.

I walked into a local diner on Wednesday and saw something on the TV that immediately ruffled my feathers. CNN was on, the volume was down, and the caption on the screen read something to the effect of "AL-QAEDA HATE. BIN LADEN NO.2 USES RACIAL SLUR."

Within the Muslim world, it is fairly well known that there is a culture of racism and xenophobia in some Arab countries, and so this was not particularly surprising by itself. It isn't universal, but discrimination against non-Arabs is not difficult to find amongst Arabs privately, or in the policies of Arab governments. I wondered immediately what Al-Zawahiri, whose most familiar file footage was playing across the screen, had said.

"House Negro" is what he had said, and he had said it about Obama.

How insensitive! How primitive! How blindly hateful! Clearly, Ayman Al-Zawahiri is a racist. Only a racist would say "Negro." Our guardians of racial harmony and diversity, from CNN to Rush Limbaugh, stuffed their bellies with the thick honey of moral indignation.

Since I know where the phrase comes from, (and so did CNN viewers, if they watched for long enough and paid attention) I was neither shocked nor disappointed. In fact, a part of me very definitely sympathized, if not agreed. Let's see what Al-Zawahiri actually said:

Filtering out some of the de rigeur bigotry against Jews (which is condemnable), Al-Zawahiri's point is hardly racist in nature; on the contrary, he is explicitly borrowing arguments and concepts from an Afro-American human rights* icon. The validity of his usage of the term may be disputable, but its faithfulness to the original meaning is not.

Obama has indeed been touted as a symbol of change - the black prince who will finally put colonialism, racism, and discrimination to rest. He is widely seen as a man without connections to the neoconservative establishment, who will be garner the admiration and sympathy of the developing world and, because of his heritage, be more willing to deal justly with it.

None of that is true, and while domestically he will likely be better for Americans than McCain would have been, anyone who is expecting a fundamental shift in American foreign policy should have long ago been disappointed. As the Democratic primaries were well under way, Obama had made a remarkable transformation into yet another imperialist hawk, pledging to perpetuate the war in Afghanistan and legitimize Israel's grip on the Palestinians. By criticizing the decision to invade Iraq and suggesting further diplomacy with Iran, Obama may have changed some of the methods of US policy, but not its objectives.

Zawahiri's comments are only racist if you consider it wrong to assume that a black man would not be involved in this. They are only racist if you don't consider such policies to be the doing of "the white man." If it is not race that drives foreign policy, but something else, then black or white should make no difference.

It is clear though, that Zawahiri is not the only person who is claiming that a black president ought to be a different kind of leader.


*Malcolm X himself rejected the term "civil rights." Black people to him were human beings first and citizens second, and so to him it seemed absurd to appeal for civil rights from authorities who had spent so long robbing Afro-Americans (again, his preferred term) of human dignity.

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