The Miner’s Canary: Race and the Democratic Process

The Miner’s Canary: Race and the Democratic Process

The invitation to respond to David Plotke’s essay, “Racial Politics and the Clinton-Guinier Episode” (Dissent, Spring 1995) came as I was preparing to travel to Budapest to attend a conference hosted by Eastern and Central European academics and politicians. This accident of timing gave me the opportunity to reassess in international context Plotke’s thesis that talk about racial unfairness incites racial polarization. Experimenting with graduate students in Hungary, Plotke ostensibly uncovered tangible proof that race talk is inevitably coercive and divisive. Plotke showed the students my picture. After viewing the visual evidence, they tried to designate my ethnicity. They concluded that I might be North African but was probably Italian. They failed to “authenticate” my black American identity because ethnicity, not race, is their dominant frame of reference. Likewise, they were unfamiliar with the infamous American one-drop rule, where one drop of black blood makes me “black.” Plotke concludes that the rigid character of racial categories in the United States means racial denial or racial deceit are necessary elements of progressive coalitions.

Not too long after reading Plotke’s vignette, I happened to be in a West Philadelphia parking lot, when the attendant, a dark-skinned black man in his early thirties, shouted to me from a distance of two hundred feet, “Are you the one that was supposed to be appointed to Clinton’s cabinet?” Although my interlocutor had not gotten the title exactly right, I nodded to affirm his basic assessment of my “disappointment.” He then got very excited and continued the exchange, pumping both his arms in the air for emphasis. “I know why you didn’t get that job,” he announced. “You were too black. You were just too black:’ Using the language of race, the attendant told me that we are not our color or our gene pool; what we think is not the same as what we look like.


Lima