The Racism of Frame

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

On Friday I joked on twitter, the other day, that biggest problem with attempting to write smart is that you end up attracting people who really are smart. And sometimes they write in to tell you you're wrong. And sometimes, In such cases, your forced to acknowledge their point.


At the end of this post I said of Huck's ridiculous Obama/Kenya comparison, "This is not skin-color prejudice." Numerous people have noted that, well, it kinda is. A sample or three.

From Keshii:

Aside from the fact that Obama's father was passed over by Kenyatta, you have the fact that the Mau Mau Rebellion was primarily a Kikuyu rebellion, the result of Kikuyu being kicked off their lands by white settlers. The war was primarily fought between Mau Mau Kikuyu and Kikuyu loyal to the colonial state. Fewer than 100 Europeans died in the rebellion...tens of thousands of Kikuyu died. The lazy assumption that Obama's father, a Luo by birth, would have been a part of the Mau Mau Rebellion simply underscores the fact that Europeans and Americans have NEVER understood the Mau Mau Rebellion. To them it just meant "black people doing crazy things." Huxley called it "the yell from the swamp." It was uncivilized, savage, a revolt against civilization. The fact that it was connected to real grievances by the Kikuyu, that it was a product also of Kenya's very divided ethnic heritage (as witnessed by Kenyatta's favoritism towards Kikuyu during his long presidency, and the bloody and protracted battle between Luo and Kikuyu after the 2007 elections) is ignored, or better yet, never understood in the first place. 

I disagree with the opening post in that I think this does have something to do with skin color. Because Kenya's anti-colonialism was black, it is easier for idiotic people like Huckabee to claim that it is somehow bad if an African has a negative view of British colonialism. Imagine Huckabee trying to say the same thing about a white victim of colonization, be it the Irish, the Dutch settlers in South Africa up to the Boer War, or Canadians. There's no way, no way at all, that Huckabee would employ the same language and the same dismissive contempt for an entire people's aspirations for freedom and independence. This is absolutely about race, about Obama's "otherness," an argument that is made so much easier by Obama's ancestors and his mixed skin color. Moderate Flag.

Another:

In an editorial they wrote during the height of Mau Mau, the Times said: "We live in a tortured period of history when strange and primitive forces are coming into their own again. Our civilization often seems but a veneer covering a dark abyss. Now and then the surface is pierced and we see frightening things." That was part of their commentary on Mau Mau. 

Time Magazine also ran a story on Mau Mau. Not only did Time report rumors that Mau Mau oathing ceremonies involved the harvesting and eating of human brains by Mau Mau, they also had this quote from a white settler living in Kenya: "Some bastards still think Kukes are human. They aren't...Night after night, you lock the doors, see to the guns, and kiss your wife and kids goodnight, and wonder if you'll ever see another alive in the morning. We have no protection, except ourselves. And don't forget, most of us are on commando duty. Some of us can't farm anymore." Around this same time, Robert Ruark, the American author, said of Mau Mau: "To understand [Mau Mau] you must understand a basic impulsive savagery that is greater than anything we civilized people have encountered in two centuries." 

I find these quotes remarkable in part because the world had just gone through the Second World War, which saw the gassing of six million Jews, the slaughtering of some 50 million civilians, etc. Yet it took the Mau Mau rebellion for people to think that "civilization" was endangered. Think about that, and then ask yourself, why were people so freaked out by Mau Mau? Again, fewer than 100 whites died in Kenya. A thousand Africans were hung by the British. Tens of thousands more died in the rebellion, or died in the British concentration camps. So what made Mau Mau so different? I know what I think the answer is, but it's something to ponder.




Cynic critiques the willingness to give Huck, in all cases, the benefit of the doubt:

Dave Weigel, back in September, when Newt Gingrich praised Dinesh D'Souza's "brilliant" book for its "interesting insight": 

What will be the impact of D'Souza's book? If 1995 and 2007 repeat themselves, Gingrich will be the exception--people in the rest of the movement will realize just how tissue-thin this research is. If they realize that, they may then look askance at Glenn Beck's search for similar evidence of Obama's radical history. They may even question the wisdom of questioning Obama's birthplace. Could the search for some skeleton key in Obama's past be a distraction? It could be! If it were a book, it could be called the The End of Birtherism. 

And Weigel on Huckabee: 

Occam's razor: Huckabee is just ill-informed....I'll give Huckabee the benefit of the doubt and say he put a few different ideas in the blender. So he's not a birther; he does reveal an odd ignorance of the biography of the man he occasionally out-polls in the 2012 presidential election. (That said, I'm not sure if Obama could pass a pop quiz on the early years of Mike Huckabee.) 

I'm picking on Weigel here because he's as competent and well-informed as any journalist covering the conservative movement, and so the problems with his coverage serve as a useful proxy for his colleagues. He predicted in the fall that D'Souza's book was so explicitly batshit crazy that it would end up discrediting birtherism, a movement that thrives on innuendo and suggestion. Well, here we are six months later, and a man who "occasionally out-polls" the president just offered it as fact. And Weigel now excuses this as being "ill-informed." 

He's right about the ignorance, but he's wrong to dismiss or excuse it. If Obama were to chalk Huckabee's pro-life stance up to his Catholicism, Weigel would be among the first to pounce. And he'd be right to do so. If you're going to rely on pop psychology to explain policy preferences, arguing that the political is merely the personal, then you'd better understand the person you're talking about. 

But it's also worth pondering why Weigel got this wrong back in September, because I think it explains his continued failure to grasp the point today. It's not about the facts. It's about a basic, emotional, intuitive belief that Obama is foreign. And it's about the new esotericism of the right. The fact that Obama is actually proudly American drives his critics nuts. They know he cannot mean it. And so, precisely because all of the readily available facts indicate that he is patriotic and moderate, they search everywhere for evidence that will reveal his underlying foreignness and radicalism. It's not subject to factual rebuttal because the facts that might rebut it are, in their view, further evidence of his massive duplicity. 

 And I differ with our esteemed host. This is not merely skin-color prejudice; it's not that simple. But that is, absolutely, where it starts.

I don't want to speak for Dave here, but I'll say that when looking at this sort of thing, I try to make sharp, distinct point that evinces some degree of reflection, while avoided the kind of wild overstatement that tends to distract from your central point. But there's always a danger of hedging too much. Witness the thin allegedly sober claim that we should never accuse anyone of racism because it's "distracting"--a claim which I sometimes, myself, am seduced by. But the fact is that sometime people do say things that are demonstrably racist. In such instances, accusing them of bad behavoir, or mispeaking, or even simple evidently "nonracist" white populism is cheap.

What you see in Keshii's comment is a textbook case of racism in its most isidious form-- racism of frame. In this case, the frame is that black people fighting a war of liberation, should only employ such means which do not offend our sense of decency. That implication, as Keshii notes in the second comment, is well established in the Western vocabulary. 

So it's true that Huck's attack doesn't hold that Obama, himself, is a lesser human because he is black, it simply seeks to associate him with people who we've already decided, within our frame, are lesser humans. Here's an elegant racism--no need to insult Obama directly, instead simply associate him with a group of black people who have the disreputable habit of waging indelicate wars of liberation. 

This is not about whether the Mau Mau were "right." On the contrary, it's about the right of all people--not just those in power--to be wrong. There is a reason the Mau Mau hold a place in our imagination that, say, the gulags of Kenya do not.  The racism of frame, as practiced in America, is premised on denying blacks the privilege of being wrong. It's why in a country where the right of self-defense is sacred, the notion of Malcolm X impolite telling blacks to arm themselves is seen as particularly heinous. It's why, as Keshii notes, in a world that had just experienced Hitlerism, it was the Mau Mau who truly threatened civilization. 

I was wrong to absolve Huckabee. I'd like to say it won't happen again. But I'd be lying.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/the-racism-of-frame/72094/