One of the lasting, defining hallmarks of all forms of discrimination may have less to do with religion, race, gender or age than something much more universal. The classic characteristic of racism and all related biases is the tendency toward generalization. When placed in the context of modern racial stereotypes, the analogies come easily. That black teenage man in the hoodie pausing outside your condo might be a burglar up to no good. Then again, he might be someone who has been out looking for his lost cat for the last few hours and is on the point of giving up in despair. Or does he have a gun?
The funny thing about generalization is that it can cut across all social lines. We had the chance to witness this earlier in the week when Matthew C. Whitaker took to the pages of CNN to pen an editorial focusing on some protesters who showed up on his home turf in Phoenix, Arizona to voice their displeasure over President Obama’s policies when he arrived there to give a speech.
The political culture in Arizona, my home state, is often coarse, racialized and divisive. President Barack Obama’s visit there Tuesday gave the world another opportunity to see it. At times it seems as though the most bigoted individuals in America’s 48th state save their most raucous and prejudiced behavior for the 44th president.
The Arizona Republic reported that hundreds of dissenters chose to model their insulting and extremist behavior before some of Phoenix’s youngest residents. Assembled outside Desert Vista High School, they mocked Obama’s race, singing “Bye Bye Black Sheep” in spirited synchronization. One “patriot” went so far as to deprecate our commander in chief by pronouncing him “47 percent Negro,” while another, Deanne Bartram, held a sign that read, “Impeach the Half-White Muslim!”
While the live reports don’t provide much in the way of documented support for the claims, I have no doubt they are true. There was, I’m sure, somebody there yelling “47 percent Negro” and some people may have sung Bye Bye Black Sheep. An event like this will attract those elements the media love to focus on. (Never mind that the video report of the event which Whitaker himself cites features some of the most reasonable people from both sides of the spectrum you’d ever care to see.) We have our odd ducks, as do all groups. It’s the same reason that conservatives find such easy targets at Occupy events, where protesters are filmed defecating on police vehicles and chased down after raping tourists in makeshift tent cities.
“But wait!” the progressives cry. Those are anarchists, criminals and the homeless who gravitate toward large crowds and cause a stir.
Yes, we know. We get them too.
The truly revealing pattern in Whitaker’s column is the need to define everyone by some universal, generalized standard. Never mind that many of the protesters seemed to have sincere complaints with some of the policies endorsed by and attitudes reflected in this administration. In his world, nothing makes sense unless everyone who disagrees with him shares some common thread of defective personality traits. In order to be wrong, they must be deranged, evil and an active, poison pill in the well of humanity.
I am reminded of a comedy routine performed by George Lopez shortly after President Obama’s election. He spoke of low income black youths working at fast food restaurants, complaining about how The Man was keeping them from getting a good job. He advised everyone to carry a picture of Barack Obama in their back pocket and, upon hearing these protests, to whip out the photo, show it to them, and declare that the playing field had finally been leveled.
It should have been rooted in far more fact than comedy. Barack Obama was not born to great wealth or social advantage, yet he rose to the most powerful position in the land; a feat which would have remained unthinkable without the incredible progress we have made in terms of advancing equality in our society. But there is no example powerful enough for some people to admit that significant changes have taken place. The battle must always be framed as one of this skin color versus another rather than a debate of policies or values. And apparently, at least for spokesmen such as Whitaker, the advantages of generalizing the opponent are far too precious to forgo.