UnderCurrents: Heed the Meaning, Not Dean’s Clumsy Remarks

Friday November 07, 2003

A small sandy-haired boy was throwing stones at the master’s recently invented (and highly successful) plow. Benignly Jefferson watched the boy…who was now periously climbing a tree. 

“Your grandson is going to hurt himself,” [says Mr. Burr in the novel of his name by Mr. Gore Vidal.] 

Jefferson flushed deeply. “That is a child of the place. A Hemings, I think.” 

Two hundred years pass. And once again—ignorantly, clumsily—we find the nation stumbling into its recurring barroom-brawl argument on the issue of race, and afterwards, like the average drunk, we will teeter out into the rainy streets, battered, bloody, ought-to-be-embarassed, but not, blearily confident that we have satisfied some nagging responsibility that we wish would simply go away of its own accord. Race? Didn’t we fight that guy last year? 

The latest entry in the Continuing American Dialogue On Race And Other Impertinent Affairs comes in the form of the 2003-04 Presidential campaign. As does all candidates, Mr. Howard Dean, formerly the governor of the state of Vermont, would like for everybody all over to vote for him, and that would be that. But if he were to simply stand up and say, “Hey, everybody, vote for me,” someone, somewhere, would feel left out and offended and look elsewhere for leadership; and so Mr. Dean, like all candidates, must ask for particular votes, each and every one. 

This is not as simple as you might think.  

One can ask for all the African American votes, or all the Latino votes, or all the votes of women or the great working people of this nation. But one never asks for all the white votes these days. There seems to be something tawdry and improper about this particular subject, an uncomfortable reminder of a besotted past that makes folks shuffle and look uneasily over their shoulders as if in anticipation of the appearance of some pale and bony hand. And, so, American candidates must be creative.  

Richard Nixon had his Silent Majority. George Bush the Lesser has his Heartland. Now comes Mr. Dean, telling a reporter for the Des Moines Register Nov. 1, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats.” 

You’d have thought he’d urinated in public. 

“It is simply unconscionable for Howard Dean to embrace the most racially divisive symbol in America,” says Senator John Kerry of Massachussetts, a rival of Mr. Dean’s for the Democratic nomination. “I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA.” 

“He just has the wrong idea about how you should communicate with Southerners,” says a spokesperson for General Wesley Clark, another rival. 

A spokesperson for Senator Joseph Lieberman, a third rival, calls Dean’s remarks “irresponsible and reckless.” 

“I regret the pain that I may have caused either to African American or Southern white voters,” Mr. Dean is forced to admit. He adds that he had been trying to provoke a dialogue on race in America, but admitted that he had “started this discussion in a clumsy way.” 

Admit all you want, Mr. Dean, but that clumsiness long ago got claimed by a larger circle. 

In the recent trial of the Oakland Riders, a group of police who stand accused by the District Attorney of running rampant and roughshod and out-of-control on an African American community, it was widely reported that there were no African Americans on the jury. A majority of the jurors wanted to convict, but three jurors held out. Shortly after the verdict one of the majority faction telephoned Oakland Tribune columnist Brenda Payton and, apparently embarassed at the actions of his own kind, said he’d wished there had been African Americans on the jury, since all of the alleged victims of the cops were black. 

“Without them [meaning African Americans], people like me [meaning white people] were speaking for them [meaning African Americans],” Ms. Payton reports the juror as saying. “I believe them [meaning African Americans] and I know people it’s happened to [meaning police misconduct]. But when I was talking to those three jurors, as far as they were concerned, how would I know?” 

The African American alternate, Ms. Payton reports the anonymous juror saying, would have made a difference, adding, in the juror’s words, “To some, she might have added credibility through personal experience and to those others, she might have shamed them.” 

As if, like Mr. Jefferson’s grandson, it is the job of African Americans to hang around in a tree long enough to shame (other) folks into admitting the actuality of our existence. 

One wonders why my white friends, who, after all, have done many wonderful things down through the ages and contributed many valuable inventions towards the progress of the world, cannot gather among themselves and speak of this as adults might do? Why all the tittering and fumbling about as if someone has passed gas in a middle school classroom? 

“It’s always the darkies, always about the darkies,” laments the Confederate Legislator-General to the British attaché in Gettysburg, the movie, when the attaché inquires about slavery and what the Legislator-General really wants to talk about is matters of more serious merit. 

But the nation and all its inhabitants continue to find it difficult to move on to any other conversation until we have properly finished the first. Still, we wait to see, now, if Mr. Dean’s admittedly clumsy beginnings produces anything more than a polite clucking of his fellow politicians’ tongues.