Monday, July 14, 2008

Jackson or McLaughlin- the problem of Framing

Jesse Jackson said Obama was talking down to black people. That is a perfectly legitimate statement made without racist framing.

McLaughlin said that Obama
"fits the stereotype blacks once labeled as an Oreo — a black on the outside, a white on the inside."

"Does it frost Jackson, Jesse Jackson, that…an Oreo should be the beneficiary of the long civil rights struggle which Jesse Jackson spent his lifetime fighting for?" McLaughlin asked his panelists.

That is using racist framing.

In the currently super charged political atmosphere, framing matters. And the only way we will ever be able to have much needed conversations about racism and sexism and classism and all the other isms, is if we throw out the framing that makes all those isms exist. Which means we need to get real good at spotting framing real fast.

First, a quick primer on what framing is. We all learned sentence structure in elementary school. We know that words have to go in a certain structure in order to make sense. "See the dog run" makes sense. "Run the dog see" does not. Framing is the structure we use to prove arguments as true. But unlike sentences, an idea should remain true across different frames. If it doesn't then it is not a truth. For example, the argument used by forced pregnancy nuts about when life starts. According to them, as soon as a life is created it is sacred and should not be destroyed. If that idea were true, then people should be forced into organ donation. If it is okay to require one set of people to act as life support systems for other people because all life is sacred and should not be destroyed, then is should be okay to force all people to be life support systems for other people. That argument does not work across all frames, therefore it is not a good argument.

So why is McLaughlin using racist framing while Jackson was not. You might be tempted to say that it's because Jackson is black, but we women know that membership in the vagina club doesn't make you a feminist (Phylis Schaffly). Jackson is black, but that isn't it.

Jackson's comments did not require a racist framework to be true. Jackson could have been a white women (like both Redstar and I who had loads to say about Obama's condescending Father's Day speech) and his comment would still be true. And Obama could be a white man being just as condescending, and Jackson's statement would be true.

McLaughlin's statement, on the other hand, is only true if you buy into racial stereotypes and believe that one race is better than another. If you buy into McLaughlin's Oreo trope and are black, for instance, then you believe that all black people should act a certain way and that Obama isn't really black because he is educated and affluent. And that he isn't "black enough" is a legitimate argument against him. You would have to believe that all black people are uneducated hoodlums from the ghetto who spend their days drinking 40s and playing dice on street corners and that any blacks who behave differently are trying to be white.

If you are white and you are buying into the Oreo argument, then you are just acting like Obama is a house negro. He's passable enough that you can have him around you, unlike those other ones with all their strange ways. If you remove McLaughlin's racist framing, there is nothing left to his statement.

But those of us who don't by into racist stereotyping and framework, we know behaviors of all people, regardless of race (or gender or class or ability or ....), span then breadth of human experience. And one person's experience isn't actually more legit than another's. Jackson didn't frame his statement to disparage Obama's experience. He didn't try to negate Obama's own identity with his comment. He simply pointed out that Obama is treating a section of people poorly.

If you cannot make an argument without using racist (or sexist or heteronormative or ablist) framing, then your argument won't stand. Even if you think there is a kernel of truth in that argument.

I can say that Obama doesn't get the struggles of the majority of the black community. I can say that without being black. Without being racist. I can say that because I can see the framing that he is using in his speeches. I can see the negative stereotypes he uses of lazy absentee fathers, without acknowledging that less than 40% of African American males are both free from jail and employed, making only a very small portion of black men lifetime partner material. I can see that those problems are ones of institutional racism and NOT the massive moral failings of a huge group of people. I can see in the way he talks about the self sacrificing single moms out there (especially since I am one) that he doesn't get it. He sets up the good people against the bad people (hard working moms against lazy dads). Using that kind of framing doesn't actually fix any problems. But looking at it without using stereotypes, we can say that we need more education, more jobs, more opportunity and fewer prisons. Those things would help everyone without setting up a competitive, hate-filled dynamic.

Framing matters. And it is one of the easiest things to change. When someone is making an argument, you need to look closely at the structures they use. Are they using stereotypes to support those arguments? Are they using commonly held beliefs (like there is such a thing as an Oreo) instead of actual facts? If you took away the stereotyping and the belief system, would the argument still hold? If you put the idea into a different frame, would it be true?

Let's look at the Oreo example. Is it possible to be black on the outside but white on the inside? Does behaving in a certain way eliminate your membership in a certain oppressed group, or does it just change your personal experience? Does that argument hold up for other oppressed groups.

Imagine a tomboy. A girl who has never been into dresses or dolls or makeup. Does that make her not female? Would we push her out of the feminist camp because her experiences are different from the stereotype ideal we have of pretty pink girls? Nope. (Reason number 87907 that feminism is a good thing, it acknowledges that the female experience is vast and varied). Would we say " well you act like a boy so you cannot know what sexism feels like". Nope. She still gets to be female.

So no matter how Obama acts, he still gets to be a black man. His experience as one may be different from the majority. And that IS a legitimate argument, that he doesn't have a solid understanding of poor black culture because he hasn't lived it. But you cannot eliminate his blackness because it doesn't conform to the stereotype.

Words mean things and framing is the basis for how we understand words. Legitimate framing makes arguments that are true regardless of the framework used. This has been one of my biggest problems with Obama to begin with, his use of Republican (and sexist and classist and abelist)framing. But that doesn't mean that people who use those kinds of frames against Obama are right.

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