While Obama is painted by the right as an extreme liberal, he has apparently not paid attention to their claims. After all, some gays and lesbians have been very critical of his lack of action in regards to issues like “don’t ask, don’t tell” and gay marriage. Granderson presents his take on the matter, which I will address here.
As the title of his article implies, one of his main concerns is making it clear that gay is not the new black. Presumably he is not happy with the comparison between the plight of gays and the plight of blacks.
He begins his discussion by noting that black gays do not see themselves as part of the general gay movement. In support of this he notes that at a popular Washington bar, “all of the white patrons tend to stay upstairs and the black patrons are on the first floor.” He also notes that at the last Human Rights Campaign national fundraiser “the only black person to make it on stage was the entertainment.”
Granderson is no doubt quite right about this. After all, that sort of segregation is common practice with heterosexuals and there is no real reason to think that it homosexuals would be any different. While it is tempting to think that those who are victims of discrimination would be more sensitive to discrimination against others, this is very rarely the case. People are very sensitive to discrimination against themselves and far less so to that against others. In fact, those who are discriminated against can sometimes be among the worst discriminators against others.
Granderson also points out the fact that “When Proposition 8 passed in California, white gays were quick to blame the black community despite blacks making up less than 10 percent of total voters and whites being close to 60 percent.”
It should be noted that folks in the media seem to have played up this perception by “reporting” that blacks had been important in that result. As such, this contributed to this blame game. This, of course, does help indicate that while white gays sometimes see themselves as being apart from the white heterosexual mainstream, they clearly do fit into that community when it comes to matters of race. This is not to say that the white community is generally racist-just to say that the white homosexuals do not generally seem more racially enlightened than straight whites. As noted above, this is hardly a shock. Put crudely, a white gay is still white and gayness does not magically cure any racial bias a person might possess.
Granderson take a somewhat unfortunate turn: he plays the comparison game. In this case, he compares the suffering of gays in America with that of blacks. To be specific, he juxtaposes the 4oth anniversary of Stonewall with the 400 years of suffering that blacks have experience in America. As he notes, the people at Stonewall were afraid of being arrested, while 40 years ago blacks had to be afraid of “of dying at the hands of police and not having their bodies found or murder investigated.”
Granderson is correct in that blacks have, in general, suffered longer and more than gays in America. His point seems to be that gay is not the new black, because blacks suffered far more and far longer than gay Americans.
On one hand, this is a legitimate point. Blacks have suffered more and longer and hence it makes sense that Obama would be more concerned with black problems rather than with gay problems. It is, one might say, an application of the standard principle of triage and also based on notions of justice.
On the other hand, this sort of approach is subject to a stock criticism of the politics of identity and victimhood. While Granderson makes a point of saying that he does not dismiss the problems faced by gays in America, blacks have had it far worse. This sort of approach has the unfortunate effect of making it appear that he is saying that blacks are greater victims than gays. Since a group’s status in this sort of politics depends on their victimhood, this seems to say that blacks are more important than gays. Naturally, right wing critics have long pointed out this tendency in such an approach to politics-groups bickering to claim the title of biggest victim and the political capital that somehow goes along with this. While one group can gain an advantage over another group by claiming the mantle of the greater victim, this sort of politics is fraught with problems. As Obama himself pointed out in his speech before the NAACP, focusing on what one cannot do and taking the standpoint of a victim is counterproductive. This is not to say that injustices should not be pointed out, but that one way to stay a victim is to think of oneself that way.
Granderson continues by making another comparison and he notes that there is an 80 year gap between the 13th Amendment (1865) and when Truman desegregated the armed forces (1948). In contrast, “don’t ask, don’t tell” is younger than (as he says) Miley Cyrus.
Apparently his point is that gay people should not see themselves as the new blacks because they have yet to suffer as much. Of course, this could also be seen as him telling gays not to whine about this matter because blacks had to wait 80 years to serve in a desegregated military. This sort of assertion seems, ironically enough, somewhat like what people said in reply to calls for a quick end to slavery or, latter, a rapid passing of civil rights laws: wait your time. While I do not think that this is what he is saying, it can create that impression.
Of course, gay folks could play the game as well by pointing out that blacks got to openly serve in the military during the Civil War and gays cannot openly serve even now.
Granderson makes his view quite clear when says that to “call this month’s first-ever White House reception for GLBT leaders ‘too little too late’ is akin to a petulant child throwing a tantrum because he wants to eat his dessert before dinner.” His view is that the reason why blacks are upset by the claim that “gay is the new black” is that “everybody wants to sing the blues, nobody wants to live them.”
While I am not quite sure what he means, I infer that he means that blacks are upset at the comparison because white gays are unwilling to accept that blacks have had it worse and that the gays will have to wait their turn.
While it is reasonable to urge gays to be realistic about when they can expect something to be done, this approach can also be seen as dismissing the conerns of gays. As noted above, this seems like telling gay folks that they will just have to wait because black folks had to wait. While this is realistic, the right thing to do is to say that blacks should not have had to wait so long and that we should make an effort to make sure that we do not repeat that dragging out of injustice.
Granderson finishes with what might be seen as a bit of racism. He says “the parade of gay people calling Obama a “disappointment” on television is counterproductive in gaining acceptance, to say the least. And the fact that the loudest critics are mostly white doesn’t help matters either.”
From a practical standpoint, he is quite right. Just as blacks were urged to go slow and not to push sympathetic white leaders too much during the anti-slavery movement and during the civil rights movement, he is urging the same of gay folks. After all, if they push too much, they risk backlash.
From a moral standpoint, he is as right as the folks who told the blacks to slow down. That is, not at all.