Wednesday, July 17, 2019

The Rules of Racial Standing Hit Ayanna Pressley

In the wake of the latest Trump racism scandal, which targeted Rep. Ayanna Pressley alongside Reps. Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib, one particularly depressing thing to witness is the simple rote reflexive declaration that they're antisemitic, anti-Jewish, anti-Israel, and therefore have it coming.

To be clear: None of the women deserve to be targeted by racist vitriol. That remains true even granted insensitive things some of these women have said (though even the worst offender -- Rep. Omar with her "hypnotize" quote -- still hasn't done anything approaching singling out prominent women of color and saying they should remove themselves from America). You'd think that go without saying, though it apparently needs to be said and said again to all but four members of the GOP caucus. I suppose also if it went "without saying", we wouldn't have a racist President saying them.

Yet there also must be made mention of the particular way this discourse is playing out with respect to Rep. Pressley. Pressley has no history of antisemitism, or anti-Israel advocacy, or anything else. Yet in fulminations about the evils of the "squad", and newly-elected progressive women of color, she's treated as an equally valid target of indiscriminate fulminations about left-wing antisemitism.

This is nothing new for Pressley. But, confronted with the evidence that Pressley has never said, done, or implied anything that gives rise to any inference of antisemitic animus whatsoever, those spitting fire at her seem unbowed. They argue that the fact that Pressley is so proximate to Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez means it is incumbent on her to condemn them -- and if she doesn't, she must be endorsing them (it has to be said here that the evidence of antisemitism from AOC is also needle-thin -- from what I can see, it primarily hinges on (a) calling Israel's response to the Gaza protests a "massacre" and (b) a phone call to Jeremy Corbyn).

That argument -- that if Pressley is not vocally denouncing alleged antisemitism by other Congresswomen, she must be endorsing the sentiments -- reminded me of one of Derrick Bell's famous "Rules of Racial Standing", which he published in his 1992 book Faces at the Bottom of the Well. The fourth rule ran as follows:
When a black person or group makes a statement or takes an action that the white community or vocal components thereof deem "outrageous," the latter will actively recruit blacks willing to refute the statement or condemn the action. Blacks who respond to this call for condemnation will receive superstanding status. Those blacks who refuse to be recruited will be interpreted as endorsing the statements and action and may suffer political consequences (118).
I referenced this dynamic a bit in this post, but the point is the manner in which Pressley is being treated -- guilty-until-proven-innocent, on the hook to constantly condemn (to our satisfaction) this or that "outrageous" thing said by her fellow congresswomen, despite no evidence that she shares any such problematic views -- is nothing new. It is a phenomenon of long standing, and it is noticed.

And let's be clear: this is how Pressley is being treated. She's young(-ish), Black, progressive, and so therefore just defaulted to be a threat. The absence of evidence doesn't deter this assessment in the slightest -- it just causes a slight fallback: now if she isn't spending her days railing against AOC, that counts as evidence of endorsement.

Of course, noticing it does little good. Again, it's not like this phenomenon has gone unremarked upon; it's constantly remarked upon and yet repeats itself over and over again. And so Bell's fifth Rule of Racial Standing tells us that while understanding the rules can give one prophetic power of how racism will operate, "[t]he price of this knowledge is the frustration that follows recognition that no amount of public prophecy, no matter its accuracy, can either repeal the Rules of Racial Standing or prevent their operation" (125).

No comments: