Aaron R. Davis
Yes, that’s a provocative title and this is going to be a provocative column on the subject of racism, so here’s your trigger warning. If it’s too much for you, come back next week.
The second I saw this pull quote going around, I knew there was going to be yet another indignant, idiot fanboy backlash. I should’ve put money on it. But in an interview in Ebony, Samuel L. Jackson was talking politics and apparently offended a whole lot of (*cough white cough*) people when he said “I voted for Barack because he was black. ’Cuz that’s why other folks vote for other people — because they look like them. That’s American politics, pure and simple. [Obama’s] message didn’t mean shit to me. In the end, he’s a politician. I just hoped he would do some of what he said he was gonna do.”
Now, people who voted for Obama expressing disappointment in Obama is nothing new. People who voted for any president becoming disillusioned with that president? Happens all the time. When the ideals of a candidate become compromised by the realities of the corrupt political process, it’s bound to happen. But we also have this problem in this country where people confuse “things could be worse” with “things are good.” Want proof? Tell the Internet you don’t like The Simpsons anymore because it’s not as good as it was in the first 10 seasons, and at least three people will tell you that it might not be great, but it’s still better than most of what’s on TV. Which it isn’t, but still, that’s an argument for a surprising number of people: it’s not as bad as it could be, probably, we assume.
But disillusionment with Obama especially sets off white people if it happens to come from black people. There is a barely-subconscious attitude of “What do they want, they’ve got a black president, how could they be disappointed?” as if African-Americans should be grateful to be represented in the government at all. These are usually the same people who take to Facebook to write long rants about how having a Black History Month is racist, or having a Black Entertainment Television is racist, because as we all know, whites are totally underrepresented when it comes to history and television. Or how not being able to say a specific racist slur is racist; there are a lot of white people out there who think it’s racist to be told to check their racism.
So yes, there was a backlash because Samuel L. Jackson said he voted for Obama because Obama was black. Some of it was hidden behind the predictable rhetoric of “How dare an actor hold political views and say what they are?” But too much of it that I’ve seen online became “Samuel L. Jackson is a racist,” apparently because, what, he didn’t vote for McCain?
Here’s the thing, though: lots of people do what they’re accusing Jackson of and vote superficially. I remember back in the 2004 election when people who should know better were complaining that John Kerry shouldn’t be president because he wasn’t handsome enough. And remember when people attributed Bush’s win over Gore in 2000 to the idea that Bush seemed like a guy you could have a beer with? Sarah Palin only exists as a political figure because her fellow hillbillies — er, “common folk” or whatever euphemism the media was using for hillbillies — saw someone who seemed to reflect the same values and same background. I knew otherwise rational people who would’ve voted for her just because she winked at that debate and it made their pants tight.
Let’s go back to the Kennedy election in 1960. It’s taught in media classes all across the country that Kennedy won the election because Nixon looked like crap on TV. Kennedy was also, by the way, the first Catholic president. How many people voted for Kennedy just because they were also Catholic? They were people who honestly felt they were going to see their viewpoint reflected because they shared a specific type of upbringing. If you think this factor doesn’t go into someone’s vote, you’re dead wrong.
Lots of black people voted for Obama because he’s black. Not only because he’s black, but because they were finally seeing themselves running for the office. We all want, fundamentally, a president who is going to reflect our values, our upbringing, the things we understand about life because of what our experiences have been. And that’s a part of what someone like Samuel L. Jackson sees in someone like Barack Obama, and calling that racism is something a simpleton does. And if they’re a geek simpleton, they write editorials saying stupid things about how Samuel L. Jackson is a racist, and he plays Nick Fury, so he should know better. (Seriously, search the web for some of them; these idiot ravings usually amount to “Marvel Comics changed Nick Fury’s race just to make him more like Samuel L. Jackson, therefore there is no racism, so what’s his problem?”)
Here’s what Samuel L. Jackson was doing before he made a career out of shouting “motherfucker” for our amusement: going to segregated schools. Serving as an usher at Martin Luther King’s funeral. Participating in holding his college’s board of trustees hostage to demand reform. Getting involved in the militant Black Power movement. Doesn’t anyone remember the story about how he became an actor when his mother shipped him to LA because someone in the FBI told her he’d be dead in a year if he stayed with the Black Power movement? Samuel L. Jackson is 63 years old, and like every African-American of his generation, he experienced institutionalized segregation and racism growing up. Can you imagine what that’s like? Probably not if you’re white. I can’t; even if I’ve ever experienced racism, it’s never been across the board on an institutional level.
It’s not racist for a black man to vote for a black president. It’s pretty stupid to get angry about it. The dude didn’t even say something actually racist like “I’d never vote for white people because they’re white.” It’s not actually the same thing. And it’s not up to some dopey white person to call him out and say “this is not what Martin Luther King Jr. wanted for his people” (actual quote) or something truly offensive like saying he would vote for Herman Cain because Cain is black. Calling someone a potential Herman Cain voter is going way too far.
But the fact that Jackson had to go on Twitter and defend himself is just inexcusable. Stop labeling everyone a racist just because you’re embarrassed. Because that’s what it really comes down to. There is a contingent of people who are embarrassed by the racism of America’s past and present, and who seem to think that the solution is to simply never mention race again, and then all racism will not only end forever, but somehow be retroactively erased from America’s past. I think that gets tested on a daily basis when white people throw a fit and claim black people are racist because they know they’re black. How about, instead of getting mad, you stop being so damn sensitive and just, I don’t know … not be racist. That’s it. Just don’t be a racist. Treat people equally and accept them for who they are. And don’t tell black people they’re the ones who are racist because they voted for a black president.
Seriously, everyone: calm down. Go see The Avengers. Eat some fruit and stop throwing fits.
Aaron R. Davis lives in a cave at the bottom of the ocean with his eyes shut tight and his fingers in his ears. You can contact him at email@example.com