FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Obama and “The Help”

by JOSHUA SPERBER

I haven’t seen The Help and, unless someone pays me $13.00 or I develop acute masochism, I don’t intend to. But watching the preview and reading the Association of Black Women Historians’ open statement on the film have brought to mind what’s distinct about cultural politics in the Age of Obama.

The theme of the film is hardly unique, as several “Black Mammies” — a female version of the “magic negro” — help a white protagonist become guilt-free, pure, and transcendent through uplifting Black people. Bell hooks has analyzed this liberal-racist motif in her critique of Madonna’s Like a Prayer video, while Will Smith in The Legend of Bagger Vance and Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy demonstrate that the selfless, sexless, noble stereotypes of Casablanca and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are not static as much as reflections of enduring class stratification in a necessarily racialized society. I wonder what percentage of The Help’s sentimental fans oppose “illegal immigration,” even though both racism and permanent deportability facilitate exploitation by rendering workforces, as Nicholas De Genova has discussed, vulnerable. If their fealty to the “rule of law” is sincere, opponents of undocumented workers today would have opposed resistance to Jim Crow in the 1960s.

The ABWH statement notes that the film reduces racism to mere prejudice, a problem of beliefs and correctable attitudes, not institutions embedded in, say, city design, the criminal justice system, and “last hired, first fired” economics. The statement also critiques the film for ignoring the sexual harassment and violence that’s been a historic hallmark of white male and Black female relations; vilifying the film’s Black male characters (a la What’s Love Got to Do with It); making buffoonish the Black characters’ dialects, and largely dismissing the significance of the Civil Rights Movement. Racism persists in the present environment not merely by denying racism but by relegating it to racist maniacs in a distant time and place which have since been rectified by, who else, white people who are just like you and me. I tell ya, if I lived in 1962 Jackson, I’d bonk one of those racists right on the nose. And if live 100 years from now, why I’d go back to 2011 and bust into the US’s network of concentration camps and free all of its prisoners.

Just as Hollywood makes money by making us “feel good,” US imperialism and capitalism have maintained their power by selling the same message via Barack Obama. The ecstatic reactions of young, white, liberals upon the election of a Black man celebrated not merely the alleged defeat of racism but the defeat of the recognition that white liberals can be racist. We’re not only guilt-free now, but we’ve also shown how superior we are to our racist elders and European counterparts (and it really is poor form to mention Iraq, Afghanistan, or the racist prison industrial system — one thing at a time, please). And, to top it off, now that we’ve demonstrated our rejection of racism (even neo-Nazis prefer the term “racialist”), we are at last free to be racist! “Ironic” use of the n-word by chumps like Zach Galifianakis is the white liberal’s reward for so heroically placing the financial sector’s candidate into power.

The Obama Presidency and films like The Help suggest the final victory and inherent limitations of anti-racism as political correctness. With the election of Obama, Blacks have no more excuses, as John McCain suggested to enthusiastic applause during his concession speech. Because racism is now merely a thing of the past, African-Americans who find themselves in poverty or in prison rather than in the White House have only their personal failings to blame. In exchange for continuing to reap the benefits of “post-racist” white supremacy, whites are meanwhile encouraged to be polite to hardworking, self-sacrificing, and self-disciplined Blacks and unforgiving to the rest. In other words, racism, superficially criticized by political correctness for being “impolite” rather than for being idiotic, is, as always, a mechanism for disciplining labor.

Liberals, to be sure, prefer to maximize their subordinates’ productivity without resorting to slurs or stereotypes and, needing to be loved by those they oppress, are greatly concerned with politeness and forgiveness. Liberals are horrified by the idea that “the help” is angry with them and invoke the belief in common humanity to reassure themselves, if not their employees, whereas reactionaries acknowledge class society for what it is. But while they disagree on how best to treat its manifestations, liberals and reactionaries are equally committed to preserving a society of masters and servants in the first place.The existence of a Black president has merely accorded the masters greater symbolic tools with which to wield their power.

Joshua Sperber lives in Brooklyn and can be reached at jsperber4@yahoo.com

Joshua Sperber lives in New York and can be reached at jsperber4@gmail.com.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail