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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 email@example.com