Tuesday, July 20, 2010

John Hartigan Jr.'s "What Can You Say?"

John Hartigan Jr. is Director of the Américo Paredes Center for Cultural Studies and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of Odd Tribes: Toward a Cultural Analysis of White People (2005) and Racial Situations: Class Predicaments of Whiteness in Detroit (1999).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, What Can You Say?: America's National Conversation on Race, and reported the following:
What Can You Say? is about how we decide when a remark or an incident is racial. We make these judgments via implicit, unconscious cultural conventions; we are so culture-bound by these conventions that we worry more about violating racial etiquette than fashioning new ways to think and talk about why race matters. The more nuanced, ambiguous, and complicated race relations become, the more we fall back on reflexive, anxious judgments about race. Page 99 of this book offers an excellent example of this because it features the heated exchange between the campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in early 2008 as they traded accusations over which side was “playing the race card.”

What Can You Say? covers a year’s worth of race stories in the news—from Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2007 to the next one in 2008. Rather than analyzing these stories in terms of what they reflect about our relative progress on dealing with race, I use these media spectacles to examine the cultural forms that shape our sensibilities about race. The preeminent story in this time frame was the battle between Obama and Clinton for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, as both sides tried to construe their opponent as nefariously manipulating race. My take on this protracted battle is that it shows how unruly and unstable racial meanings are today. Obama and Clinton could exchange counter-charges over race—with journalists becoming increasingly perplexed over which politician’s claims were accurate—because the volatile meanings of race are so hard to pin down.

In this chapter, I use the image of sumo wrestlers to convey how Obama and Clinton vied to push their opponent across the “dohyo” or ring of public decorum around race. Neither had to assert how or why race matters; rather, they each only strove to suggest that the other was acting or being “racial” with their comments or suggestions. Page 99, then, talks about how this particular contest upended the conventional wisdom that journalists relied upon to evaluate and adjudicate such contradictory accusations. For all the clarity that race possessed when it was skillfully manipulated by presidential candidates in the past, the novelty of an African-American male contesting a white female for the presidency overturned these certainties. In the process, Americans were offered a scintillating (though confusing) view of how the relevance and meaning of race is changing rapidly.
Learn more about What Can You Say? at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue