Read this now: Maya Rupert’s criticism of Barney Frank for using of the phrase “Uncle Tom” in his rebuke of openly gay Republicans’ continued support of a party that seems increasingly retrograde on just about everything, but especially on social issues, like, I don’t know, gay marriage.
I share much of Frank’s confusion as to precisely why members of the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud stay in a party that clearly does not seem to like them very much. My best guess is that they’re relatively affluent, as white gay men and lesbians tend to be, and their party membership reflects their pocketbook politics. More broadly, perhaps their support for the GOP comes out of a dissatisfaction with the liberal welfare state and those perceived to be its “undeserving” beneficiaries. Indeed, this feeling reverberates across both sides of the aisle in post-industrial America, from Reagan’s attacks on phantasmic “welfare queens” to Clinton’s welfare “reform” to the everyday stigma that attaches to folks receiving food stamps or Section 8 vouchers.
Contempt for the “undeserving poor” has the kind of political currency that it does in part because it’s very hard to confront one’s own privilege, whether it owes to skin color, gender, heterosexuality, class, or any number of other factors. To begin with, our national mythology is premised on the notion that we are always already free and fundamentally equal. On top of that, the African American civil rights movement effectively removed the legal architecture maintaining forced inequality in the Jim Crow South. Without laws on the books banning interracial marriage or mandating “separate but equal” public facilities, it’s much harder for many Americans to grasp the myriad reasons for persistent racial inequality, from vastly disparate public school funding to the mass(ively disproportionate) incarceration of people of color to straight-up unconscious individual prejudice.
This is a very roundabout way of suggesting an uncomfortable symmetry between Frank and the “Uncle Toms” on the other side of this political war of words–all are, in spite of their political differences, more or less blind to their own privilege. As Rupert points out, Frank’s comments suggest that all forms of marginalization are essentially the same, which is admittedly different from minimalizing them or arguing that the federal government should have no role in mitigating them. But Frank’s use of “Uncle Tom” (not to mention Dan Savage’s similar use of the phrase “house faggots”) shows a remarkable disregard for both the past and present of black people in this country. The fact that he defended his comments in Huffington Post without any mention of their racial dimension underscores his blindness.
While drawing strong parallels between the black freedom struggle and the gay rights movement may be tempting and at times politically opportune, it’s a problematic move that (again, pace Rupert) flattens differences between the ways that racism and homophobia operate in American society, and puts black LGBT people in a strange liminal position between camps commonly–and errantly–understood as being totally separate. To boot, it (along with the very name of the popular gay rights blog The New Civil Rights Movement) also consigns the Civil Rights Movement–and along with it, racial oppression in this country–to the past. To say that we can have a new civil rights movement suggests that the old one is over. Complete. This is simply not true.
There’s no doubt in my mind that between the Democratic and Republican parties, Barney Frank represents the one whose vision will do the greatest good (or even just the least bad) for people of color in the United States, but that doesn’t give Frank license to throw around racially charged epithets like this one. As Avenue Q reminds us, everyone’s a little bit racist.
(apologies for the scratchiness of the audio)