by publius over at Obsidian Wings. cross-posted with permission.
I keep hearing that Nutsgate is a “Sister Souljah moment” for Obama. Frankly, it’s annoying me. First – it’s not a Sister Souljah moment at all. Second – I’m sick of that term. It’s time to retire the Sister Souljah label altogether. It’s inaccurate, and even borderline racist.
There are two interpretations of the “Sister Souljah Moment” – one benign, one less so. To be more precise, there are two distinct concepts that get conflated under the name Sister Souljah. They share a common linguistic label, but they’re substantively different.
The more benign interpretation is that a Sister Souljah moment occurs when a candidate criticizes some group or idea nominally aligned with that candidate. In short, it’s criticizing your own coalition – or some idea valued by your coalition – to show independence and courage, etc.
The less benign interpretation is that “Sister Souljah” means distancing oneself from black people. When used in this sense, the Sister Souljah label masks an uglier, racial dimension lurking below the conceptual surface.
Let’s have a little straight talk – Clinton’s original Sister Souljah moment falls squarely within the latter sense. His statement got publicity not because he was speaking out against some interest group or idea, but because he spoke out against a black rapper.
In this sense, the original 1992 Sister Souljah speech wasn’t even technically a true “Sister Souljah moment.” After all, what serious idea or interest group was represented by her or her speech? It’s not like advocating killing white people was a sacred cow of black political groups or the Democratic Party more generally. And it’s not like she was some important leader.
A better example of a Sister Souljah moment would be, say, criticizing teachers’ unions’ opposition to merit pay. Clinton, by contrast, was criticizing a marginal figure expressing a marginal sensationalized view – but got a lot of press for it.
Sadly, though, it was probably good politics at the time. Many Reagan Democrats were (and are) under the ridiculous assumption that black people were running the Democratic Party, stealing white people’s wages for welfare and robbing their children of spots at prestigious universities. So let’s not kid ourselves. Clinton wasn’t showing courage by questioning Democratic orthodoxy. He was signaling to Reagan Democrats that he wasn’t controlled by black people, thus distinguishing himself from the imaginary boogeymen liberals in Reagan Democrats’ paranoid fantasy worlds.
Nutsgate also falls squarely into Interpretation #2. Actually, it’s questionable whether it should qualify at all. Remember that Obama didn’t even say anything – the “moment” was created entirely by Jackson. Obama had nothing to do with it. But there were a bunch of black people involved, so let’s call it Sister Souljah.
But anyway, the larger point is that the use of Sister Souljah here strikes me as a tad racist. Again, what idea exactly is Obama distancing himself from – castration? No, there’s nothing substantive here. The only thing that Obama is distancing himself from is Jesse Jackson – a black man who lots of white people (and the press) dislike and caricature unfairly.
If you dig a bit deeper though, something else is going on — something that goes well beyond Jackson. I mean, maybe Jesse Jackson remains a central figure in Democratic politics, but that would be news to me. No, what’s really going on is more depressing. When I hear many people talk about what good politics all this is for Obama, what they are really saying is that “it’s good politics to be distanced from black people.”
That’s a pretty disgusting concept, so it gets dressed up as a “Sister Souljah moment,” which links it to a safe and more bland political science concept. Using the same label for both concepts masks the uglier aspects of its use. Hell, even if we’re talking solely about the benign concept, the relentless use of the name “Sister Souljah” to describe it probably subconsciously reinforces the notion that black people are a group that savvy candidates must distance themselves from.
So I’m tired of it. And after today, I’m done with the term – and hopefully others will be as well.