September 6, 2012

Two Views of Racial Politics from the Same Democratic Convention Shoeshine Stand

Watching the Democratic Convention (or the RNC stage) this year, it’s pretty clear there’s nothing new or special about WASPs and Anglos. While the Republicans, on the other hand, bent over backwards to populate their show with darker shades, with an emphasis on Latino women, a glance at the DNC speakers, delegates and audience confirmed the adage about the melting pot, the list of headliners full of young, dynamic Black and Hispanic mid-and large city mayors that are not only post-Rainbow but, at this point, make up the weather.

Still, perceptions change slowly and because race and racism, either overtly or passively, is still a very real source of fear among the (mostly) white party,  news photos are helpful to observe how shifting attitudes and demographics, progress as well as panic, expresses itself.

No Caption Needed‘s Bob Hariman and I appear to have fixed on this subject at the same time, our eyes falling coincidentally on two different news photos of the exact same shoeshine stand at the DNC.  But while I saw and started pondering the photo above from the NYT Party Conventions Pictures of the Day, Bob honed in on this one taken by and for WAPO:

In many ways, the photo I found is a one-liner, the handsome young black guy in the suit being “up,” the older White cowboy dude being “down.”  And the cowboy is not just down, as we perceive him in space, but his body language lends the sense he’s somehow suffering for it.

In the photo Hariman latched on to, in contrast, the tableau couldn’t be more different. Here’s the caption:

William Robinson shines the shoes of conventioneer George Davis, who shares a laugh with Isaiah Jones. Davis is married to a delegate from Georgia.

You should read Hariman’s full post, but to synthesize via snippet:

The guy on top probably makes a fair amount more than the others, but not enough to make anyone uncomfortable. The three gentlemen have had different lives, but they have a lot in common as well. And one of the things they have in common is having lived in America as it was transformed from a Jim Crow society to a nation where Barack Obama is president. No wonder the American flag is proudly displayed across George’s shirt.

In matters of cultural health, perhaps the most important thing to appreciate is growth and change, and how, with shifts in consciousness, there is always a leading edge and a trailing edge. And as observers, perhaps the biggest challenge is not becoming too focused on either end. That’s why I appreciate how Hariman’s post doesn’t just look at the photo through rose colored glasses. Instead, he steps back to consider the scene in the context of ongoing enmity and still comes out positive:

Against a politics of fear, exclusion, and expropriation, the Democratic party is, for all its problems, at least moving forward toward the full realization of the American dream.

I’m not saying the photo I looked at isn’t more complicated, leaving the door open for smaller minded  feelings about winners and losers and who has gotten what kind of leg up. Perhaps the most important element to address in the first photo, though, is really the gap in the middle, the divide.

(photo 1: Damon Winter/The New York Times caption: Peter Lybourn, right, of Cheyenne, Wyo., took a break from the action for a shoeshine. photo 2: Linda Davidson / The Washington Post caption.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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