Even 'Star Trek' can't sell conservative America a black female president

A recent episode in the series has provoked ire in a divided US

Stacey Abrams, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Georgia, during a 'One Georgia Tour' campaign event in Atlanta on March 14. Bloomberg
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Earlier this month, the American conservative press expressed great umbrage at the news of an appointment to high public office of a black woman. It was not Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the American Supreme Court. Rather, it was Stacey Abrams, a Democratic community organiser from Georgia. What was striking was not only the vehemence of the resentment Ms Abrams faced – but also the post to which she was appointed. It was not even real.

Ms Abrams was appointed "President of a United Earth" on an episode of Star Trek: Discovery – in other words, an entirely fictional position. And yet, somehow even a fictional appointment of a black woman – especially on the left – can cause consternation among conservatives.

It is true that Star Trek is a significant element in American and Western cultural life. Moreover, it is enjoying something of a renaissance; in 2022, there will be no less than five separate series on television, all partaking in the same iconic science fiction universe. And in the past, Star Trek has platformed some interesting political themes, including the permanent presence of a black actress in a leading role in the 1960s, at a time when this was extremely rare. Nevertheless, Star Trek is, of course, fictional – there is no "United Earth", and Ms Abrams was not even portraying herself in this storyline. It seems almost bizarre to even have to point this out.

Somehow even a fictional appointment of a black woman can cause consternation

Yet, the National Review, one of conservative America’s most prominent media outlets, raised the alarm in the aftermath of Ms Abrams’ cameo appearance, which she was happy to do as a self-confessed Star Trek fan, or Trekkie. With the headline “Stacey Abrams Does Not Deserve to Be President of Earth”, a staff member at the National Review went on the offensive, and asked whether Donald Trump would have been cast in this role, and if not, why not?

It is a sad example of the fact that the mere presence of women of colour – especially left-wing figures – in arenas of great public visibility, can cause discomfort, and even outright indignation. The Stacey Abrams episode – pun intended – makes it clear that even in fictional parts of the area of cultural production are not immune to the culture wars. This is perhaps even more so the case when the fiction involved is science-fiction, talking about the future, because it makes the implicit claim that this is where humanity is heading. Such a notion is very awkward for some indeed.

It is an interesting reality to watch. One could argue that during the Trump era, there was actually more room in the mainstream to make very forceful arguments about the nature of race relations in America and so forth, because Mr Trump was so outlandish that he made space for others on the left to be outlandish as well. With a Democrat administration in office in the US, many establishment figures on the left would prefer not to be quite so radical, and hold the centre ground as much as possible. Yet, the reality is, the conservative right-wing is not quite so keen to turn the culture wars into more regular political ones, and continuing to go on the offensive.

One can see that quite evidently when it came to the hearings on the nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the American Supreme Court. Of course, there are going to be harsh and direct questions to her, as there would be to any nominee to this high-profile position. But it is rather bizarre to have seen her questioned by Republican senators about her views on "critical race theory" – a famous bugbear of the conservative right – and her religious beliefs, in a country where there is an explicit constitutional bar on religious tests.

Then again, the same Republican senators that accused Judge Jackson of being soft on crime voted multiple times to shield Mr Trump from impeachment proceedings, despite clear evidence that the latter may have sought to overturn the democratic process following his loss in the 2020 election. This is, nevertheless, where the US is today. It is a place with a political landscape defined by a partisanship that is so raw and deep, it will impact the development of American democracy for many years to come. And the ways in which it will do so are likely to be very difficult indeed.

Published: March 24, 2022, 8:00 AM