Monday, September 21, 2009

Does The Scourge Really Persist and More Importantly, What Is The Scourge?

In the New York Times this Saturday, columnist Bob Herbert opines,

I have no patience with those who want to pretend that racism is not an out-and-out big deal in the United States, as it always has been. We may have made progress, and we may have a black president, but the scourge is still with us.

Why is that? Well, according to Herbert,

For many white Americans, Barack Obama is nothing more than that black guy in the White House, and they want him out of there.

I'm going to use Herbert's column as a launching point for a larger discussion on race, rather than address it point-by-point. Like the allegations I just noted in my last post which I received in an e-mail from the Nation, this narrative of right wing racism, anger, and violence is incredably disturbing because it's just plain not true. As someone who truly cares about intellectual debate, it troubles me that those on the left are trolling for racism rather than engaging ideas and arguments. And obviously it's troubling when the race card is used as a means of shutting down debate.

But beyond those obvious points, there's a lot more to this story as well. That so many on the left have picked up and ran with this narrative is telling, not about their intellectual honesty, of which I could never be sure one way or the other, but of their view of the world. For many on the left, this narrative of racism and hate is not something new, it's what they've been taught and what they've believed for decades.

Forgetting about tea parties and Republicans for a moment, I've got to ask just what Mr. Herbert means by the scourge still being with us. No one would ever deny that the racism of America's past was indeed a scourge. Into the 50's and 60's we had legally enforced segregation and a culture that accepted white supremacy as a cultural norm. Obviously today, segregation is a thing of the past and discrimination in the private sector has been stamped out. And white supremacy as a cultural norm? That's a tough pill to swallow when we have a black president, when black hip hop artists top the pop music charts, when the majority of our professional athletes are black, and when the wealthiest woman entertainer in the world is black. And for whatever else you may hear from the right, there's been nothing but praise for someone like Condoleezza Rice, Bobby Jindal is mentioned as a Republican up-and-comer, and Michael Steele is head of the RNC. There may be plenty to talk about in regards to race, but Herbert's statement that any significant number of Americans want Obama out of the White House because he is black just defies all the evidence in front of us.

The truth is, you can't find any evidence that the tea parties are a result of racism (or that tens of thousands were chanting "white power") because such a narrative is just plain contrary to all of the known facts. What Hebert gives us for evidence is not the agenda of a white power movement but a number of off-color racist jokes. And herein lies the problem, as I think Mr. Herbert (along with many others on the left) view the race issue as simplistically black and white as George Bush's view of the war on terror: either your with us or your against us.

The problem is, there's racism ... and then there's racism. People don't present racial jokes on their signs or in their e-mails because they think it's a clever way of making a point while hiding their true white supremacist leanings; they do it because they're stupid. We know this because the people who make such signs and send such e-mails are called out on it and are lumped in the worst sorts of bigots. The fact that racial humor persists is not a sign that the most virulent forms of racism persist. This is not to say that there are are no racial issues left in this country, but unlike Mr. Herbert I do beleive that the scourge for the most part has been eliminated. We don't live in the era where Jackie Robinson feared for his life or an era where there was a ceiling on the dreams of black children.

So to the extent that they exist- and more on this in a second- what does the persistence of racially based humor and other mild forms of racism actually mean? (And yes, I say mild, because a racial joke is far more mild than say separate lunch counters and racially based voter intimidation.) I think what it ultimately amounts to is mostly harmless; the idea of humor relying on any definable characteristic. In short, at a protest with hundreds of thousands of people, there were signs referring to Obama's race because his race is a discernible characteristic. And I bet if Obama was fat there would have been a lot more signs about his weight than his race. Are there really nasty racists out there? I'm sure there are, but I'd bet those folks aren't the ones holding the stupid signs. The people holding the racially insensitive signs? I don't know how "racist" they necessarily are, but I'd probably jot down stupid as a more defining characteristic of their personality.

The racist game is a difficult one to play because ultimately, you don't know what's deep down in anyone's heart. You simply can't play it with a crowd of hundreds of thousands because each and every single person there had there own reasons for protesting. And in terms of the voices of the right, the Glenn Becks and Rush Limbaugh's of the world, I have trouble with judging someone's moral character based on bits and pieces of what they say. It's easy to portray someone in a particularly bad context when they're on the air running their mouths everyday. But as I've been saying, there's a difference between a stupid comment and what's truly in someone's heart.

Finally, there's one more argument I'd like to address that relates to race that I think does have some merit and this is the argument that many on the right fear that Obama-because of his race- is going to serve as a force for redistributing income to undeserving "others." The racial implication is that Barack Obama is going to redistribute taxpayer money to poor blacks - and unfortunately for those on the right, I've heard Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh make such insinuations. Insinuations however, is the key word. I've never heard a voice on the right to suggest that income redistribution would be okay if it were geared toward white folks. The issue is the redistribution, not who it's going to or even where it's coming from. But in a way, we're back to the joke issue again. Yes, there are some racial overtones, but the political question is ultimately the issue.

The worst part of the racism that dominated this country for so many years was that race was the issue. There was legal segregation on the books because of race and white folks made decisions against their own economic interest because of race (and gender too for that matter). That's what we're beyond today. No it's not a racially harmonious paradise, but unless we're talking about affirmative action, no one is making an argument based solely on race. Well almost no one ... No one other than those who will no longer engage in serious debate with the right because of racism.


Anonymous rose said...

Nice piece. Truth is, a clash of cultures is occuring, not races. The democrats at the top and prominent liberals in the media (like Maher) struggle to hide their disdain for "traditional" Americans (or do not attempt to hide it, Maher). Likewise, as a person with more or less "traditional" American values (casually religious at best, believer in markets and individual responsibility), I'm disgusted by the people in power in the US right now.

There's serious disdain between groups in the US right now, but it's value-based, not race-based.

The way to solve that would be open dialogue and understanding (i.e. ideologically diverse campuses, media outlets), but given the fact that liberals believe in racial diversity and opinion-uniformity (or else you're a racist), that's not gonna happen.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous rose said...

Or maybe the moral of the story is that you can't get 300 million people to agree on such a wide range of issues and that an expanding federal government is inevitably going to lead to irresolvable friction.

2:04 PM  
Blogger lonely libertarian said...

Interesting point on middle America and it really hits the nail on the head. How often do you hear jokes from the left about Christians, the South, and Republicans? These jokes rely on stereotypes far worse than anything Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck has ever said about African Americans. Somehow, those stereotypes have become okay, wheres other people can be accused of being racist when they've never uttered a racist word.

7:22 PM  

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