Saturday, September 26, 2009

Racism is not for Conservatives Only

I preface what I'm about to write with a message to conservatives that pointing out that the Democratic Party or so-called liberals and progressives are not racism free does not equate to giving conservatives an excuse to continue coddling the racists among them. Identifying racist deeds, racist thinking, racist-tinged policies, etc., may have political implications but doing so is first and foremost an act of sociological analysis, not an attempt to label a specific political party or group as racist. However, some political parties and groups wear racist-tipped shoes more often than others.

In other words, some groups do tend to be more hobbled with racism or "tolerant" of racism than others. The discussion of racism within the major political parties is consequently a study of degrees of racism rather than the intent to declare one group as racist and the other as not racist.

Most adult humans have some level of bias based on racial beliefs. Those who are willing to examine that bias, address it, and attempt to change the behavior when it creeps up, however, fall more in the non-racist camp. Those who actively cultivate the racism within or see it as no big deal or "that's just the way I am" tend to fall into the racist category. You can count on the latter group, the deniers, to never see anything as racist unless it's something like a lynching or setting a little black teen on fire, and sometimes if they identify such heinous acts as racist, they may recant later if it comes out in the news that the person who was lynched stole some money or the teen had on a Malcolm X shirt and was not in his "proper" neighborhood. (a little snark)

What I see as the major difference between progressives and conservatives is that if people of color point to the more subtle racist words or deeds by a progressive politician or pundit, a greater number of white people who call themselves "liberal" or "progressive" tend to step back and attempt to evaluate if the criticism is valid. There may be some disagreement, but at least they will try to understand the complaint. In contrast, if people of color point to the more subtle and sometimes even blatantly racist words or deeds by a conservative politician or pundit, then a large number of conservatives close ranks and declare the words and deeds of that politician or pundit to be not racist or declare that black people need to shut up about racism and "stop playing the race card" as they define it. They tend to see an accusation of racism against one conservative as an accusation against them personally and rather than examine what was said, they say "I am not a racist."

Sometimes progressives and liberals also declare themselves to not be racist and they do so with defenses such as "I have black friends" or "I like rap" or lately "I like Obama" as though some specific deed removes every drop of racism from their spirit. It's very much like some people who go to church regularly thinking that deed makes them incapable of committing sin.

Thanks to a post from Field Negro, I have become aware of an essay at The Nation by Melissa Harris-Lacewell that examines this strangeness under "I Am Not a Racist ... I'm a Democrat." In the article she looks at former President Bill Clinton's "checkered past" on race and concludes:
Racism is not the the sole domain of Republicans, Conservatives or Southerners. Not all racists pepper their conversation with the N-word or secretly desire the extermination of black and brown people. Racism is complex, multi-layered, and deeply rooted in the American story. Name calling is not helpful in uprooting racism, but neither is a false sense of moral superiority. (Harris-Lacewell)
I agree with that statement completely and am consistently dismayed by attempts to narrow the definition of racist to someone who burns crosses on lawns or who wears a white sheet to secret meetings or is a skinhead with swastika tattoos.

Right now I'm thinking of the case of the black kids kicked from the pool in Pennsylvania in which supporters of the club's president, John Duesler, seemed to think he could not possibly do anything racist because he voted for Obama. This oversimplification of race issues and racism that some people promote, the either/or mentality that surfaces when discussing race, is one of the greatest indicators that Americans have not reached intellectual and spiritual maturity on the topic of race and we are far from a post-racial world.

The Obama victory, while it gives us hope that we may move forward toward a better understanding and acceptance of people of color in positions of power, may also have the unwanted side effect of lulling some of us to a state of complacency and the illusion that racial injustice is a thing of the past. This state of mind, a desire to ignore racism and declare ourselves racism-free is dangerous.

Racism is like weeds in a garden. Unless you effectively continue to treat the garden for prevention, then expect unwanted plants to return. As any dedicated gardener will tell you, if you ignore weeds or neglect to rip them out, they overtake the garden, choking the flowers you'd prefer to grow.

But can you effectively weed your garden if you don't know the difference between a weed and a desirable flower? It's only through discussion of what is racial bias that we identify the kinds of behaviors and rhetoric we should denounce and how we educate our children to not adopt the same attitudes. I bring up our children because raising children who recognize racist rhetoric and who believe racist rhetoric is both wrong and dangerous is one of the best ways to wage war against racism.

All this said, I have questions: Why do some people of late object vehemently to attempts to identify and weed racism out through examination and discussion? Why do they see any discussion of racism, especially in conjunction with some of the rhetoric being used by some conservatives, as a personal attack on them? Why is it that some people in this country feel noticing racist rhetoric in the health care reform debate, for instance, is more dangerous than using racist rhetoric to oppose health care reform? Is it possible the discomfort we see or the resistance to examination of our current racial climate is itself a symptom of our racial problem?

It was only this winter that Attorney General Eric Holder sat in the hot seat for observing Americans avoid speaking honestly about race. And here we are this fall watching people scream "I am not a racist" and declaring that race is too polarizing a subject to be examined within the context of politics. Some of us, rather than showing a willingness to sit down and get real about racist rhetoric, both blatant and subtle, go so far as to indulge fallacies such as criticizing a political group is the same as insulting an ethnic group.

What's most sad in this is that there's one thing on which all parties may agree, racism is not new and therefore is not really news that should shock anyone. This is a fact of which no American can be proud.

But I have seen a silver lining, at least some conservative pundits are starting to speak out and say enough is enough when it comes to tolerating or winking at racially charged rhetoric for political gain. Good for them. Good for us.

Photo credit: The 10/09 Time Magazine article Is Obama American Enough?


RiPPa said...

Identity politics will always be the strategy of the day. And race matters will always be the tool used to further polarize this country.

As much as we critique conservatives. We should equally challenge non-minority liberals when they are conveniently silent at times when they should not be.

I think the majority of people racist or not, are too quick to hold to account the character of an individual rather then their actions. It's the reason Bill Clinton can say what he said without anyone but Mellisa Harris-Lacewell (that I know if) objectively holding him to account.

msladyDeborah said...

Excellent post Nordette!

It has never been a secret that racism exists even in the liberal camps. This isn't news nor is it an excuse for what has been in the climate around us.

Voting for Obama doesn't indicate that you're not a racist. There's a lot of different reasons why that vote could of been casted.

Anyone who bought the bill of bulls*** about Post Racial America has to be in shock. That is a status we have yet to reach. In reality, we may never get there.

Janet Caldwell said...

As always your pen expresses truth beautifully. DOWN with racism!!

Janet aka DRP xx

SjP said...

The minute that someone says that they are not a racist then you might want to start looking for their sheet. And the same with anyone who contends and believes that we are in a post-raci(st)al society simply because Obama is Black. The very fact that such has to be said proves that our problems and issues with respect to race still exist.

Great Post!

underOvr (aka The U) said...

Hi Nordette,

AG Holder caught flack about his statements but he was very accurate; as are you with this post.

Racism isn't any one political party, it's a belief. It won't end in America until we can openly talk about it without erecting walls to defend our position.

Racism is wrong, period. Until Americans have the courage to say, "this is wrong", it will remain the stain on our country's fabric.


PPR_Scribe said...

Bravo, Nordette.

I *wish* racism were like weeds. But actually I think it is more like a garden with contaminated soil. Weeds flourish there, and beauty--difficult in a good season--must be purposefully planted and tended, and even then it sometimes never takes root. It is possible to keep overlaying healthy top soil, but the contaminated dirt is always there, deep underneath....

Vérité Parlant said...

PPR, thank you for that analogy. I think it may be most appropriate for American racism specifically since this nation was born with slavery, a legal system that enforced a belief in white supremacy.

Thank you also Rippa, Deborah, Jan, SJP, and U.

Vérité Parlant said...

And one more thing, PPR, not only in white supremacy via slavery but also white supremacy via assault on Native Americans.

Unknown said...

Excellent Post!!!!!!!!!

Unknown said...

I'm old enough (barely) to remember the "white" and "colored drinking fountains, bathrooms, etc. as well as the "we reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" signs that replaced them at those lunch counters where people of color could not sit. I remember when people used racial epithets without raising eyebrows and often only the more menial jobs were available to non-whites and women. But the fact that it's not so out in the open doesn't mean it's not there at all. Just because someone isn't shouting their hate doesn't mean they're not feeling it.

Racism is insidious and, along with all the other "isms" (classism, sexism, elitism, etc), keeps us from truly appreciating each other. All of the "isms" depend on the idea of superior/inferior to exist. What a bizarre concept!

I'm never going to walk into a store and be followed by security just because of the color of my face (my gender, age, or fashion sense, maybe, but not color), so how can I understand how it feels from the inside to have this happen? Anyone who thinks racism and other bigotry is in the past just isn't paying attention!