Thursday, October 01, 2009

Talking About the "R" Word

One interesting thing the election of President Barack Obama has done is to really open the cultural discussion on race. To be more accurate, I should describe it as a "shouting match" instead of a cultural discussion. But even with all its ugliness and misrepresentation, we are still moving forward as a society. A lot of veneer has been ripped off the top of "how people really think" in the last 10 months, and these years will (hopefully) be seen as a cultural turning point.

Years ago, I worried that the charge of racism would become overused in talking about our culture, economy and shared national institutions. I wasn't the only one worried about this, and a lot of folks (on the left and the right) saw this coming as well. That day is at hand.

"Racism" has been used so much in our common narrative that it has lost a great deal of its meaning. This is unfortunate, for it strains the credibility of actual and real racism as it works in our society today. And there are still plenty of places we can go to find it. This article in Slate examines just a few.

This manifests itself in many ways.

There are going to be individuals who disagree with President Obama's policies because they are racists. But that does not mean that all or even most individuals who oppose President Obama's policies are doing so because he is black. Many, many individuals I know who disagree with this administration's initiatives have always opposed such initiatives. People have legitimate gripes with the policies. Hell, I have legitimate disagreements with some of the policies, and I voted for Obama!

Because of this, when Jimmy Carter gets on television and says that most of the opposition comes from racism, he does himself, the administration and the country a terrible disservice. First of all, it keeps the conversation on the straw man (racism) rather than on the reality (the policies). Second, it encourages a liberal version of Bush's "with us or with the terrorists" worldview (Carter's being - "you're either with us or you're with the racists"). Third, it encourages the media to see the discussion on race as the primary national policy discussion, which it is not.

Carter's one reasonable point was that, as a son of the South, he knows all the "code words." Now, I hate code words, but I'm not so naive as to pretend they don't exist. I learned while teaching not to assume prior knowledge, however difficult it is to give the benefit of the doubt. But people who oppose Obama's policies legitimately need to understand that these conversations are not happening in a vaccum.

There is a long history of what "state's rights", "secession", "seperation of schools" and hanging (in effigy) meant. As a younger son of the South, I can understand how many younger folks may not fully grasp this history, and think some terms and images to be completely devoid of context. Those who even have an inkling of what these terms and symbols might mean are being completely disingenuous in the face of history to act shocked, SHOCKED! that some of these things have loaded meaning. If you want us to take your criticisms seriously, keep your criticisms rational, reasonable and focused on the legitimate policy concerns you have.

Two last things:

Black politicians who are accused of corruption need to actually answer their allegations instead of first calling the allegations racist. Their apologists need to realize that, if anyone is stealing from public coffers, especially in more at-risk districts dominated by minorities, those crimes affect minorities the worst.

White pundits need to stop labeling every program designed to help minorities as "reverse racism." To qualify for "reverse racism," the socio-economic playing field has to be drastically more equal than it is today. Pretending that the socio-economic playing field is anything close to leveled out just because Barack Obama got elected President is a laughable assertion.

Update: One more thing to think about is how our nation addreses (I would say "ignores") black-on-black violence. While DADvocate gets a little more political than I would to discuss this topic, his points are well taken. Like Fight Club, we do not talk about black on black violence in our society, and it is the most devastating thing towards the social, cultural and economic advancement of at-risk minorities. Some of that silence comes from apathy, to be sure. But plenty of folks who have tried to address the problem were called "racists" just for bringing it up.


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