I love the smell of racism in the morning

When I saw the title to this Salon article — Is Race Dying? — I had some pretty damn low hopes. It was worse than I expected. Writer Gary Kamiya manages to spend two pages saying some pretty damn  ignorant and racist crap . So, let’s take a look at it, piece by piece.

Ever since 9/11 and President Bush’s response to it, all other issues in the United States have faded into insignificance. When jets were smashing into skyscrapers and U.S. troops were invading an Arab country, it was hard to care about anything else. And one of the things that America stopped paying attention to was race.

Oh really? So all of the brown people — of varying ethnicities, mind you, but all lumped together through the lenses of ignorance and prejudice — who had shit thrown through their store windows and their houses defaced and lives threatened . . . don’t count? How about the fact that we invaded Iraq based on the premise that the American public is too fucking stupid and racist to tell the difference between “Arab terrorists” and “Iraqis?” No one was paying attention to race there?

It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, issues of black vs. white dominated the national discourse. The Rodney King riots and the O.J. Simpson case inspired endless discussions and reams of editorial soul-searching. Affirmative action and racial preferences, multiculturalism, and political correctness were fraught topics. Then the twin towers fell, and suddenly we had a completely new enemy to worry about.

During the Katrina debacle, images of thousands of impoverished blacks jammed into the New Orleans Superdome brought the scandalous reality of black poverty back into view. But the moment passed. Today’s most charged racial issue, immigration, doesn’t involve blacks at all, but Latinos. The painful legacy of slavery — which, along with our de facto genocidal campaign against its native inhabitants, is America’s primordial racial trauma — is no longer at the center of the national consciousness.

Okay, got it. Only black people are victims of racism. And maybe Latinos, too. Good to know.

And yet, I’m still confused. The number of hate groups in America has jumped 40% since 2000. And though the percentage of hate crimes that are motivated by race has dropped by a couple of percentage points, the overall number of hate crime has increased by twice that amount. There have apparently been 50 to 60 noose incidents in the past few months, which would not be included in those statistics.

But hey, maybe Kamiya has something else intelligent to say. Jumping ahead . . .

It’s a peculiar moment. The white reaction to Barack Obama shows that the old I’m guilty, you’re innocent, everyone-bow-and-return-to-their-corner two-step is no longer useful. Obama’s race is still a factor, of course, but it is far less of one than anyone could have imagined even 10 years ago. Many whites are not just ready but eager to embrace a black man who has opted out of that worn-out racial dance. Yet the crisis of the black underclass rages on, and America seems less interested than ever in tackling it. And until that crisis is addressed, it will continue to cast a shadow over all black-white relations. [emphasis mine]

Ah, yes! The worn-out racial dance! How does that one go again? I do know that it’s a dance only black people can do. Because when white people talk about welfare queens and welfare reform and the War on Drugs and “states’ rights” and black single mothers, well . . . that’s just good politics.

But this split reality contains within it the possibility of a breakthrough. After spending billions of dollars to try to stabilize neighborhoods in Baghdad, perhaps now Americans will be prepared to invest in the war zones in their own country. This may sound like pie in the sky, but there’s reason for hope. Something amorphous but potentially transformative is happening — and, critically, it’s happening within the black community itself. According to a recent NPR/Pew poll, 37 percent of blacks agreed with the statement that blacks today are so diverse they can no longer be considered a single race. Among the youngest respondents, aged 18 to 29, a staggering 44 percent agreed.

This is extraordinary. More than a third of the blacks who responded, and almost half of the young blacks, have rejected the cornerstone of American racial politics: black racial solidarity. If the poll is accurate, the most emotionally charged and immutable racial truth, the one-drop rule, is no longer sacrosanct for a large number of black people.

Um. I would indeed say that those results are interesting and important for plenty of reasons, and there are lots of questions to ask there, though I’m pretty unconvinced that black people have stopped caring about race. But even it were true, how it ties into the potential for significant change in the way that white Americans — the ones, of course, who have the power to “invest” — approach race, I’m not really sure. Let’s find out:

Almost as noteworthy is that middle-class black Americans have joined most other Americans in dissociating themselves from the values (and, by implication, the behavior) associated with the black underclass. The Pew poll found that there was a growing “values gap” between middle-class and poor blacks: 61 percent of the black respondents, and 70 percent of the college-educated blacks, said that over the past 10 years, the values of middle-class and poor blacks have become more different. Just 44 percent said that in 1986. Further confirmation of this values gap is the study’s finding that 64 percent of blacks regard hip-hop and rap music as having a bad influence on society. Moreover, the study found that while most blacks believe that they are subject to widespread discrimination, most of them don’t blame discrimination for the lack of black progress: 53 percent say blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition.

These findings are evidence of a coming sea change in America’s racial landscape. Together with the explosion of the Latino population, whose racial/ethnic categorization is very much in flux, and the increasing number of people of mixed-race ancestry who refuse to place themselves in traditional racial categories, the crumbling of black racial solidarity shows that race itself is beginning to fade away. And if America can seize the moment and address class inequities, which disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos and which help maintain rigid concepts of racial identity, this country’s universalist, cosmopolitan dream could become a reality.

So middle-class black people are picking up the rhetoric of white Republicans with their “personal responsibility” crap. And this is a good thing? I mean, it’s a good thing!!! After all, if they had just started listening to “us” years ago, this whole racism quibble would be a thing of the past. And then we can have a cosmopolitan society. Once we kick out everyone who speaks Spanish and we can count on black people to never, ever talk about race again.

Somehow this sounds an awful lot like “widespread support for the feminist movement has evaporated, so gender bias must be disappearing.” Um, yeah.

Jumping ahead again:

In an interview on NPR, Melissa Harris Lacewell, a professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton, said she found middle- class blacks’ assertion of a values gap “shocking.” Lacewell blamed figures like Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby, who are famous for championing an ethos of personal responsibility, for convincing middle-class blacks that the culprit is poor blacks themselves, not “structural racism.”

But these alarmed reactions miss the point. Asante’s claim that the values gap is a reaction to wealthy black people “who live in a whole different world from the rest of us” seems implausible. There are comparatively few blacks who are that wealthy: Even assuming that they are famous, would their mere existence really lead large percentages of blacks to reject the idea that blacks are a single race? As for Lacewell, she assumes that calling for personal responsibility and acknowledging structural problems in society are mutually exclusive. It’s true that a majority of blacks said individuals were mostly responsible for their failure to get ahead, not discrimination. But discrimination is not the same as structural “racism” (itself a highly questionable term). And if the poll had asked whether blacks favored making the structural changes, from improved schools to jobs programs, that would give poor blacks a better chance to advance, it’s hard to imagine they would not have said yes. [emphasis mine]

Yeah, alarmed people! Particularly those of you who teach African-American studies! What do you know?

As for why one might assume that concepts of calling for personal responsibility and acknowledging structural racism are mutually exclusive . . . maybe because they’ve paid attention to American politics for more than two seconds? Or maybe because the political concept of “personal responsibility” indicates that we’re on a level playing field? Maybe because only some people are supposed to be “personally responsible” in the political sense of the term?

When it comes to Kamiya’s comment that “racism” is “itself a highly questionable term” . . . I don’t even know what to say. What can I say is that he’s given us absolutely no clue as to what he might mean by that. Is he pointing to the fact that race is social, not biological? He would be correct about that but completely wrong about the implications that has for the term “racism.” But seeing the rest of this article, I really don’t know how to give him the benefit of the doubt. What we do know is that he felt the need to put the word “racism” in quotation marks, and to call the term “highly questionable.” And then he followed it up directly with this:

The real point of the values answer is not that middle-class blacks are turning against “blackness,” whatever that is: It’s that they are insisting that they have the right to create their own signifiers of blackness. And it’s that middle-class blacks — who suffer from white discrimination that is in part a response to black underclass behavior, and who are far more likely to be the victims of black criminals than whites are — are no longer willing to simply give every knucklehead in the ‘hood a free pass because of “structural racism.”

And that is the point at which my mouth officially fell open.

But wait! He means that in a good way!

And that’s potentially a very good thing. It’s good, first, because middle-class black rejection of underclass values has the potential to positively affect poor blacks. Of course, some people of any race are going to “pull up the ladder” after they make it to the middle class — which is absolutely their right. But not all will. Some will remain engaged with the least fortunate. And as inner-city mentoring programs like San Francisco’s Omega Boys Club have shown, a committed tough-love approach has the power to change lives.

It’s also good because anything that short-circuits traditional racial clichés is helpful. Moving beyond the old formal, guilt-innocence standoff will improve relations between middle-class whites and blacks. Even more important, it will increase white willingness to tackle the huge commitment necessary to solve the problem of the black underclass. Traditional black commentators who decry the poll’s findings are clinging, doubtless in good faith, to an old paradigm that doesn’t work anymore. The way out of the black-white mess is a shared ethos, not a separate one. If whites feel more connected to middle-class blacks, they will ultimately feel more connected to poor ones.

Exactly: we need a shared ethos. A white shared ethos where black people make all of the sacrifices and white people can be smug in the knowledge that they were right all along. Ah, that status quo feels good.

And he closes with this:

There are major hurdles to be overcome. The Pew poll found that while large majorities of blacks believe that they are routinely victims of discrimination; most whites believe that blacks are not. This is a fundamental gap that must be overcome.

But the way to overcome it is to start talking beyond race and start seeing beyond race. To be your brother’s keeper, you must first know that you are his brother. And that connection isn’t made through skin color. It’s made through a shared humanity. If Americans can come out of our racial time recharged and ready to work together, we just might rediscover that.

Yeah, screw this “identity politics” crap. We’re all just people, man! And god knows that we can’t expect the oppressors to understand the conditions of the oppressed. We need to talk beyond oppression. Only when we stop acting like it exists will all of those uppity black people stop complaining. And we’ve already established that no other type of racial prejudice exists.

What I do know is that the only type of person who can play the “racism is so over” game is someone who is willfully ignorant. Especially when you’re the executive editor of a news site, you can’t claim that you haven’t been paying attention to the news, recently.

Today, Salon published a rebuttal of sorts from James Hannaham, and it’s more coherent than mine. As for how this shit got published in the first place in a supposedly “liberal” publication . . . well, I’ll leave that analysis up to you.

0 thoughts on “I love the smell of racism in the morning

  1. EG

    white discrimination that is in part a response to black underclass behavior

    That’s my favorite part. Racism, y’see, isn’t the fault of whites–oh nooooo, God forbid whites take responsibility for their behavior and privilege–it’s the fault of those bad black poor people! Shame on them for forcing whites to be racist!

    But of course, let us not consider for even a moment whether or not the actions of black poor people might just possibly be at all affected by a racist power structure.

    Reply
  2. rich

    Oh boy, this is a hell of a post. Great job.

    First, I’m gonna have to go ahead and agree that race disappeared for a period of time after 9/11 insofar as the black vs. white with latinos on the fringe dynamic turned into everyone vs. them dynamic. To be Arab in America right after 9/11 was like living in fear of your life. I didn’t know until post 9/11 that when I don’t shave, I would end up getting a shitload of doubletakes and nervous looks at the airport. That Arabs were completely discriminated against post-9/11 by ALL races meant that race disappeared in the sense that America repolarized into everyone vs. anyone with a shaggy beard, dark skin, and/or a turban.

    I kind of get what Kamiya is saying with Obama, but he’s off base in that the reason America (read white America), embraces Obama is because he’s “opted out of the dance”(whatever the hell that means). It’s more in the same vein why many African-Americans don’t embrace him is he’s African, not African-American. Obama didn’t “opt out” because you can’t opt out of your skin color and origins. Matter of fact, many African immigrants are highly eager to assimilate into America and go on to higher education, often at the expense of disassociation with African-Americans.

    Also, I dont know if you’re ripping Kamiya or middle class blacks for picking up the “white Republican crap” that is the whole pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps deal, but such a mentality is extremely necessary for conditions to improve, and such a mentality is not mutually exclusive with an understanding that white privilege and the covert racism pervasive in our institutions is a harsh reality. Personal responsibility does not equal “level playing field” by any means, though I understand what you mean when you refer to American politics; the two party system is the most excellent polarizing mechanism I have ever seen.

    “The real point of the values answer is not that middle-class blacks are turning against “blackness,” whatever that is: It’s that they are insisting that they have the right to create their own signifiers of blackness. And it’s that middle-class blacks — who suffer from white discrimination that is in part a response to black underclass behavior, and who are far more likely to be the victims of black criminals than whites are — are no longer willing to simply give every knucklehead in the ‘hood a free pass because of “structural racism.”

    That statement in and of itself shouldn’t be offensive; it’s true. There’s no moral value placed on it because it’s just a statement of whats happening; his judgment of it being a good thing afterwards an awfully controversial thing to say, especially coming from someone who isn’t African-American. Personally, I don’t want to touch that one.

    And yeah, the race disappearing thing is just bullshit. In general, I think Kamiya makes a couple of good points but his writing sucks; he uses idiotic catch phrases and borderline prejudicial analogies while making points that require delicacy. I read the Kamiya article and the rebuttal, plus both the articles on NPR based on the Pew Polls, and I’m left with my head spinning. No simple answers.

    Reply
  3. Cara Post author

    Also, I dont know if you’re ripping Kamiya or middle class blacks for picking up the “white Republican crap” that is the whole pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps deal, but such a mentality is extremely necessary for conditions to improve, and such a mentality is not mutually exclusive with an understanding that white privilege and the covert racism pervasive in our institutions is a harsh reality. Personal responsibility does not equal “level playing field” by any means, though I understand what you mean when you refer to American politics; the two party system is the most excellent polarizing mechanism I have ever seen.
    The phrase and concept of “personal responsibility” in and of itself does not mean that, no. But in American politics and society “personal responsibility” is code for “society doesn’t owe you anything.” Since Kamiya is the executive editor of a news site, there is no way that he does not know this. The concept of “personal responsibility” that I’m criticizing is how it exists in the American vernacular today.
    And the phrase “no longer willing to simply give every knucklehead in the ‘hood a free pass because of “structural racism.”” isn’t offensive on its own? Because I’m pretty sure that referring to the very large number of black men in America who end up dropping out of school/going to jail etc. because of the shitty hand that life has dealt them “knuckheads” and laughing off the phrase “structural racism” by putting it in quotation marks is pretty damn offensive. The sentence would have worked perfectly fine, by the way (though I would still disagree with it), if it didn’t include those quotation marks. And there is no reason to include them unless you’re trying to undermine the idea that it exists.

    Reply
  4. RachelPhilPa

    It’s funny (not, actually), how in Kamiya’s world view only people of color are expected to take “personal responsibility”. Mr Kamiya, when do we expect white people to take “personal responsibility” for our actions that perpetuate racism?

    Reply
  5. Lirpa

    My favorite part:

    “During the Katrina debacle, images of thousands of impoverished blacks jammed into the New Orleans Superdome brought the scandalous reality of black poverty back into view. But the moment passed.”

    Oh, that’s good. Where as a few years ago we mught have actually CARED that thousands of poor black people were discriminated against and forced to live in squalor with no help from the government, now we can all just say, “well, that sucks,” and move on with life. Gee, thanks, terrorists!

    Reply

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