Thursday, May 26, 2011
May 26, 2011: The Two-Way Street
A recent study by researchers at Tufts and Harvard confirms, if through a relatively small sample, something that I’ve felt to be the case for at least the couple years of Obama’s presidency, and really for some time before that—that many white Americans believe that anti-white racism has become a significant national problem, and in fact that it often outstrips (and at least in many ways equals) the more typically defined racisms and discriminations against minority groups. More exactly, as the study puts it, many whites seem to see race and opportunity as a zero-sum game, meaning that the more progress is made by various minority groups (perhaps especially African Americans), the more it happens at the expense of the opportunities for others (and especially “average” white Americans, in this formulation). It seems clear to me that a great many of the last few years’ prominent controversies—from arguments that Sonia Sotomayor was an “affirmative action pick” for the Supreme Court to Glenn Beck’s vision of Obama as a “racist” who just “doesn’t like white people,” from all of the critiques of Eric Holder’s Justice department as favoring African Americans to the oft-repeated cries of “I want my country back!” at Tea Party gatherings and Town Hall protests—can be linked to such beliefs about anti-white discrimination.
I have to admit that I’ve mostly dismissed such beliefs as fundamentally silly, nonsensical even, given the ongoing and (to my mind) still inarguable distributions of power and wealth and opportunity across racial and ethnic lines in our culture. I would still argue vehemently against this position in the case of each of those aforementioned controversies, all of which have been based on a combination of blatant falsehoods and, frankly, actual and ugly bigotry. And, more significantly and more in keeping with this blog’s focal points, I would also argue that the deepest problem with this perspective is that it tends to reinforce national narratives in which racism against minorities is a shameful but distant part of our national past, something that happened in a bygone era and thus has no particular relevance, and certainly no continuing purchase, in our contemporary moment. Such narratives are not only historically inaccurate but also extremely disingenuous, as they almost always serve as a cover for arguments about the need to dismantle social and educational programs that seek to aid disadvantaged populations—many if not most of whom, just to be very clear, are in actuality themselves “white.” (That’s true not only of social programs like welfare and Medicaid or educational ones like Head Start and federal financial aid but also, it’s important to note given the complete absence of this fact from our national conversations, affirmative action programs, many of which have long aided lower-income white Americans, especially but not exclusively women, alongside other minority groups.)
And yet I’ve long argued, here and elsewhere, that one of the main goals of my recent book is to develop a definition of American identity that can include all Americans, that can feel as relevant to those who might identify themselves as part of the Puritan tradition as it would to those who might identify more with the multicultural tradition or any culture/community therein. And so I do find myself agreeing with some of what’s being argued in that Tufts/Harvard study, at least as it’s framed in the Salon.com piece linked below—in particular, I think it is fair to say that multicultural historical and national narratives, as they have often been deployed, have had relatively little to say to white Americans, or have even represented them as a new version of the “Other.” For example, one of the sections in the collection Multiculturalism in the United States (2000) is entitled “European American Decline,” in direct contrast to the others that have titles such as “Asian Americans” and “African Americans.” Whether we would call such attitudes discriminatory, much less racist, is an open question to be sure; but whatever we would call them, it certainly seems neither practical nor ideal for defining national narratives to have little to do with large percentages of our national community and population. A defining national narrative that can include (for example) a tenth-generation German American family in Kansas alongside first-generation arrivals to New York City from Cameroon is to my mind a much more communally productive and meaningful narrative than either one in which the Kansans are the “real Americans” or one in which the two cultures are equally significant but entirely separate.
To link this to yesterday’s ideas, acceptance is a two-way street—it does none of us any good if accepting certain individuals and communities as full and equal parts of our national identity requires us to minimize the presences or roles of others in the process. If some white Americans are feeling that they have less of a place in 21st century America—even if they’re often expressing that feeling through narratives about race and racism that feel, to me, pretty flawed and problematic—then it’s that much more important to work toward national narratives that accept, and interweave, all of our American identities. More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) That piece on the Tufts/Harvard study: http://www.salon.com/news/race/index.html?story=/opinion/walsh/2011/05/26/are_whites_facing_more_racism
2) A thorough and strong take on our limited narratives about affirmative action policies: http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1442
3) OPEN: What do you think?