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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

August 10, 2011: Not Yet E-raced

It’s difficult to overstate my frustration with how frequently and consistently our last few years of national political and cultural conversations have been driven by images or narratives of reverse racism, and specifically of African American racism against whites. Vying for the most famous (and probably most stupid) examples would have to be Glenn Beck’s description of President Obama as a “racist” who has “a deep-seated hatred of white people” (don’t tell his Mom and grandparents!) and Rush Limbaugh’s responding to a video of black teens beating up a white peer on a school bus by arguing that this is what happens in “Barack Obama’s America.” But while those particular instances could be dismissed as outliers or extremes, the fact is that many of the most ongoing contemporary narratives (especially from the right, although they have all permeated broader conversations as well) likewise depend on images of reverse racism that are just as ridiculous and fabricated as they are divisive and damaging: these would include Eric Holder’s Justice department giving preferential treatment to African Americans, the NAACP and Shirley Sherrod and others discriminating against whites, ACORN and similar organizations conspiring to steal elections, Sonia Sotomayor and other governmental appointees (and even Obama himself) as “affirmative action picks,” and many other narratives along these same lines.
A basic knowledge of and engagement with many of the histories with which I’ve engaged in this space—from 19th century histories of slavery, the rise of the KKK and Jim Crow, and lynching to 20th century ones of ongoing segregation and violence, the resistance to the Civil Rights movement, institutionalized racism in the housing and educational systems, and much else besides—would go a long way toward revealing the silliness in any description of American racism as targeting whites. But that historical knowledge would not necessarily counter a somewhat more complicated but ultimately just as nonsensical and damaging narratives that I have encountered frequently among those advancing these claimants of reverse racism: this narrative begins by admitting and lamenting the long history of racism in America but notes that now things have changed, partly for the better (for the prior victims of racism) but also unfortunately for the worse (for those who have now become the victims). This narrative would thus seem to diffuse any appeal to history (although I have found that it tends to locate the racist histories much further back in time than would be appropriate, and to tend similarly to minimize any blame for the racism through general ideas about “the way things were”), and thus require a response that at least does not rely solely on history in order to offer a different perspective on racism and racial hierarchies here in 21st century America.
There are, I believe, plenty of contemporary realities and details that would help with such a response, including some of the broadest facts about our society; this would include a recent Pew study(at the first link) that details the ever-widening wealth gap between white and non-white communities in the United States (a gap that is at its largest in over 25 years). Yet while such economic realities and their usually concomitant institutional policies are often the most telling markers of a society’s communal identity, they don’t necessarily work (to go back to yesterday’s Mailer post) as effective stories. Luckily, or rather helpfully for this argument, there have been numerous overt and horrifying recent stories that make clear the lingering and destructive presence of anti-black racism in America. At the second link, for example, is the story of a late June hate crime in Mississippi, the brutal murder of a black man by a group of local teens who were simply looking to “mess with” any and all African Americans they encountered; at the third is the much less violent but just as fucked-up story of an Arkansas (Little Rock, in a particularly tragic irony) high school that refused to allow an African American girl to serve as its valedictorian, despite her clear status as the graduating senior with the highest GPA. These are, I hope it goes without saying, only two of many such stories I have seen in recent months; like them, each has had its specific contexts and complexities, but all have illustrated that 21st century American victims of racism (whether individual or institutional) still don’t look much like Beck or Limbaugh.
How we—as individuals, as communities, as a nation—should respond to that reality remains an ongoing and difficult question, although I would certainly connect it to need for the kinds of social programs I wrote about in this post. But as with so many of our most pressing national questions, before we can even begin to address it seriously we need to dispense with the over-simplified and often simply false narratives that obscure our perspective on it. Which is to say, in this case and as bluntly as possible (and echoing a bit what Mike Parker wrote in his guest post here): fellow white people, get over yourselves. More tomorrow,
PS. Four links to start with:
2)      New York Times story on the hate crime:
3)      A local story on the valedictorian controversy:
4)      OPEN: What do you think?

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