Sunday, August 17, 2008

Politics: On Racism in America

I’ve been getting some interesting e-mail lately. There’s been a significant amount of obscene and invective-filled garbage from Barack Obama supporters angry about what I’ve been writing about him (almost always from Yahoo accounts), and they use my developing and uneasy point of view about controversial GOP campaign efforts in the past as some sort of proof that I’m either a racist at heart or a Republican. However, every now and then I get something fairly thoughtful:

Don’t you feel that promoting racism is wrong? Or exploiting it? Digby’s right. You act as if racism doesn’t exist anymore. You quoted her complaint in your post. Why won’t you address it?

It’s not that I don’t feel racism doesn’t exist anymore. I just feel it’s gradually become a secondary form of general economic class bigotry. In most instances, the color of one’s skin is no longer a primary signifier in spurring prejudicial attitudes. Blacks are certainly on the receiving end of prejudiced treatment, but it’s not their skin color that’s provoking it, at least not initially. Class prejudice is often spurred by such signifiers as speech patterns and body language; these suggest one’s current lifestyle, the sort of upbringing one has had, one's educational level, one’s respect towards authority, one’s work ethic and reliability, and on and on. Anyone who evinces behavioral signifiers that say “working class” or “poor,” regardless of skin color, will often be treated disparagingly by people with power in our society. The assumptions that one conforms to negative racial stereotypes may follow, as well as the ugliness of racist behavior, but the negative judgment about one’s class invariably has to come first.

This is why most whites do not think of themselves as racists, even though they can display racist attitudes and behave in racist ways. They know they do not automatically look at a black person and think “bad” or “inferior.” They may also feel warmly and friendly towards a number of black people of their acquaintance, they have no trouble employing or working alongside them, and they can do so without being the least bit patronizing about it. Many of them look on prominent blacks in our society with the utmost respect: Martin Luther King, Jr. is probably the most widely admired American of the last fifty years, and Colin Powell, until his complicity in the Iraq WMD fraud tarnished his reputation, was probably the most respected living American. Only the stupidest troglodytic fringe-dweller is going to look at contemporary African-Americans like Powell, Barack Obama, or Condoleezza Rice and think, “Nigger.” Their behavioral signifiers don’t allow for it: all of them come across as well-educated, well-mannered, and fully conforming to the codes that govern our societal structures. More to the point, none of them come across as “working class” or “poor.”

Now these signifiers can have an ironic effect. Look at O.J. Simpson. He’s as loathsome as they come: an abusive stalker who, in a jealous rage, murdered his ex-wife by all but decapitating her, and who repeatedly stabbed a witness to death. But his behavioral signifiers all say intelligent, well-mannered, and tastefully upscale, and though the term “scumbag” may roll easily off the tongue when characterizing him, the term “nigger” doesn’t come easily even to those whites given to using the word. Unlike, say, Allen Iverson, whose behavioral signifiers all say poor, uneducated, disrespectful to authority—in short, a hoodlum. People with racist inclinations may have trouble calling O.J. Simpson a “nigger,” but they have no problem calling Iverson one, even though they know that Iverson is, despite some minor brushes with the law, an infinitely preferable human being. It’s just that Iverson’s personal signifiers open the door to it; Simpson’s don’t, even though Simpson is vastly more worthy of the venomous contempt the word carries.

What I object to is the kneejerk tendency on the part of Digby and others to yell racism whenever they can make an argument that racism might be involved to some degree in a criticism of Barack Obama. Just because one can make a superficially plausible argument to that effect doesn’t make it so. Nothing about Barack Obama’s persona spurs negative class prejudices, so there is almost nothing John McCain can do that is going to make people look down on Obama in a racist way. This means almost no one is going to see Obama as an “uppity Negro” or that he “doesn’t know his place,” regardless of how many times he gets called “presumptuous” for some act of hubris. The few that are capable of those views have been there since Obama became a national figure four years ago.

About the only thing that could happen that might provoke racially bigoted attitudes towards Obama as a person is if it came out he was romantically involved at some point with a white woman. And I use the term “racially bigoted” instead of “racist” because I know significant numbers of blacks as well as whites are opposed to interracial romance. Such a story would hurt his standing with members of both races. Current polling on interracial romance is all but impossible to come by, but I remember the reactions when I, a white male, became involved with a black woman for a time several years back. There was next to no disdain from whites, but there were plenty of dirty looks from blacks, and on two occasions, the woman with whom I was involved was accosted and berated by black women she didn’t know for dating a white man. In the popular culture, Spike Lee, the country’s most prominent African-American filmmaker, wrote, directed, and produced Jungle Fever, a feature-length narrative polemic against such relationships, something no white filmmaker has done, and Denzel Washington, probably the leading African-American romantic actor of the last two decades, reportedly refuses to include love scenes with white actresses in his films because of concerns it will upset his fan base among African-American women. (See here and here.) Tom Cruise, Washington’s white counterpart as a romantic star, has no such issues: he played romantic scenes with the black actress Thandie Newton in Mission: Impossible II, a big-budget commercial picture that he also produced; the film was a big hit, and there wasn’t a whisper of controversy. When I see people act as if whites are the only people who have hang-ups about interracial romance, as they do when discussing Bob Corker’s “Call Me!” ad against Harold Ford, Jr. two years ago, I know they’re talking out of their hats.

The racist aspects of GOP campaigning are a more complicated subject, and what makes it complicated is that while an aspect of a particular ad or meme may be racist or have racist implications, other aspects of it are not racist at all. The non-racist aspects may be what are most effective, but because Digby and others are in such a hurry to condemn the objectionable or potentially objectionable aspects of an attack or criticism, they don’t treat the valid aspects with any respect, no matter how much is warranted. But, as I’ve stated, this is a very complicated subject, and I’ll be returning to it on Wednesday.

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