Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Okay okay, we're all racist! Can we talk about the issues now?!?!

Our top story tonight, President Barack Obama is still black. Well, half black, technically. But there have been no melanin-based changes since he was elected in November.

A series of events, beginning with Rep. Wilson's comment, followed by a weekend of protests and capped off with a former president making yet another quotable declaration - have now brought the issue of race to the forefront of discussion about the president. It was even a poll question in the Express this week.

The Express poll is a good example of the problem with this debate - "Do you think race is a factor in the opposition to President Obama?" Your choices are YES or NO. As Carter himself said when he brought this up in his NBC interview, "That racism inclination still exists" in the country. Of course. Without question it still exists, and if you were to put that as your poll question with a choice of YES or NO, you should get a 100% unanimous vote that we all agree - racism still exists. But to bring this up as "is race a factor?" will get you nothing but a never-ending dialogue with personal attacks and racial insensitivity. Of course racism inclination still exists. No one is denying that. But to suggest that race is the key factor in the opposition to Obama is irresponsible, unfair and dangerous.

Not surprisingly, the published results of the poll were 50/50. Split down the middle between yes and no on "Is race a factor." A 50/50 vote should show that this a very divided issue. The problem is, it's not a divided issue. I think most of us agree that race will inevitably factor into many peoples decisions, but this poll suggest that half of the people think race is the number one overarching factor. Which is irresponsible, because it does nothing but dismiss the opinions of his opposition.

I can not say this any better than Joe Scarborough did this morning. This country elected Barack Obama. His approval ratings until recently were in the 70 percentile range. The amount of hope and positive energy on the National Mall in January was palpable. But now, the protesters descend on the capitol over the weekend and accusations of racism abound. This issue of race is an important one and it is worthy of lengthy and substantial debate. But let's refrain from dismissing peoples' opinions as being race-based and try to work on solutions to some real problems. This argument about whether race is a factor is a distraction. During the primaries, Bill Clinton was accused of playing the race card. Joe Biden was accused of making racist comments right after he announced he was running for President. However much of a factor you think race may be to the opposition, this is not an argument that will ever get resolved. This country is in crisis. I for one would like to hear solutions on how to fix the economy, the healthcare crisis, the national deficit; rather than accusations and finger-pointing.

It is unfortunate, but there will always be an undertone of racism in all matters related to Barack Obama. Just like there will always be an undertone of sexism in all matters related to Sarah Palin or Hillary Clinton. Instead of reducing these people to categories and characteristics, can we just let them try to get something done? Our elected officials have enough distractions as it is. Let's stop reducing complex arguments about race to yes-or-no questions; and while we're at it, we're not accomplishing much by demanding apologies for rude outbursts either. It's time to stop focusing on the bad behavior and get to work on putting this country back together.


policomic said...

I don't exactly disagree with the main idea here (and it's pretty much what Obama himself is saying), and I especially agree that the WAY we talk about race (as in the Express poll) is stupid (too "black & white"?). It's also true that all criticisms or dislike of Obama is rooted in racism. However, I do think the tea-partiers are mainly motivated by that, and I think racism is a driving force behind the movement to delegitimize his presidency, and that, in turn, is the main thing emboldening not only actual racists, like Wilson (I'm not basing that characterization solely on his outburst), but opportunists ranging from Lamar Alexander ("only an illegitimate president like him would appoint 'czars'?") to Chuck Grassley (whose "bipartisan" leanings evaporated rather suddenly when he sensed which way the winds were blowing).

The fact is, racism (white racism toward blacks, specifically), has probably been the single biggest factor influencing American politics since 1865 (and before that, of course, it was slavery shaping the Declaration, the Constitution, Westward Expansion, etc.). NOT talking about it is ignoring the elephant in the room. (And, since LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it has been the "elephants" who have reaped racism's electoral benefits.)

Other countries have their own historical sins, of course. But at the risk of invoking Godwin's Law, consider how defeated Germany was forced to deal with its past; then compare that to the defeated Confederacy. No war crimes trials, no equivalent to "de-Nazification," and really, no collective sense of shame or responsibility.

Far from it: Robert E. Lee, Jeff Davis, Stonewall Jackson, etc.--traitors, by any meaningful definition of the word--are still celebrated throughout the South, and have roads, schools, parks named after them.

There's no "Himmler High School" in Berlin, nor "Goering Park" in Munich. There are, of course, some neo-Nazis who celebrate that terrible period, but they are marginalized.

In the U.S. (and, to clarify, I'm not saying Lee, et al., were "just as bad as Nazis"), those who romanticize and celebrate the inhuman ideological underpinnings of their past society WON. And their victory was not confined to the South--they've had a hugely disproportionate influence on the whole country, for the past 144 years. They've pretty much run the place, for most of that 144 years.

I, too, wish we could set all this aside and solve the country's problems. But I fear it's so fundamental to the way politics actually works in this country, that it can't be set aside. There's votes in them thar bigots, and too many politicians are willing to pander to them, as long as they can maintain plausible deniability while doing so. I don't think we should let them get away with it (because I think it will work). But confronting them just leads to cries of, "you see racism everywhere--you're just a reverse racist!"

Kathleen said...

Have you ever heard of Travis Smiley's yearly event, State of the Black Union?

C-Span airs it every year and he gets panels of scholars and influential leaders together to discuss issues within the African-American community. I've watched quite a bit the last few years and it's always full of fascinating and refreshingly candid discussion about issues like what you've brought up. (Along with many many other topics, the conference goes on for an entire weekend.) It's a very civilized panel of people with very different views talking about issues that I think the entire country should be discussing. I agree with you 100%, this is not an issue to be tossed aside as unimportant. On the contrary, I'd like to see a constructive and informative discussion like the SOTBU covered by the mainstream and inspire a national dialogue. Yes, I live in a fantasy world. The extreme and sensational will always get the headline. C-Span and BET may be the only networks who cover this convention where important racial issues are brought to light, meanwhile the mainstream brings important racial issues to light via fist-waving accusations.

But I am not suggesting we should ignore the subject of racism in politics, nor do I think it should only be discussed one weekend a year. I simply think it's currently derailing some important discussions on the issues at hand.

I can appreciate what you say about not letting people get away with it and not catering to the ass-backward. But it sounds like you want to live in the same fantasy world as me where we have constructive dialogue. It always gets reduced to finger-pointing.

I see the "birthers" as being more racially driven than the "teabaggers." I honestly believe that the tea (Taxed Enough Already) party would have marched whether Obama, McCain, or Clinton were president. In fact, I think they would've been more hateful to Hillary Clinton if she were the prez. But then, we'd have the same finger-pointing, but sexism as the issue rather than racism.

policomic said...

You're right--I also live in that fantasy world where we could have a sane conversation about race. I've heard of the Tavis Smiley event, and will try to pay closer attention to it this year.

And I can't really disagree with the proposition that the usual, "dumb" discussions of race can be, and usually are, a distraction. Again, I think Obama himself shares this pragmatic view.

The only thing I really disagree with in your response is the last paragraph, and only in degree--but I think this is a significant point, and something that is making me anxiously consider whether what's currently going on isn't a little more serious than the usual dumb conversation. The "tea party" rallies have been almost entirely white, with plenty of Confederate flags, pictures of Obama as a witch doctor of a monkey, etc. in evidence. Yes, there are always anti-tax yahoos, who wouldn't be happy even with McCain. But if we had a Republican president, FOX would not be promoting (let's face it, practically sponsoring) these events, and lending them the degree of legitimacy that they have (front page news in the Post! Inflated crowd estimates juxtaposed against legitimate ones as a "he said/she said" by David Von Drehle in TIME!). Even if Hillary was president, I think the presence of, and need for at least some female tea-partiers would temper the sexism somewhat. There is no non-white presence (beyond an occasional hired stooge or two) to offset the racism of these crowds. Even if most of them aren't Kard-Karrying racists, the effect of such a movement is to embolden those with racist leanings (which, of course, all of us have).

Kathleen said...

First off, thank you for the kind correction. His name is Tavis Smiley, not Travis but I am unable to edit my comment. Good thing Mr. Smiley doesn't read my blog.

If I understate the level of racism, I think you overstate it. The truth probably is somewhere in the middle. I agree that some of the posters were in poor taste, but those were the ones that got the most media attention, they were not in the majority. I was not on the mall but I saw tons of tea party patriots over the weekend and there was nothing offensive about them. Honestly, I think if you take out the word "tea party" out of the description of the crowd and substitute the word "NASCAR" they will be interchangeable for the most part.

Did you happen to see the Thursday night SNL spot last night w/Michael Steele and Jimmy Carter (Kenan Thompson and Darrell Hammond)? Steele was trying to show Carter it was not a racist rally by pointing out the African-Americans in the crowd.

Thompson: There's one right there.
Hammond: That's a police officer.
Thompson: Here's another one.
Hammond: That's someone wearing an Obama mask.

Your point is taken and we definitely both live in a fantasy world. I should write a new blog post about my experience w/the tea party people. Carter said he was just stating what everyone else was whispering and that part is accurate in my experience as well.

policomic said...

I'm enjoying the hell out of this little "debate"--if you can call it that when we're pretty much in agreement but for a matter of degree. I did see the SNL thing, which was funny, despite a pretty weak impression of Steele.

I take your point about the media highlighting the worst signs, and must defer to your eyewitness view of the actual event. I still think, though, that a lot of the talk about how MUCH of the anti-Obama stuff is "racist" is off target, in a way that is similar but far more subtle than the way that "is race a factor" poll was. When I said racism was one of the most powerful driving forces in American politics, I don't think that's primarily because there's a huge number of people one could meaningfully characterize as "racists." There's plenty of those, of course, but far fewer than even 30 years ago, as a percentage of the population. Racism, however, is a far more insidious thing; people who would never dream of carrying one of those witch doctor signs, or using the "N-word" are "reachable" on the level of racial fear and animosity. And I don't think there's even a question that Limbaugh, Beck, and FOX are trying to "reach out" to people in that way (the minority of hard-core racists don't need to be persuaded to fear and hate Obama). And Beck is the INVENTOR of the "9/12" movement, and the single person most responsible for all of those people being there on that day.

I could, as you know, go on and on, but instead I'll paste in a paragraph of Hendrick Hertzberg's from the new New Yorker:

"This sort of lunatic paranoia—touched with populism, nativism, racism, and anti-intellectualism—has long been a feature of the fringe, especially during times of economic bewilderment. What is different now is the evolution of a new political organism, with paranoia as its animating principle. The town-meeting shouters may be the organism’s hands and feet, but its heart—also, Heaven help us, its brain—is a “conservative” media alliance built around talk radio and cable television, especially Fox News. The protesters do not look to politicians for leadership. They look to niche media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, Michael Savage, and their scores of clones behind local and national microphones. Because these figures have no responsibilities, they cannot disappoint. Their sneers may be false and hateful—they all routinely liken the President and the “Democrat Party” to murderous totalitarians—but they are employed by large, nominally respectable corporations and supported by national advertisers, lending them a considerable measure of institutional prestige. The dominant wing of the Republican Party is increasingly an appendage of the organism—the tail, you might say, though it seems to wag more often from fear than from happiness. Many Republican officeholders, even some reputed moderates like Senator Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, have obediently echoed the foul nonsense."

Kathleen said...

I agree on the Steele impression. I also agree with the alarming trend of fearmongering. It's nothing new, there has always been prognosticating that the world will end if an opponent wins or certain legislation is passed (or not passed, as the case may be.) The problem in this case with the Republicans is that since 2001 they have warned us against terrorists (perceived as anti-Muslim), supported the DOMA (anti-homosexual) and now anti-Obama sentiment makes them seem ever-more bigoted. I don't see them blantantly trying to plant the seeds of fear of the "other" as much as you do. Although I do think that the Bush administration has alienated so much of the Republican base that there is more now than ever a majority of senior citizens and/or evangelicals in the party. People who, shall we say, will tend to have much more firmly-held beliefs.

For years, the Democratic Party has been ignoring the needs of the African-American community and taken for granted that they have their votes. I think it would be just if the Republican Party would do the same for the bigoted members of their party. Take for granted that they are not going anywhere else and try to appeal to a different demographic. The difference between Republicans and Democrats used to be small gov't vs. big gov't. These days... I honestly don't know what either of them stand for. Winning? Not being the other party? It's a pretty depressing political climate and explains why I'm watching college football and MLB today instead of turning on the cable news networks. At least in sports someone wins. In politics and current affairs lately, I think we all lose.

policomic said...

I was going to let your last comment be the last word, but this column in the latest Newsweek is so relevant to what we've been talking about, I thought I should send it your way: