My conservative friends and I argue, from time to time, about the existence of racism in our politics. These conversations are always the most bruising, and they usually come down to the same calculus: I see racism in areas of our public and political life where they don't, and they resent being tarred as racists--or seeing others tarred as racists--for comments and actions that aren't necessarily racist. It's a conversation that happened again today in the aftermath of Mitt Romney's birth certificate joke, and my own cranky reaction to it.
It just so happens that Ta-Nehisi Coates has an essay at The Atlantic called "Fear of a Black President," and the title alone, I think, is guaranteed to irritate and offend my conservative friends. "There liberals go again, blaming the backlash to President Obama on race instead of the real reasons for the intense opposition!" And yes, it comes from a liberal viewpoint. But I still hope it gets a good reading.
Because I don't think my conservative friends have to agree with Coates's conclusions about how race has shaped Obama's presidency. But I think and hope they might find it useful to consider why so many African Americans do see racism as an underlying factor. "Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred," Coates said. "It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others. Black America ever lives under that skeptical eye."
The idea that blacks should hold no place of consequence in the American political future has affected every sector of American society, transforming whiteness itself into a monopoly on American possibilities. White people like Byrd and Buckley were raised in a time when, by law, they were assured of never having to compete with black people for the best of anything. Blacks used inferior public pools and inferior washrooms, attended inferior schools. The nicest restaurants turned them away. In large swaths of the country, blacks paid taxes but could neither attend the best universities nor exercise the right to vote. The best jobs, the richest neighborhoods, were giant set-asides for whites—universal affirmative action, with no pretense of restitution.
Slavery, Jim Crow, segregation: these bonded white people into a broad aristocracy united by the salient fact of unblackness. What Byrd saw in an integrated military was the crumbling of the ideal of whiteness, and thus the crumbling of an entire society built around it. Whatever the saintly nonviolent rhetoric used to herald it, racial integration was a brutal assault on whiteness. The American presidency, an unbroken streak of nonblack men, was, until 2008, the greatest symbol of that old order.And:
After Obama won, the longed-for post-racial moment did not arrive; on the contrary, racism intensified. At rallies for the nascent Tea Party, people held signs saying things like Obama Plans White Slavery. Steve King, an Iowa congressman and Tea Party favorite, complained that Obama “favors the black person.” In 2009, Rush Limbaugh, bard of white decline, called Obama’s presidency a time when “the white kids now get beat up, with the black kids cheering ‘Yeah, right on, right on, right on.’ And of course everybody says the white kid deserved it—he was born a racist, he’s white.” On Fox & Friends, Glenn Beck asserted that Obama had exposed himself as a guy “who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture … This guy is, I believe, a racist.” Beck later said he was wrong to call Obama a racist. That same week he also called the president’s health-care plan “reparations.”
One possible retort to this pattern of racial paranoia is to cite the Clinton years, when an ideological fever drove the right wing to derangement, inspiring militia movements and accusations that the president had conspired to murder his own lawyer, Vince Foster. The upshot, by this logic, is that Obama is experiencing run-of-the-mill political opposition in which race is but a minor factor among much larger ones, such as party affiliation. But the argument assumes that party affiliation itself is unconnected to race. It pretends that only Toni Morrison took note of Clinton’s particular appeal to black voters. It forgets that Clinton felt compelled to attack Sister Souljah. It forgets that whatever ignoble labels the right wing pinned on Clinton’s health-care plan, “reparations” did not rank among them.The entire piece deserves to be read at length. But the point is this: I think it's fair to say that African Americans often read racism into our politics and public life because for hundreds of years racism was interwoven and inextractable from our politics and our public life. It didn't always take the form of segregated fountains, lynchings, and racial slurs—it was part of the air that everybody breathed, and it was layered in with all the unspoken assumptions about how everything worked and everything should work, and white folks—having neither been the victims of all this, nor the heirs to the victims—wouldn't have noticed the particulars quite as closely as black folks did, nor passed along the understandings of those particulars. Bull Connor was the face of racism, and in some ways that's unfortunate, because the truth is that your sweet little grandmother from the South was probably also the face of racism to somebody, possibly and probably entirely without her intent. But being attuned to those less overt aspects of racist culture wasn't oversensitivity: It was a survival technique, handed down from generation to generation.
That doesn't explain why a white liberal like is also quick to see evidence of racism—or, to be more precise, a version of race hustling—in Mitt Romney's birther joke, I guess. But the irritation that some folks express at hearing accusations of racism often strikes me, at the very least, as an absence of empathy. If you'd been beaten down for 300 years, wouldn't you flinch the next time a man's hand was raised to you?
As I'm writing this, American Prospect writer Jamelle Bouie is tweeting about why African Americans often see racism in these things, and I think it's worth considering (with some edits):
To preemptively respond to the “why do you see racism in everything” trolls. The simple answer is that I don’t. Like most people of color, I don’t actually think about racism that much. It would be exhausting. I assume good intentions from most folks. And I don’t attribute ill motives to everyone who says something a little weird. But here’s the thing. If it seems like minorities notice racism a lot, it’s probably because there’s more racism than you think. After all, WE’RE THE TARGETS. And since we also live in this country, and were also exposed to the same ideas and conceptions you were. We notice the racial content behind things like Romney’s welfare attacks, or “food stamp” president. How could we *not* notice it?
I’ll put this another way. Not too long ago, if you would have said, “Jamelle, women are constantly harassed during their days…” I would have said, “You have to be kidding me, I’ve never seen that happen at all.” But by listening to women and their experiences I realized that I was completely full of shit. Women are constantly harassed. And you know what, when you aren’t the target of it, maybe you should take them at their word, and assume they know what they're talking about.
That’s really the only thing most minorities are asking. “Trust us. We recognize this stuff and it’s there.” Responding with some form of “You must be imagining things” is not the right answer. At least consider what we’re saying, first.
Empathy. Too often, we attribute bad motives to each other. (And that's probably true of me when I engage my conservative friends on race issues.) If we'd take five minutes to consider not just what is being said--the accusation of racism--but the forces that might have shaped that point of view, we might be able to have saner, kinder discussions about all of this.
In other words, to borrow Coates's phrasing: Maybe we should try to extend some of our broad sympathy toward the "other" to whom we would more naturally extend broad skepticism. It wouldn't solve everything—we still would have differences of opinion about all manner of things, and it's also true that there are more than a few people out there who are either cheerfully racist or happy to benefit from the racism of others. But most of us want to be understood as our best selves and not our worst; it might help if we offered others that same understanding.