As Patrick McIlheran points out Shelby Steele has an extraordinary piece in Crossroads yesterday regarding the end of the idea of white supremacy. The standard response to this is that racism is still just as virulent - or still pretty virulent - but "subtle."
How one can believe that such a racial hegemony can exist when to even hint at it in public will destroy your career is beyond me? Obviously there are still racists of the old stripe and certain racial stereotypes persist to varying degrees, but, as Steele points out, in twenty-first century America "swims upstream in an atmosphere of ferocious intolerance."
Patrick doesn't mention it, but Orlando Patterson's companion piece is just as extraordinary. Her writes:
If one acknowledges that individual attitudes, values and behaviors are the main sources of the problems young black men face - the undeniable existence of racism notwithstanding - then the right strategy is to explore the nature of these values and to understand the factors that reinforce and sustain them.
Patterson is no conservative, but he too rejects the notion that the problem is racism and the solution is external. He goes on to argue that the government has a role to play in fostering the internal development of the black community (something that I do not completely disagree with) but he makes clear that the solution lies in changing inner city culture.
Patterson - and Steele - would be quick to point out that this culture is not intrinsic to African-Americans. It is a relatively new development and, in my view, white people (including - or even primarily - white people on the left) bear a great deal of the blame. But the fact that it is not an inevitable consequence of poverty and, in many ways, antithetical to the way in which the black community weathered slavery and the very real and pervasive racism of the first 100 years antebellum makes it all the more tragic.
But here in Milwaukee, too much of the "official" leadership of the city carries water for Michael McGee, Jr., and plays the race card. Good to keep you in power, but not to change things.
How it hangs together, in some minds:
the mcgee types unabashedly stand for a kind of black tribal ethno-centrism that they might admit is racist, except that it's ok for blacks and blacks alone to exercise it. The commander has said from time to time that if he was white, he'd be against him and his son too. In his view, every competing interest starts from racially defined group membership. Eric Von et al sound quite similar lately in their discussions of Obama. They have also frequently indicated that "minority" as a special status should be long to blacks, not hispanics or asians, but they want to refer to Milwaukee as a "majority-minority" area for the benefit of the black community (though it is the latino population that makes it majority-minority). You can, in this view, have the power of a voting majority (maybe) and a "historically oppressed" minority. This sounds like a design to occupy a permanently dependent status but to do it so powerfully that you get what you want on demand. How much of a politically viable future does this mentality really have?
I see this mentality as a deformed version of the same intense emphasis on collective self-interest that has served well for every other ethnic group in the US. What makes it a deformed mentality/strategy/cultural logic for African Americans is that they have opted to define the collective racial identity--being black--by smuggling in cultural, ideological, and class traits as constitutive of of it. Being seen as black due to skin color is not enough--you have to think, act, and talk a certain way and regard other members of the group a certain way. Otherwise, you are not authentically black.
For this reason, the real internal political diversity and disagreement among African Americans--which falls along class and gender lines--is denied/repressed/ignored while the the urban black underclass is pushed forward as iconic of a monolithic "black community"--i.e. blacks as a whole. (This identity does not readily include African Africans, and African Africans are often loathe to include themselves in it.) Any visibly black person breaking from this rhetoric of identity will be alienated and labeled a race traitor by other blacks who adhere to this game.
Whatever the cost was for Irish, Poles, Italians, etc. to leave the old neighborhood and mix more with the WASPs, or even to become episcopalians or (god forbid) presbyterians, they still did not get uncle tommed this severely. Call it the black ceiling--go beyond it, and you lose membership in the cultural microcosm that gives meaning and order to life for most people. Check the WaPo's recent series on being a black man in America--they had a good profile on a guy in this situation.
As a deliberate strategy for keeping poor black urban areas as they are because any change would force black racialist politicians to lose votes or change your game--or because you are truly threatened by economic uplift as assimilation with the white/non-black mainstream (which will indeed happen) the all-for-one, one-for-all victimology game is the entirely logical choice. It is a segregatory choice, a rejection of pluralism and the order of modern liberal polities. It's an understandable choice, a reaction to a real threat of loss, since the cost of membership in modern liberal polities is inevitably deracination--the loss of ethnic, religious, and cultural beliefs/habits/identities/traditions/languages that have defined particular people-groups for centuries.
Nice essay, Anony, although "deracination" is used in with a new meaning, I think.
Rick, how long do you think the McGee concept of black identity and politics can continue here, and what will be the result?
I like Steele, but he doesn't mention how the "power" gained from playing the perpetual victim is a mirage; I don't see it standing up to a cost-benefit analysis unless the only benefits that matters are those going to politicians who play this game or use it.
His last paragraph is something else. Separating race from the State is an idea associated with pro-segregation racism. It would, if taken seriously, mean the repeal of all civil rights legislation and perhaps open housing laws--which is what it took, perhaps, to make racism so unacceptable today. I wonder what his intentions were with that remark.
It also shows he totally fails to understand the deeply felt experience of threat and loss among traditional ethno-cultural-religious groups in western societies. (E.g. Muslims, Christians, and among them both, black Americans.) Our system has long been run by dominant subculture and minority--a secular ruling elite committed to the evermore radically egalitarian elaboration of Enlightenment Liberalism. This dominates the mainstream and dominant institutions--the whole American cultural discourse. Being "conservative" for most means being conservative within the orbit of this ideology.
The "religious right," for instance, when it is understood as more than an elmer gantry bogeyman, has been fighting/trying to cope with "public neutrality/the naked public square." They dimly see it as a deck stacked against them and have come to understand "separation of church and state" as a club used to bludgeon folks who have not learned that their religious leaders are fools to be "tolerated" or condemned based on their level of apparent conformity to Liberalism's precepts. If you think your "religious beliefs" (automatically rubber-stamped as non-scientific and non-rational) might have some relevance in public life, you will at least be talked down to as a fool yourself. (Cf. Pimentel's stupid editorial column on Sunday.)
Anyway, the point is, maybe given these other cultural reference points, others outside the black experience might be able to relate to the rhetoric of black identity, oppression and loss as not a unique or unusual thing but yet one more kind of trauma response to deeper historical-cultural-political developments that affect everyone.
Black vs. "black"
Barack Obama is black -- he just isn't "black." And if his candidacy helps take the quotation marks off race in America, it's a good thing.
By Gary Kamiya
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