Monday, May 19, 2014

"You have to be taught..."

"Wishes come true...not free."

This article at Slate is just one example of many I've come across lately on the subject of race in America.

That it remains our "hidden wound."

1.3K comments at Slate, and too many of them very critical of the idea that racism won't go away because we can all be "colorblind."  This comment is typical:

"No, racism is better understood as white supremacy—anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least."

Bouie has proposed a way to keep racial animosity alive forever:  Redefine racism so that any difference in outcomes is automatically attributed to unfairness rather than to merit.

I know a lot of whites who lack power, respect, and resources.  Should they blame Jews?  
I've heard that line of argument before; when I was a child, in the days before and immediately after the Civil Rights Act.  Contrary to popular belief, Brown v.  Board didn't solve segregation problems, and the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act didn't end racism in America.  And the notion that racism is now gone because, well, because millenials came along, is equally wrong.

Bouie's definition of racism there is a good working definition:  it goes to the question of power, and from power flows respect and access to resources.  Anyone defending racism by claiming we all just need to "get along" and, like Stephen Colbert, not see color, is re-establishing racism, not uprooting it.

The fundamental problem here is, we have no concept of culture.  We think of culture as perhaps a very narrow thing, something limited to rural areas where people don't get "new ideas" and so don't know we've all "moved on."  But culture has a persistence that is poorly understood and widely accepted.

Texas, for example, has become the second most populous state in the country.  In the 80's there were complaints about "non-native" Texans moving down here.  I still have a coffee mug emblazoned with the popular logo "Native Texan" as if we were an endangered species, or more Texan than thou.  That population growth never abated, and yet politically and culturally, Texas was little changed.

Texas has been a one-part state since Reconstruction.  Like the rest of the American South, we switched that party from the Democrats to the GOP, largely through the actions of LBJ to make the world more equitable.  Since that time the number of "native Texans" has been washed away by "immigrants."  But here's the question:  why didn't Texas become more liberal?

Eventually the cities did.  Dallas was the point of origin for most of the TV evangelists in the '70's and '80's.  Now the sheriff of Dallas County is (or was, I haven't checked on whether she still holds the office) is a lesbian.  Houston' mayor is a lesbian, too; so far as I know the only gay person to hold that office in a major metropolitan area (odd we don't get more credit for that).  All the major metro areas of Texas (D/FW, Houston, San Antonio, Austin) went for Obama, twice.  But it wasn't enough to outweigh the rural areas, the areas that still send Ted Cruz and Louie Gohmert to Congress, and who will probably replace Rick Perry with Greg Abbott (sorry, but I don't think Wendy Davis has a snowball's chance in hell).  Yes, the urban areas of Texas have gained population; but so have the rural areas.  Small towns that were once moribund and on their way to being ghost towns are now alive with antique stores and "craft" shops and music and plant (flowers, fruits, peppers) festivals.  People are actually moving to those places and making a living and altering, slightly, the local culture.

Ever, ever so slightly.

But the basic culture of the places remains; both in attitudes toward non-whites (Texas is due to go minority/majority any day now, and if you don't think that's freaking people out, you aren't paying attention) and in politics, which if anything has become more backwards and anti-progressive since the '70s' (the high-water mark of liberalism in Texas politics).  So, with all these non-natives moving in who didn't grow up on the Texas mystique of being an independent republic and our Southern heritage (in East Texas; Central Texas is more heavily German; West Texas is ranchers and oil; and then there's South Texas, the Valley, the Trans-Pecos, North Texas, the Panhandle....) adapt to what is fundamentally Texas in a heartbeat.

Or at least they don't change it much.  Because change could require attention, and attention is hard!  So much easier to pretend things are just fine and all those problems that existed before we got here (I'm looking at you, Millenials!) are unimportant, so quit talking about 'em and they'll go away!

And here's where the Baby Boomers are the "Greatest Generation."

The civil rights movement was not started by Boomers, because they were, at best, only 10 years old or so at the time.  But it was Boomers who took up the challenge to change the culture they were handed; who stood with the marchers as the Boomers got old enough to march themselves.  It was the Boomers who forced the fundamental changes, not in law but in society, necessary to make racism no longer the default setting of social order.

And the Boomers did this because they recognized the culture they had been born into was a continuum, and it was up to them to fix it.

Millenials, by simply saying "Hey, that hard work is done!", are abdicating their responsibility.   Do I exaggerate?

Wow, Jamelle.  You are stuck in the 1960s.  Only whites can be racist?  Racism is synonymous with white supremacy?  I'm sure you mean well, but get with the program.  These views are no longer describe reality.  I know, it can be jarring to let go of the old animosity--just ask gay people because they are part of an active struggle.  But let go you must.

Millenials feel as they do because the civil rights movement was their grandparent's issue.  It was, to be sure, a noble and valiant struggle, and the right side won.  It's over now.  It has been for a long time.  Millenials know this.

Affirmative action now basically means discriminating against poor Asians for the benefit of middle and upper class blacks.  It's not what anybody anticipated and Millenials, rightly and overwhelmingly, would prefer to see this and other race-conscious policies fade into history where they belong. 
See?  The only racism is the racism you see!  All those stories about Driving While Black or about being followed around a store if you are black, or even the examples of people being turned down for housing because they are black; all gone!  George Zimmerman?  Hey, that's a one off!  Except for all the other cases of shooting at black kids, and the guy who only got convicted because he fired at the car as it drove away.  Before that?  Well, they were black kids, they coulda had a gun!

But again, a one off.  Why, that guy was so old he was probably a Gen X'er.  Millenials rule!

Or something.

The song from "South Pacific" was right; you do have to be taught to hate.  The problem is, that teaching is subtler and less obvious than we imagine.  The French in Louisiana imagined, once upon a time, that if they allowed interracial marriage (which would have included Native Americans as well as Africans with Europeans), that racial distinctions would disappear.  Instead, we got the laws about "racial purity." and the "one-drop" rule, and distinctions of "mulattoes" and "quadroons" and "octaroons," words with as much legal power and distinction behind them as "imbecile" and "moron" once had (when Holmes wrote that "Three generations of imbeciles is enough!," he was using a legally defined term, not a general opprobrium).  We cannot ignore our way out of this problem, or pretend that Stephen Colbert is our patron saint for a new millennia.

We cannot pretend the hard work is done; or that paying attention to this problem only makes it worse (that's the same argument made about sex ed:  if we don't talk about it, teenagers won't know what it is).  The hard work of eliminating racism hasn't been done; it's only just gotten started.

400 years of evil cannot be undone in only 40.


  1. So many people get everything they think about these things from the media, with no reference to even the most recent history, that they believe what it contains. And, especially since the 1980s, that is racist, right-wing propaganda. Young people, especially, don't seem to learn anything about even the recent past so they are more vulnerable to having the media mythology as their understanding of human history.

  2. If you understand the right-wing propaganda that is no more or less than racist code talk, you know racism is alive and well for anyone to perceive, that is for anyone who is not willfully blind and deaf. Code talk fools a lot of the people a lot of the time, and don't you dare call them racist for preaching or buying into the propaganda.

  3. Mimi--

    You and I hear those codes. We were raised on them.

    I fear the "millenials' don't, because they weren't. We thought that was good: to eliminate coded racial talk would surely eliminate racism.

    Unfortunately, we eliminated understanding. The code persisted, the context is now lost, and every article I read at Salon or Slate regarding the subject of race is filled with "millenials" who decry the very mention of the subject, because that's the only source of racism they seem to see.

    Even my daughter doesn't catch the racism I do. And I don't want her to; but I don't want her to fall back into the easy racism of earlier generations, just because she doesn't recognize it.

    It is all a darkness. And an indication of the persistence of culture, and cultural memory.

  4. A few of the code phrases that come to mind are:

    Poor work ethic
    Deserving poor (implying undeserving poor)
    Inner city
    Entitlement society

    Those on the far-right are embarrassed when their own speak like Cliven Bundy, but I think more millenials understand the code than you allow. When the old codes like "welfare queen" and "Cadillac queen" are no longer useful, the far-right invent new codes, but they understand each other well enough.

  5. You may be right about that. Perhaps I wish they were acting naively, when in fact they are acting (or at least commenting) quite purposefully.