Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

Getting back to that question about when it's about race and when it isn't, it's really rather hard to see when it isn't:

The irony is that, the occasional high-profile backlash notwithstanding, few people are actually punished or ostracized for expressing Trump-like attitudes. This is clearly true in everyday life, where a sizable number of Americans hold and express white nationalist views but retain their jobs and relationships. It’s also true in the public sphere. Donald Trump is emblematic of this. Five years after stoking a racist conspiracy theory about the legitimacy of the U.S. president, he won the presidential nomination for the Republican Party, with only modest dissent from GOP elites. Put differently, Americans overestimate how much anyone is ever sanctioned for explicit prejudice and racism. The political correctness so decried by Trump and other conservatives is more chimera than scourge.

There is, however, a different, stronger form of political correctness at work in American life, with real consequences for those who violate it. This political correctness targets those who speak frankly about the force and effects of racism. It’s a political correctness based on the offense felt by white Americans, and it’s pervasive and powerful.
Jamelle Bouie is referring to the case of Jemele Hill, who called Trump a white supremacist in a tweet.  This, of course, will not do, and her employer opined that, while she didn't cross a line, she was pushing it.  Which caused, Ta-Nehisi Coates to respond:

 I think if you own a business that attempts to keep black people from renting from you, if you are reported to say that you don’t want black people counting your money; if you say—and not even reported, just come out and say—that someone can’t judge your case because they are Mexican; if your response to the first black president is that they weren’t born in this country, despite all proof ... if that’s the essence of your entire political identity you might be a white supremacist, it’s just possible.
Or, as Chris Rock famously asked:  What do you have to do, shoot Medgar Evers?

As Bouie points out, calling Trump a white supremacist isn't an insult; it's simply stating a fact.  One could argue Mr. Coates was simply stating facts in his most recent essay.  Ah, but as I'm telling my freshman English students even now, there are facts, and there are the interpretations of facts; and the latter really determines what is, and is not, a fact.  Josh Marshall and George Packer think Mr. Coates got his facts wrong, that he gives too much credence to race and not enough attention to other salient factors.  But, as Mr. Bouie points out:

The problem for Hill isn’t that the conclusion lacks a factual basis. The problem is that it offends certain groups of white Americans. It is, in a phrase, politically incorrect. But whereas Trump’s politically incorrect affirmation of white racism is rewarded, Jemele Hill’s was punished. 
Facts follow from interpretation, and interpretation follows from, among other things, power and social position.

If liberal political correctness is overstated, then its mirror image, the force that shuts down frank discussions of racism and racist acts, is understated. Yet it’s this latter force that more powerfully shapes our politics, either in the spectacle of the White House demanding retaliation against critics, or in writing and thinking that seeks to absolve white Americans from any responsibility for racism.

Aye, there's the rub.  And why can't Ta-Nehisi Coates get this, and quit blaming everything on race?  He should blame it on things that don't make white people so uncomfortable.

Or we could realize our discomfort with discussing race is because we don't want to give up the benefit it still offers some of us.

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