Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cultivating Grievances

Be it known: James Taranto has issued a diktat on racism; the matter is now settled, and any future complaints about this ineluctable fact of American life will invite his displeasure:

It's hard to make people feel guilty when they personally have done nothing wrong. It's hard to argue that racial disparities are the product of extant racism when there is no direct evidence that such racism is anything but extremely rare, and when public policy actually favors blacks over whites.
If it were truly difficult to make people feel guilty when they'd done nothing wrong, the Republican Party would've withered on the vine decades ago, to say nothing of organized religion.

Walter Benjamin once remarked that "only ignorant idealism can believe that sensual desire, of whatever sort, could designate the theological concept of sin." Needless to say, this country has plenty of ignorant idealists, and plenty of vicious cynics who'll exploit them for personal and political gain.

But never mind about that. It takes appallingly literal sangfroid to claim - not just in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, but as an implicitly considered response to it - that "public policy favors blacks over whites." I often hear about how idyllic things are for blacks in this country, what with that red carpet that's rolled out for them wherever they go. But how many of the "oppressed" white people who echo Taranto's claims would trade places with black Americans, in order to get on this fast track to Easy Street? Not many, I imagine. (No doubt they enjoy the unique challenges that come with being white; bravely facing down these hardships makes success all the sweeter.)

Taranto claims that racism is "extremely rare." That hasn't been my experience, as I'll explain if you'll bear with me for a moment.

In the mid-seventies, when I was about eleven years old, I happened to spend a few days in a suburb near Norfolk, Virginia. It was a hot weekend, and I was invited to go swimming at a local pool.

The pool was huge, and looked fairly new. It was surrounded by a hurricane fence that, while probably not as imposing as it seems in my memory, was certainly more than six feet tall. I hadn't been splashing around for very long when I noticed that roughly a dozen black children of my own age were hanging onto the fence, staring grimly at us through the holes.

I asked one of the kids I'd come with why these children weren't allowed in. He told me that the pool was exclusively for members. "Are there any black members?" I asked.


"Why not?"

"They've got their own pools they can go to."

I let this non sequitur stand in place of an explanation, but the conversation disturbed me. Was it really possible that in 1970s Virginia, de facto segregation still existed? Was I dreaming? Hadn't everyone seen Roots?

As I found out soon enough, things weren't really any better where I lived. At the public high school I attended, the racism was literally out of control. There were incidents involving Ku Klux Klan costumes, racial epithets were spraypainted across lockers, and interracial fistfights were common. Even among people I considered friends there was frequent, casual talk about "niggers." It shocked me at first, but I adjusted, somewhat. My friends were quick to point out that they didn't hate black people...they just didn't like "niggers." Being confused, and sheltered, and as cowardly as only teenaged white boys can be, I let that explanation stand, too.

Fortunately, I soon transferred to a small urban school whose students came from all over the world. Interracial friendships and dating were common, and racial violence was unheard of, on campus at least. It all seemed very utopian, initially.

But it wasn't, really. Certain cliques were actively racist, and spoke of blacks as a form of urban vermin, like rats or cockroaches; there were "hilarious" discussions about the feasibility of "nigger traps," baited with malt liquor and sneakers. I gravitated towards the punk scene, and found that the desire to cast off convention led some people to make reactionary racialist pronouncements. Later, a few of these kids even got involved with white supremacist groups. But it was more common for them simply to profess weariness with liberal orthodoxy and its various hypocrisies, and to play around with forbidden words and concepts.

I understood this stance, and even agreed with it to some extent. There's a difference, though, between having contempt for hypocritical pieties and shrugging off or excusing racism, and I'm afraid that many people - including myself - didn't always observe that difference. In any event, that subculture - and similar ones - have always involved an anti-egalitarian temptation, and for far too many people racialist notions were a logical extension of underground elitism.

The years went on, and I found that if you got enough alcohol into certain "respectable" people, they'd confide that they had know...problems with Jews or blacks (homosexuals, of course, were fair game in all seasons). I attended business dinners with wealthy white men who were more than willing to make racial slurs after a few rounds of martinis. This, I'm certain, was not merely an expression of animus - though it was surely that - but a way of assuring one another of their bona fides. In some horrible way, it was a demonstration of "good business sense," much like attacking unions or universal heathcare.

Anyway, what I learned from all this was the not very startling fact that white racism exists in every class and subculture. Without making any real effort, I found it among the poor and the rich, the young and the old, the educated and the uneducated, the bourgeoisie and the bohemians. I don't subscribe to the notion that every white person is inevitably and inherently racist - though I don't think it's an outrageous claim, by any means - but I do believe that every black person in this country experiences the effects of racism, and is accordingly entitled to the deepest possible feelings of suspicion, resentment, despair, and rage.

In practice, though, their own emotions are the last thing American blacks are entitled to; whites decide which of their emotions are valid, and which aren't. Black anger and desperation are "senseless," we're told, driven by irrational urges that increase in luridness with the white observer's own level of hostility and fear. Soon enough, failure to use deadly force against black "looters" is occasion for complaint among our nation's really serious people. "Look what animals those people are! And after all we've done for them!"

Did you know that there are neo-confederates who actually whine about the word "indivisible" in the Pledge of Allegiance? It diminishes them, you see. It dishonors their ancestors by implying that the Confederate cause was meaningless (just imagine the scalding tears of self-pity welling up in their little pig eyes at that thought). There's no question of "getting over" a slight against one's long-dead ancestors; the eternal verities of Blood and Soil can only be belittled or denied at the expense of one's soul.

Unless you're black, in which case you need to grow up and quit whining, already. As Taranto says:
Black leaders would be well advised to spend less energy cultivating grievances and more cultivating an understanding of their fellow Americans. That is the path to integration.
Indeed. Pull your filthy guts off my knife, lazybones, and get busy cleaning up that puddle of blood.

"Understanding"? A persistent and justifiable distrust of white claims, white intentions, and white institutions - passed from generation to generation, and reconfirmed as valid in each by ongoing experiences of racial bias - is the best result one could expect from the mental and physical violence inflicted on minorities in this country. Though I'm no mind reader, I suspect that blacks understand "their fellow Americans" all too well.

To talk about the "interests" of whites sounds daft to most people; suggest, critically, that such interests do exist, and are pursued avidly, and you're a race-baiting zealot. Speak approvingly of them, and you're a racist of the worst sort (i.e., an indiscreet one). But act on them without thinking, as casually as you breathe God's good air, and you may rejoice in your perfect normality. The pursuit of white interests is, to most white people, as invisible as the nitrogen cycle, an essential natural process with which racism's subtle advocates are eager to conflate it. There are no white interests; there is no white agenda. There are simply a number of objective "civilized" values that comprise a standard against which various moral claims can be weighed, and they just happen to confirm what everyone who matters already knew.

Thus, which feelings about racism are permissible - and which reactions to oppression are "normal" - is for white folks to decide; expressing grievances has been ruled unacceptable by the very people to whom the grievances are addressed. Blacks will have a legitimate gripe only when Taranto - or some equally well qualified arbiter of racial injustice - says they do. What noble impartiality! What admirable objectivity!

Grief, of course, isn't suitable for discussion. Grief has its own pathology, but to dwell on it would be too uncomfortable and too humanizing. Instead, blacks are said to be "cultivating grievances" (presumably in some form of hothouse, since our honest American soil would never allow such unnatural weeds to thrive).

One of the worst of all injustices is the attempt to convince people - through the abuse of whatever power one happens to have - that what they see and feel and know is mere delusion. I imagine that it would be easier, in some ways, to live under a system of formal apartheid than to be subject to virulent racism while being told that it's all in one's head...or worse, that it's simply a manipulative, made-up excuse for one's own laziness or ineptitude.

Having ascertained that white racism exists primarily in the minds of shiftless blacks, Taranto's free to concentrate on the far more serious pathology of "white guilt." Here, at least, he sees hope for the future. In two generations, Taranto claims, no whites will have personal memories of segregation; white guilt will then die out naturally. At this point, presumably, there'll be no more humoring blacks about the existence of racism; denying them jobs, loans, and education will be nothing more than a logical response to their history of failure. It's a bit like the old water test for witches, except here, the guilty are those who drown when their heads are held under water.

(Illustration: R. W. Shufeldt, "Comparison of the physiognomy of a Congo Negro and Caesar" [1915].)

(This post originally appeared on September 18, 2005.)


Rmj said...

I don't understand why you're repeating this post.

Or why you don't understand that white men have given up enough. Blacks are clearly favored in our public policy. So how can we be racist?

No, I can't keep it up. Some people are almost too dumb to live among civilized human beings. The whole notion of atonement, of repentance, shoot, of even something as straightforward as reconciliation as practiced in South Africa, is that truth come first.

To this good day, the truth about race in this country, what Wendell Berry called our "hidden wound," has not been told. We have blamed racism on "them," on "crackers" and "Southerners" and "Rednecks" and "ya-hoos" and even rappers and "hip-hop" artists. But never on us.

Please. I grew up in the segregated South. I went to school in race fights over integration. I moved to Austin, Texas in the late 70's, where integration was still being fought. In "liberal" Austin!

I even found a plaque in the Texas capitol, on a column in the public area. Inconspicuous, but never removed or covered over, it's still there, and declares (from the 1950's) that the "War of Northern Aggression" (no, it doesn't say that, but it might as well) was fought over "state's rights," not slavery. Just the way they taught it, in Texas schools. It asserts this claim in defiance (mildly, but defiant nonetheless).

We love to sing "Amazing Grace." Especially when we know where the words came from. Because it means we can stand with the former slave-trader, without having to admit our sins from the slave trade ourselves. We get all the grace, and what's amazing is it doesn't cost us a thing. Well, why should it? We didn't do anything. And besides, public policy favors blacks today anyway. If it didn't, do you think Colin Powell would have been Sec of State? Or black men would wear diamonds and drink Cristal? And sell music to white kids?

Right? Right?

Why should we confess, when it's so much easier to complain, and continue to reap the best of both worlds? I'm tellin' ya, it's loneley at the top. Especially when we have to be nice in public to all those black people....

Phila said...

I don't understand why you're repeating this post.

Or why you don't understand that white men have given up enough.

I'm searching for relevance in the wake of communism's collapse, natch!

We get all the grace, and what's amazing is it doesn't cost us a thing.

You want us to work for it? That's like saying we don't deserve it!

roger said...

i missed this the first time. all too true. thanks for repeating it. the wilfull ignorance and cultural stupidity of some of our white brothers and sisters is stunning.

Interrobang said...

People like Taranto make me uncomfortable with being white. Where do I turn in my membership?

If I have to take some extra pigmentation instead, I will, since I'm damn tired of sunburning indoors at midnight.

I've had real up close and personal experiences with what I call "suburban racists" -- they're my own damn family members. As I mention in that essay, I probably do get privileges for being white (although I don't know if sometimes those privileges get trumped by ablism or not; I'm still trying to figure that out), but I'm trying not to contribute.

Phila said...

People like Taranto make me uncomfortable with being white. Where do I turn in my membership?

Beats me. I'm too busy trying to turn in my masculinity.

Engineer-Poet said...

I need a point of comparison to the Don Imus affair.  Just for my reference here, I'd like to know how many Black rappers, radio/TV personalities, religious and community leaders, etc. became non-persons to the MSM or were fired from their jobs because they bad-mouthed women or white people.

Didn't Miles Davis hate whites?

Anonymous said...

Directly from horsefeathers-
Meanwhile, as Imus falls all over himself apologizing over and over for his insulting words, who will apologize to the Duke Lacrosse players for the far worse trauma they endured than the Rutgers’ basketball players? Will Jackson and Sharpton apologize for endorsing the lying accusations of a black woman? Will Selena Roberts, the New York Times sports writer, cum sociologist, apologize for hurling around charges of racism, sexism, and white privilege, while suggesting that actual innocence would not purge the deep sickness of white racism made manifest by the Duke scandal? And how about the courageous Duke administration and faculty, who eagerly leapt—not to the defense of their own customers, the students—but to the defense of a lying accuser who proclaimed her black female victimhood? Will they apologize to the lacrosse coach they eagerly dumped overboard? Will the craven, politically correct President of Duke resign? Don’t hold your breath, because, you see, Liberals are not interested in the lives of actual real individuals—the young student athletes and their families, nor even the real life of the accuser. Instead these politically correct race hustlers and self-flatterers choose to lump individual human beings into pre-formed templates. They employ a “narrative” in place of factual truth, thanks to their ‘education’ as good PoMos. The narrative is about Amerika, a country poisoned by racism, sexism and capitalism. As the evidence against the lacrosse team emerged and collapsed in all its flimsiness, Roberts deplored the temptation to view the athletes as innocent; they were, after all, part of a larger system, college sports, sexist values, white racism, capitalism, etc. so even if the evidence supported the athletes’ story, that mattered less than that they were part of a racist, sexist culture. The accuser was also not seen as an individual, but rather a member of a victim class. That worked for Tawana Brawley and we expect the Reverends Sharpton and Jackson to continue working the strategy even after the case has been dismissed. Watch to see the various Liberal politicians condemn Don Imus while empathizing with the poor black woman who tried to destroy the lives of ‘white men of privilege’. Liberalism means never having to admit you're wrong because you're heart is with the oppressed.

Phila said...

Meanwhile, as Imus falls all over himself apologizing over and over for his insulting words, who will apologize to the Duke Lacrosse players for the far worse trauma they endured than the Rutgers’ basketball players?

Uh...the people who have something to apologize to them for?

It's nothing to do with me, friend.

Phila said...

I need a point of comparison to the Don Imus affair. Just for my reference here, I'd like to know how many Black rappers, radio/TV personalities, religious and community leaders, etc. became non-persons to the MSM or were fired from their jobs because they bad-mouthed women or white people.

First off, the "MSM" didn't cost Imus his job so much as the loss of his advertisers did. In fact, mainstream commenters like Tom Oliphant and Howard Fineman fell all over themselves to defend him, as Eschaton, Media Matters, and other sites have documented verbatim.

If the "MSM" - which, as you seem to have forgetten, includes the company for whom Imus has been a longstanding cash cow - had had its way, he'd still be on the air. If you don't understand that, you don't understand anything about the nature of media in this country.

Second, the notion of relative power seems to be completely beyond you. Imus had one of the nation's most popular radio shows, and he chose to use it to pick on teenage girls who'd done him no harm whatsoever. Most sane people would find that to be a repellent abuse of power whether or not there were a racial component to it.

As for black cultural figures who've been raked over the coals...well, Sister Souljah and Chuck D. spring to mind (neither of whose famously controversial comments I'd go to any lengths to defend). And there's Farrakhan, of course. And there are the reggae artists like Sizzla and Beenie Man - whose virulent antigay lyrics caused a number of venues to cancel their performances, and sparked other types of protests and boycotts. The idea that black bigots are somehow immune from criticism, or worse, is delusional.

The larger question is whether there's ever been a black commentator who enjoyed the market coverage and mainstream credibility of Don Imus, while saying the sorts of things he routinely said (and routinely promised to stop saying).

I don't think so. And attempts to claim that rappers fit that bill seem disingenuous to me. It's a different world entirely, not least because Imus has had the ongoing, explicit support of the political/media establishment for years.

Didn't Miles Davis hate whites?

That's what I hear. But what in Christ's name does that have to do with anything?

If it'll make you feel any better, I can honestly say that if Miles Davis had been on the air five days a week, from coast to coast, heaping peabrained abuse on whites, women, gays, and Jews while being fawned over by politicians and pundits, I would've wanted him off the air, too.

That said, the comparison seems totally incoherent to me. I think it says a lot more about the lengths people will go to avoid thinking seriously about this issue than it does about the "hypocrisy" of people were offended by Imus.