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