What is racism? Is it a universal idea? A judgment about biological identity? A group of dysfunctional behaviors in a culture? Persistent myths about a community’s strength and weaknesses? Does it belong equally to white and black, and yellow and tan?
Is racism a political idea? A wedge for advantage? Does it exist? Is it an excuse? Do statistics verify its presence? What role does it play in society? How does it change individual lives?
Racism does exist; it always reflects the role race plays in society. For instance, the structures and forms of racism during slavery have virtually no role in society today. The laws, punishments, limits and ideas that governed race then were very different and many have been erased.
Since these ideas have lost their viability, does that mean racism has ended? In modern society with its pledge to equality, has racism been eliminated? No. But it has changed forms. Remember, each era produces its version of racism. Remember, the construct of racism is based on the role race plays in the social milieu.
Before looking at modern racism, let’s ask: How does race fit into today’s society?
In America today, race has become the major standard and measure for equality and equal opportunity. Collectively, through numbers and statistics; individually, through incidents and events, race provides the details and the rough measure of fair play and justice. Race sets the bar for social and economic improvement, the standard for civil liberties, but is also the target of anger for those in and out of power, and a source of constant confusion. This positivist function of race is rarely mentioned; race is most often framed as a problem or a source of friction, or as a factor of mistreatment.
But race has noble virtues. It is the source used to reflect how far America has come in resolving internal tyranny and it measures America’s social progress. It is also a measure of how far apart Americans stand on many social issues. It has been the bubble at the center of the builder’s level.
Race, in part, is the weight of a group response, for both blacks and whites. The shooting of whites by police, while tragic, doesn’t alert the nation to the attack of police violence and misconduct aimed at the American Promise; race is a sentinel for the entire country—not just for blacks. Race puts blacks in the vanguard of social change, yet also makes blacks one of society’s most vulnerable groups. The paradox leads to scepticism and ignorance about the fix for social problems as race as a change agent is caught in a fluid whirlwind of individual and indirect forces.
That is why whites were always visible and angry in the Ferguson protests, every night, in every frame, side by side with blacks. Race is America’s active metaphor for character and justice, for liberty and criminality, for alarm and good riddance. It is not a discussion about blacks or whites, but about the vision and substance of America and the content of the American character, not just of the individuals whose roles shape the discussion.
In the same way, America’s educational success is measured by race. The differences in student test scores reflect race as a means of distributed wealth.
Race as an American idea is always in motion; different than last year, changed by new experiences, redefined by the culture it represents. Unfortunately it is often tied to omissions, deficiencies and neglect more than success, and its noble side is missed.
From this view, I propose racism plays three key roles in today’s America, all three tied to politics and culture:
To unify race appearance (by skin color) into a common culture of values and desired qualities (i.e., loyalty, defense, ideology) that lead to mutual and joint actions for power and privilege limited to and controlled by a group.
To install social barriers supported by legal frameworks and individual decision makers that limit life chances and prospects for many of those outside of the group.
To deny the advantages that racism inherently seeks to make permanent.
The three are easy to understand with examples.
1. At the diner where I often eat, we wondered during the 2012 election how long it would be before Mitt Romney screamed, “I’m white!” to pander for votes. The opposite nearly occurred. Romney’s campaign adviser John Sununu approached that edge, claiming someone needed to teach the President “how to be an American.” Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich skirted the same precipice: he cited Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial world view” “as the the most accurate, predictive model for his [Obama's] behavior,” calling it “a profound insight.” “The food stamp President” was another of Gingrich’s contributions.
Rick Santorum came within a syllable of an offensive racial slur before he caught himself. Recently, a New Hampshire police chief uttered the word publicly (saying the President “met and exceeded” his criteria). He refused to back down, resigning but never apologizing.
My oft-cited example is the empty chairs that appeared after the 2012 Republican National Convention, tied to tree limbs on private property, often with roped nooses hung over chair backs—performance art that starkly expressed the dark dread of justice as lynching. These spontaneous racial installations were a reminder that the media never reported in 2008 the high degree of fear in the black community for Barack Obama’s life; people were frantic and the hysteria went unnoticed.
Racism is tasteless and invisible—until the first tug of attitude pushes one of its many structures into place to block progress—and to strangle black success. Members of Congress have said Barack Obama was only elected because he is black. Others say he won due to white guilt.
These conversations and actions call white people to band together under a banner of skin: a favorite principle of racism is to unite to defend and defeat the idea of the other. The other is different—and also more dangerous, more deadly, more deficient. The most important other in America is race. Its group tensions involve a history of violence, lynching, lawlessness, blame, poverty and social control.
I think that race as a social measure should change. Women and children are suffering greater attacks than African-Americans in this historical moment; women and children need a movement worthy of the anti-war and Civil Rights movements, yet they remain on the edge of America’s conscience. Thankfully, ending domestic violence has become a noble virtue. So should ending the murders of children by their peers.
2. Examples of social barriers abound. The most prominent and dangerous, as US House member John Lewis rightly recognizes, are the state-level bills that are redefining the right to vote. The new tactic recognizes it is not necessary to disenfranchise minority voters en masse (the old, pre-1960s tactic). Trimming voter turnout by 3 to 10 percent will often be enough to swing close national elections.
Remember, racism fits the role of race in society. In politics, that’s votes. After the Civil War, bills sought to disenfranchise the entire Negro vote, which ended with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Now, in this era, with this Supreme Court, the same outcome can be achieved with a more limited, targeted effort to restrict early voting, raising the bar to voter access by requiring more paperwork and reducing polling hours. Continue reading Racism and Noble Virtues
Listening and ordering too many songs from Amazon of Cape Verdean music as I sipped a single source Ethiopian coffee delivered by United States Postal Service (USPS) from Durham’s legendary wholesaler, Counter Coffee, I began to think about how the world is organized. Then I turned to the Republican run-off after their primary for one of the Senate seats in Mississippi.
The establishment won; Thad Cochran is the last of the Southern elder statesman who manages a pipeline of public funds for his state. First elected in 1984, he won the run-off to earn his seventh Republican nomination with help from African-American voters who hadn’t even bothered to vote in the earlier Democratic primary. Who would think Mississippi politics would transcend party labels? Not to mention race! That a Republican in a run-off would successfully turn out the African-American vote in Mississippi?
Astoundingly, the run-off drew a larger turnout than the primary two weeks earlier, It polled 374,000 voters as compared to a turn out of 319,000 for the primary; then, Cochran had trailed his party challenger by 1,500 votes after the vote. Combined, the campaigns spent $17.4 million. The Super PACs invested $11.4 million, as the outside groups invested in Cochran’s opponent by almost 2 to 1.
Never one to concede, his Tea Party opponent called Cochran’s election victory and increased turnout and broader appeal the beginning of the end of the power of the establishment in Mississippi.
What most people don’t know is that while the primaries are organized by party, Mississippi (and most states) operate under an open primary system. Voters are free to vote their interests without regard to their own party affiliation. Arizona, California, New York, Maine, Maryland, North Carolina, Florida, among others, hold closed primaries—primaries restricted to voters of a party that is indicated when voters register (and which later can be changed).
But for primaries, there is no party litmus test in Mississippi, and the Tea Party and outside PAC money created its own backlash. A last-minute suit to prevent “crossover voting,” voting by members of other parties, was dismissed. Believing their own stereotypes, they failed to realize blacks are keen political observers and understand political strategy and calculus.
The news media wouldn’t know it (and if they did, wouldn’t report it) but the winning coalition in Mississippi is old news. In South Carolina, in the 1880s, in order to end the rampant corruption under Reconstruction, the state’s highest ranking Confederate general, the commander of the Confederate Cavalry, Wade Hampton, one of the South’s largest former property holders of those enslaved, who had once talked the firebrands of the state out of seceding, ran for governor and appealed directly for the votes of the newly emancipated freemen. He won.
One of the really great moments of Civil War history is a remarkable exchange of letters over foraging between Hampton and the Union General William T. Sherman, written during Sherman’s South Carolina campaign. If you haven’t seen or read it, the official Civil War correspondence (in massive, multi-volume sets) is worth spending a day with. You are holding in your hands the accounts of the battles, the reports of the brave and the dead, the plans of action, the firsthand account of the war from the field.
Cochran’s opponent, as do so many Tea Party members, claims to support and follow the Constitution. But in their secret hearts, they want to replace it with their state’s Declarations or Ordinances of Secession. Continue reading How Black Voters Decided Mississippi’s Republican Senate Run-Off
Rape. Sexual violence. Guns. Denial of health care. Food stamps. Religious liberty. Gays. Immigrants. Jobs. Deficits. Defense. Is Arizona the new Mississippi?
Do you really practice your religious beliefs in business? Is there a religious doctrine that prohibits a believer, of any faith, from doing business—selling goods and services—with others who believe or live by different tenets? Is there a commandment from God that prohibits trade and business interactions with groups outside of your faith, or those whose behavior is interpreted as anathema to your faith and personal beliefs?
Did Moses miss a tablet?
Does your faith practice apply equally to giving and receiving? How far does your practice of rejection go? Will you reject a sentence or fine from a gay judge? Will you refuse treatment by a married gay doctor? Or not get your hair done by a married gay beautician? Will you send back a meal brought by a gay server? Will your gay radar constantly ping the world around you, causing you to be the flippered ball in the machine?
Does your personally decided prohibition of faith include members of your family, as it does in Dick Cheney’s household, where love had nothing to do with it and his and his daughter’s stance against gay marriage left him with a house divided.
Is this article of religious faith—no business interaction with gays—a personal inconvenience that challenges you and makes you uncomfortable, so you blame the victims of your prejudice, rather than acknowledge the inadequacy of your faith and the paucity of your good will?
Who passes these laws?
Not even the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Gnostic Gospels said shun the gays; do not sell to them. For faith is not affected or demonstrated by interactions, but by actions: the way I act with those with whom I interact is the real witness of my faith and belief!
This latest Arizona law seems a little creepy and paranoid. It substitutes personal preference for faith principle. Under the law’s hallelujah principle, it allows each believer to set the tenets of their own belief. If some Christians will sell me flowers if I marry or have a same-sex partner, other Christians may refuse. And if they do, I should make the sign of blessing and rejoice that I have not put their faith to the test or impinged on their freedom.
We are back in the looking glass zone.
In that bright tunnel, my elaborated personal beliefs are the source of my freedom and faith. Freedom is no longer a social promise that we mutually defend, lifting it higher. It is personal only. By law. There is no mutual trust. No common ground.
Society’s claim on freedom actually lifts freedom to its highest level: it allows me to believe while I help others who do me no harm. But if my freedom results in injury to you by debasement, missed economic opportunity, the denial of services and goods, I have not paid freedom forward. I have discriminated. I have sinned. Continue reading Is Arizona the New Mississippi?
The sad news is that Republicans have added to their list of the left’s conspiracies: the latest being the notion that Barack Obama actually won reelection as the President of the United States. Of course, Barack Obama received 62.26 million popular votes, won 26 states with 332 electoral votes—an electoral vote number that GOP pundits Dick Morris, George Will, Newt Gingrich and others predicted and called a “landslide”—for Romney! When the President actually achieved those numbers, becoming one of only five Democrats in history to twice receive 50 percent of the vote, the same bokors of make-believe called it a close election, becoming one of the few conspiracy groups in history to ignore the obvious.
Conspiracies are usually built around things unseen. In the dark mysteries of human ideas, conspiracies are born when people spring to action to carry out evil and destruction to gain power and turn human suffering into a demonic benefit that destroys the cherished good of freedom and prosperity. Conspiracies attack a life reasonably free of want, and crush to ruins a pride based on person production and skill.
History is filled with the great societies of prosperity and pride with a legacy of inside and outside conspiracies; ancient Egypt, the Mayans and Incas, the Dynasties of China and Persia, the Iroquois and the Sioux nations. These early societies had material wealth and superior knowledge, exhibited fantastic engineering success beyond their spectacular buildings. China and Persia, and the Mayans, for example, had extensive underground water systems, with reservoirs. But conspiracists no longer embrace global, historic or infrastructure success. For many conspiracists, these successes are an a priori sign of an invisible cabal, whose power is multiplied by the depth of its secrecy.
So of all the conspiracies attributed to Barack Obama, it was obvious that socialists carrying clipboards with petitions, illegal ACORN registrations, or backdoor gifts from socialist Europe or radical communist countries like Cuba, Estonia, Russia or China didn’t win the election. (Although the Romney-Sheldon Adelson connection offers fertile ground for outside influence by China and Israel!) It was obvious that the million mailed releases of a DVD tying Barack’s mother to Chicago labor leader Frank Marshall Davis, claiming a new baby daddy for infant Barack (one which incidentally would have firmly established his American citizenship—at odds with birther conspiracies!), didn’t work, either.
It’s also hard to claim that a President with a good mid-range jump shot and an arching, floating lay-up, who picks his own NCAA Final Four brackets (men and women’s), regularly invites Stevie Wonder to the White House, and brews his own pale ale from White House honey needs “to learn how to be an American.” So as all the conspiracies failed, falling one by one, it was obvious: Barack Obama won due to a yet-undiscovered-conspiracy even more wrongheaded and subversive than the GOP overpaid crybabies had thought!
Before we say “good riddance,” let’s do a careful review. For Karl Rove and many others, race has all minuses and no pluses in national politics. They assume a wider distribution of doubt and lingering worry over race than the actual election results revealed. What they missed is that as race once magnified negatives—the stereotypes of criminality, morality and personal ethics—it now also multiplies the character of success, skills at speaking, reasoning, caring, leadership and vision.
Rove and others assume these positive traits are dampened down by race. As they see it, race limits the upside of the positive narrative while acting to amplify and enlarge mistakes and negatives. But their cultural calculus is passing from a changing American national community; the new American national identity is a patriotism that proactively seeks to include all heritage communities and build a national community of trust and tolerance. In this America, stereotypes have almost no impact on the acceptability for leadership among members of heritage communities. Stereotypes do still exist, but as jokes that ridicule old-school thinking as much as they do the targeted group. Look carefully: much of contemporary humor uses stereotypes to laugh at the notions and distortions that stereotypes imply—and mock the stereotypes themselves!
But for Rove and others, the old ideas are still life and death. In a great irony, they see the election of a black man as President as the death of liberty rather than its celebration. Liberty has killed itself, they think, by going too far and becoming imprudent. Thus, their campaigns are always about the dangers of democracy: the decisions and acts that are, in their defective world view, excesses, bad, condemned. Continue reading The Sad News of A Bad Bet