I have found myself in multiple instances over the past week deflecting accusations of racism. This is a rather odd position for me to be in and a role I am not entirely comfortable with, to be perfectly honest. Mostly, because I believe racism to be a persistent presence in our society and my views on racism are actually rather centrist, tilting ever so slightly to the left. I could do a laundry list of my positions on various issues, but I will spare you that (unless someone wants me to demonstrate that I am not your prototypical southern hick). On the other hand, for a variety of reasons, I am perhaps a little more sympathetic to people to people who are racist or would be considered a racist by some. By “sympathetic” I don’t mean “I share their viewpoint” but rather “I don’t view them as inherently the scum of the earth.”
Broadly speaking, there are two views that I consider to be on the extremes of the issue.
The first is that racism is either something that no longer exists in any meaningful sense or something that can be ignored into oblivion. Anything short of a burning cross on a black family’s front lawn is not inherently racism, and we can actually add some nuance to that burning cross if we tried really hard (they didn’t put the cross in front of all black lawns, of course). As Christopher Priest once summarized, it’s only truly racism once every other possibility has been completely exhausted. And even a comment about black people or brown people or whatever doesn’t apply unless it’s clear that they are talking about all black people or brown people and/or that they wouldn’t say that if black people and/or brown people would simply behave the right way. Now, very few people will state all of the above, but talk to some folks long enough and you get the distinct feeling that this is where they are ultimately headed. Nearly any act of racism short of the KKK will be defended.
The second view is that racism is ever-present in white society and heavily influences white views on everything. And half of what white people say – particular conservatives – is code. When they talk about crime, they’re talking about black people. When they talk about good schools, they’re talking about the absence of black students. When they express concerns over welfare, they’re really wanting to deny help to black people. When they talk about excessive touchdown celebrations, they’re talking about black people stubbornly refusing to act like white people. When they talk about “that music” they’re talking about music created or inspired by black people. This would actually be an interesting line of inquiry and avenue of discussion, except that its presentation usually signals the end, rather than the beginning, of meaningful discussion. We can define racism broadly and recognize that some forms are incidental and accidental, or we can define it narrowly and determine it as morally disgusting. Unfortunately, the result is often the breadth of the first and the disgust of the latter. Racism becomes not something that good-minded people should be cognizant of when evaluating their views on something, but the determinant of who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
Now, most conservatives don’t fall fully into the first category and most liberals do not fall fully into the second. But these are the ends of the spectrum to which I refer (there are people off the spectrum because either they believe that racism is good or they believe racism is merely a cudgel to win arguments, both of which I am ignoring at the moment).
On discussions of race, I actually fall at least slightly to the second side of the spectrum. I really don’t think racism is a thing of the past or relegated to some small subset of the population. I think it a part of the human condition that is at best resisted. This is especially true when race is an immediately visible signal for larger cultural issues.
However, in discussions of other issues, I fear that it often sidetracks conversations rather than really contributes to them. With the exception of expressly racial issues, or when someone brings up an expressly racist viewpoint in advancement of their cause, it tends to reduce a plethora of thoughts and motivations into something simple and, errr, black and white. It can reduce all other arguments to non-falsifiable racist “code.” And, in rendering counterarguments moot, can shut down the discussion. (And that’s when it’s not used cynically simply to discredit the guy you are arguing with.) There is value in pointing out racist arguments (someone who consistently refers to “Shaniqua and her seven kids” instead of “welfare recipients”), but it often transcends that into arguing that a particular position is racist, or that one side of the argument is infested with racists (which, oh-by-the-way, makes my argument the superior one).
Of course, none of this is not to say that there isn’t some value in expressly discussing race and another issue. Say, crime. This is what makes it so difficult. When it comes to, for instance, three strikes laws. The fact that most of the affected will be of one or two particular races is rather significant. The differences in sentencing of white defendants and black ones? Significant. In doing so, however, the conversation will (in my experience) shift from being one about race and crime into one primarily about race and racism with a context of crime. That does not, of course, make it a conversation not worth having. A while back I trotted out a study that demonstrated that a white ex-con was more likely to get a callback on dropping off a resume than a black without a criminal history dropping off an equivalent resume. What ensued was a discussion not about fair employment practices (which was fine, since I brought it up mostly for a race discussion anyway).
One of the things that makes this all so difficult is the convergence between race and other issues, most particularly culture. To look at immigration for a second, I believe that a whole lot of the opposition would persist if we were talking about 10+ million Russians, or Armenians, or virtually anything except Anglophonic Canadians. But we use cultural concerns, many of which are not inherently invalid, and chalk it up to race. This puts two issues under one banner and makes that one banner rather large. And then, for some, any other concern is disingenuous or code, and it becomes the racist side and the non-racist side. Yay.
But the culture questions creep into other issues as well. Ryan Bonneville’s post on Costas is a good point of this. Whites are frequently critical of the cultural norms of other whites and often do not hesitate in saying so. Maybe, if the NFL was still predominantly white, nobody would have any problem with choreographed touchdown celebrations. Or maybe they would. But the notion that general cultural criticism inherently ought to end at the race’s edge is highly problematic for a whole host of reasons. Not only can’t you single out minorities for criticism (which is not a bad policy!), but you can’t criticize behavior of anybody so long as the people you can’t criticize are doing it. If Costas had singled out black players, that would have been problematic. If he had singled out white players (essentially saying “don’t act like the black players”) I suspect that would not have gone over well, either. Criticizing both didn’t go over well. The behavior in question, by virtue of the fact that a lot of high profile minorities do it, apparently ought to be beyond reproach*.
As long as there are cultural issues between (in this case) black folks and white folks, and as long as there are differences in education, behavior, language, cultural norms, and so on, it becomes difficult or impossible to discuss a wide host of issues without there being oxygen-sucking racial implications. Since most people don’t like to consider themselves racist, even when they are they will latch on to other rationales. This is, of course, the danger of never bringing up race because you are letting them hide behind false reasons. In my experience, though, the best response to this is to go after the other reasons. Go after the reasons that non-racists might end up being in the racist camp. I did this on the immigration issue and discovered that a lot of the other reasons were typically quite genuine and sometimes quite valid (even if I never reach their conclusion).
So if it seems that I have lately been going to the bat for alleged racists, that is why.
* – Of course, you can argue “Hey, I’m just criticizing Costas like he is criticizing the players.” But the R-word, whether we like it or not, takes the criticism to a whole new level. Just as we can’t pretend away racism and assume colorblindness, we can’t assume away “that’s racist” as something less than serious accusation. It would be better if we had a word that was the equivalent harshness as “snobby, but in a racial context” but we do not, and I am not sure turning racist into that word is a remarkably good idea unless we come up with another word to replace racist on the seriousness scale.