Saturday, April 13, 2013

Confederate "Heritage" Month 2013, April 13: Real-time white racism, playing somewhere near you (1)

"I just don't believe everyone should be engaged in a conversation [about race]. I strongly believe that people often have disparate interests. White racism is an actual interest held by actual people. Some people should be talked to. Other people must be defeated."

That's Ta-Nahisi Coates in Against the Conversation, Cont. The Atlantic Online 04/10/2013, on of three posts he's made taking off on the theme of the Brad Paisle/LL Cool J song, "Accidental Racist." The other two are Why 'Accidental Racist' Is Actually Just Racist 04/10/2013 and Against the 'Conversation on Race' 04/10/2013.

A different kind of song about race: Peter, Paul and Mary performing a Pete Seeger song, All Mixed Up:

In that post just quoted, Coates is making particular reference to a Kansas County Commissioner, Jim Gile, who attracted national attention by his use of "nigger—rigging" in a public meeting, which he sneeringly corrected to "Afro-Americanized." (Elspeth Reeve, Kansas Politician Is the Latest Accidental Racist After Dropping the N-Word Atlantic Wire 04/10/2013)

Coates argues that it's pointless, if not worse, to reduce white racism to simple subjective ill-will. In fact, the kind of anti-racist appeal Paisley claims to be making in his song in effect assumes there is no ill-will at all between the two sides of the conversation:

I have had conversations with very well-educated people who, with a straight face, have told me that there are Black Confederates. If you ask a very well educated person how the GI Bill exacerbated the wealth gap, or how New Deal housing policy helped create the ghetto they very likely will not know. And they do not know, not because they are ignorant, stupid, or immoral, they do not know because they are part of country that has decided that "not knowing" is in its interest. There's no room for any sort of serious conversation when the basic facts of history are not accessible. It would be like me demanding a conversation on Vichy France--en Français.

So we retreat to mushy, moist talk about who "feelings," "intentions," "good people" and "loving fathers." The great Jay Smooth once said that we need to move from a "what you are" conversation ("you are a racist") to a "what you are doing" conversation. Unfortunately this presumes a groundwork of honesty and good faith. No such good faith exists because we are ignorant, and deep down inside, we know it and are ashamed of it. [my emphasis]
Chauncey DeVega makes his own version of this point in The "Accidental Racist" and How to Write a Post-Racial Pop Song in The Age of Obama WARN 04/11/2013:

... LL Cool J and Brad Paisley's recent song "Accidental Racist" is a product of a confused post-racial America where the "national discourse" on race is moribund, twisted, tired, and empty.

In the post-civil rights era, white folks apparently just want "forgiveness" and to "get past" this race stuff. Black and brown folks want some type of justice and an acknowledgement of how structural inequality along the color line persists into the present. The former want to limit racism to "mean words" and "hurt feelings." The latter would like to discuss substantive efforts at improving live chances and the social inequalities caused by racism, both structural and inter-personal. [my emphasis]
Coates also makes a point along the lines I made in my earlier post on the subject of "Accidental Racist." Coates:

Paisley wants to know how he can express his Southern Pride. Here are some ways. He could hold a huge party on Martin Luther King's birthday, to celebrate a Southerner's contribution to the world of democracy. He could rock a T-shirt emblazoned with Faulkner's Light In August, and celebrate the South's immense contribution to American literature. He could preach about the contributions of unknown Southern soldiers like Andrew Jackson Smith. He could tell the world about the original Cassius Clay. He could insist that Tennessee raise a statue to Ida B. Wells.

Every one of these people are Southerners. And every one of them contributed to this great country. But to do that Paisley would have to be more interested in a challenging conversation and less interested in a comforting lecture.
Love the shout-out to Faulkner.

And speaking of Jim Gile, Coates explains how this is a fairly typical performance of white racism:

It is tempting to write this off as the local shenanigans of some unknown politician. Except that Gile's response is fairly typical when people are caught doing racist things. ... Michael Richards once yelled, at the top of his lungs, "He's a nigger! He's a nigger!" made a joke about lynching. When told that this is the sort of thing which, you know, racists tend to do, he said "I'm not a racist" -- and was indignant that someone would call him one -- "that's what's so insane."

This is denial and willful ignorance. And it's fairly endemic. I can't really remember the last time I saw a public figure do something racist and say, "Yes. I am racist. I am sorry and I intend to do something about it." Indeed virtually any "conversation" on race that would take place in this country must -- necessarily -- be premised on there not being any actual living racists, or any actual effects of racism.

We do not know. And we like it that way. [my emphasis]
Chauncey DeVega also makes a point about how Obama both as candidate and President has shaped the current state of our so-called conservation on race in the US:

Then candidate Barack Obama, who is/was an elite opinion leader, played a similar game in his much vaunted Philadelphia speech on race during the 2008 campaign. Obama, in an effort to win the White House by distancing himself from the "political blackness" embodied by Reverend Wright, suggested that African-Americans' justice claims are somehow morally and ethically equivalent to the racial resentment felt by many white Americans towards people of color in their backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement.

I would not expect LL Cool J or Brad Paisley to fully understand the political work done by their song "Accidental Racism."

Barack Obama, the country's first black President, and a constitutional scholar, ought to know better. But then again, Obama's move in 2008 (and since) was both tactically shrewd and intentional: blackness is a liability in almost every area of American public, social, and political life. Consequently, it is a social marker to be avoided at all costs.
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