Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 8: On the problem of wobbly liberals and race relations

Polemics among sometime allies against each other an an apparently ineradicable aspect of politics.

I flagged a recent Nation piece by Michelle Goldberg in A Herbert Marcuse mention pops up in "The Nation" 01/02/2014; Goldberg's article is #CancelColbert and the Return of the Anti-Liberal Left The Nation 04/02/2014.

There I focused on what struck me in particular about her article, which was that she seemed to be echoing a weird far-right theory about the origins of so-called "political correctness."

But her article was part of a larger argument over various feminist and racial-discrimination issues. Brittney Cooper discusses those issues at some length in It’s not about you, white liberals: Why attacks on radical people of color are so misguided Salon 04/08/2014.

As a background, white American "liberals" have always suffered from a collective tendency to underrate the seriousness of racial discrimination against African-Americans. More specifically, to fall into the illusion that segregationist whites just needed a little more time to see the error of their ways.

In his famous "Letter From A Birmingham Jail" (1963) Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed the following complaints to Southern "moderates," which in the context of 1963 in the Deep South was taken by hardline segregationists to be equivalent to "liberal" and "Communist" (from TeachingAmericanHistory.org):

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White citizens’ "Councilor" or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direst action” who paternistically [sic] feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

You spoke of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I started thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency made up of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, have been so completely drained of self-respect and a sense of “somebodiness” that they have adjusted to segregation, and a few Negroes in the middle class who, because of a degree of academic and economic security, and at points they profit from segregation, have unconsciously become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred and comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up over the nation, the largest and best known being Elijah Muhammad’s Muslim movement. This movement is nourished by the contemporary frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination. It is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man in an incurable “devil.”

The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people, “Get rid of your discontent.” But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.
I don't mean here to apply this criticism to Michelle Goldberg's arguments in particular, because I'm not familiar enough with the specific set of polemics with which she's (apparently) dealing. It's a reminder that ending institutional injustice of any kind can't be expected to come from the self-reflection of those who perceived themselves benefiting from it. It has to be challenged.

That quote shows the real MLK, Jr. Not the conservative cartoon version of him, the MLK who never, ever challenged white racism directly and never tried to discomfort the comfortable. That version is such a bad joke that it strikes me as more segregationist mockery than anything else.

Here are some installments in the controversy that Cooper references between and about Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine and Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic:

Coates, The Secret Lives of Inner-City Black Males The Atlantic 03/18/2014

Chait, Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Poverty, and Culture New York 03/19/2014

Coates, Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind 03/21/2014

Chait, Barack Obama vs. the Culture of Poverty New York 03/28/2014

Coates, Other People's Pathologies The Atlantic 03/30/2014

Chait, The Color of His Presidency New York 04/06/2014

Joan Walsh, Jonathan Chait’s epic race fail: How a story about racism and Obama goes horribly wrong Salon 04/07/2014

Chauncey DeVega, Politics is Professional Wrestling: New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait Reveals White Racist Conservatives Are Now 'Victims' of Anti-Racism's 'Terrifying Power' in the Age of Obama WARN 04/07/2014

This discussion will likely be the subject of more Confederate "Heritage" Month posts this month. Here I'll quote Joan Walsh's observation from the article above that usefully addresses the pretense of segregationists that white racism is purely a subjective matter, a question of personal intent (which is notoriously hard to judge in a political context) and manners:

It doesn't matter that an individual Republican may not have "a racist bone" in his or her body, to use Paul Ryan's clichéd self-defense. If they reliably and consistently ally with others who do, and if the result of that alliance is to persistently disadvantage one group of Americans out of proportion to the rest, then they have to answer for their party’s racism. If that hurts Jonah Goldberg's feelings – yes, Chait would have us feel sad for Jonah Goldberg, not just Bill Kristol – sorry, but I'm not losing sleep over it.

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