Sunday, April 12, 2015

Confederate "Heritage" Month, April 12: ideology of the non-ending white backlash (1 of 2)

The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York by Jim Sleeper (1990) is a book from a quarter century ago that uses still-enduring white-backlash arguments against civil rights to defend the ideology and psychology of systematic white racism.

Jim Sleeper’s attitude toward race and opposition to racial discrimination can be quickly ascertained from this piece, Letting Go of Race The Atlantic Online 08/21/1997.

He had given a previous elaboration of his view in The Closest of Strangers. I found it interesting in that it gives an elaboration of what we might as well call “white backlash” position circa 1990.

Violent crime was a major issue at the time. Ari Melber provided this graph in a tweet of 01/14/2015 based on Department of Justice information:


Law and order” had been a racially charged theme in American national politics since 1968. And Sleeper uses it extensively in his book. The fact that violent crime has significantly decreased since then, as the chart shows, has removed some of the national salience of the law-and-order issue. But it certainly has removed it from the political agenda, much less taken the racial-polemic aspect out of it. In some ways, response to crime problems since 1990 have racialized white perspectives on crime to an even greater degree.

Some other themes were coming to be common parts of the mix, including about Democrats who wanted to back away from a commitment to racial equality and justice. For of Sleeper’s chapter titles refer to them:

  • “Rights and Reciprocity”
  • “Black Militants’ New End Game”
  • “Militants, ‘Professional Blacks,’ and the Culture of Schools”
  • “Folly on the Left”

The general litany is very familiar to those who follow American politics. African-Americans are getting their rights recognized – an act of generosity rather than justice in the minds of many whites – but they aren’t stepping up to their reciprocal responsibilities. Just one of many ways of saying that black people are irresponsible, which many whites choose to think no matter what.

“Black militants” in Sleeper’s version are not the Black Panthers of the 1960s, or the Black Guerrilla Army of the 1970s. No, the “black militants” of Sleeper’s book are black leaders who protest or organize. Especially those still-iconic villains of the white Republican imagination, “Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.” The “professional blacks” are black people who whine about discrimination. And the “folly on the left” is, of course, the idea by liberals and Democrats that equal rights are worth defending.

One of the interesting things about the book in light of events of 2014-5 in the United States is that it deals with what I call the problem of the perfect case. Sleeper’s method in The Closest of Strangers is to describe events of the more distant past from 1990 as though he’s sympathetic to the struggle for equal rights. In this comment on an event from 1935, he even sounds somewhat sympathetic to Communist activism in that regard:

With the white proletarian majority intransigent on the labor front and the state assuming a greater role in black survival, impoverished Harlem's only recourse in the Depression was protest politics, punctuated by rioting. Overburdened church networks and other community institutions for mutual aid were drawn into the fray and politicized. In March 1935, a rumor swept the community that Lino Rivera, a young Puerto Rican boy, had been killed for shoplifting in a Kress department store. Rivera had been sent home unharmed, but, in what would become yet another familiar pattern in the city's race relations, understandable black suspicion - fanned by a misleading leaflet put out by the Young Communist League - drew angry crowds into the streets. As bottles flew and windows were smashed, police descended and violence escalated. Three people were killed and many wounded, and there was extensive looting of black as well as white stores. [my emphasis] (p. 47)
Despite his seemingly sympathetic tone, Sleeper is here setting up a theme he works heavily in the book: You can't trust black leaders! They lie to get people to protest!

He then goes on to describe how then-Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia’s response was to appoint a commission on race relations. “Reaction to the commission’s report brought the first sustained government funding and regulation to bear upon the plight of blacks.” (p. 48) In other words, something less than a Perfect Case led to constructive developments on the road to defending equal rights for minorities.

But the thrust of his arguments in the book is very different. He conjures up the menace of what FOX News fans and Rush Limbaugh listeners today would recognize as a scary alliance of Bad Negroes and Mean Libruls. Although in this 1990 book he wasn't simultaneously imagining them as allies of Muslim terrorists, too.

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