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Race^3

| 17 Comments
Andrew Northrop's question:
Here it is again: how are Corrine Brown's comments (calling Condi Rice, Mr. Noreiga, and Colin Powell, among others of assorted genders, races, and ethnicities, "a bunch of white men" who "all look the same to her") in any way as offensive as celebrating the segregated South or trafficking in Jewish conspiracy theories?
I'd unpack this into two questions: 1) Are there 'lesser' and 'greater' levels of racism; i.e. do we treat slights differently than we do active discrimination differently than we do genocidal violence? I'm taking this from the implication that her remarks, while offensive, didn't rise to the level of action. 2) Are racially-charged comments fundamentally different when they come from someone on the receiving end of racial discrimination? Fundamentally, because Rep. Brown is black, and thus assumed to be among those who have suffered from white oppression, do we look at her comments by a different standard than we would someone who is white?
From going through the thread and Andrew's responses to me and others in it, I'm a bit confused, because when I asked:
So, Andrew, you're suggesting that only 'advantaged' groups - empowered groups as it were - can be racist, while the oppressed - the 'disadvantaged' can't be, or if they are, are excused?
he replied:
Interestingly, no, that's not what I'm saying. I'm actually saying what I said. Why can't you give a straight answer? Here it is again: how are Corrine Brown's comments (calling Condi Rice, Mr. Noreiga, and Colin Powell, among others of assorted genders, races, and ethnicities, "a bunch of white men" who "all look the same to her") in any way as offensive as celebrating the segregated South or trafficking in Jewish conspiracy theories?
which leads me to guess that while his remarks can be interpreted as 2) (and need to be looked at in that light), the explicit meaning he intended was 1). Let me start out with two disqualifiers, and explanation, and a backflip with a quarter-twist. First, that it is virtually impossible for liberals to meaningfully talk about race right now, which is a truly Bad Thing. It is one of the subjects where disagreement and emotion run so deep that raising the issue is in fact a discussion-ender. Next, let me point out that race is a deep subject, and that this is a blog - a conversation - not an essay or book. I won't claim to cover the issue in the breadth or depth it deserves and requires. But as usual, none of those will stop me from jumping in... Andrew seems to claim in the comments thread that he's asking 1; but I'll suggest both from Andrew's own comments and from any kind of reasonable view, that you can't pull the two questions apart (at least not in this discussion). First, per Andrew's own comments:
No, I'm explicitly saying that painting bizarre and elliptical possible expressions of racism (I'm still trying to see how calling Condi Rice a "white man" is an example of racism, as opposed to an example of mental illness, but it's possible, I suppose) as equally worthy of attention as serious examples of blatant racism tied to a long history of genocidal violence in order to score points on your political opponents does most certainly demean the more serious events. AL's post is not condemning Corrine Brown's racism; it's condemning other people for not treating it as equally deserving of condemnation as Trent Lott's. Much as everyone would like me to be saying that some racism is okay, it is quite certainly not what I'm saying. (One of the first clues that this is so is that I never said it, and never implied it.) I'm saying that there are clearly instances of racism which are far, far worse than others. Weird tirades about how a group of whites, Hispanics and black people "all look the same", while highly bizarre (and possibly racist, although someone will have to draw me a picture), just aren't as worthy of note as wishing Strom Thurmond had won the Presidency on a platform of enforcing racial segregation. Pretending they are is silly, and insulting to everyone's intelligence.
That pretty much maps to my comment about advantaged groups, in my mind. The issue isn't necessarily that her comments were relatively offensive or inoffensive, it's that they must fundamentally be judged on a different standard because she is African American, and hence her racial offenses can't be tied to the historic racial offences of Dixiecrat whites, or 'examples of blatant racism tied to a long history of genocidal violence'. Boy, that presents a lot of problems to me. The first problem is one based in the simple fact that if I dig back far enough, I can find catastrophic treatment of most groups by someone else. At what point in the past do we draw the bright line and say 'ollie ollie oxen free'? This isn't to suggest that moral burdens simply evaporate - they don't - but that they begin to get lost in the noise of all the other conflicting moral burdens. So how do we judge what our social response to these burdens should be? The project, as I see it, is to remedy past inequity by making sure of two things: a) that it won't happen again; and b) that the current populations we live as part of aren't trapped by that inequity. And that leads me to the second problem. By tolerating - and one might say, even encouraging - a racist worldview (let's define: the The ICERD (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) defines racism as follows: "Any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise, on equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, or any other field of public life."; The ADL defines it as: "Racism is prejudice or discrimination based on the belief that race is the primary factor determining human traits and abilities. Racism includes the belief that genetic or inherited differences produce the inherent superiority or inferiority of one race over another. In the name of protecting their race from "contamination," some racists justify the domination and destruction of races they consider to be either superior or inferior. Institutional racism is racial prejudice supported by institutional power and authority used to the advantage of one race over others." On either count, I believe Rep. Brown's comments were racist. Her comments were explicitly meant to devalue the position of, and discourage the participation in dialog by, someone who she challenged based on their actual ethnicity or on their 'ethnic loyalty.') we damage society as a whole, and further, I'll argue that we damage the least-advantaged more than anyone. Look, four decades of racial politics in the US have brought great progress in a number of fronts. There is serious discussion of a black woman as a Vice-Presidential candidate, fer Chrissakes. How would that have sat with Strom, who apparently saw black women as sexual playthings? But there's a certain - stuckness - to African American politics today. I'll argue that it's caused by three things: demographics (the Latino and Asian influxes, and relative success), politics (the capture of African-American interest groups by poverty pimps like Jesse Jackson and Al "Four Seasons" Sharpton), and philosophy (hey, it's me we're talking about here, of course there's philosophy involved - as the internalized philosophy of victimization Dickerson talks about deprives parts of African American culture of the philosophical basis for success). So to get back to Andrew, I'll certainly agree that there are lesser and greater sins when it comes to race; I'll gladly grant him that. But I've gotta say that his statements sure seems to leave the door wide open to direct interpretation that part of how we judge the severity of the sin is based on the color of the skin of the person who commits it. And I just don't buy it. I think that the position is morally weak, and worse, counterproductive if the goal is to figure out how to minimize the racial victimization of our country's children. Commenter Senior Administration Official said:
...one could argue that A.L.'s side is the one being relativist here because he's pushing a sort of equality between all racist acts, regardless of their real consequences.
I'm arguing that in fact tolerating Rep. Brown's display has far more real consequences than a misty-eyed rendition of 'Dixie' and nostalgia for a South that probably never really existed. She was attempting to shut someone out of a policy debate that effects millions of people today. Lott was in fact just supporting Thurmond as he got misty-eyed over his sexual abuse of his black mistress sixty years ago.

17 Comments

So a black guy advocating the genocide of all white people isn't as bad as a white guy advocating the death of black people, simply because white people did it earlier, and more often?

A.L., who are you trying to please around here? Can't you just admit that you're wrong?

This is nonsense:

I've gotta say that his statements sure seems to leave the door wide open to direct interpretation that part of how we judge the severity of the sin is based on the color of the skin of the person who commits it

Why? The door might be cracked open but it sounds like you want to shove it aside.

Imagine if Person A (of a much lesser importance than Person B) says to a bunch of mixed-religious people who were predominantly Jews, "you're all a bunch of Jews and you all look the same to me!" Now imagine Person B wistfully praising the election campaign of a politician with a platform of reinstating the Holocaust.

Tell me the most important thing to comment on is how Person A is equally guilty of anti-Semitism and the fact that Person A is Tibetan doesn't give him or her any rights to yell anti-Semitic remarks at another. Please. Can you try to focus here?

Or think of this way: Corrine Brown and her comments are a small rock; Trent Lott and his comments are a big rock. They're both tossed into a lake to naturally different ripple effect. And you're desperately trying to make waves for Ms. Brown. Why?

Hmm... add PUBLICLY and wistfully praising....

A.L.:

OK, is this sorta like a gay acquaintance of mine referring to the Log Cabin Republicans as "Uncle Toms," because they suggested the attempt to exploit Cheney's daughter by intimidating her into speaking out on gay marriage was a rather crass thing to do? I mean, God forbid he'd have called them "white men." Heh.

By the way, was there a downbead just before the words "white men" (implying the missing word "stupid")? And speaking of M.M....

Tammy Bruce calls words like "racism," and "homophobe," that are supposed to elicit an auto-guilt response, "politically correct magic bullets." They work a lot better than they ought to. I suppose we can add "stupid white men" to the list, thanks to Michael Moore and Corrine Brown. Except that they're designed to elicit an auto-moral-superiority response from the peanut gallery.

Well, first, because you haven't remotely convinced me that I'm wrong, and saying it doesn't make it so.

SPF, you must operate in a different world than I do, because a sitting Member of Congress is definitely a Big Rock in my universe.

Even so, I'll suggest that morality and right behavior are not just something for kings; the least of us has a duty to do right as best we can.

And, frankly, since issues of racial progress are damn important to me, it frustrates me to see - as in other areas of liberalism where the goals that I value are being impeded by people who have appropriated them - poor black people being held down by those who make a damn good living from their poverty.

A.L.

Oh - SPF, forgot to answer your other question - I only try and please myself around here.

A.L.

A.L., don't get me wrong, I agree with you that Ms. Corrine Brown's outcry was racist and despicable, but your post concerned the lack of comments from lefty bloggers implying (explicitly) that they were letting their moral guards down to favor political darlings. This is wrong.

And without being presumptuous, just so you know, Mr. Trent Lott was and is a much bigger rock than Ms. Brown in the "real world". You may make her famous yet, but don't drag down the other bloggers with attention-getting accusations.

OK, SPF, we're making some progress toward a mutual understanding. Yes, she was lame. No, last time I checked, it wasn't a career-ending move.

If you go look at my blog (and I saw your comment there and will reply apace), my tagline is from Brad De Long: "We're the good guys. We benefit in the long run from elevating the level of the debate at every opportunity." I think that the liberal side of the table - the side in favor of freedom and equality, of fairness and partity between the big guy and the little guy - is the morally superior position. We are the good guys.

But I think that 55% of the people in this country don't vote because they see politics - including liberal politics - as a self-serving, cynical, opportunistic game played by people who forgot what belief was a long time ago. And those people - those non-Big-Rocks - are smart enough to see it and know it.

When our side - which got its start by claiming moral superiority during the Cold War and Civil Rights era - reclaims that moral superiority by acting like we were morally superior, we might win a few more votes and thereby a few more elections.

So I'm sorry if I offended anyone for calling them on what sure looked to me like partisan gamesmanship wrapped in a cloak of moral certainty.

And I'm doubly sorry to be outed as an 'attention seeker' for doing it in public, instead of the privacy of my own home. I'll shock you by pointing out that your comments - instead of being privately directed to me through email - are also public, which makes me worry that you may suffer fromthe same disease.

A.L.

Look, I'll wade in once again because I really think something is being missed here. Not missed entirely, because A.L. touches on it in the following graf:

But there's a certain - stuckness - to African American politics today. I'll argue that it's caused by three things: demographics (the Latino and Asian influxes, and relative success), politics (the capture of African-American interest groups by poverty pimps like Jesse Jackson and Al "Four Seasons" Sharpton), and philosophy (hey, it's me we're talking about here, of course there's philosophy involved - as the internalized philosophy of victimization Dickerson talks about deprives parts of African American culture of the philosophical basis for success).

Terry Nichols (the sociologist at the U. of Chicago, not the terrorist) has observed many times that the role of race in the US is a surrogate for role played by class in European politics and philosophy. I could belabor why this is the case, but you get it I'm sure.

So when people like Moore and Brown use a phrase like "white men" or "stupid white men" there is no ideology of race behind it. Instead, there's an ideology of class. The race of the person using the term is pretty nigh irrelevant. What's important is the class/ideological affiliation. "White men" is a code phrase for "oppressor." And it's really as simple as that.

Or, it's really as complicated as that since it implies that the political-ideological landscape of the US has become a hall of mirrors, with words, terms and phrases that don't really mean what we think they mean. And, on another level, of course, the racially charged words are employed to infuse some pretty tired and threadbare ideologial formulae with the legitimacy and emotion of race.

This is VERY BAD, because it's a strategy that's really reminiscent of the strategy employed by Iago, whose words never quite meant what Othello thought they meant, so he never had any chance of finding a defense. Yes, very bad. Not racist, maybe. But an awful mess, nontheless.

AL. Perhaps this is a waste of time. Indeed there are more than one issue here, but my arguement has never come close to approaching what you labelled "#2". In Lott's case as well as Brown's, the moral issue is not their respective race, but the content of what they said. Both should apologize and be reprimanded/censured based simply on the content of what they said. Since I hold Senator Lott's comments to be eminently more offensive, I'd say he should be reprimanded more severely.

The political issue is how serious they're racist remarks were, as well as the seniority of the position they hold. Again the issue is not their respective race, but the content of what they said and the amount of responsibility they hold. Obviously, the more responsibility one holds, the greater the reaction the public, press, and blogosphere will give to whatever one says. Because Rep. Brown is not a powerful or notorious congresswoman, she did not recieve the attention that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott recieved when she was overtly racist.

There indeed is a third issue here that corresponds to your "#2" and that's the relative power a black woman has to be racist vs. a white man. There are real differences in the effective ability and methods both of these groups have to be racist, but that reality should not affect the "judicial" opinion we pass on individual acts.

I've heard the arguement, "black people cannot be racist" too many times, and I disagree. But I'll tell you A.L. I find your obsfucation here to be equally as offensive to the notion that only whites are racist, because your characterization of Lott's comments, as well as your stance on recent history ('ollie ollie oxen free') will make it equally as difficult to talk about racism, whether that be on the left or the right. Rep. Brown's comments may indeed be symptomatic of a more general failure within the her community, but tell me- why aren't Senator Lott's comments reflective of his?

A.L., I don't justify my own actions by referencing the actions or lack thereof of Others, but that's me. It sounds like you're engaged in partisan gamesmanship?

I don't like email to or from people I don't know.

Nice post, Scott.

SAO -

Well, Lott's remarks are characteristic of his community, and I'll point out that my community a) fought a war with his community and won; b) fought a legal and poltiical struggle with his community, and won; and c) called him on his racist nostalgia - and while I can't say we won, we came out better than he did. I was very proud of Marshall and Atrios and the other bloggers who jumped on this when the press didn't, until the press did and had to suffer some public embarassment - which I hope would lead others to think twice before they did the same thing.

A.L.

SPF -

I obviously have no problem doing this in public, but it's more than a little disingenuous to participate in a public argument and criticize one of the participants for speaking up in public.

And I similarly will remind you that I do this for my own pleasure, as I assume you do, and that your opinions (and others) are mostly interesting to in that they are useful to me in informing and developing my own (plus sometimes it's fun to argue).

A.L.

Aw shucks, A.L., I didn't mean to criticize you for speaking about this in public. By all means, do. Pleasure indeed. Thank you for the rough-and-tumble conversation.

I like your site, by the way. :) It shows intellectual complexity. Perhaps because I'm new to it, I never know what to expect when I come. I also enjoy the news round-ups and the spiritual mysticism.

I've read this a few times now, and I'm not seeing it.

Andrew said #1. He didn't say #2. He didn't say anything close to #2. He made it very clear that he didn't mean #2.

Imagine two speakers, both of whom are Black. Black person #1 says "I can't tell if Condi Rice is a white man or not, all those mexicans and blacks and whites working for Bush look alike to me." Black person #2 says "I wish segregation had been more politically successful, that would have solved a lot of problems."

You may not agree that what #2 just said is more offensive than #1, but there's certainly a reasonable argument to be made. It's not irrational to consider someone who supports racist policies like segregation to be worse than someone who makes a racist remark.

Unless you consider that totally beyond reason, I don't see any justification for your refusal to take Andrew's word for what he intended.

  • * *

I'm curious - do you think that racism - either current and past - has anything to do with the "stuckness" you refer to? It seems a rather glaring ommision from your list.

Rep. Brown gets a pass because of the policy of the Democratic Party, which is an offshoot of the policy of the Left-Liberal, and which was originally stated by my grandmother, a stauch, nay yellow-dog, Democrat during the debates on Civil Rights in the late Fifties.

"You have to be nice to the Negroes. They can't do like white people can."

I was on the losing side of the Civil Rights debates. I deserved to be. But, as a result, I know exactly what it looks like to be on the wrong side, and exactly what sort of statements people who are on the wrong side make. Rep. Brown is on the wrong side -- at the "ignorant cracker equivalent" level rather than the "deliberate and conscious oppressor" point, but the wrong side nevertheless.

Regards,
Ric

I've had my views amply twisted by AL here, so, for tyhe record, on the off chance anyone's seriously interested, here's what they really are:

1) People use the word "racism" too frequently, IMO. I don't think what Brown said was racist, and, similiarly, I didn't think what Rush Limbaugh said about Donovan McNabb was racist, either. Not all stupid comments that make use of race in a divisive way are necessarily racist - some are just stupid and divisive. Some of them are just stupid comments about race, designed to attract attention, which people shouldn't make, but aren't really disparging of any racial group. I'm willing to have my mind changed about Brown, because I still can't figure out what she is supposed to have meant, but my leading theory is that she's just not right in the head. And this isn't really the issue.

2) Let's pretend that her comments really were racist. Who knows. Nobody can explain to me how that works, but could be. Let's pretend, for the sake of argument, that she meant that all white people can't make foreign policy involving countries with non-white populations, because white people are horrid. Let's. AL has mostly stopped pretending that the treatment of black people in America's history is no worse than the treatment of everybody by everybody else, although he still thinks it's pretty tricky. That's a sort of progress. But he thinks that it's probably time for everyone to get over the past. I'd certainly agree with that. But the problem which started this whole argument was that AL called a bunch of people out as hypocrites based on the fact that what Brown said was as worthy of condemnation as Trent Lott's praising of Strom Thurmond's defense of Jim Crow, a part of our not-so distant past that is still remembered by a great many people who experienced it, and which, like it or not, does influence in a very destructive way the way a lot of people view race in this country. We'd all love to move on, AL, but Trent Lott made it pretty clear that he thinks we shouldn't. This is more than just Lott saying "I really hate black people." It's opening some wounds we've all spent way too much effort on trying to heal. There's no comparison with Brown.

And we've still got AL desperately trying to have me say that it's fine for black people to be racist, which I have not only never said or implied, but repeatedly explained was not my point at all. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess. Pretty pathetic spectacle you've made of yourself, AL. Doubt I'll read any of your stuff in the future.

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