Race, Progressives, and Perception: A Collection of Writings

by Karoli on May 16, 2011 · 125 comments

I’m going to say this up front: I’m unqualified to opine about racism and its effect on people. I have my own prism which includes a critical look in the mirror. That look confirms that I’m white, middle-aged, and have not ever lived in a world where I’ve faced down rejection because of the color of my skin. The closest I can get to understanding racism have been recent experiences with ageism, a less insidious but still-jarring experience.

Why I’m putting this post up at all: On a day where the Wall Street Journal thinks it’s news that white people think anti-white bias is on the rise, where Newt Gingrich has no regrets about calling the President a “food-stamp president”, where Ron Paul admits his own racism alongside an admission he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act, it would be easy enough to overlook racism less overt or obvious. And yet, in the words of more than one person I’ve quoted in the list following, racism is expected from conservatives, but liberals/progressives can be racist, too, and in ways far more destructive.

As one unqualified to opine, I’m writing this as an observer and a collector. There has been some fine writing on race, racism, race issues and the perception of people of color that racism is an attitude that is not unique to the political right, but also defines a large chunk of the political left, despite the fact that African-Americans have been the most loyal base of the Democratic party for decades.

I was advised in a nice way by a concerned friend to be quiet and listen when I wrote about race the last time. That is what I have been doing. Listening. Reading. Paying Attention. Working through my own biases and trying to admit them when I catch myself in them.

Today’s Race Discussion

I do mean today. Actually, it began last night and continues on through today.

Key Posts

VCThree: You Know What’s Really Unhelpful?

I’m paying the freight; either for every jackass that people decided to hold up as exemplary of Black men, or for their perceived biases against them, based on caricatures and/or real jackassery. And I’m sick of it, and speaking out strongly against it. It makes people uncomfortable, afraid, defensive—and I’m okay with that. They need to feel discomfort, fear, on guard, because it’s a problem. It’s a major problem, and their ignorance of it further exacerbates it, to the degree where People of Color feel marginalized on issues that they feel are vital to their identity. This happens a lot more than Liberals and Progressives admit.

AsiangrrlMN: An Open Letter to White Liberals: My Frank Opinions on Race

However, that leaves about ten percent of white liberal people who are clueless at best when it comes to race–hateful and/or malicious at worst. Yes, liberals. The big-tent party. The party of tolerance and openness and whatnot. I say that with tongue firmly in cheek because while I believe the ideals of the Democratic Party are in line with that kind of thinking, sadly, I often find the reality to be much less savory.

How do you know if you fit into that ten percent? I’ll give you some pointers. If you think we’re past racism in this country or that we are post-racial because hey, we elected a black man, that’s a flag of at least cluelessness. Other indicators are the thought that people of color are too vocal about racism, that we see racism everywhere, that we should be past it, that it wasn’t meant, that, that, that….In other words, too much explaining and excusing going on. Voting for Obama does not make one not racist or racially-insensitive or whatnot. In fact, starting a sentence with I’m not racist, but, or some of my best friends are black, Asian, Latino, pretty much guarantees that the next words coming out of your mouth are going to be viewed with suspicion by the person whom you are addressing.

These two posts triggered what can only be characterized as a shitstorm on Twitter last night. It’s too long to reproduce or even embed here. Just go read it, beginning at the top and moving on.

It is a conversation which left me feeling like Twitter could possibly be the very worst medium for any serious discussion of race, racism, and issues surrounding the two. Lots of reaction. I’ve had the same thing happen to me and it’s not pretty. It turns into a war of 140 characters volleyed back and forth. When it escalates, which this one did, it does nothing to magnify or amplify understanding, but definitely raises the hostility bar more than a few inches.

[Note: @truthrose1 added this to the discussion:

Think about this, the reason why things heat up on twitter is because unfortunately the only place an AA can express his her cont…

and

…is on TWITTER, @Realbrother0003 wrote that and he is 100% correct, Black people have no place to express the truth

Yesterday’s Race Discussions

Because this is an ongoing conversation, with many threads, I’m aggregating some of the posts which I have read and learned much in the past.

Tim Wise:

  • Reading Racism Right to Left: Reflections on a Powerful Word and Its Applications

    This is one of the things that cause trouble when discussing—as I do in my writing and speeches—the topic of racism. Although we might be able to spell it, defining it is another matter. Ask ten people the meaning of the term, and you’ll get at least five fairly distinct answers, if not one for each person in the room. For some, racism means “hatred” based on race. Others say racism is tantamount to “prejudice,” whether or not hateful. For still others, racism requires not just an attitude, but some concrete action—discrimination of some sort—based on the prejudicial attitude. Some suggest it is racist to even think about race, to discuss it, or to notice a person’s color. Some speak of racism as only the most blatant acts of aggression based on color, while others will discuss the subtle types of bias that research indicates are so common, even in the modern “post-racial” era.

  • With Friends Like These, Who Needs Glenn Beck? Racism and White Privilege on the Liberal Left

    Beyond the personal biases that exist to some extent within all of us (including those who are progressive), liberals and those on the left operate within institutional spaces and even in our political activism in ways that contribute to systemic racial inequity. This we do through four primary mechanisms. The first is a well-intended but destructive form of colorblindness. The second is an equally destructive colormuteness.

    […]

    The third mechanism by which liberal and left activists and advocates perpetuate racism is by the blatant manifestation of white privilege in our activities, issue framing, outreach and analysis: specifically, the favoring of white perspectives over those of people of color, the co-optation of black and brown suffering to score political points, and the unwillingness to engage race and racism even when they are central to the issue being addressed.

    And fourth, left activists often marginalize people of color by operating from a framework of extreme class reductionism, which holds that the “real” issue is class, not race, that “the only color that matters is green,” and that issues like racism are mere “identity politics,” which should take a back seat to promoting class-based universalism and programs to help working people.

Ishmael Reed: Obama, His “Base” and the Jim Crow Media

And after taking abuse from a Jim Crow media for a couple of hundred years has cyberspace provided a blogger underclass with the ability to talk back? To be heard and not just seen? To have a voice instead of being confined to providing musical interludes between serious “progressive” talk, like in the movies where the folks were brought up to the big house to belt out a few numbers. Are we arriving at a time when we get the opinions of the rest of us without being interpreted and explained by intermediaries?

Adam Serwer He’s Black, Get Over It

Part of the problem with the American conversation on race is the bizarre license that people take when writing about it on the basis of their own biography. But being “biracial” does not make one an expert on race, or on racial hybridity, any more than being a Republican or a Democrat makes one an expert on politics. So much of the writing on Obama’s racial identity, or on his political impact is muddled by our own subconscious racial desires. We want Obama to mean something specific, either to us or to others, with little regard for how he actually sees himself. As it stands, Arenas seems ill-prepared to talk about how biraciality operates in the African-American context. The black community in America has always accepted people of varying shades, cultures and backgrounds. Originally, this was a consequence of racial oppression; racist laws that determined that anyone with black ancestry was black. We may not have chosen to be a hybrid people, anymore than we chose to come here in the first place, but that’s what we are now. And it’s a beautiful thing.
[…]
When it comes to racial identity, there is an idea that being black is somehow reductive, that it obliterates all cultural variety. Nothing could be further than the truth. When asked about his own racial identity, the current president of the NAACP, the 35-year-old Benjamin Jealous, told NPR reporter Michelle Martin that he identifies as black because while he was growing up, “White was an exclusive definition; Black was [the] inclusive definition.”

Boston Globe (Madeline Drexler, 2007): How Racism Hurts – Literally

On Why it matters

Oliver Willis puts it quite succinctly:

Barack Obama matters to black America for many reasons, but his most symbolic role is that he’s a living role model for black children. As I’ve noted many times before, you can tell someone that they can make it with hard work and studying, but it’s a whole other notion to show black Americans that you really can go as high as the highest office in the country.

And pictures are worth more than 1000 words or anything I could say here:

I’ll keep listening. Talk to me. Tell me more.

Update: Angry Black Lady recaps the exchanges over the weekend and adds this:

This weekend, I was angry at having been told that I was unimportant, unqualified to speak because I don’t work for a think tank or contribute to a think tank-backed “elite blog”, and therefore hadn’t earned my right to speak. My “outburst” to the extent one wants to call it that, was borne of that anger and borne of irritation at the defensive crouch of many white liberals when the topic of race is broached. Now we can go round and round in this cycle of racial animosity, ultimately getting nothing done until we are permanently fractured. Or you can acknowledge the fact that it’s a new dawn in left politics. We can talk to you and try to heal this rift. But what we cannot do is continue to allow those who purport to speak for us in public, to ignore us, and to attack us, and to belittle us for their own gain.

She also invited a conversation.

I am asking you (any of you – all of you); if you want to have a conversation about race and racism and what it is like to be a minority, then it’s time to stop saying “race is a difficult subject” or “it’s too hard to talk about.” No it’s not. Not if you’re serious about listening. It is long past time to put your money where you mouth is, friends.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to light some aromatherapy candles, buy a nice big roundtable, burn some incense, crack open a couple bottles of pinot noir, lay out a cheese plate, and wait for you to join me. We’ll all wear fancy gloves and Sunday hats, and we’ll have a nice civilized conversation. We’ll get it all off our chests while daintily munching on watercress sandwiches with the crusts cut off.

Takers?

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