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?
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.