Saturday, December 11, 2004

So who's a racist now, scumbags?

There’s an interesting column by Patricia Williams in the 12/13/04 issue of The Nation in which she talks about her opinions regarding and feelings toward Condoleeza Rice. Her main point is that however glad she might be to see a black women rise to such prominence, it doesn’t erase her distaste for Rice’s policies and actions over the last four years. These are, in fact, separable issues: the person and the policies.

I’d like to briefly pick up one minor point from the column. In it, Prof. Williams observes the unrestrained enthusiasm that hosts and callers on right-wing radio shows have for Dr. Rice.

The day after Rice was nominated, I listened to gleeful talk-radio hosts set out the right wing's new terms of debate about her. It was something on the order of: So who's a racist now, scumbags? We're the ones who love her. Liberals hate her. And you affirmatively active black people must be choking on a bone.

Rush Limbaugh has picked up on and ran with the idea that several political cartoons critical of Rice have portrayed her unflatteringly. (Which is something political cartoons never do, you know.) Daryl Cagle has gathered a sampling of cartoons critical of Rice. Judge for yourself.

Conservative blogger Amy Ridenour points out that a radio show host in Madison WI referred to Rice as "Aunt Jemima" and Colin Powell as "Uncle Tom". While the host did apologize for the remarks – though not for the substance of the criticism – Ridenour points out that the Madison chapter of the NAACP had failed to condemn the remarks. She appears to be correct. It was in fact NAACP President & CEO Kweisi Mfume who denounced the remarks. Yet the remarks of one radio host and the apparent inaction of a local organization were sufficient to conclude: Some people just can't stand it when blacks do well. Too bad the NAACP leadership appears to be among them.

Although it must be noted that this radio show host’s remarks demonstrates that being a liberal is not exactly a certification of being racism free.

Ann Coulter, always useful as the direct line to the conservative Id, picked up on both the cartoons and the radio show remarks and added this: Most recently – at least as we go to press – last Sunday Harry Reid, the Democratic leader in the Senate, had this to say about Justice Clarence Thomas: "I think that he has been an embarrassment to the Supreme Court. I think that his opinions are poorly written." To which she added: You'd think Thomas' opinions were written in ebonics.

There is something more going on here than just payback for Trent Lott and the 90 plus per cent of African-American voters that rejected the party of Dr. Rice and Gen. Powell. And there is something more going here than a general sense of defensiveness on the part of conservatives, who feel that they’ve been unfairly labeled as racists for too long. Although, clearly both of these elements are strongly present.

The undercurrent here, and all along in the conservative Weltanschauung on racism, is that complaints about racism and racist behavior are largely unfounded. Since they do not accept that racism in America has been built into the structures and institutions of our society, they are free to atomize the discreet examples of racial discrimination. And since it is an article of unquestionable faith for conservatives that America is the best country ever and that equality of opportunity abounds for anyone willing to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, they are free to interpret individual charges of racial discrimination as whining or ingratitude or a defense of laziness.

And yet anytime they even try to make this case, they get slapped with the label Racist (one can only wonder why) or so they feel. So the train of thinking follows a track something like this: When we criticize someone who is black people, however justifiably, we’re called racists, therefore, when liberals criticize someone who is black people they must be, by their own definition, racists too. So there!

The crux of the arguments made by each of these conservatives is that liberals are being racist because they have criticized Rice, who is black. This can only make sense if, in their view, being critical of someone, anyone, who is black is just what racism is. And this can only make sense if racism is not a real thing in the world – at least not in America – but rather a slander, a weapon, a tool with which those without press their demands on those with for more than they have earned on their own. This view also depends on the notion that we are individually responsible and accountable for our own destinies, that there are no larger social or economic forces that cannot be overcome through determination and hard work, and that the success of Rice and Powell demonstrate this. They succeeded at the highest levels of power. They’re black. It is possible.

That Gen. Powell and Dr. Rice are to become our nation’s first and second African-American Secretaries of State is a demonstration both of the progress in America and of that progress’ exasperating slow pace. But the fact that this happened in the Republican party should be no surprise. Their stories confirm for conservatives the narrative that there are no barriers to achievement for people of color other than that which in their heads. Republicans hold out Powell and Rice as proof that racism is no longer a significant factor in either America or the Republican party. But Powell was too much of a moderate for the Bush crowd. After his nomination he was never the darling of the Right like Rice appears to be now. But Rice has demonstrated her conservative bona fides. She’s not one of those liberals that want to change everything.

Allow me to go on record with a partial list (in no particular order) of people in the current government whose performance I have largely disapproved of: Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ashcroft, Wolfowitz, Rove, Powell, Ridge, Rice, Snow, Thompson, Hastert, Frist, DeLay… okay, I think you get the idea and I don’t want to run out of room on my hard drive. I suppose Coulter would call me a racist for including Rice and Powell on the list. Yet I also suppose that if she were to ever stumble onto this blog, she’d have a few more choice adjectives for me too.

All of this might be little more than an academic excursion into the psychology of the modern conservative if it weren’t for the fact that Bush & Co. have set the agenda for the last four years, and barring a miracle, will for the next four too.

From John Kerry’s campaign website:

The African American unemployment rate was 10.4 percent in August, an increase of 27 percent since Bush took office. The unemployment rate for whites is currently 4.7 percent.

Under President Bush the typical African American family has seen its inflation-adjusted income decline by $2,045. Under President Clinton the typical African American family saw its inflation-adjusted income rise by $9,197.

During the Clinton era, African American poverty dropped from 33.4 percent in 1992 to 22.5 percent in 2000, the lowest African American poverty rate in American history, but falling incomes and higher unemployment contributed to an 8.4 percent rise in the poverty rate by 2003. As a result, in 2003 the poverty rate was 24.4 percent, with 8.8 million African Americans in poverty. The African American child poverty rate was even higher, 34.1 percent or 3.8 million children.

Bush eliminated the microloan program and halted the SBA program that provided $588 million in loans to African American businesses in 2000. George Bush cut minority enterprise development funding by 14 percent.

In 2003, 7 million African Americans lacked health insurance – that is nearly one in five African Americans. The uninsured rate for African American was 77 percent higher than the rate for whites.

The Bush Administration has reduced the value of Pell Grants, which 45% of African American college students rely on to help cover tuition costs.

According to a study released in February 2004 by The Urban Institute, only 50 percent of all African American students and only 43 percent of African American males got a high school diploma in 2001. But Bush cut dropout prevention programs entirely from his 2005 budget. In explanation of the cut, OMB called the programs “unnecessary.”

Despite Bush’s claims that he is focusing on the minority housing gap, the ownership gaps for Blacks, Hispanic, and Native Americans have all grown under Bush. The black homeownership gap has grown by 2.6%.

George Bush has nominated some of the most radical, right-wing judges that our country has ever seen. For example, Bush appointed Charles Pickering through a recess appointment after Pickering testified in his confirmation hearing for a seat on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that as a trial judge, he threw out cases alleging sex or race discrimination on the job, assuming that they all lacked merit. Pickering was criticized for “his role in a cross-burning case in which he went out of his way to lower a defendant's sentence. Pickering found the first-time offender's recommended sentence of seven years too harsh, and sentenced him to 27 months.”

On Martin Luther King, Jr’s birthday, Bush announced his opposition to the University of Michigan admissions process filing two amicus briefs in the Supreme Court, minutes before the midnight deadline. When Bush announced his opposition, he called the admissions system a “quota.”

Bush eliminated the Equal Pay Initiative, a program designed to expand federal enforcement against discriminatory practices that threaten equal pay for women and minorities. To make matters worse, “the Department of Justice (DOJ) has weakened enforcement of the laws against job discrimination and even abandoned pending sex discrimination suits without notice or explanation,” according to the National Women’s Law Center.

So it matters whether the people in charge of all three branches of government for the next four years understand the relationship between government policies and the differing outcomes in peoples’ lives based on race and due to institutionalized racism, or whether they point to Dr. Rice and say: Look. See? She made it. Stop your whining.

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At 4:27 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

Although I agree with your thoughts on racism in general, I think you're wrong about the Democratic Party and about Dr. Rice. First of all, there is no terribly good criticism of Rice. She is the most intelligent proponent of the President's foreign policy (Wolfowitz aside) so why shouldn't she be Secretary of State? In case you missed it, the President's foreign policy was more or less vindicated on November 2. He has every right to replace an ineffective and undermining secretary of state with one dedicated to his principles. I also think that there is a profoundly racist attitude within the Democratic Party that praises the advancement of liberal blacks but condemns conservative blacks as "uncle toms." Clarence Thomas is a race betrayer because he was talented enough to end up on the Supreme Court? It is this insistence that minorities tow the liberal line that is so profoundly and grotesquely racist. Why is it considered perfectly normal for a white man to rationally look at issues and choose a party based on his personal interests and views but unacceptable for a black man to do the same? Why must every black woman be thinking of "her people?" The reason is that white liberals benefit enormously from the unbreakable conformity of minority voters. Women and minorities have far more opportunities for serious advancement within the Republican party. Yes there are more black Democratic congressmen, but there has been no J.C. Watts. There has been no Condoleezza Rice or Alberto Gonzalez or Elaine Chao either. The Democratic Party does nothing to advance the careers of minorities and expects to reap the political gold by casting Republican minorities as traitors. I think it's no less an expression of racism than anything in the Republican circle, and far more than in Bush's administration, which has been truly colorblind in its nominations.

Okay, so, admission time. I like Condi Rice. I actually totally love her. But I am critical of her policies. Lots of us are. But is there anyone else likely to get the nomination you'd prefer? Zell Miller? Wolfowitz? Armitage? Bolten? Bush is not going to nominate Richard Holbrooke -- so might we not give him the chance to have a successful foreign policy under a capable woman? Powell had no chance of succeeding. Rice has a slim chance. That has to be good enough for the next four years.

At 11:09 AM, Blogger JimG said...


Thank you for your considered comments. I would like to quickly not that I didn’t actually criticize Dr Rice or discuss her suitability for the job of Secretary of State. The question I’m asking is why those criticisms from Prof. Williams and others are not debated on their merits by certain people on the Right (the Limbaughs & the Coulters) but rather met with reflexive charges of racism. Why are those most profoundly unconcerned about the effects of racism on the lives of millions of African-Americans so quick to cry foul in this case? I’m sure you’d agree that being conservative, regardless of race, does not put one above criticism. Liberals are criticizing Dr Rice’s performance. I fail to see how that, or criticizing the performance of Justice Thomas, translates into racism since this criticism is scarcely unique to these individuals.
I’d also like to note that the general approval of slightly more than 50% of the those who bothered to vote does not exactly translate into vindication of the president’s foreign policy. This is especially true given that there is good evidence that most of Bush’s supporters did not correctly understand the nature of the foreign policy. (I refer you to the PIPA Report.)
Finally, you touch upon an issue that I chose not to engage directly, but is quite legitimate. Is an African-American individual who chooses to work with a political party that, arguably, actively works against the interests of African-Americans generally, a “traitor” to the race? (A similar question can be asked of the semi-closeted queers in the Republican Party.) My own opinion is that this sort of criticism is not legitimate. No one has a special obligation to rise above petty self interest.
However, the thrust of the criticisms by Prof. Williams of Dr. Rice and by Sen. Reid of Justice Thomas had nothing to with this. These liberals criticized the policies and performance of these conservatives. In response to that Limbaugh, Coulter, et al cried Racism. The counter-charge is, IMHO, both unwarranted and more than a little self serving.

At 5:42 AM, Blogger Joshua said...

I agree with you that criticism is not racism. But the Republicans are merely imitating the tactic that Democrats have long used to protect potentially divisive nominees (though most, for Democrats, it's the "sexism" charge that gets used, since Democrats hardly ever nominate minorities.)

And, frankly, I think there is some kind of lurking racism in the fact that liberals have been utterly unwilling to give the president credit for building a truly racially and sexually diverse cabinet, and doing so without any of Clinton's self-conscious planning. It's impossible for liberals to admit that there are talented women, blacks, Hispanics (and, yes, gays) who are conservatives or to admit that a "racist" President has been so quietly active in promoting them. Calling these talented and numerous leaders "tokens" or "Uncle Toms" is racist. End of story.


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