Thursday, June 13, 2013

Benign Malignity

Ta-Nehisi Coates had a great post at the Atlantic site last week. (I'm just now catching up with some unfinished posts.)

I want to highlight one of the comments on the piece, which read in part:
Unfortunately, acknowledging that you might be racist is akin to admitting that you're a pedophile in this country. So let's try it this way, though it's pretty basic and I don't mean to insult anyone. I think the point is that many white people experience the world as pretty benign. They are presented with, for example, more-or-less ample opportunity to get ahead if they work hard. When they hail a cab, they generally get a ride. When they ask a cop for directions, they don't get frisked, when they ask a bank for a loan, they don't get overly screwed, when they apply for a job, they get a fair hearing, etc. So when they see a disproportionate number of black people are poor, they think they are not taking advantage of the opportunities that are on offer and so define problems getting jobs, etc., as of their own making. They certainly don't think they bear any resposibility for the situation and resent policies that are specifically race-based. 
My immediate reaction was to agree, in part, and then to wonder when "acknowledging that you might be racist" began to be "akin to admitting that you're a pedophile in this country."  White racism has always been the historical norm in the United States.  (Saying that doesn't mean I think racism is unique to the US.  I'm just talking about my country, the country whose history I know best.)  It's perfectly acceptable to be racist, 'privately' among white people and in public as long as you refrain from using the N-word.  At worst it's an open-secret peccadillo, like Uncle Bob's mistress that everyone knows about but doesn't admit they know about.  As long as you don't talk about it, you don't have to take a stand.  Even those people who do openly throw around racial epithets, however, deny that they're racists and become indignant or distraught if someone calls a spade a spade.  Nobody cuts pedophiles the kind of slack that white racists routinely enjoy.

However, I disagree that white racists "experience the world as pretty benign."  (I say "white racists" instead of the commenter's "many white people," because the people he's talking about -- whites who claim that racial minorities are getting unfair special treatment -- are racists.)  From what I've seen and heard, racist whites don't experience life as largely benign.  On the contrary, they protest furiously that they have no privilege, that no one ever handed them anything on a platter, that they worked hard for everything they have, yet here they're being robbed by the government that spends their tax dollars on lazy welfare bums who want to sit at home doing nothing but expect to be supported.

While I'm talking about Coates, I also want to point out his response to a passage from one of Obama's speeches.  In 2007 Obama told a (presumably black) audience in Selma, Alabama:
Folks are complaining about the quality of our government, I understand there's something to be complaining about. I'm in Washington. I see what's going on. I see those powers and principales have snuck back in there, that they're writing the energy bills and the drug laws. We understand that, but I'll tell you what. I also know that, if cousin Pookie would vote, get off the couch and register some folks and go to the polls, we might have a different kind of politics.
Coates wrote:
But Cousin Pookie did vote -- at historic levels, no less. And Cousin Pookie's preferred candidate has taken that vote and continued about the business of busting all the other Pookies out there for things the candidate did in his youth. And those busts are happening at rates well beyond Pookie's other American neighbors. There is no reason to think this will change any time soon. That saddens me.
Obama used the "Cousin Pookie" trope several years before 2012, when black voters did come out in record numbers, so perhaps someone who wanted to could quibble with Coates on that point.  But I don't think that's important.  More important is what he goes on to say, that Obama's Presidency has underscored the useless of voting as a means of producing social change.  What did Cousin Pookie get for getting off the couch and voting?  Contempt for the man he voted for, who climbed to power on his back.  As an African-American icon, Obama is much more like Clarence Thomas than, say, Thurgood Marshall.