Saturday, February 20, 2016

Beat Me, Whip Me, Make Me Feel the Bern!

I first read John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me in seventh grade.  I found a paperback copy in a classroom at my junior high school, picked it up and began reading, and couldn't put it down.  I have a vivid memory of sitting there reading it in the failing light of late afternoon.  I believe it belonged to a teacher, who let me borrow it.  Which, now that I think of it, took some courage on his part, in Indiana in 1963.  What if my parents had objected?  The book's radical (for the period) racial politics were only one reason to worry about parental backlash in those days and that place; it also contained many sexual references, most of which I didn't understand very well at the age of twelve.

Since then I've read Black Like Me at least four more times.  Until recently the only book that equaled its impact on my understanding of American racism was Jonathan Kozol's first book, Death at an Early Age, which I read soon after it was published in 1967.  But perhaps "understanding" is the wrong word, though both books have a lot of intellectual content: they affected me on a gut level, ensuring that I would never tolerate white racism or give any credence to the excuses and rationalizations white racists make for their bigotry.  Death at an Early Age brought home for me what it would mean to children to lose the opportunity for education because racism gave them destructive schooling: even if the Boston schools Kozol described had been repaired and improved immediately, it would do no good for the children who'd passed through themMeanwhile whites dragged their feet to ensure that the destruction of children's hearts and minds would continue.  The issue of reparations is relevant here; reparations are needed not just for slavery, but for racist oppression that continues right down to the present.  

Black Like Me showed me what it was like to be on the receiving end of what Griffin called the "hate stare," to have to waste hours searching for a public restroom, a restaurant that would serve you, a bank that would cash your traveler's checks; to know that any white person could view you as their servant, and demand not only obedience but subservience, always with the threat of lethal violence if you didn't comply.  (It occurs to me now that any kid, of any color, knows what this is like.)

I was bothered, though, by a theme Griffin took up a couple of times in the book.  First the white doctor who helped him darken his skin, and later Griffin himself in conversation with an older black man, lament the bad behavior of many blacks that prevents them from getting equal rights.  The older man sums up the situation:
"... So a lot of them, without even understanding the cause, just give up.  They take what they can -- mostly in pleasure, and they make the grand gesture, the wild gesture, because what else have they got to lose if they do die in a car wreck or a knife fight or something else equally stupid?"

"Yes [replies Griffin], and then it's these things that cause the whites to say we're not worthy of first-class citizenship."
It seems to me that Griffin had it backwards here. "These things" don't "cause" white racists to conclude that blacks are inferior -- they're invoked to rationalize the conviction that racists already hold.  (Karen Fields and Barbara Fields hammered this point home repeatedly in their brilliant Racecraft.)  What occurred to me when I read these exchanges was that white men, and not only poor ones, also "make the grand gesture, the wild gesture" and die in car wrecks or knife fights or something else equally stupid.  Better-off white men like George W. Bush will simply be bailed out of the trouble they get into; white trash may not, but no one will argue that whites are obviously inferior because of their propensity for violence and self-degradation.  The misbehaving, self-destructive whites are pathological individuals, a few bad apples, not representatives of their race.  Since whites are unmarked racially, nothing they do can give them a bad name as white people, in mainstream (i.e., white) discourse anyway.  Later still in the book, Griffin points out to a white interlocutor that certain social problems cited against blacks also occur among whites, but neither goes near the implications this fact has for white supremacy.

After Griffin published his experiences, the backlash, while predictable (and he'd predicted it), was still chilling.  He was hung in effigy in his Texas hometown, and the standard threats of death and mutilation were phoned in by cowards.  Judging from later statements, some of which are included in the Griffin Estate edition I read this time, Griffin became much more radical about American racism than he was in the 1950s, and was harshly critical of white media that tried to use him to speak for African-Americans, while refusing to turn to African-Americans themselves.  Of course it's doctrine that blacks can't be trusted to talk about American racism -- as the white racist philosopher Antony Flew put it, they're "prominently positioned to discover racism," because they're "generously paid" to do so. 

Damn, there I go again, pissing myself off; but it's not over nothing.  I've been reading a number of things lately that both informed and infuriated me: not just Black Like Me and Racecraft, but Ira Katznelson's When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (Norton, 2005).  Katznelson details how white racists were able to hijack social programs, from veterans' benefits to the New Deal and the G.I. Bill, so that American blacks would be excluded from coverage.  In general, liberals gave in quite easily to their efforts.  So, for example,
The South's representatives [in Congress] built ramparts within the policy initiatives of the New Deal and the Fair Deal to safeguard their region's social organization.  They accomplished this aim by making the most of their disproportionate numbers on committees, by their close acquaintance with legislative rules and procedures, and by exploiting the gap between the intensity of their feeling and the relative indifference of their fellow members of Congress [22].
It didn't help my mood when, a few weeks ago, some (white male) Bernie Sanders boosters erupted angrily over Black Lives Matters' decision not to endorse a presidential candidate: "Cutting off the nose to spite the face, by not supporting Sanders at this important time ..." wrote one.  Another wrote, "This group seems to be wearing blinders, only focusing on what they want to see. It is a great big world out there and economics is always the key no matter what race or ethnicity you may happen to be part of. Senator Sanders appears to be focusing on income inequality which certainly affects at least 99 percent of ALL people. We can all work together or we can all go down the toilet together."

They were sure that a Republican would become President because of BLM's treachery.  So, I asked them, no one will vote if BLM doesn't endorse a candidate? Or everyone will decide to vote Republican if BLM doesn't endorse a candidate? No one is capable of making up their own minds?  I didn't get a satisfactory answer, just more fulminating about how these blindered traitors were giving aid and comfort to the Rethugs.

I can think of numerous reasons why BLM might choose not to endorse a candidate.  It might be, for example, that the organization was too divided within itself to select one.  Partisans love to claim that they are political realists unlike their airy-fairy idealistic critics and opponents, but this simple political reality escaped these guys' notice entirely.  Maybe neither Clinton nor Sanders, in their belated and rather resentful attempts to 'reach out' to communities of color, persuaded BLM that they really deserved to be endorsed.  Sanders has talked about "making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino."  This sounds very nice, and might have impressed me more before my recent reading, which taught me that white supremacists are very effective at making sure that such "massive investments" are structured so as to exclude black people, and that white liberals and progressives are not very effective at preventing these exclusions.  Sanders no doubt means well, but it seems that he doesn't realize just how "divisive" (the word he used to dismiss reparations) it will be to invest in communities and people of color as well as white ones.

This wasn't the first time I've encountered such authoritarian behavior among Democratic partisans during this cycle (leaving aside past ones), and once again I'm amazed by their evident belief that they can win votes for their candidate by insulting and abusing the voters they're ostensibly trying to win over.  Put simply: you want my vote, so you must give me a good reason why I should comply.  Attacking me, whether honestly or dishonestly, doesn't seem like a good way to persuade me.  Castigating BLM as ungrateful darkies doesn't seem like a promising tactic for persuading them to reconsider their decision.

Now, like Ta-Nehisi Coates, I intend to vote for Sanders in the primary and will surely vote Democratic in November.  Doing so doesn't mean I can't criticize Sanders, Clinton, or any other candidate or politician; and criticizing them doesn't mean I hate them or will vote Republican.  I'm not going to change my vote because some of a candidate's supporters are assholes.  But if I were Sanders (I'm not sure about Clinton), I would not be pleased to know that my supporters are behaving like assholes on my behalf.  It's curious, really: liberals and progressives like to fantasize that they are well-informed and rational as opposed to the idiot Rethuglicans, but they also believe that the electorate (everyone except them, I guess) are stupid and can only be won over by appeals to emotion.  Even if they're right about that, you win more flies with honey than with vitriol.