Thursday, December 22, 2016

Racism As We Know It Today

It was always safe to predict that when a Republican became President, Democrats and Republicans would switch places again.  Policies and actions that Democrats had denounced under Bush became not only acceptable but proof of Obama's greatness when he adopted them; now they will once more be proof of Republican evil.  What does feel a little odd to me -- once again I find I'm less cynical and more naive than I thought -- is watching so many liberal Democrats adopt Tea-Party-style paranoid conspiracy theories and McCarthyite red-baiting at such a peak of intensity, acting exactly as they warned Trump supporters would act if their candidate wasn't elected.

Since Election Day, Democratic stalwarts have exploded with rage at the white trash who voted for Trump, having honed their rhetoric while raging at their British counterparts who voted for Brexit a few months earlier.  Some liberal and especially left writers have pointed out just how badly off the working class, white and black, is nowadays thanks to the economic policies embraced by both parties.  Somewhere along the line the phrase "economic anxiety" caught on, and Democratic apologists jumped on it.

Yes, You're Racist, on Twitter, was perhaps the funniest, and also the most symptomatic.  He retweeted the following material, by an Igbo writer now resident in the US:

To be fair, he did not retweet Ms. Mbakwe's next post, which is an important addition to her thought:

See how selective quotation can skew a writer's intent?  (Shirley Sherrod would empathize, I bet.)  I think Ms. Mbakwe is mistaken here, though, because each group "is given the benefit of the doubt" by many Americans and "demonized" by others.  She's also mistaken in assuming that recognizing the grievances of a group equals either giving them the benefit of the doubt or justifying their bad behavior.  I recognize the grievances of elite Democrats, for instance, but I don't give them the benefit of the doubt or justify their bad behavior.

Since the 60s, at least, Democrats have never been very interested in the white working poor, except as punching bags.  (Republicans have mainly seen them as a hornets' nest of resentment they could exploit for votes, but they didn't care about their welfare any more than the Dems did.)  Democratic politicians' preference for "middle class" rather than "working class" was no accident; Bernie Sanders broke with that pattern, and now that I think of it, I'm surprised that his supporters didn't seem to realize who he was talking about.

It's especially ironic for Yes, You're Racist (henceforth YYR) to post Ms. Mbakwe's remarks, because he himself happily extends empathy to one group while demonizing the other.  "A riot is the language of the unheard," he replied to a tweet by a presumably white apologist for racism a couple of months ago, though it's certain that he would never say such a thing about riots by whites, and this remark goes beyond "extending empathy" -- it sounds like an endorsement.  But it's okay to be thoughtless if you're on the right side.

Anyone who knows anything about the history of American racism knows that white elites have often used racism to divide working-class and poor whites from working-class and poor blacks.  It's virtually a cliche.  Contrary to Robert Reich's optimistic declaration in that 2014 post that the strategy was "starting to backfire," it worked very well for Donald Trump.

So let's leave empathy out of it.  (I haven't read Paul Bloom's Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion [Ecco, 2016] yet -- should I?)  It's a valuable human capacity, but it's not the only one we have.  Just as Michael Neumann criticized "respect" (via), if empathy means not killing or starving people, fine -- but you shouldn't do those things even to people you don't empathize with.  American liberals are perfectly willing, indeed happy, to kill and starve people they disapprove of (or even, as in the case of Middle Eastern civilians, people who are too far away to be noticed).  It's easy to empathize with people who've been cast as worthily pitiful by a good propaganda campaign, as I've seen with the concern for Syrian children; and easy to ignore those who haven't: show liberals a picture of a starving Yemeni child, whose plight President Obama has worked hard to worsen, and they won't remember it five minutes later.

In the case of the white working class and working poor, many white liberals have gone beyond merely switching off their empathy into explicit punitive fantasies.  It has been pointed out that racism is too simple an explanation for Trump's election, that working class whites voted for Obama but not for Clinton, but leave that aside.  It doesn't matter.  Even if all those who voted for Trump or simply didn't betake themselves to the polls to vote for Clinton were racist, it remains true that bipartisan domestic policy of the past several decades has hurt working people of all colors and both sexes.  Since both Republican and Democratic elites have continued their destructive policies while knowing full well the effect they had, they can't claim they were unaware of their effects or that they deeply cared (empathized?) with the people they were hurting; they just cared more about the wealthy, and they empathize deeply with them.

Our society and our government owe to all citizens the resources to earn a living, to support themselves and their families, even if many of those citizens are bad people.  Many of them are.  I've noticed before how liberals tend to flounder when white racists justify racism by pointing out that poor black people often break the law, live improvidently, try to anesthetize themselves with drugs and alcohol, and engage in violence against each other.  Of course, poor white people do exactly the same thing, and they serve the same function for white liberals.  There's a heroin epidemic right now in the Midwest which affects whites no less than blacks, and the stereotypical meth user in liberal discourse was a poor white person; rather than stimulate empathy, this stereotype was used to justify contempt for poor whites, who were obviously just a bunch of toothless, cousin-marrying losers, not worth bothering about.  Memes featuring obese, badly dressed white people shopping at Walmart are a staple of white liberal Facebook pages, and they were invoked on the Internet well before memes became a thing.

Toothless, cousin-marrying losers need to be able to find jobs and support their families.  They need a roof over their heads. They need health care to fix their bad teeth and good public schools to educate their children.  To say so is not to minimize their racism or other unseemly traits, any more than good economic policy justifies poor blacks' frequent criminality and bad beliefs.  Nor is it to recommend, as the New York Times did recently, that the Democratic Party should reach out to working class whites by pandering to their racism instead of ameliorating their economic plight.  Middle class and wealthy whites also have bad beliefs and are frequently criminal, but they aren't held accountable as poor whites and blacks are.  We have to distinguish between poor whites' racism and their economic and political rights, just as we do between poor blacks' misbehavior and their economic and political rights.  Empathy doesn't entail uncritical approval, just as you can vote for a corrupt neoliberal as the lesser evil while criticizing her relentlessly.  Martin Luther King Jr. knew this, as did black radicals of the late 1960s; if today's white liberals don't know it, and it seems they don't, then they are not part of the solution but part of the problem.

It has already been largely forgotten that Trump's political success, like that of the Tea Party before him, signified a revolt against the Republican Party establishment.  Everyone who mattered expected Jeb Bush or someone like him to be the GOP presidential nominee.  Republican elites were as horrified by the trash who were supporting Trump as Democratic elites were.   The corporate media tried hard to establish an equivalence (see item 5) between Trump's supporters and Bernie Sanders's, and that was correct in that both appealed to people who didn't want to vote for another entitled rich person who was comfortable with the current economic and political situation in the world.  Discontent with the status quo is considered unforgivable by those who are satisfied with it.  It looks like a safe bet that Trump will disappoint those who voted for him in the hope that he would break with economic business as usual, as he packs his Cabinet and administration with corporate hacks -- just as Obama did before him, and as Clinton would have done had she been elected.  If that plays out as I expect, I'll feel Schadenfreude as much as any Democrat, but I'll also know that it means things are just going to keep getting worse.  Who will come along in 2020 or 2024 to capitalize on people's disappointment with Trump?