Posts Tagged ‘Racism’

The passing scene – August 24, 2015

August 24, 2015

White supremacist gathering underscores Russia’s nationalist trend by Masur Mirovalev for the Los Angeles Times.  Hat tip to Oidin.

Racism, xenophobia and extreme nationalism are on the rise among ethnic Russians, who are 81 percent of the population of the Russian Federation.  The victims are Russia’s ethnic minorities, such as the Tatars, and its immigrants, who are mainly from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

Vladimir Putin has cracked down on hate killings while trying to harness Russian nationalism to support his struggle with NATO nations over Ukraine.  He aligns himself with the Russian Orthodox Church, Cossack paramilitaries and the extreme right-wing parties.

Putin Cracks Down on Christians in Crimea by Geraldine Fagan for Newsweek.

Russian authorities in Crimea are building up the Russian Orthodox Church while persecuting Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Eastern Rite Catholics.

A suspiciously “European” solution by Tom Sullivan for Hullabaloo.

The French National Front and Donald Trump by Paul Gottfried for the Unz Review.

Anti-foreign and anti-immigrant sentiment are on the rise throughout Europe as well as the USA.


Why I am ‘politically correct’ (up to a point)

February 6, 2015


Whenever I hear someone say in a belligerent tone that he or she is “politically incorrect,” I take it to mean that the person is about to say something offensive or vulgar, and that anybody who criticizes is a timid conformist.

There are words I don’t use—”nigger,” “kike” and “faggot”—that are the language of murder.  They are the vocabulary of lynch mobs hanging black people, Cossacks conducting pogroms against Jewish villages, homophobes beating people sometimes to death.

bus_stop_colorFor that matter, I refrain from using words such “redneck.”  It originally was a derogatory term used by the Southern elite for men who worked all day in the hot sun, which is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

If I want to be treated with courtesy, I extend courtesy in return.  I make a reasonable effort to avoid giving offense.   I expect in return that other people not take offense when no offense is intended.

Being polite doesn’t mean that I self-censor what I say.  It means that I try to think of ways of saying what I have to say so that other people will listen, and that I listen to what they have to say in return.


I’ve been called “racist” a few times during my life.   This didn’t shut me up..

I said I don’t deserve to be called by the same word that is used for Klansman and or Nazis.  I was told that this was not what was meant.  “We are all racists,” the other person would say.

I don’t agree, but I stopped taking offense.  If the meaning of “racist” is “average insensitive, ignorant white guy,” it probably applies.  But then another word is needed for the likes of David Duke.


Women on the Internet are subject to terrible abuse, including threats of rape and dismemberment, especially when they express a pro-feminist point of view.


The persistence of racial prejudice

August 31, 2013

A lot of my friends, including my fellow white liberals as well as Tea Party Republicans, think that racial discrimination in the United States is a thing of the past.   The only problem, as many of them see it, is the bad behavior of the black underclass.

I accept that there is such a thing as a black underclass, in which crime, addiction, ignorance and irresponsible sexual behavior are acceptable.  I don’t know enough to say to what degree these are problems of the African-American culture specifically and to what degree they are problems of the larger American culture, although I suspect the latter.

But I do not believe that members of the black underclass represent African-Americans.  They are not a majority of the African-American population.  The black people I’m acquainted with are all middle-class professionals like myself, or struggling poor people with middle-class values.   Most of them had harder struggles than I have had to get where I am.  This is not something I feel guilty about.  It is fact of life which I recognize.

My opinions are based partly on stories they’ve told me about how they have to shape their behavior around the fears and prejudices of what people—how they feel in danger when they encounter a police officer, or they have business in an all-white suburb, or how they have to make a special effort to seem mild-mannered because white people are afraid of aggressive black men.

A minister friend of mine told me about his brother, an aerospace engineer, who was stopped while riding his bicycle by police who believed he had committed a robbery or larceny nearby.  He showed them his corporate ID to no avail; they simply assumed he had stolen somebody else’s wallet.  It was only when he phoned his employer to have someone vouch for him that they believe he was who he said he was.  The important thing about this story is that it happened to the same person twice, in two different cities.

I remember once when I was a reporter for the Democrat and Chronicle in Rochester, and was working on an article on what kinds of things people were buying as Christmas gifts that season.  To make the article more readable, I went out to stores and interviewed shoppers.

I approached a well-dress black man, and was struck by his stricken here-we-go-again expression.  Obviously he thought I was some kind of store official who thought I suspected him of shoplifting or something.  A great expression of relief came over his face, when I identified myself and he told me what kind of computer games he was buying for his grandchildren.

The white-sheet racism that dominated so much of the country in 1963 has been pushed to the margins of society.  American society has changed for the better, and white people of my generation who’ve made an effort to change their attitudes can take some of the credit for that.  But racial prejudice is still a part of American life.

The video above, which shows how differently people react to a white guy, a black guy and a pretty white girl doing the same thing, is an example of this.  Testers have found that a white person with a criminal record has a better chance of getting a job than a black person with a clean record.  Use of illegal drugs is just as common among white people as black people, yet the vast majority of arrests and jail sentences are of poor black men.

In New York City, the police with Mayor Bloomberg’s approval engage in racial profiling—singling out young black men in poor neighborhoods to be stopped and frisked in humiliating ways.  Black people that I know argue for affirmative action on the grounds that if they are singled out for bad treatment, it is only fair to get some special advantage as an offset.  I oppose both racial profiling and affirmative action, but my righteous indignation is reserved for the former.

But what about the dysfunctional culture of the black underclass?   I was brought up in the Christian tradition, which teaches that you should be more concerned with your own faults, the beam in your own eye, than with your neighbor’s faults, the speck in his eye.

I don’t believe that being lectured by someone like me is going to change the behavior of any black person, but maybe there is some slight possibility of influencing some of my fellow whites.


Racism and diversity: country comparisons

August 15, 2013

Double click to enlarge.

Here is a Washington Post map showing the United States among the leading nations, and not in a bad way.

The United States is one of the nations in which the idea of racism is least acceptable.

That doesn’t mean that Americans are free of racial prejudice.  Far from it.  Surveys show that, all other things being equal, a black person is less likely than a white person to get a job—in fact, a white person with a criminal record has a better chance of getting a job than a comparable black person with a clean record.  Mayor Bloomberg of New York City justified singling out black people to “stop and frisk”.

Somebody took a video of a white person and a black person trying to break the chain on a locked bicycle.  Passers-by assumed that the white person had a legitimate reason and that the black person was a criminal.

Then, too, the question is over-simple as a measure of racism.  Southern white racists in an earlier era liked associating with black people, provided that the blacks were deferential and “knew their place.”

Still, I think it is significant that the idea of racism is no longer acceptable in the United States and many other countries.  I have lived long enough to remember when this wasn’t true.

It’s a bit surprising to me that people in India are so frank about not wanting to be around people of a different race.   I read somewhere that the Hindi word for “race” is similar to the word for “caste,” so maybe what the Indians were saying is that they don’t want to live next to somebody of a lower or different caste.

What does count as a race?  I imagine the answers reflect Jordanian Arabs’ feelings about Jews, and Vietnamese feelings about Chinese, even though outsiders might see them as members of the same race.

I have read that the Japanese value racial purity and treat Koreans and other minorities as second-class citizens.  Maybe the results would have been different if the question had been about what kinds of people you would tolerate marrying into your family.

Another Washington Post map, below, shows that ethnic diversity is not necessarily a cure for racism.


Why I’m not voting for the black President

September 13, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer and blogger for The Atlantic Monthly, wrote an essay entitled “Fear of a Black President” in which, among other things, he described what President Obama’s election means to black people, and especially to black parents.  It means that there is literally no upper limit on what black Americans are allowed to achieve.  As recently as five years ago, I would not have believed it possible for a black person to be nominated, let alone elected, by either of the two major parties.  I take satisfaction as an American that I was proved wrong.

At the same time, as Coates pointed out, Barack Obama is under constant attack based on his race.  He is accused, based on no evidence whatsoever, of being a product of affirmative action, of being a Kenyan anti-colonial radical, of hating white people.   When Obama said policeman James Crowley’s arrest of Prof. Henry Louis Gates on trumped-up charges was “stupid,” he was accused of stirring up black people against white people.  Given Obama’s difficult situation, Coates wrote, it is understandable that he has not actually done anything to help black people as a group.

I think this is correct.  As a matter of pure political calculation, it is more important for him to reassure white people than to stand with black people.  The fact that he has shown a black man can be elected President, plus the nature of the attacks made on him as a black man, is enough to assure him the support of the vast majority of African-Americans.  So he can afford to turn his back on Van Jones, on Shirley Sherrod and on ACORN, while he would give ammunition to his attackers if he had stood by them.

Obama’s political career, as Coates noted, is based on presenting himself to white people as someone more reasonable than a Jesse Jackson or an Al Sharpton.  Obama was not, except for his short and ineffective service as a community organizer, an advocate of the interests and grievances of African-Americans.  Rather he was the person who could bring black people and white people together and get them to, if not forget about race, at least put race in the background.

Much has been made of Obama’s connections with the angry preacher Jeremiah Wright, the ex-revolutionary Bill Ayers and the racketeer Tony Renko.  Obama is not angry, revolutionary or a racketeer.  The significance of these three people is that they are part of the Chicago power structure, which he as an outsider worked his way into, just as he worked his way into the Washington, D.C., power structure.

Obama’s political advancement was based on his ability to convince people in power that what he advocated was reasonable.  That is how he persuaded the Illinois state legislature to pass a law requiring police interrogations to be videotaped and made available to juries; that is how he together with Senator John McCain persuaded Congress to create an Internet site on which all earmarked appropriations would be listed.   All his speeches—and he is a great speaker—are examples of walking through minefields, of satisfying and reconciling all sides.

My astute friend Oidin pointed out during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama’s advertising and video biography showed him interacting only with white people, not with black people.  His black sister did not emerge into the public eye until election night.  Many successful black people say they have to purposefully be less forceful than is natural to them, in order that white people not feel threatened by them.  President Obama is the prime example of the non-threatening black person—although there are a certain number of white people who will feel threatened by him no matter what he does or doesn’t do.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

When I voted for Barack Obama in 2008, it was not in order to do black people a favor.  I voted for him because I thought he would stop the country’s drift into perpetual warfare, lawless authoritarianism and economic oligarchy.  I thought that merely replacing President George W. Bush would be a change for the better.  I was wrong.

I don’t think President Obama is any worse than the leading white Presidential candidates of the past 10 years.  Obama built on precedents set by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.  He probably is no worse than Hillary Clinton or John McCain would have been in his place, let alone Mitt Romney.

But I am not demanding that the black President adhere to a higher standard than a white President.  The basic minimum duty of a President is to obey the law and to enforce the law.  I would vote for a Gerald Ford if I could count on him to do these two things.  President Obama has claimed the power to sign death warrants and commit acts of war based on decisions made in secret according to secret criteria.  He has refused to enforce the law against financial fraud or crimes against humanity.  The legal and organizational infrastructure for dictatorship exists in the United States, and Obama has not dismantled it.  He has strengthened it.

Human rights do not end at the water’s edge.  People in targeted areas of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen have as much right as you, me or Trayvon Martin to not be killed based on vague suspicions.

Most of my friends and acquaintances intend to vote for Obama.  They tell me it is my responsibility to choose among the options on the table and, if they are all bad, to vote for the least bad.  I don’t accept that.  If I don’t insist on a candidate who upholds the Constitution and the laws, then I am an enabler for the violation of the Constitution and the laws.

Click on Fear of a Black President for the complete article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly.  It is well worth reading in full.

Click on Vertical Solidarity is nonsense for a rejoiner by “B Psycho” on Psychopolitik.

Click on Why Barack Obama Is the More Effective Evil for an important article by Glen Ford of the Black Agenda Report.

Click on The Hard Right Is Paranoid About the Wrong Things for comment by Conor Friedersdorf, another Atlantic writer, on rational and irrational reasons for opposing President Obama.

Racial profiling and the Trayvon Martin killing

June 9, 2012

Is George Zimmerman a racist?  In my opinion (1) probably not, and (2) it’s irrelevant to the question of his guilt or innocence.

Murdering someone because of their race is a hate crime.  But being racist is not in itself a crime.  In a free country, people are not put on trial for their attitudes, or for what people think about their attitudes, but when they are accused breaking laws on the statue books.  I can imagine someone being an avowed racist, yet having the good judgment not to go around with a loaded gun playing policeman.  The issue in the Trayvon Martin killing is whether George Zimmerman was legally justified in taking a human life.

George Zimmerman

There was a time within living memory when a black man in communities such as Sanford, Fla., could be killed with impunity for speaking disrespectfully to a white person.  I remember the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was killed in 1955 in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman, and how the all-white jury acquitted the killers because they thought that was justifiable grounds for homicide.

I don’t believe the killing of Trayvon Martin was anything like this.  But I do believe that if it had been me, a 75-year-old white man, wandering through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., on the night of Feb. 26, instead of a 17-year-old black youngster, I would still be alive.  And if by chance it was my life that had been taken, I believe the local police would have been quick to treat it as a crime.

There are statistical disparities between how the criminal justice system treats white and black people, but they aren’t always what I would think.   The law comes down much harder on black people for victimless crimes such as drug abuse.  Surveys indicate that black and white people use illegal drugs in roughly the same percentages, but the overwhelming majority of people in prison for using illegal drugs are black.  But when it comes to crimes of violence, the important variable is the race of the victim, not the accused.  Black murderers of black people are treated more leniently on average than white murderers of white people.  But the small number of black murderers of white people are treated more harshly on average than the smaller number of white murderers of black people.

Trayvon Martin

My guess is that this goes back to the days of slavery and segregation, when white law enforcement officers didn’t care whether black people killed each other, and in the deep South thought that it was justified to kill black people to keep them in line.  Old attitudes persist, even among people who’ve forgotten the reason for them.

It is all too easy to jump to conclusions about other people.  There is a young black man who was a member of my church, an “A” student and an outstanding athlete.  He went to State University College at Albany on a football scholarship.  He was young giant, and at SUNY Albany was given a special diet and body-building exercises to build him up further.  He was quiet and good-tempered, nicknamed the “gentle giant” by his high school classmates.  Yet if I had met him on the street in a bad section of town at night, and not known who he was, I don’t know what I would have felt.

Many black parents try to teach their children how to appear nonthreatening to white people.  They see every encounter with authority as a potential life-threatening situation.  And if you read about all the cases where black men are shot and killed by police by mistake, you see this is not an overreaction.  Not that George Zimmerman had the authority of a law enforcement officer.  He was just a guy with a gun.

I am fortunate to have had parents who taught me to judge people as individuals, not by race, religion and nationality.  Like most human beings, I have my biases, conscious and unconscious, but I try not to let my judgments and actions be controlled by these biases.

Click on George Zimmerman: Prelude to a shooting for a sympathetic portrait of George Zimmerman by Reuters news service.

Click on Are We Teaching Kids the Wrong Lesson About Trayvon? for an argument that what’s needed is not for black parents to talk to their children about how to navigate racial prejudice, but for white parents to have conversations with their children about why racism is morally wrong and intellectually untenable.   I count myself fortunate that my own parents brought me up to judge people as individuals, and not on the basis of race, religion or nationality.   That doesn’t make me free of prejudice, conscious and unconscious.  It means I’ve been taught to try to overcome prejudice.

Click on Race plays complex role in Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law for the Tampa Bay Times analysis of fatal shootings under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which says that people have a right to use deadly force to defend themselves even if they could have avoiding the confrontation by retreating.  The newspaper found that killers of black people were treated more leniently more often than killers of white people, but there are other factors that may have explained this.

Click on Trayvon Martin’s Death, and What It Says About Race, Privilege and Homicide for interesting statistics from the CrimeDime web log.  These figures do not, however, prove what CrimeDime thinks they prove.  The comment thread is as interesting as the post.

Click on Sanford, Florida’s Long Troubled History of Racism and Racial Injustice for background on hate crimes in that community, including running Jackie Robinson out of town.  I think many black people and few white people are familiar with this background, and this may explain why black and white people respond on average so differently.  Of course this is neither here nor there concerning George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence.

Click on The Murder of Emmett Till for background on that case.  I don’t think this is something that could happen today.

Is it racist to criticize Obama?

May 23, 2012

Click to enlarge.

Click on Candorville for more Darrin Bell cartoons.

Food stamps and dog whistles

January 24, 2012

Double click to enlarge

Newt Gingrich on a number of occasions has called President Barack Obama the “food stamp President.”  An interesting choice of words.  Not the “unemployment President” or the “foreclosure President,” but the “food stamp President.”  Does he mean to imply that it matters less that so many people are unable to find work, and have lost their homes, than that there is a program to make sure poor people get enough to eat?  He said President Obama has “put” people on food stamps, but Obama didn’t write the law.  Would Gingrich have him refuse to administer the law as written?

Juan Williams, among others, asked Gingrich if he wasn’t appealing to a negative stereotype of black people.  Gingrich’s reply was that he would be happy to appear before the NAACP and lecture the delegates on why hard work is better than food stamps.

A few facts:

  • More whites than blacks receive food stamps.
  • Nearly half of those who get food stamps have jobs, and still are poor.
  • Most black people have jobs.
  • Jobs are not to be had for the asking (to put it mildly).

The expression “dog whistles” refers to coded words that are understood by a small group but unnoticed by the general public.  When President George W. Bush referred to the Supreme Court being wrong on the Dred Scott pro-slavery decision, members of the Right to Life movement understood him to be alluding to the Roe vs. Wade anti-abortion decision, since they frequently compare the two.

Newt Gingrich’s remarks can’t be called “dog whistles.”  Their appeal to racially prejudiced white people is not hidden or subtle.  It could not be more plain and obvious.

Many conservative Republicans seriously wonder why so few African Americans leave what they call the “Democratic plantation.” But then a lot of them probably think that the average NAACP convention delegate needs to be lectured on the desirability of hard work.

Newt Gingrich also thinks there is a serious problem with overpaid janitors.  In my biased opinion, the average janitor contributes more to the well-being of the American people than Newt Gingrich ever has.

Click on Newt and the Food Stamp President for comment from The Economist.

Click on Real Racists Do Real Things and On Looking Like a Ghetto Crackhead for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comments.

Click on Slowpoke Comics archive for more cartoons.

The Ron Paul dilemma

January 3, 2012

Rep. Ron Paul opposes many things I am for.  He is opposed to civil rights laws.  He is anti-labor.  He wants to destroy the social safety net.  He opposes legislation to protect health, safety and the environment.  Under ordinary circumstances, I would regard him as a dangerous radical extremist.

But he is one of the few prominent political figures to oppose the perpetual war policy supported by both the Democratic and Republican parties.  He is one of the few to stand up for basic civil liberties.  He is among the few to stand up to the oppose the Wall Street bailouts.

So there is a dilemma.  Ron Paul wants to repeal the New Deal.  But the Bush administration, the Obama administration and most of the current Republican candidates are willing to repeal the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and rights of due process that go back to Magna Carta.

I think the Constitution is more important than the New Deal.  So long as the Constitution endures, it will be possible in the fullness of time to reconstitute the New Deal and the civil rights laws.

But that doesn’t resolve the dilemma.  Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Senator Bernie Sanders and other political figures that are just as clear-eyed about war and civil liberties as Ron Paul.  Why aren’t they as prominent as Ron Paul?  In my opinion, it is because Ron Paul’s anti-liberal backers give him a stronger base of support than liberals would give to an anti-Obama liberal Democrat.   Some liberals are willing to make common cause with Ron Paul supporters, but I don’t think many long-time Ron Paul supporters, or maybe any, who are willing to make common cause with liberals.

I don’t think I would vote for Ron Paul in the extremely unlikely event that he was nominated, and the equally unlikely event that the outcome in New York state was not a foregone conclusion.  But I am glad Ron Paul is in the race.  Even though I don’t agree with some of the things he believes in, I admire his grit and his willingness to speak the truth as he sees it.  He raises issues that need to be raised.

Click on Ron Paul’s Racist Newsletters for documentation on why Ron Paul’s old newsletters from the late 1980s and early 1990s were so inflammatory.

Click on Ron Paul’s Shaggy Defense and “Old News”  for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ take-down of Ron Paul’s defense of his newsletters.

Click on Grappling With Ron Paul’s Racist Newsletters for Conor Friedersdorf’s commentary in The Atlantic on the significance of the newsletters.

Click on Progressives and the Ron Paul fallacies for Glenn Greenwald’s argument as to why Ron Paul’s views are no worse, from a liberal standpoint, that Barack Obama’s actions, and video links to Ron Paul’s statements about war and civil liberties.

Click on Why Ron Paul Challenges Liberals for Matt Stoller’s analysis of Ron Paul’s political views about the connection between the Federal Reserve System and the ability of government to finance wars.


When evil came into the world

July 31, 2011

Evil did not come into the world with the first murderer.

Evil did not come into the world the first time the people killed a murderer in retribution.

Evil came into the world the first time the people knowingly killed an innocent person because that person was a member of the same race, religion or tribe as a murderer.


Are white people picked on?

June 2, 2011

Some white people think they are victims of racial discrimination.  They object to a Black Congressional Caucus, a United Negro College Fund or a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People on the grounds that any distinction based on race is, by definition, racist, just as a white congressional caucus or a united Caucasian college fund would be.

I doubt, however, that very many of the people who raise this objection would be willing to change places with black people, and be treated as black people still are treated in American society.

I have heard of black people passing for white, but I never heard of any white person passing for black. (I am not talking about people like the white firefighter years ago who claimed he was an affirmative action hire because he had a native American grandmother.)

The experience of black and white testers – equally qualified black and white people who apply for apartment rents, mortgage loans or jobs – shows that black Americans are not playing on a level playing field.  So long as black people are singled out for discrimination on the basis of race, they have a need and a right to organize on the basis of race.

The other relevant distinction is that the descendants of black American slaves are an ethnic and cultural group as well as a racial group.  Out of their experience, have created a distinctive music, art and literature as well as movements for social reform.  The black experience has significance for everyone, not just for black people.   If you interpret American history as a history of the struggle for freedom, African-American history is a prime example and central part of that struggle.

African-Americans as an ethnic group are comparable not to white people as a whole, but to particular groups such as New England Yankees, Polish-Americans, Appalachian mountaineers or American Jews.  We white Americans have nothing in common that we do not share with Americans of all colors, except for the history of white racism.  I am not one of those who says that American history and European history as a whole constitute White Studies, because that implies these subjects are not of equal interest to members of all ethnic groups, but certainly the contributions of Anglo white males are not ignored.

So it is not discriminatory to have African-Americans studies programs in universities and not European-American studies or white studies.  When I attended the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s, there was a Department of Scandinavian Studies.  I heard that a liberal arts college in the Rochester area is thinking about starting an Irish Studies program.  These would be the true parallels to African-American studies programs.


Racism vanishing, racial prejudice remains

June 1, 2011

Click to view

Racism and racial prejudice are not the same thing.  Racism is a doctrine.  Prejudice is an unconscious attitude.  Racists are usually proud of being racist.  Prejudiced people are usually unaware of being prejudiced.  Prejudiced people object to being called racist.  They’re right.

Click to view

Racism is a doctrine that some groups of people are genetically superior to other groups, and that the superior groups are justified in denying equal rights to the inferior groups.  Today few Americans will admit to believing any such thing, but I can remember a time (I’m 74) when racist ideas were part of the normal discourse of American society.  I wish I had a dollar for every time somebody said to me, “Tell, me, Phil, and be honest:  Would you want one of them to marry your sister?”

Prejudice is an unconscious attitude.  Prejudiced people judge individuals on the basis of superficial characteristics, such as skin color, or they project the negative traits on individuals onto every member of the group to which the individual belongs.  They sincerely believe their opinions are based on fact and reason.

While racism is marginalized, racial prejudice is very much with us.  The experience of testers – sending out teams of closely-matched white and black people to see if they’re treated different – shows that racial discrimination is not a thing of the past in American society.   At the same time, I’m old enough to remember when things were a lot worse.  Black people do not yet compete on a level playing field, but I can remember when they were completely barred from the game.  They have a harder time getting jobs or mortgage loans than equally-qualified whites, but I can remember when their race made them ineligible even to be considered.  In fact, I can remember a time when there were parts of the United States in which white people could kill black people with impunity, and sometimes did.


Birthers and the black middle class

May 6, 2011

The original title of this post was “Do we live in a post-racial society?”

This video by Baratunde Thurston is all over the Internet.

I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a black professional person, and have to listen to Donald Trump and all the other malicious fools who have questioned President Obama’s birthright citizenship.  It means that, if you are black, you will always have to be on the defensive, no matter how high a station you attain in life, or what you achieve.

You can be the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation, like Ursula Burns of Xerox Corp., and there will be broadcasters who will say you appointment to a Presidential Commission is an “affirmative action hire.”  You can be a respected scholar like Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, and a police officer can enter your home, insult you and engineer your arrest on trumped-up charges if you talk back.

Donald Trump’s questioning of President Obama’s birth certificate has been shown to be nonsense to anybody with a remnant of sanity.  But Trump, who evidently is without shame, is now raising the issue of whether he got into Harvard by means of affirmative action.  He of course has no evidence of any of this.  He is just raising questions, and, no matter how little basis there is for the questions, there will be people who take them seriously.

He is like the people of an earlier era who said that Frederick Douglass and Phyllis Wheatley couldn’t possibly have written the books that appeared under their name, that some white person must have written them instead.

I remember once, when I worked for the Democrat and Chronicle, I was assigned to write a feature article on what kind of Christmas presents adults were buying for their children that year.

One of the places I went was a computer game store, where I saw a well-dressed black man.  As I walked toward him I saw a look of acute distress, a kind of here-we-go-again look.  It didn’t take much insight for me to realize he must have had a lot of bad experiences with store managers and detectives.  I will always remember how pleased and relieved he looked when I identified myself as a newspaper reporter, and began to ask my questions.

As I say, I can’t imagine what it is like to be in that situation – to always have to be on guard, to always think you are being judged by hostile eyes.

This is not a phobia.  Racial discrimination against black people is a thing of the present, not just the past.  Black and white teams of testers in New York City that half the time employers will take a white man with a criminal record over an equally qualified black man with a clean record.  Other testers have shown that employers will chose someone with a standard white American name over someone with a typical African American name.  Other testers shown discrimination in lending.

I am not talking here about the legacy of slavery and segregation, although these things do affect the present.  I am not talking about socioeconomic factors or culture, although those things also matter.   I am talking about prejudice and discrimination in the here and now against black people based solely on their race.


Things could be worse

October 13, 2010

Ku Klux Klan parade in Washington, D.C., in 1925

When I get discouraged about how things are going in the United States today, I try to remember that there were times when things were much worse than they are now, and the country recovered from it.

The Ku Klux Klan was openly and proudly racist and violent, and not just in its language. Klan members committed murder and arson with justified confidence they would never be brought to justice.   In those days, the Klan was not a fringe group.  It was a powerful political force in the North as well as in the South.  The Democratic Party in its 1924 convention rejected a resolution to condemn the Klan by name.

As late as the 1950s, when I was a young man, it was still possible for white people in certain parts of the country to murder black people with impunity.  I hoped and believed that I would live to see the end of lynchings, but I never thought that I would live to see a black man elected President of the United States.  Knowledge of history, and ignorance of the future, are grounds for hope.


Does being white make you privileged?

September 17, 2010

I know I am fortunate to be white rather than black.  A black Phil Ebersole – somebody like me in every respect except skin color –  would face racial prejudice in applying for jobs or bank loans. He would have well-founded fears every time he was stopped by the police. He would constantly have to think about how he was being judged because of his race.  Whenever he encountered setbacks or rejection, he could never be sure whether they were or weren’t due to race.  The doubtful blessings of affirmative action or “diversity” would not have offset this; it would have given prejudiced people a new reason for prejudice.

I remember once I was doing interviews for the business section of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on what people were buying their children for Christmas.  I approached a well-dressed, middle-aged black man in a store, and I could tell exactly what he was thinking from the stricken expression on his face.  He thought I was some kind of security guard or detective about to harass him for “shopping while black.” I thought then, and still think, how glad I am that I can go shopping without having to prepare myself psychologically for things like this.

This is what is meant by “white privilege,” but I don’t think of it as privilege.  A privilege is something you have that you are not entitled to have.  Bankers who collect six-figure bonuses after driving their institutions to the point of bankruptcy are privileged.  Failed CEOs who retire on golden parachutes are privileged.  People who run for public office on the basis of their family names are privileged.  I don’t think I have that kind of privilege.

Everybody ought to be able to be judged on their merits in work and business, to be free of fear in routine encounters with the police, to live their lives without always being on the defensive.  The fact that I have what I ought to have does not take anything away from anybody else.  To speak of  “white privilege” implies that the aim is not to give black people equal rights with me, but to subject people like me to the same humiliations that black people suffer


Fox News, lies and videotape

July 24, 2010

Andrew Breitbart

Most journalists remember Janet Cooke, the Washington Post reporter, who in 1980 wrote a fake story about an 8-year-old heroin addict.  We also remember Stephen Glass, who wrote fake articles for The New Republic in the mid-1990s and Jason Blair, who did the same in the New York Times.

They all have one thing in common – that they all were fired, and will never work again for a reputable publication.  In Jason Blair’s case, the editors who hired him went down with him.

It’s another story Andrew Breitbart of Fox News.  The only price he will pay for his transparent lies about Shirley Sherrod is a non-apology apology, and a resolution to stick to more plausible falsehoods in the future.

For those who don’t know, Shirley Sherrod is a 62-year-old black woman who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  She grew up in rural Georgia; when she was 17, her father was murdered by a white man who was never tried for the crime.  She gave a speech to the NAACP about how she had overcome her bad feelings about white people, and come to the realization that poor whites and blacks are the same and equally deserve help.

Brietbart aired a videotape of the speech doctored to make it appear that she thought only blacks, not whites, deserved help.  The Obama administration immediately fired her, only to apologize the next day when the full videotape was aired and the truth was known.

Brietbart’s mistake was to air a lie that could be so easily checked.  In the case of James O’Keefe’s faked tapes of the community organization ACORN, which make it appear ACORN employees gave aid and comfort to a pimp, it took a number of weeks to uncover the truth.  By that time the damage was done, and the truth never was able to catch up with the lie.  ACORN lost its funding and most people believe the original false story.

The same pattern holds for the so-called “climategate” scandal, the Obama administration’s alleged dropping of a Black Panther voter intimidation case and many others.  By the time the charge is proved to be without any basis, the public and the press have lost interest.

Rupert Murdoch

The real responsibility for all this does not lie with Brietbart, nor with Fox News CEO Roger Ailes.  The responsibility lies with Rupert Murdoch, the CEO of News Corp., the parent corporation.  He could have devoted Fox News and his other radio-TV and newspaper outlets to reputable journalism.  He has made a deliberate choice to renounced journalistic standards and appeal to prejudice to further his right-wing agenda.

This does enormous harm.  How many lives might have been saved in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, if National Guard troops hadn’t held back on going in because of lying reports looters were shooting at rescuers and the city had become like Somalia?

I don’t wish harm to anyone, but Rupert Murdoch is an old man, and I hope his heirs think about their family’s reputation in history.


Racism in my lifetime

June 21, 2010

I’m 73.  I’m old enough to remember the 1940s and 1950s, where there were whole sections of the United States where not only were black American citizens segregated by law and denied the right to vote, but where white people could murder black people with impunity.

I always had faith that the American commitment to democracy and freedom would win out in the end.  But I never expected to live long enough to see an African-American elected President of the United States.

I can remember when it was taken for granted that not only could no African American be elected President of the United States, but neither could a Catholic, a Jew, a Southern white person or a woman of any background. In other words, prejudice barred a majority of American citizens from the nation’s highest office.

Barack Obama’s accomplishment in winning the Presidency was a remarkable one, apart from his victory over racial prejudice. He had to defeat the Clintons, leaders of the most powerful faction within the Democratic Party, and then John McCain, the most popular figure in the Republican Party. But Obama is not an outlier. The presence of people of color in American life is taken for granted to a degree I would not have thought possible 50 and 60 years ago.

Nobody is bothered by the fact that David Patterson, the Democratic Governor of New York state, is both black and legally blind.  Nobody thinks it remarkable that brown-skinned Bobby Jindal, the Republican Governor of Louisiana, is the son of immigrants from India, or that Nikki Haley, the daughter of immigrants from India, has a good chance of being elected Governor of South Carolina on the Republican ticket.

Some members of the Tea Party movement have been given to racist and sexist outbursts, but Tea Partiers mostly support the Hispanic Marco Rubio for Senator from Florida over Charlie Crist, a non-Hispanic white. I imagine most Tea Party members would be just as happy to see Clarence Thomas as Chief Justice of the United States as Sarah Palin as President.


Can black people be racist?

June 3, 2010

Yes, of course, black people can be racist, and, more to the point, black people can be racially prejudiced.  I make the distinction because racism is a conscious ideology while racial prejudice consists of unconscious feelings. Racists know they’re racist; racially prejudiced people are unaware they are prejudiced.

My experience is that black Americans are better at sizing up white Americans than the other way around, but all human beings are prejudiced to some degree.

The consequences, however, are different for the two groups.  When a white person makes false negative assumptions about black people, this is often detrimental to black people.  When a black person makes false negative assumptions about white people, this is likely to hurt the black person more than it does whites.

The argument against prejudice is not that you owe it to other people to be unprejudiced as that you owe it to yourself to accurately perceive reality.  Knowing someone else’s color or ethnicity does not tell you anything about that person’s character or abilities.

Sundown towns and white flight

May 30, 2010

Residential segregation by race is such a key fact of American life that it seems as if it has existed from time immemorial. And it also seems like the result of a natural process – if not members of different races voluntarily sorting themselves out, then as a result of impersonal economic factors that have to do with race only by coincidence.

Two books I read a couple of years ago show this isn’t so.  The recent discussion of the 1964 Civil Rights Act reminded me of them.  One is Sundown Towns: a Hidden Dimension in American Racism by James Loewen. He describes how American small towns between 1890 and 1940 used violence and governmental authority to drive out their black residents, a historical event which has been forgotten and covered up in the years after.

The other is White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin M. Kruse. It gives a blow-by-blow account of the civil rights struggle in Atlanta in the 1960s, and tells each victory for racial integration led to white people withdrawing to the suburbs and allowing the city to become a black ghetto.


Does something have to be racist to be wrong?

March 31, 2010

Last summer the big news story was the arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, who is black, at his home by Cambridge Police Sgt. James Crowley, who is white, on a charge of “loud and tumultuous behavior,” and the controversy over whether this was an example of white racism.

The background is that Prof. Gates had returned from a long airplane flight to China, found himself locked out of his house, and forced open his front door. A neighbor thought Prof. Gates’ house was being burglarized, and phoned Cambridge police. Sgt. Crowley showed up and demanded Prof. Gates identify himself which, after some argument, he did. So far, so good; up to this point Sgt. Crowley was going his duty.

The argument is over what happened next. Click here for Sgt. Crawley’s version and here for Prof. Gates’ version. What is undisputed is that Sgt. Gates did not leave after Prof. Gates produced his ID.  Instead Sgt. Crowley invited Prof. Gates outside, where he then arrested him on a charge of making a public disturbance. The charge was later dismissed.

The question everybody asked was: Would Sgt. Crowley have behaved the same way if Prof. Gates had been white? My best guess is: Yes, absolutely he would.  I can’t of course read the mind of somebody I don’t even know, but everything I’ve read about police officer’s background leads me to think that (1) he doesn’t have anything in particular against black people and (2) he would have treated me, a white man, in exactly the same way in the same circumstances. That is to say, I could have been arrested  even though I had committed no real crime. Why is this supposed to be a consolation?

I read and heard commentary afterward about how incidents such as this should make me aware of my “white skin privilege.”  My thought is just the opposite. It is that anything that can be done to a black man can be done to me. Most of my friends are college-educated white people such as myself. We are all aware that there is an unwritten offense called “contempt of cop.” We all are very careful about how we address police officers, as Prof. Gates would have been wise to do.  Subservience to authority has become the norm in American life for everyone, not just minorities.

True, it is not the same for white people as for black people.  For me and my white friends, the issue when we interact with a police officer is whether we will be charged and what with. A black acquaintance once told me that he instructs his young son in how to behave around police because he saw it as a life-and-death matter. He thought a misunderstanding or wrong word could get him or his son killed.

I don’t have to worry about things like that, but is that a “privilege”? Isn’t that more like a right? If white people were treated just as badly as black people, would that be a solution? Not having to worry about police abuse, not having to worry about discrimination in employment or finance, not having to worry about being judged on the basis of my race – these are not things to feel guilty about having; these are things everybody should have.

I of course respect the role of the police in upholding the law and public order. I understand that police work is stressful and dangerous. I think most police officers act in a responsible and professional manner most of the time, but not all of them do so all of the time.

I have some links to background on the Gates case and related matters below the fold.



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