Friday, April 4, 2008

MLK, Wright-gate, and Racism

40 years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. It was very clear, during the time King was active, what racism was. It was overt and it was sanctioned by our government. While King's messaging encompassed a wide range of social justice issues, today I want to focus on racial issues and how what is conceptualized as "racism" is being co-opted by... racist people.

In a recent column by Pat Buchanan took issue with Barack Obama's handling of "Reverend Wright-gate." If you haven't been following, clips have been circulating of the former reverend of Obama's church in Chicago saying, to his primarily African-American congregation, statements perceived as "racially inflammatory" and "racist."

In my opinion, Rev. Wright's words were intense and hyperbolic. But that being said,I'm not going to judge the man and call him "racist" on the basis of a few YouTube clips lacking context. Besides.... his words had kernels of accuracy in them.

"Racist" is an oft-used label to silence any discussion of race issues in the US. I think it is legitimate to acknowledge, among other things, that the government of this country has treated Native Americans and African-Americans less than fairly since its inception. And that, even though "all men" were supposedly "created equal" that rule hypocritically and obviously didn't apply to all men (or women) in our nation. Commentator Sean Gonsalves puts it like this:

"I know we’re in the new PC era of “colorblindness,” where the word “racist” has been flipped on its head by the fading neo-right to mean: any public talk about race, without doing the Bill Cosby/Thomas Sowell routine, is “racist.”

People are free to think whatever they want but just so we’re clear: a racist, by definition, is someone who explicitly or implicitly believes one racial group is morally and intellectually superior to others. Only in a warped world is it considered “racist” to talk publicly about the legacy of white supremacy."

Only in the conservative mindset that seeks to maintain white privilege are people unable to even mention white privilege without, ironically, being called "racist."

This mis-labeling is harmful, though, because it leads to denial. If those who mention white privilege are "racist" against white people, those who go further and talk about our nation's racist past, the lingering effects of slavery, and institutionalized racism are, most ironically, "racist" against white people (in addition to now being "inflammatory" and "polarizing").

It's a great Catch-22. If we don't talk about these issues of race and privilege, they don't get resolved. If we try to talk about them and try to acknowledge that they exist, people (usually African-Americans) are considered too "inflammatory."

Wanna see this in play?

In his recent speech addressing "Rev. Wright-gate", Obama addressed the racial divide and the causes of black and white "anger" and "resentment." I'm not going to take soundbites out of his speech. It deserves to be read on its own merits, in full.

Reacting to the speech, however, Pat Buchanan displays the very white resentment that Obama discusses and that creates racial divides. Missing the point of Obama's speech Pat Buchanan took issue with the fact that Obama said this:

"In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination - and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past - are real and must be addressed. Not just with words, but with deeds - by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare, and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper."

In the words of Pat Buchanan:

"First, America has been the best country on earth for black folks. It was here that 600,000 black people, brought from Africa in slave ships, grew into a community of 40 million, were introduced to Christian salvation, and reached the greatest levels of freedom and prosperity blacks have ever known.

Wright ought to go down on his knees and thank God he is an American.

Second, no people anywhere has done more to lift up blacks than white Americans. Untold trillions have been spent since the '60s on welfare, food stamps, rent supplements, Section 8 housing, Pell grants, student loans, legal services, Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credits and poverty programs designed to bring the African-American community into the mainstream.

Governments, businesses and colleges have engaged in discrimination against white folks -- with affirmative action, contract set-asides and quotas -- to advance black applicants over white applicants.

Churches, foundations, civic groups, schools and individuals all over America have donated time and money to support soup kitchens, adult education, day care, retirement and nursing homes for blacks.

We hear the grievances. Where is the gratitude?" [emphasis added]

Starting with the assumption that Africans "needed to be saved" and ending with the assumption black people today should be grateful that our government has not treated them fairly over the years, the ignorance and real, actual racism in Buchanan's statement is almost unbelievable. Only in the world of double-speak are Wright's statements "racist" and Buchanan's not.

Yet how does Pat Buchanan react to Obama's speech? He turns into a denialist. In his head, all he hears from black people is "everything is the fault of white people" and, as a result, his mind shuts down. And, maybe that is the message that a lot of white people hear and are tired of hearing, too. Buchanan, as part of the conservative hate culture, is preaching to angry white men who seek tangible targets of disgust and hatred.

It is easy to over-simplify and to polarize the masses.

Yet, what good does that do? As a nation, we desperately need, especially in discussions about race, more nuance and less generalizations. No, not "everything" is the fault of white people. We, all people, are more than our skin color and are affected by a myriad of other identities- gender, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and religion being chief among these. The effects of these other aspects of ourselves need to be acknowledged. But making asinine statements implying that slavery was good for black people does nothing to help bridge the "racial divide."

We cannot deny that slavery and institutionalized discrimination continues to have lingering effects on the African-American community. To say that slavery is over and that, therefore, the current "plight" of African-Americans is due to failures within the African-American community cannot be true. I have more faith in human beings than that.

Yet, to understand the effects of slavery and institutionalized discrimination, you have to know and understand history, the legal system/criminal justice system, and the military-industrial complex. At the end of the day, it's easier to accept a theory like "black people should be grateful for slavery" than it is to think about these more plausible and complex explanations.

I want to end on this final note. In the words of Martin Luther King,

"[I]t is necessary to understand that Black Power is a cry of disappointment. The Black Power slogan did not spring full grown from the head of some philosophical Zeus. It was born from the wounds of despair and disappointment. It is a cry of daily hurt and persistent pain."

That message is strikingly similar to Obama's and Wright's. Yet would anyone dare to call King racist?

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