Sunday, November 28, 2010

Let's Rescue the Race Debate




“There is another class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs, and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. ... Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs ... There is a certain class of race-problem solvers who don’t want the patient to get well.”


Charles M. Blow






This 100-year-old, cobbled-together quote from the “the Great Accommodator” Booker T. Washington has gotten quite a bit of circulation in the right-wing blogosphere since the Tea Party came under attack over racial issues.

The quote helps support a broader sentiment that the current racial discontent is being fueled by a black liberal grievance industry that refuses to acknowledge racial progress, accept personal responsibility, or acknowledge its own racial transgressions. And that the charge of racism has become a bludgeon against anyone white and not in love with President Obama, thereby making those whites the most aggrieved — victims of the elusive reverse-racism Bigfoot. It’s perfect really: the historic words of a revered black figure being used to punch a hole in a present-day black mythology and to turn the world of racism upside down.

(The fact that those on the right would glom onto this quote is fascinating from a cultural/historical perspective. The quote is a not-so-subtle swipe by an aging Washington at his young nemesis, W.E.B. Du Bois, an Obama-like figure who advocated a more broad-based, activist movement for racial equality to be led by an erudite black intelligentsia. This is so riddled with ironies that I couldn’t possibly tackle them all in this column. Maybe another time. Rain check, please!)

The argument of these whites minimizes the victimization of others while magnifying their own victimization. While their argument may hold for some individuals, when you look at blacks writ large, the argument falls apart.

According to an ABC News poll conducted last year, blacks are even more likely than whites to admit that they “have at least some feelings of racial prejudice.” Thirty-eight percent of blacks admitted to those feelings while only 34 percent of whites did. I use the word admit because people notoriously underreport negative behaviors on polls, and knowing which groups may underreport and to what degree is impossible to gauge. For more objectivity, we need more scientific measures like Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory maintained by Harvard, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia that has administered hundreds of thousands of online tests designed to detect hidden racial biases. Tests taken from 2000 to 2006 found that a whopping three-quarters of whites have an implicit pro-white/anti-black bias, while 40 percent of blacks had a pro-black/anti-white bias, about the same amount as those admitting racial prejudice in the poll.

Furthermore, a January poll by the Pew Research Center found that most blacks agree that blacks who can’t get ahead are most responsible for their own condition. Only about a third said that racial discrimination was the main reason.

This whole hollow argument is further evidence that many whites are exhibiting the same culture of racial victimization that they decry.

The latest evidence of this comes in a poll released this week that was conducted by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and financed by the Ford Foundation. The poll found that 62 percent of whites who identified as Tea Party members, 56 percent of white Republicans, and even 53 percent of white independents said that today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Only 30 percent of white Democrats agreed with that statement.

It’s an extraordinary set of responses. And my question is the same one used by the right to defend the Tea Party against claims of racism: Where’s the proof? There’s a mound of scientific evidence a mile high that documents the broad, systematic and structural discrimination against minorities. Where’s the comparable mound of documentation for discrimination against whites? There isn’t one.

We can find racial prejudices in all segments of the population, but pretending that the degree and consequences are comparable is neither true nor helpful. And attributing to the agitation of the “colored” masses to the self-aggrandizement of a callous few is truly detrimental.

In fact, some on the right seem to be doing with the race issue what they’ve done with the climate-change issue: denying the basic facts and muddying the waters around them until no one can see clearly enough to have an honest discussion or develop thoughtful solutions.

I had thought that the reflexive denials and defenses of many on the right were simply an overreaction to, in their view, being unfairly accused of racism on too broad a scale. My present worry is that denial may be the new normal and that the hot language of the past summer has cooled and hardened into a permanently warped perception of the very meaning of discrimination and racism. I worry that the last bit of distance between where we are and where we want to be on racial reconciliation is being drawn through an ever-narrowing, ever-more-treacherous terrain.

In the name of progress, the public must reclaim the facts of the race debate in this country. Many racial problems have been solved but many remain. Some we must tackle within our individual communities and others must be dealt with between them. Racism isn’t everywhere we imagine it, but it is in far more places than we admit. If we can start from common points of agreement, we can come much closer to common ground. But to do that, everyone must step out of the shadows of denial and into the brutal light of honesty.

Booker T. Washington was right that there are some who may not “want the patient to get well.” Those people exist on all sides of the debate, and they will always be there. But they’re a minority. Cast them aside. Let the rest of us start with this point of agreement: The patient is doing better but is still sick.

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