Friday, September 18, 2009

What Racism?

David Brooks just happened to jog through the tea party in Washington last weekend and saw that there wasn’t a race riot going on where teabaggers and attendees at the Black Family Reunion Celebration happened to converge.

Because sociology is more important than fitness, I stopped to watch the interaction. These two groups were from opposite ends of the political and cultural spectrum. They’d both been energized by eloquent speakers. Yet I couldn’t discern any tension between them. It was just different groups of people milling about like at any park or sports arena.

And yet we live in a nation in which some people see every conflict through the prism of race. So over the past few days, many people, from Jimmy Carter on down, have argued that the hostility to President Obama is driven by racism. Some have argued that tea party slogans like “I Want My Country Back” are code words for white supremacy. Others say incivility on Capitol Hill is magnified by Obama’s dark skin.

Well, I don’t have a machine for peering into the souls of Obama’s critics, so I can’t measure how much racism is in there. But my impression is that race is largely beside the point. There are other, equally important strains in American history that are far more germane to the current conflicts.

Therefore he’s sure that there is no racism involved in any of the anti-Obama demonstrations or outpouring of sentiment on cable TV or talk radio. Well, I’m glad he cleared that up. Now he can jog on with a clear conscience that white entitlement and patriarchy have nothing to do with it.

It is just as foolish for Mr. Brooks to dismiss links to racism behind the demonstrations and anger as it is to see racism behind every sign. But to say that it doesn’t exist and hasn’t played a role in some of the over-the-top attacks recently is an attempt to prove a negative. What’s especially ironic is that Mr. Brooks doesn’t help himself by saying that historically, populist protests are by nature “ill-mannered […] whether they were led by Huey Long, Father Coughlin or anybody else.” Yeah, citing a noted anti-Semite like Father Coughlin doesn’t really help. And neither does the problematic assumption that all the people at the Black Family Reunion are supporters of President Obama just because they’re African-American.

For someone who shows as much an interest in history as he does, hearing Mr. Brooks pronounce that “It’s not about race” is to ignore the four hundred years of history of race relations in this country (especially since Mr. Brooks was jogging through a city that was once as segregated as any Alabama bus depot in 1955), and to find an equivalency between these protests and those that we saw during the Bush administration is fatuous. There are extremists on both sides of the aisle, but try as he might, Mr. Brooks cannot cite any case where a Democratic member stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and called into question Mr. Bush’s birth certificate, or any governor of a state that raised the prospect of secession because they objected to the implementation of Medicare Part D or the warrantless wiretapping of citizens of their state.

And the knee-jerk reaction against those who suggest that there is a racist element in some of the attacks — Obama as a witch doctor or “Barack the Magic Negro” come to mind — tells me that those folks are awfully quick deny it without even examining what was said and who said it. Anybody who took an introductory class in psychology — or proctored a middle school study hall — knows a guilty conscience when they see it.