Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Sympathy for the workin' man, 1971

The "culture war" offensive against Democrats, liberals, African-Americans, hippies, anti-war protesters and various and sundry other undesirables conducted in "the Sixties" by the George Wallaces and Dick Nixons and Spiro Agnews led to some fairly tangled and sometimes embarrassing efforts by liberals and intellectuals (also among those undesirables) to show their sympathy for the misunderstood white bigot.

I came across an article by Robert Coles, that brought that whole convoluted discussion to mind. Understanding White Racists New York Review of Books 12/30/1971 issue (behind subscription). Coles was a child psychologist and Harvard professor who did extensive interviews with various kinds of people that dealt with, among other things, the issue of race. The excerpts from his interviews are a valuable source of material on the topic, standing as a kind of oral history of that moment as well as material for various kinds of analysis.

As he indicates in this article, what one takes from such interviews depends on the type of analytical understanding being brought to bear on it. This following paragraph is what I want to focus on here. It's a quote from someone he identifies only as "a former factory worker now become a union official". He uses the male pronoun in referring to him, so I assume he's a man. Probably a white man, but Coles doesn't specify his race or his region.


The quote is this:

The more I hear people shout at me and my men, and call us "white racists,' the more I realize that the people who shout the loudest know us the least—but you can be sure of this, they get paid plenty for writing, and telling the Kerner people [the Kerner Commission which criticized white racism] our 'racial attitudes' are the 'basic cause.' The people who call me a 'white racist' are bragging, they're saying that they're the best people, they've looked into their souls, and changed their personalities, and got rid of their 'white racism,' and they're no longer bigots and all that, and taken in by the 'false values,' they call them, of this country. Of course these professors come here from all over the world to live; you bet they do—where else can they sound off as much as they want, and say all they do, and get a lot of money for doing it, and have a flock of those half-witted, gullible students rushing after them, one after the other, and calling them God? [my emphasis]
Hand-wringing Democratic and liberal pundits of those days worried about the misunderstood nuances in the thinking of people like this. Even today, when issues around racial conflict and white racism pop into the news, some commentators who bear the political scars of that period and are still traumatized over the success of the Republicans' "Southern Strategy" still fret and wring their hands and worry that someone like this might get his feelings hurt if someone suggested he was racist and be so offended by such liberal elitism that he would vote Republican.

Yeah, as though he were going to vote a liberal Dem in any circumstance. Oops! Michael Lind would probably say I was being an elitist insane liberal for saying that.

They didn't have bloggers in those days to dissect such things as Coles' article hundreds or thousands of times within a few hours. But there's still time-travel blogging. Coles is relatively restrained in that piece, although he does mock a couple of intellectuals who he thinks are being snobs for talking about concepts like false consciousness. Of course, anytime you are trying to convince someone to think differently on a topic, you're assuming they have a "false consciousness" about that topic. So I'm not sure why that notion is something for people to get their shorts in a knot over.

Coles actually uses the quotes he gives to illustrate how complex attitudes like racism can be and how nuances are important, and so on. But that quote he gives is very much the kind of thing that the David Broders of the world - yes, The Dean Of All The Pundits was already writing for the Washington Post in those days -
would wring their hands and furrow their brows over. But anecdote-driven statements like that one don't tell us much. Here's what I mean.

First of all, Mr. Anonymous Union Official (AUO for short) talks about hearing "people shout at me and my men, and call us 'white racists'." Coles doesn't describe what Mr. AUO is talking about there, or give us any independent information, even to say that he had verified that Mr. AUO was talking about a real incident. The big problem with these unverified anecdotes is that they invite all sorts of projections from the listeners/readers. For instance:

An actual journalist (i.e., not a believer in High Broderism) or historian would look at this and see an unverified anecdote of no news value or historical significance unless it could be somehow connected to an identifiable occurrence.

A white person feeling put upon by all these here minorities and such might say, "See, this is what I'm talking about. These blacks are callin' me names and then they wonder why I don't like 'em."

Someone with a chronically speculating mind might wonder if he's talking about a demonstration by African-American protesters at a work site over a racial discrimination issue; or a demonstration at a public facility of some kind; or, a mixed-race demonstration at a college campus he saw on TV where someone was holding a sign saying "End Racism".

A DFH blogger might wonder whether he's just making s**t up.

Once you realize that we have no idea what the guy is really talking about, except that he believes someone somewhere thinks he's a racist, the rest of his white-guy's whine becomes completely problematic.

... the more I realize that the people who shout the loudest know us the least ...
Maybe, maybe not. What I've seen, heard and read about the Republican mobs shutting down town hall meetings of Democratic Congressmembers would fit that description. But I've certainly seen events where the more likely assumption would be that the people shouting the loudest are the most passionate and possibly some of the best informed. Since we're talking about a phantom event that may or may not have really happened, trying to say something meaningful about it is a lot like trying to make sense of a Maureen Dowd column.

This comment is the sort of things that still spooks some liberals who really should be a little less queasy about such things:

The people who call me a 'white racist' are bragging, they're saying that they're the best people, they've looked into their souls, and changed their personalities, and got rid of their 'white racism,' and they're no longer bigots and all that, and taken in by the 'false values,' they call them, of this country.
Once again, without the faintest idea of who those people calling this poor misunderstood white guy a "racist" actually are, it's impossible to know what to make of this.

But accusing critics of white racism of being self-righteous is a favorite white-people's whine. If you grew up in Mississippi like I did, you've heard this kind of whine a thousand times. Or if you watch FOX News or listen to OxyContin radio on a regular basis.

This statement sounds like Mr. AUO is talking about other white calling him a bigot. There's no shortage of self-righteous in politics or daily life. But in my experience, whites who have thought serious about the issue and consider white racism to be a real problem are more likely to believe that they have not overcome their own racial prejudices. And, in any case, the fact that someone may be self-righteous about something doesn't really say anything about the problem. White racism was a real problem in 1971 in the United States, and it's a real problem in 2009. The Kerner Commission Report he references documented that reality in some detail. His comments about it seem in indicate that he has nothing but contempt for the idea. When people like Mr. AUO talk like that, I don't pretend to know whether "they're saying that they're the best people, they've looked into their souls", and so on. But I can listen to what they say and watch what they do and draw conclusions.

In the case of the anecdotal confrontation with anti-racist activists, since we don't even know if the event really took place, it's hard to draw any conclusions about that. But this idea that talking about white racism is a sign of some reprehensible elitism is a weird idea. I can understand why Republicans who talk like Mr. AUO would claim such a thing. Why any liberal with any adult experience of the world would buy into that notion, I'm not really sure. And, yes, Bob Somerby, some of the Beltway Village journalists did manage to say some dumb things around the recent Gates controversy, and some of it was elitist, coming as it does from what you memorably call the world's dumbest elite. But most people who talk about white racism are not goofball Villagers.

In 1971, the good Villagers weren't nearly as strange in their thinking as they have been since 1992 when a band of lying good ole boys from Arkansas with segregationist politics persuaded the gullible reporters of the New York Times to run with the Whitewater story. But there were too many people in the Village and elsewhere who bought into the Nixon-Agnew narrative that guys who talked like Mr. AUO were what white working class people were generally like. And also into the notion that liberals and Democrats should not only take such whining at face value but be terrified of it.

But right now in 2009, the Republicans are organizing mobs to shut down Democratic public meetings. Being timid about blowhards aspiring to be the next "Joe the Plumber" is not an appropriate response to this situation.

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