Wednesday, September 16, 2009

White racism: do we have to just make up stuff about a problem that's real enough in itself?

I guess I should dig out the book Tom and Mary Edsall did called, Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (1991) dealing with racial dynamics in American politics and look at it in more detal. Not that I expect to find any helpful analysis. I've always thought of that book as offering a "Yugoslavia analysis" of American politics. I don't mean a Titoist Communist analysis, I mean a Balkan War-era kind of analysis. Because when you boil the argument of that book down, it is that in national politics race and only race is the decisive issue in which of the two parties will be dominant. And that whichever party is perceived by white voters as being the more anti-black party will dominate.

While it could be read as a call for the Democrats to adopt the same policies on civil-rights and social justice issues as the Republicans, I actually think it was more a lazy analysis enshrining an emerging Beltway Village consensus that Republican dominance in national politics was somehow the natural thing.

For reasons, I've never been able to fathom, Tom Edsall then and to this day is considered a liberal. Weird.

This is one reason I'm so disturbed by the easy assumption by some writers that white racism is the prime moving force behind the teapartiers' political passions. In the case of the Edsalls' book, it became not much more than an excuse to say, oh, what the heck, most people are going to vote Republican because there are too many black people in the Democratic Party. So where's our next story about a sex scandal or a missing white girl or Hillary Clinton mentioning Bill in public?

I don't want to repeat a formula every time I write about this stuff like "white racism is a big factor on the radical right but not the only one". And I certainly don't want to give white racists any excuses, not that they need me to make up any for them. But the Beltway Village pseudo-journalists has some very simple-minded and ill-informed assumptions about the American public, for whom they chronically pretend to speak. And when they decide to use seemingly high-minded pronouncements about how the opposition to Obama is driven by racism, it's more of an excuse not to have to think than an actual criticism of white racism. If anything, they are more than willing to enable it, which is how I read that bizarre book by the Edsalls years ago.

Tom Edsall now writes for the Huffington Post, where is still presumably considered a liberal for whatever still-unfathomable reason. He takes up the old theme again in Angry Populism Could Save The GOP 09/15/09. He recites his litany of the victories of the Republicans' decades-long Southern Strategy. In this particular column, he seems to be working with a slightly more complex model than the race-fixated "Yugoslavia analysis". But it's still not clear whether he thinks "populist" appeals are all about race or whether they can also have to do with reality-based economic issues, as well. In any case, he still writes as though the outcomes of elections are all about the Republicans' choice of campaign strategies. He doesn't really give much insight as to how the politics of white racism actually work, even though he cites several racial breakdowns of voting patters.

Bob Somerby today looks at Maureen Dowd's diagnosis of racism among the teapartiers. He reminds us of some MoDo history that put into perspective her keen mind-reading insight that teapartiers are racists because she knew that Joe Wilson was thinking, "You lie, boy!" during his famous interruption of Obama's speech. Noting with the opposite of enthusiasm that MoDo is for the moment trying to be on the Democrats' side, he writes:

Dowd writes, and “thinks,” like an eight-year-old child. And this year, she’s on Obama’s side! Translation: She has stopped comparing him to Scarlett O’Hara; she has stopped referring to him as “legally blonde.” She no longer derides him as a “debutante”—or even as a “starlet.” And she has even stopped calling him boy! She no longer derides him as “America’s pretty boy.” She no longer calls him the “golden boy” — or the “wonder boy,” or “the Boy Wonder.” She no longer invents imagined dialogues in which Hillary Clinton calls Obama a “glib pretty boy.”

Dowd has even stopped writing columns about what a big loud b*tch Michelle Obama is. [my emphasis in bold]
So when MoDo argues that someone is racist because she could read his mind and knew that he was thinking "boy" in relation to Obama, well, she doesn't have a whole lot of credibility making that case. And she's basically doing nothing useful to challenge white racism, since she's obviously clueless on the subject. (Somerby delves into MoDo history for a more elaborate commentary on that point.)

MoDo returned to the topic in her Wednesday column, Rapping Joe’s Knuckles. As Somerby notes, her passing reference to health care reform as "President Obama’s attempt to provide health care for the have-nots in society" is a reminder of how little our star columnists know or care about the actual policy involved. That inaccurate characterization of health care reform is fine for the plan's opponents, I'm sure.

Most of her Wednesday column quotes directly and indirectly from Congressman James Clyburn, an African-American South Carolina Democrat. Now, I never trust a quotation on MoDo's authority alone, because she makes stuff up. But look at what MoDo says that Clyburn says. He says, among other things, "Frankly, I supported him financially the first time he ran for office." He references three items that MoDo cited in her Sunday column (in which she also quotes Clyburn) that legitimately signal that Wilson probably isn't a civil right zealot, and says that he tried to "look past" them. While Clyburn pushed for the House resolution against Wilson, nowhere in either of the two MoDo columns does she quote him calling Joe Wilson a racist. Would it have killed MoDo to have someone at the New York Times look up Wilson's actual voting record on civil-right-related issues and, you know, tell her readers something about it?

Now, I do see the Confederate flag is a symbol of white racism, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans with which Wilson proudly associated himself was, in its better days 10 years ago, at best a group that promoted the Lost Cause pseudohistory of the Civil War, which was a big part of the ideology that justified segregation. Those political causes of his tell me he's likely to be hostile to legitimate concerns of American minorities, blacks in particular. In fact, it would be naive to think otherwise. But MoDo didn't bother to explain any of that. Instead, she said because she knew that Joe Wilson was thinking something racist, so she concluded that racism was the main driving force of the teaparty movement. Would it kill her to do some research on the actual white supremacist presence in the Tea Party movement, as Dave Neiwert has done, and make some kind of analysis from that?

In her Wednesday column, she finally gets around to quoting someone who's an actual authority, Jimmy Carter:

Former President Jimmy Carter weighed in with Brian Williams of NBC News on Tuesday: “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.” He said he felt that was true in the South and elsewhere.
Now I haven't been able to locate an actual transcript and the computer I'm using won't play the video. But here's how it was reported today at NBC Philadelphia (Jimmy Carter: Wilson's Outburst Was Racist 09/16/09):

"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man," Carter said in an sit-down with NBC's Brian Williams.

Carter specifically said that Wilson's comment was "dastardly" and part of an "inherent feeling" held by many Americans -- particularly Southerners -- that African-Americans "are not qualified to lead this great country."

"It's an abominable circumstances [sic] and grieves me and concerns me very deeply," Carter said.
So apparently MoDo got that part of the quote right. Not to dig too deeply into the weeds here. But MoDo's original argument was that her telepathic insight into Joe Wilson's racist thoughts gave her an aha! moment revealing that the teaparty movement was motivated by racism. Yet she quotes Carter on the more general issue, but not on Wilson specifically.

Carter's judgment on the issue has a lot of weight because he's spent a lifetime fighting white racism in politics. He knows what he's looking at. At I'm pretty sure he hasn't forgotten the role that white racism has played in Republican and far-right politics for the last 40 years. He himself in Georgia was fighting it in Southern politics in the Democratic Party (and not just in Georgia).

I want to see a transcript. But assuming the NBC article got it more-or-less right, Carter was making a judgment about Wilson in a larger context of which he's intimately familiar. (Again, would it kill the press to tell us something about Wilson's voting record?) But whatever he said in the quote chopped up by the NBC online report I linked, Carter did not do one of the two things that have concerned me about the superficial nature of much of the talk on this (so far as I've seen with the truncated quotes):

He did not claim to be able to read Joe Wilson's mind, as MoDo did, or to draw conclusions about the broader anti-Obama activists movement Wilson. Just the opposite, he (apparently) made a judgment on Wilson in the context of the political trend of which Wilson is a part. And with which Carter - unlike Dowd - is actually very familiar.

He did not claim that the intensity of current anti-Obama protests is much greater than previous such manifestations and that this was what showed the white racism involved, which seems to be the emerging conventional wisdom among the "liberal" variety of our celebrity pundits. He knows about white racism on the far right because he knows the far right. He's not pretending that history began yesterday. And because he doesn't have the problem that our Establishment press has of having shamelessly enabled such far-right craziness during the Clinton administration, he doesn't need to whitewash that part of recent political history out of existence.

Now the Reps are incorporating this into their hissy fit over the Democrats' rather feeble attempt to stage a hissy fit over Wilson. South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's son to Jimmy Carter: 'Not a racist bone in my dad's body' by Brian Kates New York Daily News 009/16/09. Wilson's Republican politician son is playing the, "He insulted mah daddy!" card.

Meanwhile, the White House is disputing Carter's statement. Whether or not this is clever politics or a symptom of Obama's fetish for "bipartisanship", the statement of the President's spokesman on the anti-Obama hostility is something that we shouldn't ignore (Obama disagrees with Jimmy Carter on race issue Reuters 09/16/09). Actually, the title is a bit misleading; it was Robert Gibbs that made the statement.

Interestingly enough, Reuters gives a more extensive quote from Carter's interview:

Carter injected race [!!!] into Obama's struggle for a healthcare overhaul after South Carolina Republican Representative Joe Wilson shouted "You lie" at Obama during a healthcare speech in Congress last week and thousands of conservatives rallied opposition to Obama at demonstrations in Washington.

"I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man," Carter told NBC News.

He said this "racism inclination still exists. And I think it's bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country. It's an abominable circumstance, and it grieves me and concerns me very deeply."
I notice that the words "Joe Wilson" don't appear in that quote. It's an interview, for Athena's sake! Can't our professional reporters even listen to a video interview and write a reasonably clear report of what Carter said. Did he call Joe Wilson a racist? Even after reading several of these articles, I don't actually know.

Our broken national press: the number one weakness of American democracy.

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