Tuesday, February 16, 2010

With friends like these...

I just heard Keith Olbermann’s Special Comment on Racism and the Tea Party Movement Firedoglake 02/16/10. Olbermann in this presentation, which he at least managed to do in a non-ranting style, tries to stigmatize the Tea Party movement as racist. It a proposition that has a lot of evidence in its favor. But he does so in such a dumb, clumsy way that it will make it more difficult for people to make the legitimate point about the racist element among the Tea Party activists.

His framework is cringe-inducing silly. He starts off saying that racism is present in part within every white man [sic]. Then he proceeds to say that if you say that you're opposed to the President because he's black: "say that, and in all but the lifeless fringes of our society, you are an outcast." (4:30 ff on video) This just makes no sense. If white racism is universal among whites (or just white men?), as he plainly says, then how is it that only in "the lifeless fringes of our society" is it acceptable to openly express white racism?

His framework sounds like some stiff Southern white guy circa 1970 having to say something about racial issues to a mixed-race audience and trying not to piss anyone off too much. But the problem is that if you are trying to condemn white racism among a particular group of activists, you can't do that with sappy boilerplate about how every white man is a bit of a racist, and then say (as Olbermann does) that, gee, there's probably a lot of racial prejudice among blacks and Hispanics, too.

Olbermann's video essay makes him sound blissfully unaware that conservatives for decades have been making an everyone-should-be-colorblind argument against anti-discrimination laws and their enforcement. If the law is unable to take any account of race, even when people are targets for discrimination based on socially-constructed categories of race, then it would be impossible to enforce anti-discrimination laws. "What do you mean this company discriminates because it hires only whites and turns down all applicants of color? You're looking at people by race to say that! That's not right. We're completely colorblind here."

If you're going to do a ten-minute-or-so presentation like that about the general issue of white racism in America, to be meaningful it would have to present the problem of institutional racism in some way. Since patterns of discrimination by race have been copiously documented for decades in hiring, promotion, income, housing, health, education and on and on, that shouldn't be too much of a challenge for MSNBC to pull together. And then within that context, you could talk about different perceptions of issues by race, which has also been copiously documented in opinion polling over the years.

Stigmatizing racist groups as racist is absolutely necessary and legitimate. But while Olbermann's presentation of the fact was clumsy at best, the reality is that overt racism as such is officially and unofficially discouraged in our society and generally condemned with varying degrees of seriousness. So if you are going to stigmatize someone as racist, you need to have good grounds for it and state them clearly.

Olbermann could have pointed to Jimmy Carter's informed judgment that white racism motivated much of the anger among the Tea Party protesters. Carter had to deal up-close-and-personal with the admirers of Lester Maddox and George Wallace in the 1950s and 1960s. He has dealt with conflict situations all over the world both as President and through the Carter Center for decades afterwards. He actually has real authority to speak about racism and ethnic hostility.

Olbermann could also have pointed to research by people like Dave Neiwert, who actually knows something about far-right groups and their methods and rhetoric and has been chronicling their role in the Tea Party groups. He could have cited specific examples of Tea Party leaders or featured speakers promoting neo-Confederate and state-secessionist ideas. He could have given quotes from Glenn Beck, the Bircher-minded conspiracy theorist who was the chief media organizer of the Tea Party movement. He could have cited crassly racist caricatrues of Obama that have appeared at Tea Party events. Instead, he cited several quotes anonymously from various rightwingers, one of which I recognized as coming from Bill O'Reilly (who I don't associate with the Tea Partiers in a distinct way) but the others I didn't even recognize.

The result was a mess. A mess that plays right into the current Republican standard election-year whine that them thar fancy libruls are lookin' down their noses at all the reglur white folks.

Olbermann's presentation also effectively gave credibility to the Tea Party movement's pretensions of being a grassroots insurgency when it's mainly well-financed Republican astroturf. That doesn't mean that it's not energizing new activists to get into the political fight at some levels on behalf of Republicans. On the contrary, it seems to be doing just that.

Olbermann's video essay leaves the impression that white racism and only white racism is behind Tea Party activism. That is an oversimplification of both the Tea Party movement and of white racism. White racism hasn't been an effective instrument of conservative and reactionary politics because it stands alone as a motivator to political action. It has played such a role because politicians have effectively combined it other issues, such as resentment of government handouts to wealthy investment bankers and concern over unemployment.

I don't put any stock in notion of a "left-right alliance" with the Tea Partiers. That's "sucker populism". There may be crossover agreement on particular issues between progressives and the more militant rightwingers. But their political perspectives are dramatically different. But I also want to be realistic about the sources of both white racism and rightwing extremism - overlapping but not identical phenomena.

A sloppy, scolding lecture like the one Keith Olbermann just provided makes that goal harder to achieve.

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