Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Murkier Situation

Image via Tiger Beatdown.
Well, a bit over a year ago, Monsignor Ross Douthat, the Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, was feeling pretty chipper about the state of race relations in the United States, to the effect that it was probably somewhat better than 50 years before, when Dr. King had dreamed his dream in the Washington Mall:
Today our polarized politics may encourage a zero-sum attitude, but the underlying realities do not. George Zimmerman is not a half-Hispanic Byron De La Beckwith. Voter ID laws are not Jim Crow come again. And the thread of white identity politics running through Obama-era conservatism is just that — a sense of resentment and grievance, not a supremacist ideology reborn.
Thanks for recognizing that there is something like Jim Crow in Voter ID laws, Ross, and that white identity politics is present on your side of the aisle, and also, there's something positive in not adding a both-sides-do-it graf explaining that black people as well are nicer than they used to be.

I don't quite see a parallel between Zimmerman and Beckwith unless you're proposing some kind of structural equivalence between killing Trayvon Martin, a kid preparing to watch a TV basketball game, and killing Medgar Evers, 37-year-old field secretary of the Jackson, Mississippi branch of the NAACP, as he was going home from work. Are we saying that every act in which a white man shoots a black man dead is at some level the same act, which can be performed relatively well or poorly, and that Zimmerman is in some sense more forgivable or less wicked because he's only half-white and his victim is less distinguished?*

A more appropriate pairing to Beckwith might be the late Andrew Breitbart using fraud in his attempt to destroy the life of Shirley Sherrod, and you could say at least he didn't use a gun and that he did it only out of a "sense of resentment and grievance" as opposed to membership in the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

*Incidentally, as the US Census insists, "Hispanics may be of any race", and Zimmerman is plainly one hundred percent white in every meaningful sense as well as Hispanic in whatever sense he likes, if it matters, as it evidently does so much to conservatives like Douthat, who wants to emphasize Zimmerman's Hispanicity as some kind of mitigating factor. And to my way of thinking there's an important moral sense in which the murder of Trayvon is worse than the murder of Medgar Evers, because it took away the boy's entire life, whereas Evers was able to live long enough to be great and remembered forever for being something other than a victim. And also because Beckwith was insane and Zimmerman merely mildly sociopathic. Lunatics like Beckwith may perform some of the most spectacular actions of racism, but it is ordinary sociopaths, some of them not personally very racist at all, like George Wallace or Lester Maddox or Lee Atwater and Ronald Reagan, that keep it alive.

But now, with the community response to the killing of Michael Brown and the prosecutor's failure to indict the killer, it seems to the Monsignor that maybe black people aren't all that much nicer than they used to be after all (paragraph order reconstructed for coherence):
after watching as Ferguson, Mo., seethed and smoldered, it’s worth offering a case for greater pessimism. Not because the optimistic arguments are no longer credible, but because we’ve just had an object lesson in why they might be proved wrong.... (paragraph 3)
There was a moment, early in the debate over the death of Michael Brown, when it felt as if this story might vindicate the case for optimism about racial politics — that the original tragedy might be sufficiently transparent, the subsequent police misconduct in quelling protests sufficiently clear-cut, for Ferguson to become a more powerful exhibit in the increasingly bipartisan case for various criminal justice reforms. But then it became clear that the situation was murkier — that the cop had witnesses and physical evidence supporting his side of the story, that police had to deal with looters as well as peaceful protesters. (Paragraphs 10-11)

If black people had become as nice as one would expect after an entire half century of progress, this could have been such a lovely teachable moment! Reinforcing our general bipartisan agreement on what exactly? Against an overly harsh enforcement of jaywalking rules? Because I really don't see how the incident could have affected anybody's views on stop-and-frisk rules, or prison sentences for drug offenses, or any of the cases for criminal justice reforms I know about. I really thought it was mostly about the need for cops to not kill people (who happened historically to be almost invariably young, male, and African American). But in any event it turned out that Michael Brown was a little bit complicated, as if he were a person rather than a symbol, and some of the people of Ferguson were not nice at all, overturning cop cars and setting shops on fire, and how could anyone talk about criminal justice reforms at a time like that?

But—surprise!—that wasn't what Ross came here to talk about anyway. What he's interested in has no actual connection to Ferguson, though he's mixed the paragraphs up to make it appear as if they're related in his mind:
Ultimately, being optimistic about race requires being optimistic about the ability of our political coalitions to offer colorblind visions of the American dream — the left’s vision stressing economics more heavily, the right leaning more on family and community, but both promising gains and goods and benefits that can be shared by Americans of every racial background. (paragraph 4)
It's a novel way of saying that both sides—Democrat and Republican—do it when it comes to thinking about race relations, which requires according to Ross forgetting about race, denying there's a problem, treating it as beside the point. The "left" should be focused on its colorblind analysis of the economic situation, pretending to have no interest in the effects on some of our most disadvantaged citizens of racial discrimination; the "right" should stick to its "cultural conservative" concern with proper social and sexual behavior, hiding its traditional view that this is essentially a black problem.
In the Obama era, though, neither coalition has done a very good job selling such a vision, because neither knows how to deliver on it. (The left doesn’t know how to get wages rising again; the right doesn’t know how to shore up the two-parent family, etc.) Which has left both parties increasingly dependent on identity-politics appeals, with the left mobilizing along lines of race, ethnicity and gender and the right mobilizing around white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties. (paragraph 5)
Actually, the "left" has a lot of perfectly good ideas toward improving wages on a nonracial basis (to say nothing of the left without scare quotes), many of them, starting with minimum wage hikes, recognized as such by the population as a whole, though not enough to get the nonvoting majority off their asses to vote for them; and always works to mobilize the whole population though not without noting, and welcoming, its diversity. Whereas the "right" can't think of an approach to enforcing the two-parent family without appealing to race and gender, because "white-Christian-heartland cultural anxieties" is what that pseudo-problem is all about. It's hardly a secret—they don't seem able to understand that most of the people in America who can't form stable families, like most of the people who use food stamps or the earned income tax credit, are in fact white and straight. The fact is somebody like Douthat can understand it very well, but that's not the point he wants to make.

The concept of a "less identity-driven politics" is conservative code for a politics that denies the political relevance of race ("it used to be a problem fifty years ago, but Dr. King said we should judge people by the content of character so of course everybody started doing that, and now it's all good") but is in fact entirely about it—that seeks racist white voters by assuring them they aren't racist, just suffering from "a sense of resentment and grievance", and accuses those who call them out on it of "playing the race card". Douthat is taking Ferguson as an excuse for restating the position, and really nothing else.

Update: Douthat's well-deserved nomination from BooMan as Wanker of the Day.

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