Thursday, May 15, 2014

I'm a racist, you're a racist

 The truth is, everyone has racism in his or her heart.
-Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -

 Abdul-Jabbar asks in an article in Time how we can tell if we are racists like Donald Sterling. One of the ways you probably are, it seems he's telling us, is that you think you are not. That may be humor, in which case disregard all that follows here, but if he is serious, I have to take issue and starting with the assertion above.

 Racism? Really?  Misperception? yes, inappropriate reactions based on past experience? yes, Discomfort with the unfamiliar? sure because we are animals and descended from animals for whom personal survival was the prime mover of evolution and survival demanded suspicion.

I strongly prefer Harleys to Hondas, for reasons that may be as specious and spurious as the reason Don Sterling doesn't want minorities in his apartment building, but the consequences of the former are quite different than of the latter, aren't they?  Let's stop flagellating ourselves because we can't eliminate sin, because not all sin is alike, or equal, or even sinful and we all of us sure as hell can become better, kinder more respectful and better informed people. Maybe let's be more circumspect about the words we use too.  Racism is a high caliber word. Maybe something smaller and more accurate is more appropriate to shoot at roaches.

But really are we all racists? Is it wrong as he says to be"situational"  If someone really thinks Asians can't drive is that just like being part of the Aryan Nation?  If someone calls me a "Hymie" should we raise holy hell and smear his name on the television 24/7 and interview everyone that ever pretended to know him and research everything he's ever done looking for more "sin?"  We know the answer,we certainly do.

Some racism is worse than other racism and like everything it has a lot to do with frame of reference, thank you Doctor Einstein. Is tentative and situational mistrust based on perceived race he same thing as an unshakable belief in the inferiority of another group?  I think Kareem is telling me it's an inappropriate question, that racism is racism is racism and there are no degrees or dimensions. I'm answering that racism isn't that simple - one size does not fit all.

 I'm not sure I remember the technical name for the gambit, but  a popular political move consists of making a statement and then supporting it with an irrelevant argument. As an example I might insist, as the writer does, that we are all racists because after all, we are most comfortable with "our own kind" which of course is an assumption that ignores more evidence than it depends on. Is the assumption that we are all racists based on the assumption that we are all racists while the definition of racist depends on what we mean by "our own kind?"  Does the appearance of racism depend on the appearance of racism because any closer examination of racism is evidence of racism?  Does "my own kind" have more to do with interests and personality than with skin color or hair texture or accent?  More circles than Ringling's circus or the Olympic logo.  Much hinges on that question and on how we all differ individually.  Yet most of us dare not ask for fear of being racist.

If  I agree with him, for the sake of argument,  that since everyone is a racist, I am a racist too and I must necessarily be, he implies, of the opinion that racism is no longer a problem in the United States, but then of course I would have to assume he is also a racist (by his own implication) which absolutely denies the objectivity of his observations.  How can we have racists arguing against racism!  You'll doubtless ask how we got into this loop, since if I am aware -- and I am -- of a great deal of racism I ipso facto cannot, he claims, fit into the category of racist -- which is a contradiction of the contrary assertion.  If  on the other hand I assert that I am a racist and one of a growing number, I cannot be one!  I tend to think that arguments that end in contradictions are not really arguments, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

 True, he can correctly say that Donald Sterling thinks  or at least argues he is not a racist. He can say that Paula Deen, Cliven Bundy, Don Imus and Bill O'Reilly argue that they are not racists in broad terms but only are responding to unfortunate individual situations.  He can call them hypocrites and liars and I will certainly agree they have said and done racist things. I just think it's certainly possible, despite the digression about "situational" racism to expose a racist opinion even though there are gradations and excuses of various value - and there certainly are. But as with pornography and rednecks, we pretty much know if you might be a redneck and we've pretty much seen it all. We've even laughed together about it.  But it's not about situational ethics or absolute ethics, it's about honesty. If we're going to insist everyone is dishonest and untrustworthy, we are going to end this in another contradiction, aren't we?  If I think I'm not, I am just may not work in reverse.  It's a poor kind of logic that only works forward, to paraphrase Alice.  Maybe I should just assume an attempt at humor and give the benefit of the doubt, but still.

Anyway, I read today that one in 4 adults are anti-Semitic.  Yes it was done by the ADL and so you have to consider the source, just as you have to consider the source when you read Abdul-Jabbar's assertion that we are all racists.  But still, should that be 4 in 4 if he's right? Should I examine myself to be sure I avoid hating Jews or saying something "insensitive" even in jest?  Does that apply to Chris Rock when he uses that word? And if he were to assert that Jews are not disadvantaged by bigotry ( and don't I hear that a lot?) would that make him a racist?  Not that he's denying it and of course if he is what he says he is, why should I listen to him?  Why should I not demonstrate in the street against him and hope to ruin him financially?  Ask Mr. Sterling.

In fact that store owner may be plagued with Mexican shoplifters and if he's suspicious, that's prejudice not Racism, just as if he's more suspicious of teenage girls or elderly women for that matter. Prejudice is natural, it's the way we protect ourselves.  Trust is dangerous. What are we doing to foster trust when we start from the premise that we are all racists and inescapably so? Yet, just because someone can argue honestly or dishonestly that he is not a racist,  it does not follow that all prejudice is racism even if most racism is prejudice.

Is racism even a useful term or does it carry so much baggage that we need to try something more maneuverable?  Is it racism if you love or admire or respect or only if you hate? Is it prejudice instead and is it objectionable?  Can we make our struggle for blind justice so full of casuistry and sophistry it reverts to warring tribes?  Maybe he's right, maybe we aren't going anywhere.

Here's a hint: If you've ever said, “I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow, or purple," you might be a racist. 

Yes, you might be,  and if you have wheels on your house you might be a redneck -- but you might not. You also might be anything at all including a good, decent, respectful and altruistic person.  You might be a redneck, You might be a saint. You might be both.  You cannot honestly insinuate that one is a racist or a saint for denying it.  This is not a religious argument about original sin, but I have a hard time thinking that's not exactly what I'm reading.

Look, I would argue against his assertion that not only is racism more widespread than ever but more insidious simply because racists with publicists and press secretaries can weasel out of  illegal discrimination by using stereotypes posing as statistics. I think we're seeing it more, because hardly anything can be hidden today and because you're less likely to wind up dead for talking about it.

Dishonesty is not new.  I think George Wallace's racism or Byron DeLaBeckwith's racism is the same  as racism is today but was far more entrenched at one time, far more immune from consequences -- and some anecdote about what some jerk or ten jerks have said on the air is not the basis for sweeping generalizations which serve no one in any way but to breed misunderstanding and animosity.

The best thing we can do about racism he says

"is to seek it out every minute of every day and expose every instance we find. And not just racism, but also sexism, homophobia and every other kind of injustice that lessens the principles of inclusion that define this country."
OK sure, but every minute?  Maybe we can take a short break now and then and watch the basketball game, and maybe just get along and risk a little trust -- but yes indeed I agree and the more so because he's being specific: every kind of injustice -- every kind that's the issue and including the injustices we perpetrate in fighting injustices. But in a way, Kareem is right, even at the beginning -- when you're fighting injustice, you're fighting us, you're fighting our past and our ignorance and our traditions and inherited values and I'd like to think we can move away from it without dragging it behind us.

Ok, you know I'm being more than a bit facetious here but does the imperative to "root out" have a limit?  What do we do to racists particularly if all of us are racists?  We can hardly argue for human values or against racism on principle if we see it everywhere including in ourselves?  Can we say it's never "situational" when some poor drunk soul is goaded into saying something and secretly recorded?  Do we feel bad about that, can we say we're so pure that it's OK for us to throw the first and last stone?  The media obsession with some socially unacceptable words seems to remind me of some Bible story.  The obsession with rooting out counterrevolutionary thought sure as hell reminds me of  how it was to live under the Red Guard and Mao.  No, I don't like this road, paved with good intentions as it may be.  I think I know where it goes and that's just where my mother told me it went.
Maybe that wise and experienced man, Rodney King asked the right question:  "Can we just get along?"  Can we stop the witch hunt, accept that perfection is unattainable and just get along?  If we're all racists, all prejudiced can't we take that as an argument for forgiveness as well as introspection? Can't we just get along?

No comments: