Friday, March 14, 2008

Racists, Haters and Foes

In today's Slate, Ta-Nehisi Coates pens an article characterizing Geraldine Ferraro's statement about Senator Obama as racist, and Ferraro as a racist for having makes it, and then asks why we can't simply call a spade a spade, and admit that there are some very public racists in our society, such as Don Imus, Bill O'Reilly and Michael Richards. Well, it's likely because there are different reasons to not like someone.

As far as Geraldine Ferraro is concerned, while her remark dealt directly with race, and implied that Senator Obama's candidacy rested on his race, she is not a racist. The reason for this is simple - while she is rooting for Obama's opposition, she isn't against black politicians in total. I suspect that even if she were to make the same comment about each and every black politician she ever met, she'd hold to the idea that she isn't a racist, because, in each case, the criticism would be personal. And as long as it stays on that personal level, she would likely feel free to claim the moral high ground.

I suspect that Michael Richards would look at himself in the same light. While he most certainly had a beef with some black members of his audience that night, he believes (likely sincerely, even if possibly falsely) that he has nothing against black people as a group.

Imus and O'Reilly are slightly different cases. Due to some combinations of their personalities and jobs as shock jock and hyper conservative polemicist, these guys are basically (well paid) haters. (I suspect for the kind of cash they pull down, I'd do a stint as a professional hater myself.) They likely see themselves as equal-opportunity misanthropes, publicly disliking anyone when there's money in it, regardless of race, color, religion or creed. And again, they've mainly limited their rants to particular individuals or groups - it's unlikely that either has gone on the record making nasty comments about all blacks.

Many Americans have taught themselves to see making a disparaging remark about someone that calls out their race as being a very different thing from making disparaging remarks about that person's racial group. Perhaps understandably, many blacks (and other minorities) don't make the distinction. Think of how many hispanics see the issue of illegal immigration to be one of keeping them specifically out of the United States.

I would bet that a large part of this is due to the simple fact that when it really comes down to it, the most enduring legacy of racism in the United States appears to be the lingering expectation of racism. For many blacks today, white America is no less hateful than it was, say, 60 years ago, simply less blatant about it. (Hence the firey sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright - which, in categorizing people as hateful based mainly on the color of their skin, plummet right over the cliff of racism themselves.) Which is why many blacks seem to have difficulty telling the difference between a racist and a garden-variety asshole or someone who dislikes them personally. For many blacks, Ferraro saying that Barack Obama or Jesse Jackson owe the votes in their favor to a brand of political affirmative action more than to their positions or their qualifications is no different than saying that they're unqualified because they are black (and thus, that all blacks are unqualified). For Ferraro, understanding that many blacks take the first statement as code for the second, especially when it's repeated, is beyond her abilities. (Have someone make a similar remark about Senator Clinton, and she'd likely suddenly get it.)

And it's the same with other "isms." How many of Senator Clinton's supporters seem to have settled on the idea that there's no real reason, other than sexism, to vote for anyone else for the Democratic nomination?

The other factor is the social stigma attached to racism. Even hardcore racists likely feel a strong incentive to not be commonly understood to be so, and in a land where some people wear masks, other people see deception in every smiling face.

(James Watson may be a special case. He, and his supporters, don't see him as a racist because they see what he's saying as an uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless, while to be a racist implies either a false belief or deliberate lies about people based on their race.)

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