There they go again: Republican candidates are saying things and sending signals that show that racism remains widespread, routine, hideous—and sometimes even laughable, when it strains to deny its own existence. And, again, some of us white leftists and liberals are compounding the lunacy. The best way to deal with racism is to document it clearly and forcefully without shouting or sneering about the knuckle-draggers who remain gripped by it, and to refrain from encouraging it by inflating its monstrosity. The best of the civil rights movement understood this. So did Obama in 2008.
Instead of strategizing intelligently, however, some activists and writers display a moralistic, self-indulgent, tragically American innocence of the harsh truth that groups of people have always stigmatized other groups, often lethally. To grasp this isn’t to let Republicans off the hook. It’s to learn how to defeat racism, of which their “white” variant is our peculiar American curse.
Even atop the genocide against Native Americans and the abduction and enslavement of millions of Africans, Anglo Saxons in America long designated certain whites as members of inferior races and dealt with them accordingly. It was the energetic assimilation of those “races,” not their multiculturalization, that helped to defeat racism against them and to set precedents for the black civil rights movement.
We should be wary, then, of suggestions that there’s something inherently “white” about “a retro vision of the country, one of white picket fences and stay-at-home moms and fathers unashamed of working hard for corporate America,” as Lee Siegel characterized Mitt Romney’s vision in the New York Times. That’s a bit too simple. To characterize that vision as “white” would be to dismiss, as racist, not only the whites who share it but also the whites who just haven’t proven themselves principled or hip enough to abandon those picket fences, “patriarchal” families, and corporate jobs, and who don’t read the Times Sunday Review section over brunch.
To call all that “white” is also to dismiss, as clueless and self-denying, all those non-whites who are naïve enough to aspire to the picket fence and the corporate job, and it is to reinforce stereotypes about both whites and non-whites—two sides of the same counterfeit coin.
The “retro” vision is problematic enough even without any “whiteness,” but it’s even worse if we accept any racial stereotyping in it, because for better or worse (in my view, for worse), that vision is far more widely shared by people of all colors than some of us like to imagine. That was clear enough to Richard Nixon and, later–and more sincerely—the Republican congressman and presidential candidate Jack Kemp when they touted “black capitalism” in the 1970s.
Today the Republican side of the counterfeit coin of “whiteness” is nakedly racist. My favorite example—aside from Mitt Romney’s handing $60 to a woman who happened to be black—is Rick Santorum’s declaration in Sioux City, during a rambling rumination about foreign influence on the American economy, that “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money…”
This gaffe (which was only made worse by Santorum’s claim that he’d really said “blah, people,” not “black people”) was captured well by Gary Younge, a black writer for the Nation who recently dispatched Santorum and his yea-sayers. He noted without comment that while only 2.9 percent of Sioux City’s population is black, 13 percent of the people in the county “are on food stamps, an increase of 26 percent since 2007, with nine times as many whites as blacks using them.” And Iowa’s economy is doing fairly well! In much of the rest of “Red State” America, Romney’s retro vision is crumbling among whites rapidly enough to disorient any who imagined that it distinguishes them from blacks.
The “black” side of the false coin of retro whiteness suggests that blacks are somehow either inherently too downtrodden and dissolute or too liberated and cool to aspire to a white picket fence or a two-parent family. That’s precisely what countless African and Hispanic immigrants in the New York City neighborhoods I know either aspire to or doggedly sustain. And ever since freed African-American slaves were promised “forty acres and a mule” after the Civil War, most of their descendants have also aspired to—but been barred from—pretty much what Romney and other Republicans are claiming to defend.
I saw and felt this time and again while living and working in black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 80s. In The Closest of Strangers I described how few of those I knew there wanted to vindicate some whites’ illusions, common at the time, that a politics of black grievance and paroxysm would lead an anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois revolution.
The most economically “progressive” and politically effective of the black and Hispanic people I met were socially rather conservative. Custodians, cab drivers, mail-room clerks, nurses, and teachers in East New York and Brownsville watched their kids very closely. They wished, however forlornly, for nothing more than to sustain nuclear families behind the equivalent of white picket fences in the modest homes that thousands of them were actually building there and elsewhere in New York, through organizations such as those started with the help of the Industrial Areas Foundation.
They expected whites like me and everyone else except their relatives and friends to address them as “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Thousands, young and old, sang “America the Beautiful” at rallies I attended in large halls and vacant lots, where they confronted representatives of bankers, brokers, and public officials who were complicit in stripping their neighborhoods of affordable homes. They understood intuitively such observations as this one by sociologist Christopher Jencks:
In poor communities…leaders must continually struggle both to limit and to redefine self-interest….Censoriousness and blame are their principal weapons…: blame for teenage boys who steal….blame for drunken men who beat up their wives, blame for young women who have babies they cannot offer a “decent home,”…blame for everyone who acts as if society owes them more than they owe society.
The unwritten moral contract between the poor and the rest of society is fragile at best. But the solution cannot be to tear up the moral contract or to deny that the poor are responsible for their behavior. The only viable solution is to ask more of both the poor and the larger society.
No one should claim, as Republican candidates do, that social conservatism alone is socially redemptive. When it’s uncoupled from the strong community organizing I saw in Brooklyn, it can spawn the hypocrisy that made that free-market apostle, Herman Cain, the paradigmatic Republican candidate of this year.
Unlike Cain, many more people in poor communities than the news media ever show us consider social conservatism an indispensable but not sufficient condition of personal and community improvement. The point is that there is no “whiteness” in it. There never has been. Anyone who wants to roll back Republican racism should stop equating whiteness with it.
And we should consider that, whatever our black president’s failings portend for this year’s election, his strong nuclear family and Christian metaphors, coupled with a background in community organizing and a shrewd, low-key way of handling the racism that rained down upon him, made him the paradigmatic candidate of 2008.