Saturday, August 26, 2006

A Scary New Racism Revival?

Racism is ever-present in American culture. An argument can be made that it was overtly racist action that laid the foundation for this country (the genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of Africans). But racism does have its ebb and flow. I am worried that we are seeing a racism renaissance.

First, there is Juan William's new book: "Enough". In the vein of Bill Cosby, Williams sets out to hold the African-American community's feet to the fire for the behavior he sees through the myopic lens of hip-hop culture. I don't, for a minute, mean to imply that Juan Williams is a racist. However, like Cosby's rants, his argument has given fuel to genuine racists who can now use his skin color to deflect attacks. This worries me.

Then there's the Survivor stunt of dividing the tribes up by ethnicity. It has already had the desired effect of generating publicity for a show that was quickly becoming a known quantity, but I can't see how it will end well. Do the higher ratings and increased ad sales possibly outweigh the social consequences of racists using the outcome, whatever it may be, to make generalizations about millions of people based on small groups of game show contestants? This also worries me.

And now there's Pat Buchanan, apparently concerned that he was slipping towards respectability with his criticisms of the Bush administration’s gaffes, framing the immigration debate as a war against white America and demanding a locked up southern border to protect civilization from those he deems genetically inferior. Like the Survivor stunt this will get him lots of publicity and sell lots of copies of his new book, "State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America". And, to a lesser degree than Williams, this will provide a type of intellectual cover for other racists, not because Buchanan is considered an intellectual powerhouse, but because he carries a certain amount of political cache; "Former Presidential Candidate" is similar to "Oscar Nominee" in that people assume you were a serious contender, but unlike nominee, any yahoo can lose a presidential race. (Then again, like Oscar nominees, yahoos win the presidency sometimes.) The fact that this man could have been president (in an alternate reality filled with senile Floridians filling out butterfly ballots in every state) will allow racists to present his ideas as far more mainstream and politically relevant that Buchanan could ever hope to be in the real world. This, too, worries me.

To offset this rise of racism in the press, there's only Gunter Glass' revelation that he was an SS officer and the completely appropriate public scorn he's facing for advocating truth-telling throughout his post-war literary career only to reveal the depths of his hypocrisy as his sales flag. In sum, racism is a charge that is destroying one somewhat obscure German former literary phenom while it simultaneously propels a game show into the limelight and becomes increasingly acceptable to discuss as a tenable philosophy in the twenty-four hour news cycle. Is anybody else worried about this?

Fair disclosure: Just as Williams is viewing African American culture through glimpses of his sons' MTV viewing, I am speaking out of ignorance as well. I haven't read his book, or Buchanan's, or anything by Glass. I also don't watch Survivor (I kicked the habit after the first season, fell off the wagon for a half a season a few years back, and have managed to live Survivor free since) an I won't be sucked in by some transparent race-baiting ploy. But I do read the news, and occasionally watch its retarded step-siblin on TV, and I can't help but feel that something is changing. I read recently that the Republican attempt to link
Iraq to the War on Terror has been successful to their detriment; as that fiasco spirals out of control, people are becoming less and less confident in Republican's ability to deal with any aspect of the War on Terror as a whole. This hasn't translated into confidence in the Dems, though. I wonder if what we are seeing is the outgrowth of a fear of an invisible an unpredictable enemy: hating Osama isn't comforting, so we're looking for scapegoats, and racism just comes naturally to far too many people (Zach's coworkers, for example).

My impression is that William's contribution is probably the most dangerous of all. When the movie Barbershop came out it managed to avoid being a shallow but amusing slice of life movie and take on a political significance by depicting African American characters criticizing African American society in the privacy of a barbershop, one a huge screen in front of an audience of largely white viewers! I read reactions from African American commentators that ranged from gratitude to angst to outright fury. Though some were pleased that this phenomenon of hidden cultural criticism was coming out of the closet, many recognized that there was a good reason it was there in the first place: it can easily be turned into a weapon to use again African Americans by white racists. Williams must have been cognizant of this fact in that he argued (in an interview, and possibly in the book) that Dave Chapel quit his show out of a crisis of conscience over this very issue. We've recently acquired Cable, and after seeing a few episodes of The Chapell Show I think there might be something to this theory (only reinforced by "The Lost Episodes" airing recently). The show gained notoriety for satirizing African American culture and stereotypes of African Americans (and anyone else who caught Chapell's attention), but (speaking as someone who has frequently come into confrontation with a couple of racist brothers-in-law) I know that there are white racists who can't tell the difference and love to watch this kind of satire to reinforce their views that all African Americans are x or y. According to Williams, Chapell started to feel laughed at rather than laughed with, and called it quits. If this is the case, good for him. The show was funny, but it's not worth it. But if Williams recognized this about Chapell's humor, surely he saw that his analysis could be similarly misused, right? The man is only half a fool, after all (he works for PBS, but also for
FOX News). Giving him the benefit of the doubt, I assume it was a calculated move; he decided that he could benefit the African American community, and the country as a whole, more with his insights than America and Black America would be damaged by their misuse at the hands of racists. If that's the case, I think he's just wrong. His criticisms, to me, sound less like informed concern and more like the grumbling of an out-of-touch old curmudgeon. When Al Franken tried to ask him which specific rappers he was criticizing for infecting African American youth with negative messages, the only one he could name was... wait for it... Eminem. Al Franken (apparently more of an expert on Hip Hop than Juan Williams) had to remind him about Kanye West, but Williams cited him when prompted, as though Kanye fits the thug model just as much as Eminem or 50 cent. Williams sounded like Stephen Colbert criticizing rap recently as being all about cop killin', big buts, and smackin' 'dem hoes while the crawl next to him admitted he hasn't listened to rap since '92. Certainly there are criticisms one can make about elements and sub-groups within contemporary African American culture, but if Williams made a calculated decision to step outside the barbershop, he has an obligation to at least be informed. At my high school we would have dismissed his argument as "ig'nant".

Buchanan's ranting are less worrisome to me because they will only marginalize him further, in the long run. He can't even claim it was a slip of the tongue, because he made the comments in print. And this isn’t mildly racist stuff, folks. This is revamped and re-targeted "Systematic Anti-Semitism". Who said, The civilization that we as whites created in
Europe and America could not have developed apart from the genetic endowments of the creating people, nor is there any reason to believe that the civilization can be successfully transmitted by a different people.” Not Hitler. Pat Buchanan. Read it again. Shiver. It's scary stuff. I am not going to worry too much about this, unless it starts to catch on. Sure, a review in the Washington Times ends, "I am convinced a large majority of Americans agree. This book -- 'State of Emergency' -- will give its readers both the facts and the backbone to powerfully make that case," but that's the Washington Times. This is the same publication that frequently depicts anti-war sentiment as fringe left despite the fact that a full 60% of the population inhabits that fringe. With such a skewed feel for the pulse of America I will wait and make my own judgments about what a "large majority" of Americans think of European American's "genetic endowments". From what I hear, we crackers have somewhat small endowments, but I'm not going to write a bunch of hate filled invective or start building any GIANT walls to compensate for my shortcomings.

As to the Survivor stunt, it may have disastrous consequences, but I am willing to wager that they will be so minimal that they will be balanced out by this marvelous response by the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson:

"I think the contestants in "Race War Survivor" should expose this travesty for what it is by intentionally conforming to all the racial stereotypes they can think of -- but another group's stereotypes. The Latinos should act uptight, immediately build themselves a golf course and declare themselves the winners before the competition begins. The Asians should eat nothing but fried chicken (or fried lizard), spend most of their time dancing and jiving, and find a way to steal the immunity idol. The whites should all live in one tent and speak only in Spanish, and whenever host Jeff Probst drops by to announce the next challenge, a couple of them should hide behind the nearest palm tree in mock fear of deportation. The African Americans should form a high-tech company and demand a car to drive incompetently."

As long as I can read Mr. Robinson a couple times a week and only hear about Buchanan, Williams, and race war game shows every few years, I think we'll be okay.

But I'm going to keep my eyes open.


laurenj said...

I caught you using "retarded" in there. Do we get an on-line equivelant of a speech in front of the class?

The Chapell show issue is one that disturbs me because, while I am extrememly amused by it, I have noticed that my young cousin, Timmy, is not only having stereotypes reinforced by watching that show, he is actually LEARNING them. It is exposing him to biases and prejudices, albeit through satire, that he was unaware of and now doesn't have any sense of who he's offending when he parrots a show that is very popular with his friends. Granted, this could be more of an issue of a lack of parental involvement in his television viewing, but it makes me shiver a little to see how far off mark Chapell's provocative satire is used in the clueless mind of a twelve year old

Benjamin Gorman said...

I'm not sure if I should apologize for that one. On the one hand, I do think that the television news is mentally defective when compared with the higher quality newspapers and magazines. However, if that seems offensive to those who care about the mentally retarded, I apologize, and will try to refrain from using mental disability as a metaphor in the future.

Thanks for catching me, Lauren. I will try to be more careful in the future.

laurenj said...

probably wouldn't have noticed/cared if you hadn't mentioned it in a comment the same day. I just thought it was funny.

Is it wrong that I have totally different standards for myself and my friends than I do for students?