Saturday, July 31, 2010

Can the Shirley Sherrod fiasco start a real dialogue about white privilege?

An old college friend blogging at edgeofthepacific, suggested we start a dialogue wherein we choose a topic and exchange posts. We decided to start with the Shirley Sherrod fiasco. We don’t have much in the way of disagreement on this one. A lot of people came off poorly in this mess. In fact, only Sherrod herself came out of it looking good, and she was the one who suffered most in the debacle. I don’t think any other heads will roll at the White House or Fox News; that would be an ironic reaction to prevent future premature firings. However, in the midst of the circular firing squad of blame, I worry we’re decontextualizing the event, or contextualizing it poorly. Some of the coverage has gone back as far as the killing of Sherrod’s father by a white farmer, framing her initial reaction to the farmer she mentioned in her speech, and some has covered her husband’s role in the civil rights movement, placing her, generationally, in that historical context. Both those parts of the history are important, and one wishes someone like Breitbart or anyone in Vilsak’s USDA had bothered to type her last name into a simple Google search. But I’m worried that we’ve missed the most important context for this circus; a real discussion about white privilege.

My background gives me a somewhat unique perspective on white privilege. Thanks to magnet schools, I attended schools wherein I was an ethnic minority (an predominately Mexican American junior high in Sand Diego and predominantly African American high school in Cincinnati), but lived in predominantly white neighborhoods. Not only did I learn a lot about Mexican Americans and African Americans, but I also learned a lot about Whites. One thing I learned was that very few Whites think of themselves as racists, and a great many take pride in being “color-blind”. What those white folks don’t realize is that so-called “color-blindness” is a mild form of racism.

Racism certainly has degrees, from the gas chamber to the white hood to the exclusive country club to the awkward conversation, and the notion of “color-blindness” is among the mildest types, but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely innocent. In a way, it’s insidious. The white person who buys the line can pat him or herself on the back, point to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and then turn around and point the finger at anyone who brings up race or racism and say, “See? They’re the racist.”

This is the context for the circumstances that led up to the Shirley Sherrod debacle. The NAACP demanded that the Tea Party reject racism within its ranks. This was done in a ham-fisted way, and offended a lot of people in the Tea Party who not only aren’t racist, but take great pride in not being racist (often to a degree that is, in fact, racist). One of the main problems with the NAACP’s statement is that it was directed at a group without leadership. Hell, they barely have a platform. How can a group that can’t articulate what policies they want to have put in place beyond sound bites the fit on placards go about systematically rooting individuals from their midst? It’s not like they have a membership test and those who check the “I agree with Glenn Beck that Obama is only interested in Health Care because it’s a form of reparations for slavery” box will be refused a membership card. The Tea Party can’t kick people out, but the Republican Party can, and the NAACP miscalculated by trying to remain non-partisan rather than asking Republican candidates to refuse to take money from Tea Party sub-organizations that espouse racist beliefs, inflame racial hatred, or tolerate racist rhetoric. As Frank Rich wrote this last week, “The Tea Party Express fronted by Williams is an indisputable Republican subsidiary. It was created by prominent G.O.P. political consultants in California and raises money for G.O.P. candidates, including Sharron Angle, Harry Reid’s Senate opponent in Nevada. But Republican leaders, presiding over a Congressional delegation with no blacks and a party that nearly mirrors it, remain in hiding whenever racial controversies break out under their tent. ‘I am not interested in getting into that debate,’ said Mitch McConnell last week.” The NAACP could have called those folks out. Instead, it went after a movement without a spokesperson. That was dumb.

Andrew Breitbart’s response was to pull a variation on the playground turn-around. “I’m not a racist. You’re a racist!” So he tried to paint the NAACP as racist using Shirley Sherrod. He has not backed down from this, even now, claiming that the crowd’s reaction to Sherrod’s speech implicates them as racists. I say that’s bull, but watch the whole thing for yourself and be the judge. You’ll be doing more homework than Breitbart did.

But why would Breitbart have calculated that this line of reasoning would play in the first place? After all, it’s inherently illogical. If I’m standing in the middle of the street and a police officer runs over and sites me for jaywalking, I can’t defend myself by saying, “I am not because you’re doing it too.” This line of reasoning didn’t counter the claims of racism within the Tea Party at all. Those have been challenged, but because there have been racist signs at rallies and reliable accounts of racist behavior, the reasonable defense would really be about the nature of the Tea Party movement and the lack of control of its fringe elements. That’s a bit nuanced for our sound-bite age, especially for a movement not known to be fans of nuance. It’s easier to play to a preconception, let’s call it the “He who smelt it dealt it” model, which dictates that the first person to bring up race or identify racism is the real racist. Unfortunately, that model is patently false, and it’s also racist.

It’s wrong because racism does exist. I could defend this claim with a hundred anecdotal examples I’ve seen with my own eyes, with statistics, links to racist organizations currently operating in the United States. But I won’t, because if someone believes there’s no real racism in this country, they’re a lost cause. Ditto for the people who believe that, thanks to “reverse-racism”, Whites have it worse off. That’s what Martin Luther King Jr. called “sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity”, and he was right to say it’s the most dangerous thing in the world. My friend at edgeofthepacific writes that the NAACP should be abolished because it’s been so ineffectual recently. I would argue that there’s still plenty of work for them to do, but agree that they need to refocus their energy and devise better, less reactive strategies if they don’t want to be overtaken by more effective groups like

One dialogue the NAACP could actively engage is the “he who smelt it dealt it model”. This model is not only wrong, it’s also racist, because it’s rooted in an ignorance about white privilege. I’ve heard this expressed a number of ways, but they can generally be distilled to claims of “color-blindness”. Here’s the thing, though; racial color-blindness is a luxury only Whites can afford. Martin Luther King’s dream of a world where people are judged by the content of the character rather than the color of their skin is a goal, but ignoring racism is not the means to get there.

Years ago, I was in a multi-culturalism class taught by a Mexican American woman, and we were discussing race. One of the white teachers tried to explain that she refused to see the teacher’s skin color or heritage, and that’s why she didn’t think of herself as a racist. “But what is my heritage is important to me?” the teacher asked. “What if I like the color of my skin?” The white teacher was shocked. She’d never considered the fact that her color-blindness was dismissive and even hurtful. How could she have grown up without considering the importance of a cultural identity to someone from a minority group? Easy. She was white, lived in an almost entirely white world, and therefore could afford to ignore issues of race and racism if she felt like it. Racial minorities don’t have that luxury.

This came up again just this week in a conversation in the classes I’m currently taking. One teacher pointed us to this research, which shows that when whites attempt to display colorblindness they actually come off worse in interracial interaction, as their self-editing can be misinterpreted (or perhaps correctly interpreted) as insensitivity or outright disregard. In my experience (and I know this is only anecdotal evidence) ethnic minorities are far more comfortable bringing up race in interracial conversation, both mine and their own. I don’t think it’s a huge leap to theorize that this difference can be explained by the fact that minorities have to come into contact with whites more often than whites have to come into contact with minorities. One of the teachers in the room was flabbergasted by this research. “So what are we supposed to do?” she asked. “Just walk up to somebody and say, ‘Hi. I notice you’re Black.’?” That’s white privilege. She wasn’t racist, and she wasn’t trying to be rude. She just didn’t know how to navigate an interracial conversation about the topic of race so she preferred to avoid the topic. And she can do that. Because she’s white.

I worry that this Shirley Sherrod fiasco will blow over, caught up in the next turn of the twenty-four hour news tornado (though it may get some legs from this or this), and we’ll miss an opportunity to have a real discussion about white privilege. Chalk that up to the growing list of opportunities for real dialogue that this administration has missed in its efforts to be non-partisan (a real dialogue about the costs of war, a real dialogue about the dangers of oil dependence, a real dialogue about class disparity and tax policy, etc., etc.). That’s a shame, because ignoring the topic of race doesn’t make racism go away.


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Anonymous said...

Good point, though sometimes it's hard to arrive to definite conclusions