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Some Subtle Forms of Racism

October 20, 2010

I was going to start up this blog with something lighthearted and humorous but  there’s something else on my mnd today that isn’t lighthearted or humorous.  Maybe in a few days from now.

It’s often been observed that the sublter, often uncosncious forms of racism are the hardest to confront and change, because they are exhibited by people who sincerely don’t believe their atittudes are racist.

During the 2008 Preisdential eleciton campaign, a female friend of mine , a former coworker in her late forties, said she couldn’t vote for Obama because  shed “didn’t know anything about him.” I gently pointed out there was a ton of information readily available.  For example, he had written two books, much more self-revealng and in-depth than most books written by politicians. He had been running around the country delivering hundreds of speeches and giving dozens of interviews. In additon there was lots of information by both supporters and detractors easily accessible via the internet. She was unpersuaded. He was just such a mystery to her, she insisted, a vague, shadowy figure she coud not make any sense of, couldn’t size up, couldn’t get a handle on.  So she could not possibly vote for this mystery man.  “So you will vote for McCain?” I asked. Oh, yes, she said. I asked her what she knew about McCain.  Well, she said,  he suffered in Vietnam.   He was a “maverick”.   That is all she knew about him.  Asked about his Senate career, she knew nothing. Asked about his policy positions, she admitted she didn’t know of any.  Asked  in what sense he was a “maverick”  and what that word meant to her, she had no clue. She seemed to know even less about John McCain than she did about Obama. Yet she was perfectly comfortable voitng for McCain.  Why? I suspect the words “Republican” and “white” explain it. Just as an older generation of whites used to describe Asians as “inscrutable” she saw Obama as  strange,  different, not like us, and therefore a baffling mystery, incomprehensible, truly, inscrutable. Of course,  this is a chruch-going,, repsectable middle class woman who sees herself as having no racial prejudice.

Lat year,   Congressman Westmoreland of Georgia, a white Southerner, accused Obama of being “uppity”. Asked to elaborate, he merely smirked and repeated the word. Rush LImbaugh later echoed the charge. When reminded that word was emblematic of a racist attitude, they denied it completely. What got me was this:  a major news outlet (probably CNN, but I cannot remember) took an agnostic stance. “Gee, is ‘uppity’ a racist term? We don’t know. Let’s go ask the American people and see what they think.” So who did they interview? Some white teenagers at a mall in someplace like Mizzoula,  Montana, or  Rapid City, South Dakota! White kids born in the mid-1990s, raised in a largely all-white community, ignornant of American history, of  the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and the racial poltiics of the South. Of course, the kids shrugged and said naw, they didn’t see as as necessarily racist, just a way to describe someone who was arrogant or pretentious…..Was the network deliberaely choosing clueless kids to ask? Why not ask people who were in a poisition to know–like Southern blacks? “Uppity” means, and has always meant,  insubordinate, a characterization that makes no sense unless the person is supposed to be subordinate.  Historically all black people were expected to subordiante themselves to all white people.  “Uppity” was what whites call a black person who wasn’t doing that, who was behaving as if he thought he was the equal of whites. Peoplle who don’t know this have some serious gaps in their knowledge of American history.

Just last week, in a small-town newspaper I read a frustrated and suffering  mans’ letter to the editor in which he went on about how he’d lost his job, his unemployment behefits had run out, and he was now in danger of losing his house.  A working-class man from a rural area of  western Colorado, he went on at some length about how he had always been an honest,upright, hardworking man.  He had always been a law-abiding, tax-paying, church-going  good citizen and good neighbor–which I do not doubt. Desptie having always played the game  by the rules, he was now being screwed. He was not a lazy man, a loafer, a drunkard, or a criminal, he lamented, so why is this hapepning to him?  Hadn’t he always done all the  things you are supposed to do?  Almost as an afterthought, a tag line,  he concluded that ” and since I’m white I guess no one cares. I’m last in line for help.” Does he really imagine that minority working-class people are better off? Last I looked, the unemployment rate for whites was between 7 and 8 per cent; for blacks and latinos, around 20%. And precisely what benefit programs exist for unemployed people of color that he is being excluded from because of his color? I really doubt any exist, but I am open to learning.   This man is hurt and angry and his self-pitying remark is quite possibly a thoughtless, casual one, a kind of knee-jerk racism of the moment.

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