Thursday, March 13, 2008

Our Long National Nightmarish Conversation about Race is Just Beginning

I have very complicated feelings about racism in America, and they don't really reduce themselves easily to the short form of snark we prefer here at IIRTZ. Racism and race consciousness, the exploitation of race, culture, religion and class for political purposes, charges and countercharges over the perceived or real racism of particular remarks/observations/tactics and even the accusation that a remark or an observation is really a tactic and can never be disinterested or have any utility or meaning other than as a tool of racism will never leave the American Political scene. I don't get any television coverage, or radio coverage other than NPR, and so my take on Ferraro and her gaffe/observation/political tactic is more than second or third hand, its so far down the line as to be useless. But that being said I think we, as democrats and as progressives (two different things) or as liberals/progressives trying to use the two party system to get something done politically and socially, need to be very careful about how we think and talk about the natural/unnatural, implicit/explicit racism of the old line ferraro or white ethnic voter to whom we are otherwise trying to appeal.

Racism is a fact of American life and especially a fact and a factor in the experience of white ethnic working class and struggling middle class workers. My mini lecture on the subject looks like this: blacks and whites have been set against each other for the benefit of the ownership class for centuries, in fact from the beginning of slavery and its separation from indentured servanthood right through reconstruction and jim crow to today. Working class whites and blacks would have been natural allies and could have formed strong political bonds but natural and artificial/constructed and imposed differences between these various communities prevented this potentially historic and transformative alliance. White ethnics and white people generally are extremely ignorant of this history, or prefer to think of it as "natural" rather than constructed and fostered for the benefit of the upper and ruling classes. They have been permitted and encouraged to think about racism as a natural thing, a primarily "cultural" thing of personal preferences and personal experiences rather than a structural, legal, and social imposition that has to be constantly fed and maintained if it is to continue to keep communities apart.

But that is the problem we face, not a prescription. The continued hand wringing over Ferraro and the "archie Bunker voter" simply describes the situation that we as a people face, and that Obama faces, without attempting to get over the divide by looking at voters/democrats/archie bunkers as real people who have really been misled but who can be educated. Very few people are "racist" or "not racist" in a straightforward manner. In a country with as mixed up a history of individualism, meritocracy, respect for high achievement, contempt for losers, fear of change, etc..etc...etc... as this everyone has very complicated feelings of envy, joy, fear, loathing, and longing for cross racial, post partisan, figures like Obama. Even the staunchest "racist" has an element of shame in his or her makeup that makes them long not to be self identified as merely a race man--makes them long to vote for "The individual" and not the skin color. And even the staunchest "color blind" white liberal fears losing his or her political clout and privilige for some up and coming whipper snapper. We're going to need to be a lot cleverer than we have been if we are to welcome the archie bunkers of the democratic party into a new alliance. I'm afraid that the attacks on the hypothetical ferraro/white ethnic voters of Pennsylvania are the opposite of the clever, thoughtful, long range strategy that Obama and our party need if we are to transform this country. A short way of saying this might be that *even racists* need representation of their legitimate needs. The trick is not to hammer them with hot button words like "racist" but to come forward to them and educate them on the ways in which their real needs and their better natures are being undermined and abused in the interest of the status quo.

See, I said it was complicated. And its not really funny.