The half-life of racism

Attorney General Eric Holder made a bit of a splash when speaking at Columbia earlier this year.  He told the audience at his alma mater that he could not imagine a time when the need for racial preferences like affirmative action would cease.

So at what point does racism stop mattering in American life?  Perhaps you’ve entertained this question before.  If government, civil society and churches have been laboring against this great sin for decades, is there anything to show for it?

Surely, in 300 years, after our great-grandchildren are deceased, the old, nasty attitudes so prevalent before the Civil Rights era will have been expunged.  But if not, there will be sophisticated equipment–maybe like a Star Trek tricorder–to empirically identify any remnants.

For now, we are lucky to have wagging tongues like Chris Matthews to tell us when someone is being racist.  Or, we can just as well heed the dire warnings of speakers at this year’s Democratic National Convention.

Anyone who genuinely seeks a substantive discussion of issues, such as our raging national debt or the proper scope of federal government, has required a little patience in dealing with smokescreens thrown up by progressives and Democrats.  We know these as racism, the war on women, homophobia and so on.

The identity politics fiefdom built on these “wedge” issues is troubling in how it treats people in need as abstractions, not individuals.  The long history of progressive prescriptions affirms the ineffectiveness of promises perennially extended toward these abstracted victims.  President Johnson launched a “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, but the numbers of poor and dependent have reliably increased in the decades since.  Why should we think that President Obama, in spending ever more sums on the same problems, will change that?

While some conditions haven’t improved, there has been tremendous progress on societal attitudes.  Among those born after the tumult of the 1960s, the ideal of “equality” crowns the paramount virtue of “tolerance.”  But many remain beholden to the hope that just a little more money to social programs, a little more Ad Council propaganda, will actually change conditions for the abstraction.

What if these well-intended moves crowd out the healthy habits and cultural capital necessary to the success of the individual?  These, not the wasteful expenditures of federal welfare programs, are what can change conditions on the ground.  But to assess this soberly will require a little distance from the crooning promises of “Hope and Change” or MSNBC’s alarmist cries of “racism!”

Would it be safe to say that, in America today, we’re beyond the half-life of racism or patriarchy?  Existential struggle against oppression need not trump every policy consideration.  As I noted recently, a diverse lineup of thought leaders in media and at this year’s Republican National Convention have given us hope that we’re past that point.  For the sake of true progress, and the issues that really matter, I hope November will reflect a similar move among the population at large.

Does floating unfounded allegations of racism help Obama?

The other day I came across a commentary in the Christian Science Monitor that absolutely floored me.  Offered by two academics, McIlwain and Caliendo, its headline questions: “Is a pro-Romney ad racist? Five questions to ask yourself.

Apparently, the coauthors don’t think Democrats can ever make a racist appeal, so they only focus on the Romney campaign.  To them, it’s not a question of if but which of his ads will be racist.  As we’ve seen with Joe Biden’s  “unchained” appeal,” this myopic model leaves voters unable to account for racism when it actually happens.

You can’t find racism from the left if you’re only looking right.  But with advanced degrees in the humanities and social sciences, the coauthors command a toolkit that enables them to pick out the finest notes of that pesky racism “dog whistle.”  Funny though, only a self-selecting pool of liberal academics have the authority or ability to discern them.  Good thing they’ve taken the time to help the rest of us out!

The examples the coauthors provide in their commentary are tenuous at best.  They advance their arguments on mere possibilities.  Does this sound familiar?  Elements of Romney’s ads “could be interpreted” or might “imply” some kind of racism.  A string of possible but weakly supported claims puts the piece just a notch above Harry Reid’s completely groundless claim that Romney didn’t pay ten years’ worth of taxes.

In one section of their commentary, the authors warn against the deployment of stereotypes.  Their metric for determining a potential stereotype is wide, vague, and subjective.  They bar Romney from any avenue of attack, while allowing Obama to proceed. Consider this passage on criminality:

For instance, while the Obama campaign might charge that Romney is a felon – a strong attack to be sure – there is no historical association between whites – as a group – and criminality. That association is present with respect to blacks, however. Thus, the message functions as a stereotype, not merely a criticism of one individual.

Have you ever watched a Hollywood action movie?  The villain is always some rich white guy in a suit!

Or, think of the TV series 24.  Each season, there are two levels of bad guys.  The first wave of villains might be terrorists from a fictitious Middle Eastern country, a Mexican drug cartel, or maybe opportunistic African warlords.  But then, somewhere around hour 10 or 12, the ultimate culprit emerges: always a cold, well-heeled white guy who is an unscrupulous industrialist, a crackpot defense hawk, or otherwise a liberal’s gross impression of Dick Cheney.  And this from a show with supposedly conservative leanings!

Although not matching McIlwain and Caliendo’s cherry picked “historical” or “group” criteria, Team Obama’s felon accusation against Romney exploits a real Hollywood stereotype embedded in the American consciousness.

Indeed, racism was a serious problem fifty years ago, but some folks haven’t gotten the memo that things might have improved just a bit.  This fact is easily missed by those who can’t put down their Critical Race Theory books.

It is sad that unsubstantial claims of racism get undying attention in the media.  The effect, whether intended or not, is to silence genuine criticism and steer the conversation into divisive, unproductive territory.  Just by running McIlwain and Caliendo’s commentary, the Christian Science Monitor sanctions a free tarring of conservatives, a gift to Democrats and their allies.

Reflecting on Campus thought police

In my recent post Campus Thought Police, I suggested that all the attention campuses pay to hate crimes and intolerance ends up diminishing individuals’ sense of agency and empowerment.  Looking at it after the fact, I wondered if I could make the connection more clear.

To clarify on sense of agency: when the community is given no sense of progress, it comes to feel powerless.

The messaging that comes from the campus establishment treats hate and intolerance as if they were perennial, unparalleled mortal dangers.  The constant use of such an urgent tone makes it seem as if the Civil Rights era counted for nothing.

But there has been much progress.  Racism, sexism, and other bad -isms have become stigmas to a culture that is now loathe to harbor stigmas.  Nonetheless, instead of placing us somewhere on the long arc of the moral universe, campus voices convey to us that we are in a Sisyphean task: rolling the boulder ever up the hill with nothing to show for it.  The unending klaxon calling us to battle stations against intolerance eventually convinces us that we are fighting some insurmountable evil.  No reasonable observer can maintain hope if they take the academy’s message at face value.

To clarify on empowerment: activism shunts individuals to the radical margin when they should be integrating with the mainstream.

All the prevalent theories on race, class, gender, and so on shove earnest young souls like cattle onto the divisive boat of oppression politics.  If they stay for the ride, they go on to commit civil disobedience, plan direct actions, and lead generally counterproductive lives.  The dogma that they are in mortal combat with oppressive forces locks them necessarily into solidarity and cooperation.  For the sake of comrades and self, they’re never free to think that oppression may not actually define their existence.

But if their worldview is mistaken, then in all their sound and fury they are missing their true calling.  Instead of uncritically fighting on some far flung front of the war on oppression, students should be preparing to constructively enter a society that is on balance more just than unjust.  They should experience the wonderful challenge of interpersonal competition rather than the dull drumbeat to cooperate with comrades.  The university prides itself as a marketplace of ideas, but if there is any such competition, it hasn’t pierced the Berlin Wall that upholds the politically correct dictums of the academic establishment.

Campus leaders’ actual if unintended conveyance of a lack of progress erodes onlookers’ sense of agency.  The shunting of students into unfruitful radicalism not only bereaves society but dis-empowers the students as well.  The leading voices of the academy need to re-examine the message they’re sending to the world.

Campus thought police

Hate crimes have received a bit of press lately, with the news supernova over Trayvon Martin as well as the recent conviction of Dharun Ravi in the Tyler Clementi case.  Much ink has been spilled on these things already.  I will spare you but to say that hoodies are not a good symbol to rally around, and that Mr. Ravi’s disproportionately harsh sentence tells us just how powerful the politically-driven liberal witch hunt for bullies is.

Now only occasionally do hate and intolerance receive as much attention in the public square as they do on university campuses.  The past couple of years there has been great hand-wringing across the University of California system.  President Yudof issued this open letter in March.  The academic establishment typically shies away from moral and absolutist language, but its use in this letter betrays the community’s critical-thinking blind spot.  In response to one act of vandalism, the UC President sounds more like a back-bending diplomat when he applauds the “rapid and vigorous condemnation of this cowardly act.”  This kind of language is reserved for when some ultra-important party has been ticked off and must be mollified.

That party is a large one, animated in its adherence to the orthodoxy of victimhood.  It is driven by the oppressor-oppressed paradigm, and it continuously demands urgent, corrective action.  As a modern day Sisyphus, the university president or chancellor must repeatedly expend campus time and resources condemning every little act of vandalism and thoughtless transgression.  Furthermore, their chains require them to assure that such crimes will be expunged completely from the grounds of the academy.  But there will always be insensitive yokels ready to wreak havoc, if for no other reason than to elicit a response from the ultra-sensitive communities on campus.

A couple of news items from last fall help us see a fuller picture of the campus orthodoxy that dictates these responses.  After a student column on some regrettable phenomenon called “jungle fever,” The California Aggie editorial board informed its readership that its staff were to undergo “diversity training.”  This prescription can’t help but remind me of Communist-era reeducation camps.  And after some abortion opponents surreptitiously distributed the “180” video on campus, the campus Women’s Resource Center not only condemned the act but felt compelled to offer support to “students identifying as Jewish, Queer, People of Color, Women, Transgender, Romani, and folks with disabilities” who were offended or else menaced by a sense of “erasure.”

There are limits to sensitivity on campus and in the public square.  Authority figures always take it upon themselves to reassure the public through their actions, but these grandiose declarations end up diminishing the sense of agency and empowerment that ought to be cultivated in the individuals of the community.  There is too much coddling of victims and not enough sense of perspective.  If we are to preserve the academy as an arena of critical thought, and if it is to deliver us well-rounded, capable citizens for society, we must shake off the unhealthy campus obsession over hate and intolerance.

Bootstraps versus Knapsacks

The California state budget fiasco has afforded me some free time recently, so I’ve been doing some spring cleaning.  Among the relics I unearthed from recent months were the collected handouts for a class  on race taught at my church last year.  It was a sad reminder that leftist agitprop had infiltrated the Sunday classroom.  I mean no disrespect for those who earnestly pursue God’s will in matters of race and justice.  Yet,  the ideas propagated in those papers and discussions contribute to an unhealthy, counterproductive worldview.

One particularly troubling area of the race curriculum is its prescribed journey from bootstraps to knapsacks.  Since I first encountered these two concepts in the same context, they have always seemed at odds.  Bootstraps and knapsacks are mutually exclusive; people tend to love one and hate the other.  In one corner is the classic “up by the bootstraps” idea that hard work begets success in America.  As an alternative, progressives offer the red pill notion that any comfort, success, and prosperity are owed instead to an “invisible knapsack of privilege.”  No, you can’t make this stuff up.  The  idea originated in the 1980s with feminist Peggy McIntosh.  Now if you take success and prosperity to be synonymous with  being white, you have the original gist of the knapsack.

McIntosh’s personal revelations notwithstanding, I find the knapsack lacks effective explanatory power from where I stand as a mixed race, conservative man in a tremendously free and prosperous society.  I find it more relevant to look at success in America as a general whole rather than assume that success is the exclusive reserve of some monolithic group called  “whites.”  Yet knapsack proponents are eager to showcase McIntosh’s writing as a contrast to bootstraps in the hope of inducing an aha! moment that race is integrally relevant to American success.  Any serious-minded person who encounters these two tangling visions must decide which one will ultimately color (no pun intended) their own life at the everyday level.

In their existential tendencies, knapsack and bootstraps could not be more divergent.  In spite of its good intentions, knapsack supplants bootstraps’ twin senses of gratitude and agency with a new malaise of victimhood and guilt.  In doing away with bootstraps, knapsack denies us the ability to thank our parents, ancestors, and even our Creator for their respective roles in contributing to our current comfort and success.  From its secular Leftist roots, knapsack can only give us an impersonal, monolithic explanation that oppression is the true father of our prosperity.  Its as depressing as when Luke Skywalker discovers that Darth Vader is his dad. Progressive Christians mean well when they attempt to carve a path for American repentance, but they damage worldviews when they uphold knapsack and dismiss bootstraps.  American history is marked more by opportunity than by oppression.  But supposing the facts to be in dispute, such an assertion would be better defended in a separate post.  Existentially, bootstraps thinking cultivates an “attitude of gratitude” that in turn nurtures desire for stewardship. This then necessitates individual accountability, and all three of these are integral to Christian living.  Knapsack, however, turns us to navel-gazing and perpetually renewed  calls for dialog that might make good sound bites but do little to effect meaningful change.  Instead of attending ponderous powwows that reinforce progressive dogmas, Christians sincerely pursuing what is right and good should look critically at knapsack thinking and reclaim as their own the virtues of the bootstraps ethic.

%d bloggers like this: