Wednesday, October 26, 2005


A caveat, not that it should be relevant. I'm a Maryland native who will be supporting the Democratic candidate (preferably O'Malley, but I like Duncan too) in the 2006 Senate race. I'm not a Steele fan, an Ehrlich fan, or a fan of the modern Republican party.

That being said, anyone who cares about racism and wants to register opposition to it should condemn this post by Steve Gilliard (H/Ts: Robert George and Andrew Sullivan). WARNING: Do not click on this link at work. For those of you who do not feel comfortable viewing it, it is a photo of Michael Steele, the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Maryland and 2006, Senate nominee, photoshopped so that he is in "blackface," with exaggerated lips and bushy white eyebrows. The caption is: "I's Simple Sambo and I's running for the Big House."

It is simply horrifying that such images could even be considered marginally acceptable by anybody in the 21st century, and I don't care how bad the target is (and Michael Steele, severe flaws as a politician aside, is not an embodiment of pure evil). And while "they do it too" should not be an excuse for our own racist acts, I have never seen a major Republican blogger do anything as nakedly racist as this post. At least they pretend to hide behind making a policy argument. This was raw prejudice on full display.

I confess that prior to college, I knew nothing of the image of a "sambo." I had never heard of it. I won't claim that Bethesda was a utopia of racial inclusiveness and integration, but this was one form of racism that mercifully had been beyond my consciousness. However, as far as I can gather, the "sambo" is one of the most reviled stereotypes in the African-American community. Charles Lawrence III specifically uses it as an example of a prevailing social stereotype which help ostracize him as a child in his seminal work, The Id, The Ego, and Equal Protection: Reckoning with Unconscious Racism, 39 Stan. L. Rev. 317 (1987). Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic explicate further on the harms of such images (again, specifically mentioning the "Sambo" as an example):
the history of racial depiction shows that our society has blithely consumed a shocking parade of Sambos, coons, sneaky Japanese, and indolent, napping Mexicans--images that were perceived at the time as amusing, cute or, worse yet, true. How can one talk back to messages, scripts, and stereotypes that are embedded in the minds of one's fellow citizens, and, indeed, the national psyche?

In other words, this type of imagery is not neutral, comical, parody, satire, or otherwise "harmless." It plays on deep-seated racism in American society (by both the left and the right), it marginalizes African-Americans of all political persuasions, and it affirms that even the most shocking forms of racial stereotyping are still fair game even for supposed "allies" of African-Americans.

When a certain liberal blogger subjected Michelle Malkin to sexual slurs, I wrote/asked "We Are (Are We?) Better Than This. I now ask again, this time in some desperation: Can liberals draw a line in the sand and say, once and for all, "racism is intolerable, we will not engage in it at any point, at any time, targeting any one."? This shouldn't be a question, but a moral obligation. It's time we met ours.

UPDATE: What does it mean that Steve is black? Frankly, I don't think it matters--this is a vicious racial smear and ought be treated as such. I've heard the argument that alleged cases of black-on-black racism should be considered an intramural dispute and that white liberals like myself should stay out of it, and frankly I don't buy it. As I wrote in a previous post:
To me, this obscures the divisions in power relations that exist within the black community. Since the black left is far more powerful than the black right, [they can] leverage the influence they have over anti-racism discourse to suppress views they don't like....The terminology used by black leftists is not neutral debate, it is a deliberate attempt to link black conservatives to an ideology inherently opposed to black people. It's like a Jew calling another Jew a Nazi--irrespective of the validity of the criticism itself, the term is offensive because of the particular tropes and tenors it carries in the Jewish experience. Acting as if this was just folks debating ("free speech"?) blinds us to the realities of power and forces us to pretend that Blacks do all agree on the terms and conditions regarding opposition to racism--and moreover, we have to play that role by accepting the very controversy that is under dispute--that black leftists are "right" in how they frame the racism debate and the conservatives are "wrong."

...[M]y Jewish background places me deeply opposed to the "it's not our problem" school of thought. The history of genocide is replete with examples of tyrants who knew that if they just kept their actions an internal affair, they could escape international notice and condemnation of even the most brutal of crimes. Within this paradigm, Hitler's crime was not that he slaughtered millions of Jews, it's that he invaded Poland (which of course made it "everybody's problem"). Had he just concentrated on the Jews in his own border (like Turkey with Armenians, Rwanda, Cambodia, Sudan, etc.), he'd have been home free. I reject this logic.

Obviously there is value to letting groups solve their own problems, just as there is value in respecting national sovereignty. But this is predicated on the notion that all members of the group in question stand on roughly equal footing, and that the object under consideration is not whether or not to expel a disempowered sub-sect. Because I believe the position of black conservatives does not meet either condition, and because I believe that outsiders have obligations, when possible, to rectify even injustices that aren't within their own community, I register my disagreement...

This isn't to say that Gilliard's racial slur is the equivalent of Nazi genocide--it's obviously nowhere close to that. But on the flip side, protesting racial slurs isn't as extreme a remedy as a military intervention, so that washes out. The point is that as a member of a group which watched six million of its members be slaughtered as the world looked away, I'm not willing to adopt that same logic and let justice stop at my own ethnic borders. There are some lines we should not cross, but there are some lines we absolutely must cross in order to protect disempowered persons.

UPDATE 2X: Greetings, Kossacks! I reprint my email response (slightly edited) to Pyesetz for your edification:
Thanks for you response over at Kos. I believe this is the first time I've been linked to by any Kos blogger, and while I'd have preferred it to be more along the lines of an extollment of my awesome wit and breathtaking intelligence, I'm still appreciative that you took the time to address my post and offer your thoughts :-).

That being said, I disagree with your post, and I think you're misinterpreting what I'm advocating. Basically, you take issue with a supposed call on my part for "censorship" of Mr. Gilliard. Nowhere in my post did I do such a thing. I certainly condemn Mr. Gilliard's characterization of Mr. Steele, in the harshest of terms--and I don't back down from that. As a society, I do think racial slurs should be considered beyond the pale as a political tactic. This doesn't mean that I think we should ban them--rather, I think their should be a mutual consensus amongst all persons (progressives especially) that we will not use them and not tolerate them when the occur. The best response to an action like Gilliard's is harsh condemnation, and then, if he persists, ignoring him. The message should be zero-tolerance for racial slurs--not on the level of law, but on the level of our own associations. This is no more censorship then me condemning, say, Michelle Malkin for calling for mass internments. She has the RIGHT to say it, and we have a right (I'd say obligation) to bash her senseless (rhetorically, of course) for saying it. To characterize a condemnation of Malkin regarding her racism as "censorship" is to confuse a social protest with legal sanction. Only the latter can be labeled "censorship" if we are to preserve the principles of poltical debate. With regards to Mr. Gilliard, we choose to see him as a voice we consider and take seriously, or choose not to. In making that choice, one cannot ignore the particular tools he uses to make his advocacy. And I believe that the use of racial slurs should be prima facia proof that a given speaker should be expelled from our collective community of political allies--again, not as a matter of law, but of free association. Gilliard is free to say what he wants--but if THIS is what he says then we should be quick to disassociate ourselves from the message.

I also would like clarify my Jewish analogy, because it's being misinterpreted (this is my fault, it was poorly written). I'd agree that if a Jew ACTUALLY is a Nazi--in that he has joined the party and says "heil Hitler" etc etc, then yes, we can say he's a Nazi as a matter of fact. Similarly, if Steele actually had dressed up as a Sambo to make Republican donors laugh in their beer, then Mr. Gilliard would be perfectly justified in putting a picture of that act on his site and saying "see! He's playing a Sambo!" What I'm objecting to is criticizing a person who legitimately deserves criticism in a manner designed to play on particular base emotive reactions, without a direct and explicit link. So, if a Jew is a neoconservative, we may criticize him for being a neo-con, but not as a Nazi because the two are distinct and the conflation is a deliberate effort not just to demark political opposition but also to exile the person from the community writ large. I don't think that's permissible in normal political disputes. Similarly, I think that Steele can be critiqued from plenty of perfectly reasonable positions, but seeing as he isn't "actually" a Sambo, portraying him as such is an effort to illegitimately dehumanize him and tag him with one of the most appalling anti-black stereotypes in existence today. There's a difference between a factual label, and a damaging stereotype. Steele is not factually a Sambo, and as long as that is true it is immoral to label him as one.

I agree that we should be very cautious in "taboo-ing" certain issues from political discourse. But I think that racial slurs, like Nazi comparisons, meet this high standard except in the most clear-cut circumstances. For all of Lt. Gov. Steele's faults, this is not a "clear-cut" circumstance where an attack such as this is justified. We may (and do) disagree, vociferously, about his policies or judgment. But it is a basic hallmark of human decency that we refrain from this sort of brutal ad hominem attack.


Pyesetz the Dog said...

I disagree. Extended comments here.

dan said...

It is really interesting to watch white people sit back and set the boundaries defining acceptable black political discourse; you, Wonkette, etc.... Is there anything else black people aren't allowed to say?

David Schraub said...

I'm glad you find anti-racism discourse to be interesting, I do too. In this case though, I don't think the prohibition breaks down on black/white lines. The authors I cite in-post (Lawrence, Delgado, and Stefancic) are Black, Latino, and Latino, respectively--and the loudest condemnations of so-called "hate speech" come from minority scholars working out of the Critical Race Theory movement. I won't go as far to say whether they'd sign on to this particular criticism--but this post was informed and inspired by their writings analyzing and applying the harms of racist speech on its victims. So I reject the notion that this is a case of "white people...defining acceptable black political discourse" as entirely ignorant of the context this post was written in and the intellectual tradition it operates in.

As it is, I believe that Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, Jews, whomever, all should condemned when they use ethnic or racial slurs in "ordinary political disputes." This doesn't circumscribe Black political discourse any more that the standard circumscribes White political discourse. If one wants to talk about disparate enforcement, I'm game--I think as a society we are far too sanguine about White racism. But as my other posts on this line have written, the proper progressive response is to stake a strong claim against racist speech in any form--not to try and cut gerrymandered exceptions for our own political allies.