Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Black-Black Racism: Why White Liberals Should Care

Sparked by Protein Wisdom, Ampersand writes a post on why, as white liberals, we should not devote much (if any) attention to so called "black-on-black" racism. I've written on this issue at least once before, but I want to further explicate on why, even from a Critical Leftist stance, we should be vociferous in condemning racism by blacks against blacks.

Essentially, there are two distinct arguments against whites condemning black-on-black racism. The first is ideological--either such actions aren't really a problem, or alternatively, they should be dealt with within the community itself. This claim I addressed in the prior post--look there for my critique.

The second argument, and the one Ampersand makes in this post, is political--black-on-black racism is comparatively less damaging and less prominent than the massive amount of structural racism still present in society, thus, anti-racism advocates should focus their attention where the greatest harms are. Or as Amp puts it, "deal with Judy's collapsed lung before dealing with Bob's scraped knee."

Such an argument admits that both white racism and black racism, like Bob and Judy's ailments, are indeed problems. In an "ideal" world, where there are no time trade-offs or issues of resource allocation, presumably Ampersand would support loud and consistent denunciations of all racist acts. However, in a world where resources (time, effort, and money) are limited, we have to make trade-offs, and the end-result should be affecting the most change possible to eliminate racism in its most damaging forms.

Insofar as this is a political argument, it should be addressed on political terms. The question is whether or not white condemnations of black-on-black racism (or black-on-white racism, for that matter) have positive and non-replicable consequences in the political sphere, and whether those consequences outweigh whatever negatives exist (in terms of resource allocation, time spent, etc..).

We should start by noting that in general, condemning individual acts of black-on-black racism is not particularly time intensive. I probably spent a few hours, tops, on my post about the black-facing of Michael Steele--and that was a post that actually got attention (which of course, makes it more likely that I'll post updates and the like). Meanwhile, as I'm sure Amp knows, I also blog relatively frequently on the "big" issues of structural racism and white privilege that Amp says I should be focusing on. So, to a partial extent, the "ideal world" and the "real world" merge--we can do both. I think the problem is that we conflate the amount of effort needed to oppose structural racism (which is pretty high, since it is persistent and omnipresent) and black racism (which is relatively low, because it is scattered and not supported by some overarching societal superstructure). To sum up: opposing black racism is not likely to be a time-intensive endeavor compared to opposing white racism.

More importantly, though, is that I think my condemnation of such acts as Steve Gilliard blackfacing Steele gives me credibility amongst moderates and conservatives when talking about race issues that I wouldn't otherwise possess. After posting on Lt. Gov. Steele, I've inoculated myself against charges of bias and partisanship, such that it's more likely that the people we need to reach will take me seriously. If some conservative reads one of my posts about structural racism and makes the stock attack, that I'm anti-white or just some wild-eyed multicultural radical, I can point to these posts and prove that I'm not. They might still ignore me, but it's more likely that they'll tune in and in any event any undecided observers will look on me more favorably. That's a positive benefit and one that's seriously lacking when we only attack white power and privileges. We can't expect to make any gains on race when we're alienating the majority of our audience. If whites hold the levers of racial power in our society, than it is whites who we need to persuade to affect racial change, and we must adapt our arguments accordingly.

I'm not saying we should go out of our way to find incidents of black racism for counter-balancing purposes. But when they're thrust in front of our faces, we should be clear where we stand. Perhaps in an ideal world I shouldn't have to prove my even-handedness by attacking black racism too. But recall that Amp is making an argument that is expressly divorced from the ideal world. She can't just jump from idealism to realism and back again whenever it suits her. If we're trying to affect positive racial change in real-world America, part of that project means taking deliberate steps so that the audience will listen to our words. I think that goal requires some showing of non-partisanship.

Incidentally, I disagree with John Cole's response post--I do think that "identity politics" has been incorrectly caricatured, that the tactic is neither new nor radical, and that the vast majority of the message is positive and needs to be heard. But we should still be cognizant of the "politics" in "identity politics," and that means building bridges to both the friends we have and the foes we seek to convert.


Anonymous said...

I dismissed one of your previous posts about racism- claiming it's bad, it exists and it shouldn't- because it didn't propose a mechanism to fix the problem. (I was impressed by your research into Drs. Dovidio and Gaertner, however). Without some other steps, we essentially leave the eradication of racism to time and education of new generations - we accept that we can't turn an apple tree into an orange tree, so we'll wait for the apple trees to die and plant oranges.
But in this post you do something I haven't seen in other places- you actually proposes a political mechanism to start repairing the problem. Do you have "the fix"? No, but if it were easy, we'd not only have "the" fix but have fixed the problem right now- but you've got a good suggestion to stop the bleeding.
I commend your exceptional insight.

Norwegianity said...

I'd like to give your arguments more time, but I just cannot agree that Gilliard's blackfacing of Steele was racism. It was very blunt but appropriate political satire, and the fact that it was coming from a black pundit made this old white guy feel a little more comfortable with it. But not too comfortable.

Gilliard's gibe makes us uneasy because he's attacking Steele for something Americans don't like to talk about. Racism is very much alive, and it makes no sense for any descendent of African slaves to support the current racist incarnation of the Republican party.

I work with many Africans living in the US, and I would never tell them not to vote for a Republican, because for many of them, that would be a logical vote. But they are not descended from African slaves who were brought here to work the Southern plantations. That and Jim Crow has made the African-American experience uniquely troubling.

I'm not an historian, but in relatively modern times there has been a lot of genocide. Slavery in the Americas and the Holocaust are two of the most notable because of their unique characteristics. It is appropriate to discuss them as separate phenomenons from your garden variety genocides.

Given that context, I think it's difficult to call Gilliard's rip on Steele black-on-black racism. Especially since I would usually think of black-on-black racism being a light-skinned vs. darker-skinned issue, something that's also not discussed nearly often enough.

Racism is complex and depressing, but American racism against the descendents of African slaves is something else entirely, and it has made black voters more of a special interest group like gays and NRA supporters and Right to Life folks. I mean, no one acts like they expect the Greek-American or Norwegian-American vote to break one way, but — except for Republican pundits — few political commentators seem surprised by the solid black vote.

Sorry, I keep going back and forth between American racism and your specific topic, but I find it very hard to separate the two. I just don't see the nuances you're seeing here.

Gilliard was making a pointed comment, and I for one understood exactly what he meant, and did not pick up on the black-on-black racism you're saying was in play. Admittedly, I'm an old white guy, but I did minor in African-American World Studies in college, and I am very well read in this area. Also, as an English major, I do see this as aggressive satire, not in-your-face racism.

Anonymous said...

I thought Gilly did a pretty good job of defending his characterization of Steele. I agree with the previous comments.

This case is peculiarly complicated by the story that was published in the Washington Times, that Steele had suffered a vicious racist attack (pelted with Oreos) at a debate in 2002. That story has since been thoroughly debunked, with Steele climbing back from an earlier claim that a "couple of Oreos rolled around his feet" to admitting that the incident never happened at all. I DO care about racism, but without truth and honesty informing the effort, attempts to deal with it are bound to backfire.