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Saturday, September 22, 2012
Politics ... Society ...

I was progressing through the September (2012) issue of The Atlantic, thoroughly enjoying James Fallows’ detailed comparison of the debating skills and experiences of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, willing to consider Hanna Rosin’s theory that the modern emphasis on casual sex on the college scene (the so-called “hook-up culture”) is actually “an engine of female progress . . . harnesses and driven by women themselves” . . . when I came to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Fear of a Black President“. And at first I was going to give it a quick look then move on to the usually interesting short notes at the end of the magazine.

I had previously read some of Mr. Coates’ by-lines, and knew more-or-less that he was quite sensitive to alleged racial issues in 21st Century America. It is clear right from the start of his new article that Mr. Coates, a young African-American, is quite angry with the state of black-white relationships in America today (“a properly angry essay”, as James Bennet writes in the Editor’s Note). I am somewhat familiar with the phenomenon of on-going yet under-spoken racial anger on the part of educated black professionals, having seen occasional signs of it in my own workplace. I didn’t think at first that Mr. Coates would tell me anything that I didn’t already know.

But on second thought . . . maybe I owed it to those people at work to understand their feelings in more detail. Maybe I shouldn’t presume that I know enough about “the black story” in modern America. So I dug in, and came out with mixed feelings. Mr. Coates manifests his anger, quite intelligently, along two avenues. First is the avenue of on-going impediments and harassment that African-Americans, especially those in the professional ranks, experience; and second, the failure of President Barack Obama to speak out and act more vigorously in regard to what Coates calls “the false promise and double standard of integration”.

In his article, Mr. Coates shoots broadly and doesn’t spend a lot of time testing the verity of his claims. He opens his article with the Trayvon Martin case, clearly presuming it to be travesty of justice. I’m sorry, but I’m not there yet. From what I read in the New York Times about that case, the facts and eyewitness evidence are complex and somewhat contradictory, and there were indications that Mr. Martin was not entirely an innocent victim of irrational racial hatred on the part of George Zimmerman and the guard service that was trying to deal with repeated break-ins at a housing complex. At the moment, I myself think it is best to say that “the jury is still out”. Mr. Coates goes on to cite quite a few other examples, many quite recent, of incidents where blacks have been harassed or denied privileges in ways that hint (or stink) of racial motivation.

I myself believe that much of what Mr. Coates cites is worthy of concern, even if he doesn’t spend enough time substantiating important claims; e.g., that the US Department of Agriculture continues to apply discriminatory lending practices that prevent the success of many African American farm owners. Another rubbery claim is that Obama should have beat John McCain in 2008 by a 3 to 5 more percentage points (as if 7.2 points were not enough; the best non-incumbent victory since 1952 was Reagan’s 9.7 points against Jimmy Carter, while Bill Clinton had to settle for 5.6 in 1992) — if not for irrational prejudice on the part of many white voters.

To verify this claim, Mr. Coates cites a doctoral thesis by a Harvard economist showing that certain counties that arguably should have given Mr. Obama significantly greater pluralities in 2008 than they actually did, based on John Kerry’s local performance in the 2004 election, tended to be highly ranked among the counties where internet users most frequently entered racially charged terms on the Google search engine. He cites Wheeling, West Virginia as a prime example of this, and compares the results in Wheeling with Obama’s much better results in Denver, Colorado, which ranks much lower on the Google racial search frequency list. One problem here: Denver is in a state where the Obama campaign invested significant funds and advertising effort; West Virginia was pretty much presumed to be a “red state” where even a media blitz couldn’t tip the outcome, (McCain won WVA by 55-42; Bush beat Kerry in 2004 by a similar 56-43). So there was no media blitz on Wheeling, as in Denver. The Obama campaign did indeed fight hard to win bordering Ohio in 2008, but its efforts were concentrated in the industrial north, and not in the rural south-eastern portions of Ohio near Wheeling.

I further suggest that Mr. Coates’ writings on such important matters would be more effective if he avoided the ironic imitation of the way in which many whites once openly spoke and thought about blacks, i.e. as a unified class with homogeneous characteristics and attitudes. E.g., Mr. Coates says that “white resentment has not cooled as the Obama presidency has proceeded”. “Part of Obama’s genius is a remarkable ability to soothe race consciousness among whites.” “What we are now witnessing is not some new and complicated expression of white racism—rather, it’s the dying embers of the same old racism . . revealing a country so infantile that it can countenance white acceptance of blacks only when they meet an Al Roker standard.” I will assume that Mr. Coates is intentionally trying to be ironic here in his reference to “whites” . . .

But with all that said, much of what Mr. Coates writes about does indeed hit the mark. Houston, we still have a racial problem here in America. I am white and I rub elbows with a lot of different white people, from many different professional, social and economic backgrounds. And even since Barack Obama began his quest for the Presidency in late 2006, I have never heard any white person say or imply that Mr. Obama was unqualified for the job for having African blood in him. I don’t deny that there are whites who DO think this. And perhaps some of the people that I am referring to also feel this way but know better than to share it openly.

Fine. There are stupid white people, and some small portion of them still make life hell for innocent African Americans. And yes, there are instances where some of us do this in a more dangerous, sub-conscious fashion. This probably happens a lot in law enforcement; see, Sergent Crowley and Professor Gates. It’s called “profiling”, and given the complexities of crime, it is too easy for whites to fall into an unquestioned sub-conscious presumption that a black man on the street at night has a high chance of being up to no good. Maybe something like this is also happening at the US Department of Agriculture in processing small farmer loan applications, cited as part of the Shirley Sherrod injustice [and that clearly was a racially-tinged injustice against Ms. Sherrod].

So, as many African Americans say, “we need to discuss this”. Yes we do, despite the protests (spoken or thought-of) by many whites that there’s no longer a racial opportunity gap in America, and that Barack Obama’s election sealed the topic for good. Things like “reparations” or even “affirmative action” aren’t going to get anywhere as a result of such discussions. But as to raising white consciousness regarding unspoken presumptions that could well unfairly disadvantage a lot of African Americans in schools, workplaces, government halls, media and most definitely, police encounters: YES, an uncomfortable discussion is very much needed.

And one final thing, regarding health care reform and the Tea Party. Mr. Coates only mentioned this in passing, but for me, it was the most troublesome sign that unspoken yet OVERT prejudice still survives in too many quarters of our nation. Mr. Coates did indeed help to scrape some scales from my own eyes in this regard.

In 2009, the Tea Party organized itself from the many impromptu local protests being held against President Obama’s health care reform act, organized mainly in smaller white communities throughout the nation. These spontaneous protests occurred when local Congressional representatives, back home in their district for summer recess, made public appearances. The vehemence of these protests surprised many political observers (including myself); the pending health care law was (hopefully IS) going to help many of the protesters obtain or retain access to health care, and protect them from the various industry practices that denied needed medical care to people who are struggling economically. There wasn’t going to be any increase in taxes, aside from the mandate to purchase some form of health insurance or pay a fine. And even for that, a subsidy is available based on economic need. So what was the problem?

By the fall, paid organizers got out there and formed a political apparatus that garnered the support of many of these protesters. These organizers formed and voiced a rationale for what had occurred over the summer; the people were tired of being pushed around by a near-tyrannical government. Our Constitutional system had been hi-jacked by the elite, and it was now time to “take back” Washington and return to the Founder’s supposed true intent. Thus emerged the Tea Party, with the help of quiet money provided by wealthy conservatives such as the Koch brothers.

So, is the Tea Party and its powerful effort to defeat “Obamacare” purely a matter of principle on the part of loyal students of the Declaration of Independence? Or, as Mr. Coates might suggest, is there something racial going on here? Mitt Romney’s recent comment on the “forty seven percent” who depend on government entitlements and don’t contribute to the American economy has something of an unspoken racial presumption to it. I.e., that a big chunk of the “dependency class” consists of people of color, who as a class are still quite far from attaining economic parity with whites. Did all the anti-health care protesters and the new-found Tea Party fervor really stem from abstract principles regarding human freedom? Or was it really grounded in something a bit less abstract . . . i.e., that in the midst of our bad economic times, many whites who are struggling perceive that our black President is trying to slice the shrunken economic pie a bit more in favor of “his own people”, by giving them greater health care benefits (which are obviously getting more and more expensive)?

Well . . . I am now shooting from the hip myself, as I don’t have any clear evidence in this regard. But this explanation would help to solve the mystery of how so many philosophers of human rights and government tyranny seemingly emerged throughout the small towns of the heartland during the summer of 2009. In other words, it isn’t philosophy at all that was on these peoples’ minds . . . it was their belief that a black President would indeed take some economic wealth away from struggling whites and give it to struggling blacks. If true, then Mr. Coates is right after all, if not quite in the broad fashion that he would paint. Out there in our nation tonight, there indeed is an irrational fear of a black President, on the part of enough people to significantly influence (and distort) our political system.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 6:50 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I said a while back I will not get into a long political discussion, and I won’t. Yet, a point or two about this whole “Black Prez Fear” thing.

    One the one hand I cannot get myself to agree with you or Ta-Nehisi wholeheartedly about the whole prejudice thing; yet I do not disagree either. I tend to think that these days prejudice is not really too near the surface of life. I think it’s too much of a no-no kind of thing to be openly prejudicial; it’s too politically incorrect for people to be outright and blatantly prejudiced against blacks—or for that matter Hispanics or Jews. Yet. . . this does not mean that I do not think there is prejudice. I think it simply has gone very much underground and is not very well known as such. I think prejudice *is* certainly there-deep down where people are, for the most part, unaware of it—or maybe aware of it but unwilling to admit to it. I think it lies in the area where most people, as long as they are known by others or can be found out, would have only the politically correct thing to say. However, when they can be unknown, e.g., by posting an anonymous blog or doing something when they cannot be found out doing, these same people will have no hesitation in letting their prejudice come to the surface and be expressed with no hesitation whatsoever.

    This kind of prejudice is very difficult to deal with because when it comes to the “surface”, it can be masked by all sorts of other good reasons; but when there is no way to discover the individual, there is no hesitation to express their serious dislike or hatred. E.g., I once heard a fine, upstanding person once say, “that (other individual) makes me so mad (about something or other)”. I said something that was in the nature of trying to appease the situation. The person said to me, “well, I wouldn’t let (that individual) know I feel this way, but I *would* go out about 1 a.m. and key (that person’s) car.” See what I mean?

    So, while I think that prejudice against blacks is very politically incorrect, I think it flourishes underground in a lot of ways, in unexpressed attitudes, in what someone may or may not express only among certain other individuals.

    Then, there is the second point that involves the Rush Limbaugh types of individuals who tend to push the boundaries of the politically incorrect, then get a backlash, and turn to another group to speak against, only to return again at a later time to their prejudicial viewpoint.

    As far as I’m concerned, I think that prejudice is still with us only it is underground. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — September 23, 2012 @ 1:00 pm

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