Thinking About ‘Racism’

Community-Stand-Against-Racism-SignI don’t remember when I first heard the word “racism,” but I suspect it wasn’t until quite a while after I’d actually experienced the phenomenon itself in person. When I was a grade-school kid in the early to mid 1960s, our family spent summers at the beach in South Carolina and in my mother’s hometown in that same state. My mother’s father – who had died before I was born, and who in addition to his day job had worked as an evangelical singer, performing at churches around the South – had been viewed by some of his white fellow townspeople with a certain skepticism. One reason was that his best friend was a black man; another was that he spent many Sunday mornings singing and worshipping with local black congregations, often taking my mother along with him. Hearing my mother’s stories about him when I was young, I came to think of him as having been something of an Atticus Finch without the law degree.

He was one face of the family. Another was Uncle John, who had been married to my grandfather’s half-sister and who, when I was a kid, was a widower who lived across the street from my widowed grandmother. Uncle John was very old, old enough to have ridden with the Red Shirts (a version of the KKK) in the late 1800s. Every summer, my grandmother would pressure my mother to take us over there to talk to him. My mother always resisted. She hated him. He wasn’t my grandmother’s cup of tea either, but this was the South, and she had a sense of family obligation. So each year we’d eventually visit Uncle John, who we always found sitting in a green rocking chair on his screened-in front porch, chain-smoking stinky cigars. Invariably, he was waited on attentively by his sweet, gentle black housemaid, Janie, whom he treated with contempt. She wasn’t the only object of his disdain. If a black man walked down the sidewalk in front of his house, Uncle John would shout: “Nigger, walk in the street!” And the pedestrian, scared to do otherwise, would obey.

Although my mother always made it clear that she despised Uncle John’s views, I never in my childhood had a serious conversation about racism with her or anyone. I didn’t need one. I observed. I reflected. And I stored up memories that remain vivid. I saw everything. I saw that the black people who worked for my relatives were uniformly uncomplaining and devoted. Walking home with them in the evening, I took in every detail of the tumbledown shacks they lived in. I noticed, too, that while some of them enjoyed their employers’ respect and affection, others, like Janie, were cruelly insulted and exploited. When I became aware of Martin Luther King, Jr., nobody had to explain to me what he was about. I understood.

In short, I witnessed racism. Real racism, plain as day. I might not have had a word for it, but I knew it was ugly. And wrong.

Back then, right and wrong, when it came to such subjects, were clear. But then things changed. Quickly. Not so many years later, attending college in New York – in a world that, owing to the radical disruptions of the Sixties generation, was already remarkably different from the one I’d grown up in – I encountered ideas that baffled and appalled me. For example, the claim that all white people are, by definition, racist – but that, also by definition, no black people can be considered racist, because whites, as a group, are in the driver’s seat in the U.S. and blacks aren’t. Which meant that even whites who’d risked their lives fighting racial prejudice were racist, while Jesse Jackson – who’d called New York City “Hymietown” – was not. This twisted kind of “analysis,” I recognized, was as unjust as the white-on-black racism it was meant to supplant – for it, too, judged people not according to their virtues or vices but by the color of their skin.

I thought things were bad enough in the late 1970s, when I was in college. But after that, they only got worse. To my astonishment, shouting “racism” developed into an academic discipline. The black American cultural heritage, especially in literature and music, is remarkable, and if young black people were taught about it properly they might be inspired to make worthy contributions to it. But Black Studies (as I’ve written about elsewhere) is less about studying that heritage than about inculcating a sense of aggrieved victimhood. At the moment I happen to be reading a fascinating new biography of the great songwriter Duke Ellington. Who wrote it – one of the hundreds of people who teach Black Studies in American colleges? Nope. The author – who also wrote Pops, about Louis Armstrong – is Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal‘s (caucasian) drama critic. In these two books, Teachout does precisely what a discipline called Black Studies should be doing – but isn’t.

At the heart of Black Studies is a poisonous take on race that has spread throughout the academy – and, alas, infected most of American society. It has made possible absurd stories like that of Shannon Gibney, a black English comp teacher at a Minneapolis community college who, until recently, made a habit of telling her white students that they’re racists. Surprisingly, her students had the guts to complain and Gibney’s higher-ups had the nerve to tell her to cool it; unsurprisingly, Gibney saw this as racist. Meanwhile, at UCLA, black students of Val Rust, a white education professor, held a sit-in to protest his correction of their grammar, spelling, and punctuation – which, they said, created “a hostile and toxic environment for students of color.” Racists used to try to keep black people from being educated; now people who actually seek to educate black students – as opposed to reciting victimhood mantras – are tagged as racists.

In 2008, Americans chose a black president. One might have expected the practice of reflexively shouting “racism!” to subside. But no: recognizing the election as a threat to their enterprise, the “racism” racketeers only intensified their efforts – providing us with such memorable episodes as MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry’s declaration, last Sunday, that the word “Obamacare” is racist. The other side of this coin, of course, is that the very same folks who manage to discover white-on-black racism where it doesn’t exist (turning, for example, in the Trayvon Martin case, a Latino into a white man for sheer ideological purposes) decline to acknowledge the explicit black-on-white antagonism underlying, for example, the so-called “knockout game.” The ideological guidelines are clear: even where there is no sign of white racism, one must assert that it is ubiquitous; as for black antipathy for whites, one must, despite any and all evidence to the contrary, be prepared to affirm that it simply doesn’t exist.

Once upon a time, the word “racism” stood for a very real and utterly hateful phenomenon. Great Americans, black, white, and otherwise, struggled bravely to overcome it. To a remarkable extent, they succeeded. The major threat to racial harmony in America today is not white-on-black racism itself but the aggressive use of the word “racism” as a weapon by purportedly powerless people who, in fact, wield considerable cultural power and are out to disempower their ideological adversaries. The whole shabby business is a cynical abuse of American history, a heartless disservice to American society – and, not least, a cruel offense against everyone, like my Uncle John’s long-suffering Janie, who has ever been a victim of real racial prejudice. It deserves to be stamped out as much as racism itself.

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  • thunder2984

    The setbacks in race relations this president has dealt us are unconcionable.

    • Paul Austin Murphy

      There’s bucks and political power in anti-racism. It’s a thriving business. Where there’s money and power, there’s business. Anti-racism may be as profitable as selling heroin to the underclass or uranium to the Iranians.

  • Jason

    Mr. Bawer, you’ve hit the nail on the head. America (and Western society as a whole) has gone from having an endemic problem with racism, as it was in the 60s, to now simply reversing who’s receiving the racism. MLK’s dream is no closer now than it was when he gave his speech, and that saddens me, and it should sadden everyone who’s interested in genuine racial equality. To replace one form of hatred with another is unacceptable, yet that’s what has been done. Time to show the left that what they’re doing is racist, and what we on the right (for the most part) are doing is simply equal treatment.

  • Jason P

    Damn good article, Bruce. I’m a few years older than you and I too remember racism … in Queens where we both grew up. Appeals to fairness and patience was all it took to get our generation to shed their parents prejudice. And that largely happened by the time you were in college … or it would have.

    What kept “racism” alive is its cash value. Victimization has cash value. Anger has cash value. These were all excuses for affirmative action. When you reward cries of racism regardless of the merits, you get more racism and anger.

    Ironically affirmative action is the only real racism left today. And it has cash value … it increased as it is rewarded … i.e. with a Presidential election.

    • Sheik Yerbouti

      The pillar of the cash value is the value of moral high ground. By taking the position that “they never did nuffin” and were instead “made slaves by whites”, the discussion doesn’t need to move a inch further for the rest of history.

      As long as this simple message of victimization is so easy to grasp, and so readily taken as an absolute truth, ANY advantage blacks can claim over whites is seen as a positive success. A prime example is the simplicity and mindlessness of these Knockout assaults. They epitomize how blacks fee about whites, ANY whites.

      Naturally they have ben bamboozled by the simple message for so long they can’t possibly be taught to realize that what they are doing is also sheer racism, as THEY define it. Black Americans have been used, Obama is the crown jewel of that effort, an absolute imposter.

      But all of that is complicated and makes anyone’s brain hurt after a while. Anyone that is, who doesn’t happen to have a simple, 2-line mantra that enables them to feel better about themselves by shifting all blames and faults onto white people? It’s like attending the opposite of a confessional in order to be able to sleep at night.

      The truth is so frightening.

  • Omar

    Isn’t it interesting that the left characterizes people on a certain characteristic if it benefits their agenda. For example, the categorize our president as “black”, despite the fact that 1. he is a mixed-race president (he is half-black and half-white) and 2. even within his black African heritage, the president is not directly related to the original African diaspora that came to the Western Hemisphere during the age of European colonialism in that part of the world (Obama’s father is from Kenya, which is located in East Africa, while most black Americans are descended from people who came from West Africa. You can use this same argument to discredit the Kwanzaa “holiday”). But when a conservative who happens to be of a racial or ethnic minority is gaining prominence within his or her movement, the left smears them as a “coconut”, an “Oreo”, an “Uncle Tom”, and an “inauthentic”. The left’s behavior towards Herman Command other conservative minorities is reprehensible, yet the left gets away with this type of inappropriate behavior. The left’s double standards lives on.

    • carpe diem 36

      the left does not discriminate. they are ugly to everyone of us.

    • George Clark

      I don’t believe that he’s half white. I think that “birthers” are barking up the wrong tree. I think that they ought to be looking for Obama’s “real” mother, and at how much someone paid Ann Dunham to take the child at birth and raise it as her own. And who paid her, or blackmailed her, to do it.

      • laura r

        he looks like his mother. btw, she didnt raise him for most of the time, her parents did. anyway it doesnt matter, he is what he is.

  • Paul Austin Murphy

    This is the situation in the UK:

    The criticism of Pakistani council corruption = “racist”

    The criticism of Islam = “racist”

    The criticism of Muslims (as Muslims) = “racist”

    The criticism of mass immigration = “racist”

    The criticism of any aspect of a minority culture/behaviour = “racist”

    The criticism of Muslim and African countries = “racist”

    The criticism of the prophet Muhammad = “racist”

    The criticism of Muslim sexual grooming = “racist”

    The criticism of school visits to mosques/interfaith events = “racist”

    The criticism of – or jokes about – black football players = “racist”

    The criticism of Muslim drug-pushers = “racist”

    The criticism of Roma criminality = “racist”

    The criticism of Baroness Warsi = “racist”

    The criticism of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) = “racist”

    The criticism of ‘Mo’ Ansar = “racist”

    So where
    does all that leave the British people? It leaves us in a dreadful state. A state in which any criticism of Islam, Muslims, mass immigration, Pakistani council corruption, etc. cannot even made made – let alone acted upon. A state in which the British people have been effectively silenced on some of the most important and destructive issues of our day.

    And yet the Left thinks that this large-scale criminalising of free speech –
    this Gulag without walls or bars – will somehow stop or end racism. It will make it worse!

    In fact there is a substantial part of the Left that already knows this. They know that the silencing of the British people, etc. will help destabilise society. In a destabilised society it will be easier, they think, to create a revolutionary
    situation out of which, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a new Leftist/progressive state and society can be created. That is, from chaos and inter-communal conflict a “better society” will somehow be formed.

    Silencing the (non-Leftist) British people is a means to further radical political and social change. And fanatical and inquisitorial anti-racism is but one tool in that revolution.

    Both racism and anti-racism are the absolute prerequisites which many
    Leftists/progressives require in order to bring about that “more equal”
    and more “anti-racist” (or non-racist) society. Fighting racism is one
    to help them bring about a Leftist state and a collectivist society in
    which the punishments for “racism”, “Islamophobia” and “fascism” will be
    even more severe than they are now (i.e., the Gulag).

    Anti-racism, like racism itself, is another tool in the endless movement of
    radical/progressive political change which has been ongoing since the

    • SwitchedOnSavage

      i share your frustration, i see a very bleak future for whites. The islamisation of the UK is a disgrace. Cameron the EU Blair ….. the loss of London as a white city.Import the third world and you become……

    • laura r

      robin, start peeling- youre are demoralizing. put your $ where your mouth is. btw, i am racist on almost all of the above accounts. guess they will come & get me. i dont know what card to play to escape. things are changing so much, that by the time they come for me, im not even sure what race i will be. you know, its all about “words”. the new far left is so confusing, that they get you from all ends. robin, i really hope you are not jewish, they dont need another nail on the coffin.

  • Jamie E

    I just love how Yankees from the north love to lecture and condemn Southerners. Like Americans lecturing South Africans about race relations, they have no real experience with the subject because they don’t live with it every day of their lives.

    Oh but the Yanks love dredging up horror stories from the past while ignoring the very real horror stories going on now where the victims aren’t an “oppressed” minority.

    One of my best friends is a Yankee with whom I went to college. He does the same thing. I just nod and play along.

    • K Eisenberg

      Same here. I grew up in the south. By then, the public schools had already been thoroughly integrated and the “knockout” game was in full force at school, on school busses, and in our integrated neighborhoods.

      I saw first hand who the victims of racism were. But, I guess I should be understanding since I am repeatedly told my great grandfather was a racist.

      To put it mildly, my experience with the south is just a little different than Mr. Bawer’s.

      • laura r

        gee, im told my ancestors were slave traders. (except they didnt get here untill around 1900). still anti semites insist the jews started the slave trade. true? i doute that, since i dont think jews even came to the US untill like the 1850s. those families sold pot&pans & fabrics, some found oil. never the less- even if it were true, no guilt here. (this is what i get for reading david duke).

  • Ken

    If you want to see racism look at most African Americans.

    • Omar

      I wouldn’t say that. However, a major reason why many black Americans may feel that way is because the left has poisoned their minds with lies and propaganda about American society. The left has been doing this since the 1960s when, towards the end of that decade, the New Left movement gradually took over the Democratic Party and steered it towards the left. Remember that the Democrats have controlled the large urban areas for a long time and have ruined those places with their so-called “social justice” (which, by the way, is code for Communism) policies. Many of the left’s victims are the poor and minorities, yet many conservatives don’t call them out on that. It is time for conservatives to step up and save the American people and our society from the left.

    • Dallas25305

      I think they just see themselves as Africans.

  • Mark McDonald

    I pulled the numbers for 2012, 2011, and 2010 hate crimes. It appears that there is a very small increase for Anti-Catholic and Anti-Atheism/Agnosticism/etc.

    However, I also looked at the numbers for race and found that there is a large increase in anti-white crime in 2012 and I am sure that 2013 will show the same thing.

    There is a small increase in Anti-American Indian/Alaskan Native hate crimes

    • O’Paque

      We must also keep in mind that most anti-white crimes are never classified as such. A very blatant example of that was the series of “beat whitey night” assaults by black racist thugs at the Iowa State Fair three years ago.

      A black politician immediately involved himself, with the end result that the racist attacks were deemed by the establishment to be not racially motivated at all. Even more telling, the police officer who stood by his reported witness statements that the blacks had been shouting “beat whitey night” was punished for not retracting his report.

      That’s the sick country that we live in.

      • laura r

        why not get rid of the term hate crime? just prosecute for the crime. (assault, murder, etc). see? that was easy!

        • O’Paque

          What you say would be ideal, but the sleazy libs and the media-controlled masses won’t let that happen.

  • SwitchedOnSavage

    The biggest mistake the USA ever made was not repatriating ALL negroes after abolishing slavery.

  • Dallas25305

    The promoters of black power racism Sharpton, Jackson, the congressional black caucus, Holder and Obama are applauding this racist knock out game their hood rats are playing. Unfortunately the feminization of the White western male has destroyed their ability to defend themselves. In the old days they would have joined in groups and delivered payback.

  • carpe diem 36

    i do not see a parallel between black studies and Jewish studies. where these days black studies emphasize the discrimination and suffering of the blacks, and not the history and the arts, jews, who suffered, and still do, real murderous event of discrimination with a much longer history than the black one, emphasize the principals of Jewish knowledge, philosophy, history and Jewish thought. it is the fault of those who teach black history that they do not emphasize the black achievement in the arts, literature, dance and poetry.

    • tagalog

      Blacks still suffer from murderous discrimination. The trouble is, most of that murderousness is perpetrated by other blacks.