Thirteen Ways of Looking at Race in America

Some random observations.

LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER Los Angeles Premiere, Hosted By TWC, Budweiser And FIJI Water, Purity Vodka And Stack Wines - Red Carpet1. In the year 2013, here's what goes by the name of racism in the United States. Earlier this month, at UCLA, Professor Emeritus Val Rust was subjected to a classroom sit-in by black graduate students who charged that his correction of their grammar and spelling mistakes on dissertation proposals was a case of racially motivated “micro-aggression.” Rust made it clear that he wasn't motivated by racism but by a belief that correcting such errors was part of his job. But what did that matter, alongside his students' feelings?

2. These accusations came a few months after Oprah Winfrey's revelation, in an Entertainment Tonight interview, of her own recent brush with the evils of racism. When she entered a luxury boutique in Zürich and asked to look at a $38,000 handbag that was hanging on the wall, the clerk offered to show her a cheaper version. The Swiss media eventually tracked down the clerk, whose own side of the story made a convincing case that race had had nothing to do with it. But what did that matter, alongside Oprah's feelings?

3. More recently, Oprah claimed that President Obama has been treated with “disrespect” in “many cases because he's African American.” She added that “it's the kind of thing no one ever says, but everybody's thinking it.” The truth, of course, is pretty much the exact opposite: ever since his appearance on the national scene, Obama has enjoyed an extraordinary level of unearned respect in many quarters precisely “because he's African American,” and has also benefited enormously from the fact that (until recently, anyway) anyone who has dared to make any criticism of him, however well-founded, has done so knowing that a large segment of the U.S. commentariat will immediately call the critic a racist.

4. For a long time, Oprah was a classic example of a “bargainer” – Shelby Steele's term for black Americans who “make the subliminal promise to whites not to shame them with America's history of racism, on the condition that they will not hold the bargainer's race against him,” and who are consequently given an opportunity to succeed on their merits. (Think Louis Armstrong or Bill Cosby.) Now Oprah (who also said the other day that America would not move beyond racism until a generation of elderly white people died off) sounds more like a “challenger” – a black American, like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who tries to get ahead by manipulating white guilt.

5. During his first campaign, and throughout most of his presidency, Obama himself seemed to many to be a “bargainer” (otherwise he'd never have won in the first place), but his intrusive, inappropiate remarks about the Trayvon Martin case, which chimed in perfectly with those made by Sharpton, Jackson, and company, were very much those of a “challenger.” Like Oprah, he turned the truth about the race situation in America today upside-down: to listen to him on Trayvon Martin, you'd think that America was awash in white-on-black street crime.

6. Which brings us to the “knockout game.” While graduate students at UCLA were whining that their prof's spelling corrections were racially motivated micro-aggressions, black youth gangs around the U.S. were committing what I suppose may be described as racially motivated macro-aggressions: unprovoked street attacks on non-blacks, the goal of which is to render the victim unconscious with a single violent blow. The mainstream media dutifully, indeed eagerly, reported Oprah's handbag story, and her charge that Obama is a victim of racism; but many of them (as David Paulin pointed out here the other day) have delicately ignored the “knockout game,” or at least ignored its racial element. When the New York Times finally decided to pay attention to it, the result was a piece, published last Friday, which sought to raise doubts as to whether the “knockout game” is a real phenomenon or a new “urban myth.”

7. For years, Bill Cosby has been giving no-nonsense talks in black communities about the importance of self-respect and self-improvement. The popularity of his talks suggests that, unlike some of our leading many journalists, professors, and entertainers, many ordinary American blacks aren't interested in playing the racism game, but, rather, prefer frank talk about the lethal social pathologies that threaten all of us – and that have been permitted to thrive by people who are scared to speak their minds for fear of being branded racists.

8. America, then, needs frank talk on race. So what did the New York Times run last Wednesday? Why, an entire feature, headlined “Racism in the Age of Obama,” in which several lawyers and professors provided answers to the query: “Are white Americans more racist than they were when Obama was elected?” To be sure, what the Times actually asked was this: “Have racial tensions in the U.S. changed since Obama was elected? For better or for worse?” But when the Times speaks of “racial tensions,” everybody knows the real topic is white racism. And so what we got was yet begun useless round of PC hogwash. The cheeriest replies were by a poli sci prof who said that “racial tensions have changed modestly since Obama's election, mostly for the better,” and a communications prof who said white racism “declined during the 2008 and 2012 campaigns.” Another communications prof argued that Obama's election hadn't affected America's “racial tensions,” while a guy from the Southern Poverty Law Center asserted that the election had begun “a period of backlash,” making race relations “worse than...five years ago.” A civil-rights lawyer went even further, maintaining that “racial tensions...are more prevalent than ever.” (Yes, “ever.”) And a law prof claimed that whites now use the statement “I voted for Obama” as “a free pass to discriminate.”

9. Finally, there was another law prof, Paul Butler, who pronounced that “[t]he problem isn’t 'race relations'; it is white supremacy – the ideology that white people are superior to people of color, and that whiteness is integral to the United States’s identity.” Butler, who is the author of a 2009 book entitled Let's Get Free: A Hip-Hop Theory of Justice, recalled that on the morning after Election Day 2004, a black barista at his favorite coffee shop snapped at a black beggar: “Barack Obama is president. Get a job!” I kind of liked that. But Butler didn't. For him, apparently, every black person who isn't doing well is, quite simply, a victim of racial injustice – period, case closed. Obama's big offense, Butler insisted, is that he hasn't done more mau-mauing of the sort he engaged in during the Trayvon Martin case.

10. In short, the Times feature had nothing insightful to offer about race in America in 2013. But then, the point of such a journalistic exercise isn't to provide insight. It's a gesture, a genuflection toward the altar of political correctness, a way of reminding everybody that the people at the Times may be a lot of things, but, hey, they're not racists. Still, to see such a tired, predictable feature in the Times at this late date is faintly embarrassing – a sign of just how out of touch the Gray Lady is with a society in which, I think, more and more people of every skin color are tired of hearing the word racism thrown around in this pointless way. Once upon a time it meant something, and packed a punch; but it's been used so often to silence legitimate truth-telling, and employed so frequently as a wallet-opening tool by shakedown artists like Jackson and Sharpton, that it's lost all meaning.

11. Why not a Times series about this very subject – about, that is, the way in which the concept of racism has been systematically abused, exploited, degraded? Or how about a Times series asking this question: has Obama's success inspired more young black people to work hard and aim high? If not, why not? If you're a black American and show the slightest interest in getting ahead academically and professionally, there are innumerable programs and agencies and so forth that will be eager to help you out. Why aren't more young people taking advantage of this? And why are so many of those who are taking advantage of it so ready to level accusations of racism at the very people who are trying to help prepare them for life? Why not a Times series about all this? But no, the New York Times, it seems, cannot bear that much reality. Better to round up a half-dozen or so reliable lawyers and professors and get them to tread the same old safe ideological territory for the millionth time – echoing the same old tired rhetoric about white racism – than to admit that the academy's defining down of racism to the microscopic level has radically magnified the difficulty of honestly addressing the toxic elements of today's black subculture.

12. If millions of white Americans voted for Obama for president despite his meager record, and re-elected him despite his lousy first-term performance, I suspect it was at least partly because they hoped his presence in the White House might somehow help get us past all this nonsense. Instead the nonsense just got ramped up higher. Oprah, one of the richest and most beloved women on the planet, used to seem the very personification of Martin Luther King's dream of a colorblind America; when even she can't resist the temptation to cast herself as a victim of racism, with some anonymous store clerk playing the part of Simon Legree, it suggests that even the wildest success is not enough for her – that even she, in the end, covets the frisson of victimhood; that even she is vulnerable to that foul contagion.

13. It wasn't that long ago that black America was defined by hard-working, self-respecting people who justly prided themselves on having overcome virulent racism to attain, with much effort, a modest degree of affluence and self-sufficiency – and who, despite ample justification, refused to feel sorry for themselves. Today, in a world turned upside down, some of those people's grandchildren, although having reached levels of success that their forebears could never have imagined, are perversely eager to grasp at even the most minuscule micro-opportunity to claim the label of victim. How sad, how absurd – and how tragic for all of us.

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