Race, Racism and Bigotry

August 5, 2010

Seven and a half years ago, at a retreat for a gathering of social justice fellows in Northern California, a lengthy discussion of -isms occurred. The premise was the fact that every human being has prejudices, biases, can come off as a bigot.

At one point, I made the point that there’s a difference between bigotry and racism. The average bigoted person usually doesn’t have the ability to slander, libel or otherwise act on their bigotry in a way that discriminates against the person or a whole class of people who are the object of this individual’s bigotry. Afterward, a fellow insisted that all bigotry rose to the level of an -ism of some sort, no matter how little the power or influence the person harboring this bigotry possessed.

In recent weeks, between the New Black Panther Party, FOX News, Ben Jealous and the NAACP, Shirley Sherrod, the USDA, the White House, the workplace shooting in Hartford, Connecticut, the radioactive issues around race and racism have reared their ugly heads. For a society forty-five years removed from the end of Jim Crow — and 146 years removed from the end of slavery — we’re still much in need of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission on race. But in order to have a real conversation on race, we need to understand that there are differences between race, racism and bigotry, that these words aren’t interchangeable.

Take the term race. As defined by so many other scholars over the past 110 years — it’s a social construction based on skin and hair-deep differences between groups of people from various parts of the world.  Not to mention the legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and slavery in the Western Hemisphere. Saying that there are differences based on race between the incomes of Blacks, Whites, and Latinos, for instance, is merely a statement of fact, and not an implication that any individual or group is practicing racism. Nor does race make sense outside of cultural distinctions. Tens of millions of us are living proof that there’s only one human race, genetically speaking, that is.

The word racism involves much more than mere racial distinctions and history. It involves the embracing

in words and deeds ideas and systems that either deliberately or inadvertently discriminate against other groups based on their race. It’s an expression of bigotry, but not just simply to acknowledge or enlighten oneself or others. Rush Limbaugh’s spit-flying session on President Obama in the weeks before the ’08 Election — “It was all about RACE! It was all about RACE!” — is a good example of this. Limbaugh was arguing that Obama was winning the election because of racism. Specifically, reverse racism among African Americans and White guilt over racism among independents and progressives. Limbaugh all but kissed his microphone while hollering out of a rage that can only be described as racism.

Anyone can express racism or be a racist. But where should we draw the line between bigotry and racism? I’ll use my mother as an example. She’s complained for thirty years how “all the jobs been taken by West Indians and Spanish people” in Mount Vernon and other parts of Westchester County. Well, working-class jobs, anyway. There’s no doubt that this is an expression of bigotry. But does this mean that my mother’s a racist? Hardly. For whatever it’s worth, my mother has worked with, gone to church with, and broken bread with folks regardless of their race or ethnicity, and not begrudgingly. Even with the authority to hire and fire thirty years ago, my mother worked to ensure that all under her supervision weren’t discriminated against.

But while all of us have a smidgen of bigotry in our hearts and minds as occasionally expressed from our mouths, many of us aren’t racists or practicing racism. But a racist is without a doubt a bigot. So experience, intent, position in society, and race (not racism, not bigotry) are all involved in making someone’s words and deeds examples of racism, and that person a racist.

These are subjective definitions, and I could be challenged and wrong. However, they’re based on twenty years of work as a writer, scholar, historian, professor, and forty years living in post-Civil Rights America. We need to start somewhere to have a real and serious discussion of race. Maybe this is it.


An Honest & Open Conversation on Race?

July 26, 2010

"The Chase" Screenshot from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Source: Donald Earl Collins

A few days ago, in the midst of the NAACP-Tea Party-FOX News-Shirley Sherrod-USDA-White House-Obama Administration scandals, one of my Facebook friends asked the question, “Can’t we ever have an open and honest conversation about race?” I didn’t give her a direct reply, mostly because I spent the better part of a decade attempting to answer that question through my first book Fear of a “Black” America.

But I also didn’t feel like being bothered. Though I remain hopeful, my level of optimism is nowhere near where it was in ’94, when I started work on the doctoral thesis that turned into my first book six years ago. Still, it’s an important question, to which the answer’s generally “No!,” mostly because that level of honesty is hard to come by in a nation like ours, so full of itself, so rich and imperialistic, “smiling, crying insularity,” as U2 would say.

About thirteen years ago, former President Bill Clinton attempted to open up an open and honest and

Staff of President Clinton's Initiative on Race, June 1997.

bipartisan discussion of race. President Clinton’s Initiative on Race, which started with widespread media coverage of the President’s speech at the University of California, San Diego commencement on June 14, 1997, ended with a report buried in Monicagate obscurity on September 18, 1998. President Clinton stated that the Initiative on Race was about making out “of our many different strands one America — a nation at peace with itself bound together by shared values and aspirations and opportunities and real respect for our differences.”

The seven-member Advisory Board included the late trailblazing Black historian John Hope Franklin, former New Jersey governor Thomas Kean, former Mississippi governor William Winter, former CEO of Nissan Motor U.S.A. Robert Thomas, lawyer Angela Oh, Linda Chavez-Thompson, and Bronx, New York minister Suzan Johnson Cook. Three White men, one African American man, one African American woman, one Hispanic woman, and one Asian American woman, all born between 1915 and 1957, made up the Advisory Board that would give America the blueprint for beginning a sincere dialogue on race.

To say the least, the Advisory Board was not entirely representative of late-twentieth-century America. Despite each individual member’s prior accomplishments, there were a host of other scholars, ministers, CEOs, lawyers, union organizers, and former governors who should’ve been considered for this task. Beyond that, the Advisory Board’s lack of ideological (six liberals and one moderate) and age balance (the youngest person on the board was 41 in 1997) would make anyone wonder if they possessed broad enough perspectives to address race issues in 1968, much less during their 1997-98 tour on race.

The late John Hope Franklin, circa 2006.

The Advisory Board on Race – led by John Hope Franklin – traveled the nation in search of consensus but instead found controversy throughout their fifteen-month tenure. For example, Franklin refused to invite anti-affirmative action advocate Ward Connerly to an Advisory Board meeting regarding racial diversity on college campuses on November 20, 1997, which violated the spirit of the President’s Initiative. Franklin stated that Connerly had “nothing to contribute” to the discussion on cultural differences. Connerly, as many of you already know, was a University of California regent who campaigned in 1996 for the passage of Proposition 209, which led directly to the repeal of all affirmative action programs for the state of California.

Regardless of what people like me think of Connerly, Clinton had created this mandate “so that we can better understand the causes of racial tension” — not to increase them. Not only

Ward Connerly, circa 2006.

that. It proved that the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom Generation couldn’t find a way to do what South Africa, Chile, Spain, Australia, Liberia and so many other countries have been able to do in the past half-century. Have an open and honest dialogue — a Truth and Reconciliation Commission — on issues like apartheid, political repression, ethnic cleansing, genocide and civil war. Maybe it rests with our generations — Gens X and Y — to make this so, to “make it plain,” as Malcolm X would’ve said.

The Advisory Board asserted in its final report that in crisscrossing the country, they had “engage[d] the American people in a focused examination of how racial differences have affected our society and how to meet the racial challenges that face us.” That was a bald-faced lie, and not just obfuscation. The Commission instead reflected in subtle ways the previous three decades of racial divisive and political exploitation thereof. Not much has changed since ’97 and ’98, and as long as Whites feel they have something to lose — and Blacks merely four centuries of things to get off their chests — I’m afraid not much will either.


On Abusers and White Anxieties

July 22, 2010

I realized it early on in the five years between my ex-stepfather’s beating up of my mother, my summer of abuse, and my departing for the greener pastures of the University of Pittsburgh in August ’87. It wasn’t just about being whipped with a belt so that it would leave welts. Nor was it merely about the kicks, the punches, the constant threats to take me “out of this world.”

No, my ex-stepfather wanted something more, even more than me calling him “Dad.” It was about shutting me up, about keeping me from ever speaking the truth of our calamity and of his monstrosity. It was all about making sure that I never resisted, protested, questioned or stood up to him. Fortunately for me, I did. I have the scars and chipped tooth to prove it, too.

For people like Atlantic Monthly editor and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, neo-con and true- believer Roger Ailes of FOX News, as well as entities like FOX (or Faux, or Fix) News and the so-called Tea Party, it isn’t much different. They claim reverse racism by Blacks against Whites at every turn. Come up with cockamamie versions of the truth with regard to anything involving race. And refuse to believe that any person of color experiences any instance of racial discrimination, a racial epithet or any bigotry whatsoever. It doesn’t matter if there’s an audio recording, a video stream or an affidavit, racism died with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, at least according to these folk.

The embodiment of all that ails America today, for FOX News and Tea Baggers alike, is President Barack Obama. His very name, his father’s nationality, his birth certificate, all have come under more scrutiny than the stain on Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress. Somehow, POTUS 44 is a socialist, communist, biracial man who sometimes hates Whites, too thoughtful, not commanding enough, scared of the military, too hasty in his decision-making, a Hitler-mustache-wearing-Nazi, a foreigner who has usurped the presidency, among the myriad of inconsistent insults these folks have hurled, and with pride.

That’s what has made the news around the so-called New Black Panther Party on FOX News over the past week disturbing. That’s what has made the news about the response to the NAACP’s tired but accurate claim that the Tea Party supports bigoted rhetoric so unnerving. This is what’s made the news the past three days about Shirley Sherrod being fired and then re-offered a job at the USDA over something that wasn’t racial so ludicrous. All of these are efforts by racial conservatives — people who refuse to accept a multicultural society in which all things White aren’t necessarily the things that determine who is and isn’t a winner — to put White progressives, people of color and other deviants in their place.

All in the Family Screen Shot

Douthat, Ailes, FOX News and the Tea Party all want to turn back the clock, to somewhere between 1945 and 1954. To a time when few cared what anyone who wasn’t a middle-class WASP male thought about anything. To a place in which “girls were girls and men were men,” as Archie Bunker would’ve sang on All in the Family. To a world in which race, bigotry and racism didn’t exist at all, or at least, could easily be swept under the rug, and the N-word an acceptable part of the American lexicon.

That’s what they want. Let’s make sure that they never get it.


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