Tuesday, March 12, 2013

More liberal racism

This time we're talking about liberals discovering racism in their own midst and being troubled by it. Tellingly, the good liberal in question, Ta-Nehisi Coates is describes this as racism of the good people. And we could easily stop reading right there for anyone who assumes that the people who share his political culture are all good people clearly has blind spots that detract from what he has to say about racism or any other prejudice.

But to discount him entirely would be just to repeat the mistake ourselves. All of us are deeply flawed.

What makes it interesting, though, is that Coates is himself very much inclined to blanket judgements about those who have been "flawed" by racism.  I suspect that is because he, like many liberals and progressives, particularly young liberals and progressives, has come to believe in a sort of founding mythology based on racism. In this founding mythology, racism is the original sin of America and that for America to truly become America, it must overcome "racism". I put this second mention of "racism" in scare quotes because it assumes, because it has to assume, a mythological dimension to play the role it has to play. (The "fight against sexism" is also part of the myth but to far lesser extent.)

That mythological racism is always at odds with the real thing. The mythological racism is a thing of the past preserved only by conservatives who need to be swept out of the way by "good" liberals. Until reality jolts you out of this mythology and you see that liberals are just as racist as anybody else.

The challenge is that everyone is racist—you me and Ta-Nehisi Coates—because we all tend to see race as a real category for organizing our thoughts. Try as we might, we simply cannot see skin colour the same way we see hair colour or eye colour. As a consequence we have to make adjustments. To take the example that got Coates going, if we are working in a deli and find ourselves looking at a black customer suspiciously, we have to ask ourselves what is really going on—is it my racist instincts that are making me feel this or do I have actual reasons to suspect shoplifting?

The converse, by the way, is also possible. When Natalie Cole had a hit with a reworking of her father's song "Unforgettable" in the early 1990s, I remember reading in Toronto's Globe and Mail a piece on Nat King Cole in which the writer, who clearly knew little about what she was talking about, simply assumed Cole as a far superior singer than Sinatra because Cole was black*. This is simple racism that might be summed up as "black people are so entertaining" but she failed to see it because she was convinced that she was one of the good people.

As the book of Leviticus says, the desire to be fair must cut both ways: "Show neither partiality to the weak nor deference to the mighty". The second we start seeing history as a battle between the forces for good and the ones who would preserve evil racism, putting ourselves on the side of the angels of course, we become bigots.

By the way, one of the most offensive aspects of this is the way it treats the historical contributions. I like Coates, which is why I read him, quote him, praise him and criticize him, but my generation and his have contributed only a slight amount more to the battle against racism than we did to the battle against polio. The real heavy lifting was done by others, black and  white, who came before us.

* Cole was a magnificent jazz singer. His delivery and enunciation are second to none at slower to medium tempos. (A fact that becomes painfully obvious when his far less talented daughter sings along to his recordings.) It's when he starts to swing faster tunes that he can't deliver the way Sinatra can. Likewise, while neither man had a huge range, Cole had, as he himself said, a pretty limited range for a professional singer. And many of the notes within his range sound forced. In the song "Unforgettable", to take an example that everyone has heard, there is a D natural that should be an easy reach for a baritone in the phrase "That's why darling its in-cred-ible" and you can hear him having to strain for it.

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