Reverse Racism, Affirmative Action and “Partisanship”
During the last week, an episode occurred that should help clarify some things I said about racism in part one of these “Observations on Racism.” That sad but revealing event was the noose found hanging in the garage of the only prominent black NASCAR driver, Bubba Wallace. It was a clear reminder (and therefore an implied threat) of lynching. Many thousands of blacks lost their lives this supremely ugly way. It is an indelible stain on our national history. It was still fairly common in the 1950s, but it is now 2020. Obviously, we have not solved the problem of systemic racism.
Towards the last part of my earlier post I mentioned the notion of so-called “reverse racism.” I noted that if I am subjected to a personal insult, based on racial prejudice by some racial minority, “I may be offended—maybe deeply. But that doesn’t at all mean that I have been subjected to the real experience of being racially discriminated against.” I should have clarified that I meant this statement in a systematic, structural, systemic, or historical sense. I noted that with a personal insult, “The person insulting me has no real power over me, and most of the real evils of racism come precisely from this imbalance of power.”
I also noted that “because I have never suffered through the history of racism, all the pain involved there doesn’t immediately surface in my soul. A personal act like that (an act revealing a personal prejudice) is offensive, but it doesn’t help sustain a whole culture of discrimination and oppression.”
Now if I found a noose hanging in my garage, I would be alarmed. It would mean someone had trespassed, entered my property and was making some kind of ominous threat. I would probably call the police etc., but, though it would be odd and disturbing, it would not evoke in me a history of violence that had killed many people in my community. And someone could also hang a Nazi swastika flag in my driveway. It would be highly offensive, but again, it would not affect me like it would a Jewish survivor of the holocaust. This, I think, makes my point about the difference between an incident of what we might call “personal prejudice” vs. an act which serves to maintain traditions of systemic racism. Because the former is an individual act, it has far less impact than one which symbolizes the history of violence between a group with enormous power over a group with much less power.
The only thing that can put an end to systemic racism of this kind is sustained political actions. It is certainly not an accident that Bubba Wallace isn’t merely black but had also been instrumental in the recent decision by NASCAR to ban the display of confederate flags.
A lot of people like to say that racism should not be a matter of partisan politics. In a sense, that is true. 70 years ago, it wasn’t. There were lots of racist Democrats and lots of non-racist Republicans. That started to radically change in the mid 60s, When the southern Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson threw his weight behind the Civils Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. He knew his party would suffer for this for generations. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
This gives us a clue to what partisanship really means. The hyper-partisanship we see today means that people of a political party put their party interests ahead of the good of the country. Johnson did exactly the opposite. The Republican party, then, made a quite different, hyper-partisan choice. They ignored the fact that getting rid of racism was the best thing for the country and adopted what Nixon called his “Southern Strategy.” In effect, he committed his party to upholding and maintaining racism. This was a crass political move made, not in the national interest, but solely in a bid to strengthen his party. That is hyper-partisanship. It set the Republican party on a straight line to become the party of racism. It has continued ever since.
By the end of the 70s, the Civil Rights movement appeared to have won. The war in Vietnam (to which MLK strongly objected partly because of the underlying racism which partly motivated it) had ended. Nixon had resigned. The pale figure of Gerald Ford presided until Carter won the 76 election. And yet, in 1980, under Reagan, the resurgence of the GOP began.
Given the “Southern Strategy” it is no accident that most of the obsessions of the GOP rapidly came to the fore. A long critique began challenging the whole concept of “PC” (politically correct) language. PC language had begun as an effort to purge highly offensive, often racially charged terms, from ordinary discourse. At the same time, the concept of “reverse racism” was expanded to launch an attack on “Affirmative Action.” Affirmative Action programs had been highly successful in correcting one of the most fundamental problems of racism—the way it tended to bar people of color from getting high quality educations at prestigious universities. With the ascendancy of GOP politics in the 1980s, all the gains the civil rights movement had made in correcting some of the structural elements of racism were being washed away by the steady pressure of systemic racism. In recent years, rulings made by an increasingly GOP appointed Supreme Court have said money equals free speech, that racism has disappeared and that the strictures of the Voting Rights Act should be lifted, and so on. At the same time, in the name of “states rights,” or deregulation and dozens of other little things (immigration laws, Muslim bans, etc.) the lives of minorities have become increasingly precarious. GOP governors and state houses in Southern states have increasingly resorted to blatant attempts at voter suppression by using the excuse of depriving ex-convicts of their constitutional rights, or to simply closing polling stations and causing unconscionable delays in voting. Meanwhile President Trump increasingly rails nonsense about the dangers of voting by mail—even though he has done so himself and millions of soldiers overseas vote that way all the time.
So, it is easy to say that rooting out racism should not be a partisan issue, but it is. As a party, the Democrats are squarely behind efforts to eliminate racism—an effort clearly in the national interest. The GOP wants to cling to racism as they try to mobilize their “base.”—a purely partisan calculation. If this country suffers from divisive partisanship, it is clearly not, when it come to racism, the fault of the Democrats. You need only compare the lame, anemic bill on policing introduced by the GOP Senate to the alternative introduced by House Democrats to see the difference between the parties.
Bubba Wallace took affirmative action in trying to get the ugly symbol of the confederate flag removed from a major national sport. In response, he was threatened with lynching. It is not hard to figure out who has the moral high ground. Trump loves to say that the covid-19 virus will “just go away.” In the same way, people hope that racism will do the same. It won’t. It will take real, sustained attention and effort to root it out. Racism does not just go away because it didn’t just happen. It was created. That will be the subject of part three of these “Observations on Racism.”