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Sunday, May 25, 2008

Blood & Roots, Blut & Boden: American Racism Rearing Its Ugly Head

Blood & Roots, Blut & Boden: American Racism Rearing Its Ugly Head
Image © Austin Cline
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Racism and nativism have long been important features of America's political landscape, but equally important is the degree to which everyone ignores this fact. You'd be lucky to encounter even a superficial engagement with racial issues or race in politics in the mainstream American media, nevermind something serious and substantive. This silence makes it easier for racism to fester, especially given the fact modern racists are smart enough to cloak their white supremacism in rhetoric that isn't immediately obvious if you don't think too hard about it.

Until recently, though, even most of that rhetoric tended to go unsaid except on the fringes and among those who had nothing to lose. However racist many whites in both the Democratic and Republican parties may have been, there was no need to openly express or promote that racism. Non-whites have been sufficiently oppressed that they have had few opportunities to exercise real power over racist whites. Now that Barack Obama has a credible chance of reaching the White House, all the unconscious and unspoken racism is starting to gush out of the mental sewers, some of it from unexpected sources.

The first of these may have been Michael Medved, a one-time movie critic for whom the phrase "don't quit your day job" seems to have been created. I don't think a single one of his political commentaries has been anything but asinine, filled with inaccuracies and fallacies, but his recent attempt to sound scientific with a column about allegedly American "genetics" reaches heretofore unplumbed depths of Medvedian stupidity. If anyone takes seriously his contention that there is an American DNA that empahsizes risk-taking, it's only because it speaks to their prejudices — their prejudice to want to be flattered without having to accomplish anything personally, their prejudice to want to imagine that others are inferior to them, or both.

More recently we saw Kathleen Parker's vile column about how whites may prefer John McCain over Barack Obama, not because of Obama's race, but because he isn't a "full-blooded American" like McCain is. Katheleen Parker admits that concerns about a politician being a "full-blooded American" is an "old coin," but she isn't knowledgeable enough or perhaps just isn't honest enough to tell readers about how it has appeared in American history before. That alone should be enough to signal that her piece was an attempt at racist propaganda, not an attempt to inform readers about anything important.

Parker doesn't talk about the race laws which decreed that even a single drop of "African blood" would render a person "black" for the purpose of racist laws. She doesn't talk about nativist and anti-immigrant sentiment which was directed against Catholics and Eastern Europeans. She doesn't talk about how rhetoric like this was once used against Jewish immigrants, and I question whether she has the moral imagination or moral sensibility to grasp the implications if people today complained that a Jewish candidate of Eastern European descent weren't "full-blooded" and lacked proper American "heritage." How sad is it that people today may be buying into the white supremacist attacks against Obama which were once directed against their immigrant ancestors?

The term "race" is almost never uttered in these and similar examples except to deny that race is the issue at all. At no point, however, is anyone able to demonstrate the existence of any plausible target but race or anything that is being defended except traditional white privilege and white supremacism. Parker insists that being "full-blooded" is somehow about patriotism, then insists that "It's about blood equity, heritage and commitment to hard-won American values. And roots." What does all that mean?

It means nothing, really — they are all just pleasant-sounding words which people can invest with whatever meaning they want. If you try hard enough, you can find some reason why the white candidate has "blood equity" and "heritage" while the black candidate doesn't; if you switched their skin color without changing their biographies, however, the racists would find equally plausible rationalizations going in the other direction. There are plenty of whites in America whose background is similar to Obama's — one native-born American parent and one from another country, for example — but there is no doubt that their skin color would protect them from charges that they somehow don't share in America's "heritage."

Of course, when they aren't trying to find rationalizations for their racism, even most whites will admit that American values aren't passed along by blood and that America's heritage isn't contained in DNA. Most would probably admit that if America has any sort of "heritage" to pass along, it has to do with the idea that immigrants can come to America and build a better life for themselves and their children, no matter what their religion, creed, race, or ethnicity.

Supposedly, anyone born here can grow up and become president — but when faced with the real possibility of a non-white trying to take advantage of such promises, too many whites quickly retreat into traditional nativist, racist, and white supremacist rhetoric. The promises and ideals of America were, in their minds, only ever really intended for whites. Other races are supposed to know their place and accept white domination.

Masking their racism with rhetoric about blood, genetics, roots, or heritage can do nothing to hide the origin of these ideas or their equally hateful outcome. Or does it? The biggest question I have is, who sincerely believes what people like Medved write? I'm sure there are plenty of readers who are consciously aware of and unapologetic about their racism, even if they know better than to voice it aloud except in the presence of like-minded racists. Thus while they sincerely believe the underlying white supremacist ideology, they recognize the winks and nods in the rhetoric for what they are and are willing to look past them.

I fear, though, that there are also readers who aren't conscious of their racism, but whose unconscious racism is reinforced by such articles. Rather than look past the rhetoric, such people would be lulled by the rhetoric and, through agreement with the neutral-sounding arguments, will be led to even stronger racism over time. These would be the people who also sincerely believe the claims that public racism is largely gone in America, and even worse, that attempts to talk about racism or address racist issues only serves to make matters worse. This creates an effective barrier against even talking about the issue, never mind considering the possibility that they themselves harbor racist attitudes.

Unconscious prejudices are among the most difficult to root out. If people sincerely don't realize that they are prejudiced or that their prejudices are producing supremacist attitudes, it's impossible to create useful arguments to get them to change their mind. The first priority is to get them to recognize their prejudices and the ways in which they create immoral attitudes, but since no one wants to think of themselves as bad, this is a difficult task under the best of circumstances. Even the suggestion that they might be unconsciously racist is sure to make them defensive, and they'll throw up all sorts of barriers against anything others might say. This is human nature and entirely understandable, but we need to find ways to get past it because unconscious prejudices are far too common.

Note: I don't know if I will be able to post the next two Sundays. It's possible, but right now I think it's unlikely and I wanted to make you aware of that in advance.

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We'll try dumping haloscan and see how it works.