Saturday, October 01, 2005

Bennett's Race Problem, and Mine

Like Bill Bennett, I probably should just keep my mouth shut.

I confess, I've completely lost track of what "racist" means in contemporary American political discourse. I know what I think it means, but evidently I'm one of the people who are disqualified from knowing anything about it because I am a racist.

That is, I get called a racist at least once a week by people who don't know a thing about me, because I ask certain questions or make certain statements (like Bennett's, the truth of them is never questioned) or simply because I voted for candidate X. In spite of what Justin would like to believe, race is off-limits in politics if you voted for candidate X. Which, by the way, is why Republicans have a bee in their collective bonnet about Bob Byrd's long-ago Klan membership: Candidate X is never from Byrd's party. There's a double standard, as there is in public speech with certain words having to do with race, gender, and sexuality. Some Americans are allowed to use them without consequences, some aren't.

Let's face it; the social aspect of race is a shifting quagmire. It provides endless fodder for Spike Lee movies. I've recently been reading a kerfluffle over some right-leaning blogger's use of the word "articulate" to describe a black leader (I now forget which one). Left-leaning black blogger Oliver Willis jumped all over him for it, because it suggests most blacks aren't (he might have added, it has a dubious historical heritage in American racial dialogue, and that it begs the question articulate to whom?). Then I'm reading a profile of the (black, female) president of Brown University, by Frances Fitzgerald, in the painfully politically correct "New Yorker," and there's that same word -- "articulate."

The people who slap that "racist" label around do so with utter conviction of moral authority. Often the label is slapped before the question is even out my mouth. Like the "chickenhawk" meme among anti-war folks, it's not meant to advance an argument or answer one, it's meant to shut you up at once, de-legitimize you as a political person. Those of you who are not in this situation, those of you who work assiduously and carefully to avoid drawing the attention of the people who wield the "racist" stamp, might not appreciate how that word, which seems such a crushing indictment, loses its sting with too frequent exposure.

I'm a racist? Yeah, I'm a racist, fine, whatever.

The thing is I am aware of being far more cognizant of race than I ever have been in my life. I've had the usual suburban white guy string of black friends and co-workers back through junior high school (I once played back-up guitar in a country band with a dynamite black woman lead singer -- whip-smart, funny, and very "articulate"). But for the past 15 years I've lived in a very edgy, racially mixed urban neighborhood, which is forever on the brink of falling into complete chaos. I've learned to be very pro-active with trouble in my block, and when trouble comes to my block it always has the same look, the same profile: young, black, male. I wish that weren't so. But the statistics override my wishes after 15 years. And I now feel myself, internally, reacting differently to a couple of young black guys moving into the apartment across the street than a couple of Asian college girls. I notice things differently, based on race. That is one of my definitions of racism: the failure to ignore race.

None of that is why I get called a racist. Never. Not once. Instead, I get slammed as a racist if I write about how the Civil Rights Movement took America so far toward equality, but we've been stalled at that point for thirty years now, and some decent people are beginning to wonder if perhaps the social dysfunction of the underclass is as much the obstacle as is white racism. Or because I think the Southern states were constitutionally justified in seceding from the American federal union in 1860. Or because, as a historian, I notice certain statistics that indicate the nutritional intake and life expectancy of slaves in New Orleans the 1850s was better than that of free blacks in New York in the same period.

As if learning that justified slavery. As if writing that meant I wish slavery would return. Never mind. Those who hold the label stamp must have their own way of knowing at once. And the word "racist" has been through some radical deconstruction that I fail to understand. Bob Byrd isn't a racist, though he was a Klan leader. I am a racist, though I've championed black history in the community where I was born and raised and written articles that brought attention to certain racial wrongs that might never otherwise have come to light. Fine, whatever.

So I don't care a damn about Bill Bennett either way, but I look at what he said. It just doesn't make my hair stand on end the way it does some people.

Either he's a moron who agrees with a proposition in one breath and disagrees with it in the next, or he disagreed with the proposition, and to further discredit it he offered a botched example of the proposition taken to an extreme (a logical tactic called reductio ad absurdum). The latter seems to me to be the sensible way to read the transcript.

It would have been clearly so if he then had said, "That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do." Oh, actually, he did say that.

He didn't say this ought to be done. He didn't advocate it. I don't think he thinks there ought to have been an abortion genocide. If he had said it laughingly, or said "and that would be a great idea," I'd call that racism. Nor was he wrong, as far as I know, about the statistical relationship between race and spending time in the criminal justice system.

So we're left with a curiously inept comment, by a man who has been in politics long enough to know what he ought not to say, true or not. A hurtful comment, no doubt, to some. Perhaps a comment that suggests a fixation with race above other issues. When Bennett defended himself with “It would have worked for, you know, single-parent moms; it would have worked for male babies, black babies,” the follow-up question would be, "so why choose that one example?"

And then, "are they more criminal because they're black, or because so many of them are born into a dysfunctional underclass?" And then, "why is that underclass in this country so overwhelmingly black?" And I think I know his answer to that: it's right up his alley: single-parent households, absent fathers, a legacy of counter-productive government social programs, failing public schools, etc.

Interestingly, that does circle back into a pro-abortion rights argument, which naturally would appal Bennett, an ardent anti-abortion type. I've seen abortion supporters make the "unwanted children become a burden to society" argument. It goes right back to Margaret Sanger herself.

It was a ghoulish thing to say. It makes me squirm just to read it. But that doesn't make it racist. It reminds me of Bernie Shaw's jaw-dropper question to Mike Dukakis during the 1988 presidential debates: how would you feel about the death penalty if someone raped your wife, Kitty? What kind of man thinks of that kind of question? But we learned a lot about the Duke from his answer.

So, go on and stamp me with the racist label one more time. If you can find an un-stamped square inch of me to take the ink.