Here are four signposts on the map of American race relations in 2010. Not every name may be equally familiar to any given reader. Samir Shabazz is the Philadelphia New Black Panther Party operative who has been accused of voter intimidation and quoted on the need to kill "crackers." Shirley Sherrod is the Agriculture Department official who was sacked, as it now seems overhastily, for recounting a racist attitude toward a white farmer who has since credited her with saving his livelihood. Mark Williams is the Tea Party Express leader and blogger who compared the NAACP's support for Democrats and the welfare state with a longing to return to slavery, and in doing so may have provoked a schism in his movement. The last-named person, Mark Nadeau, was the mayor of the village of Cobleskill, New York, until he resigned earlier this week after he was recorded calling Martin Luther King Day a "n****r holiday" and translated Barack Obama's campaign slogans as "come get a n****r elected."
We have two allegedly racist whites and two allegedly racist blacks. Do they cancel each other out? Objectively speaking, the answer would seem to be no if only because Sherrod's case has been revealed to be more complex than it was portrayed by the conservative blogger who first publicized it. She was describing a racist impulse that she instantly regretted and promptly transcended, and as people across the ideological spectrum have learned this, from the White House to Fox News, apologies have been forthcoming for a rush to judgment precipitated by the still-unrepentant blogger. His attitude gets to the real issue of the moment. We understand that some black people hate white people, while some white people hate black people. Does hate counterbalance hate? Is all hate equal?
Some conservative Republicans insist on this point. Defensive to the point of hysteria following the NAACP's call upon Tea Partiers to repudiate racists within their movement, bloggers and columnists have argued over the past week that black-on-white racism is just as bad, at least, as white-on-black racism, while still denying that the latter strain has any prominence in teapartydom. In one sense, we have Republicans and fellow travelers practicing one of their standard tactics, which is to accuse critics of hypocrisy. How dare they criticize racism within the conservative movement (and some will say the criticism is a lie), the reactionaries cry, when some black people in the universe are hostile toward whites? Seen another way, the Republican attitude seems hypocritical in its own right, because they're using a form of the "moral equivalence" argument that they can't stand when someone applies it to, for instance, American foreign policy. Whenever someone suggests that the U.S. should be judged by the same standard as other nations for what it does in the world, and when that someone points out some specific act of the U.S. that resembles an abhorrent act of the Soviet Union or some other past or present enemy, Republican superpatriots get outraged. They ask inquisitorially whether you've dared to say that the United States of America, the greatest country there has ever been, is no different or no better than the totalitarian abomination of the moment. The substance of the argument is the fact that, despite the lapse alleged, the U.S. remains a constitutional democratic republic while the other country in question remains a squalid tyranny. In that spirit, it's fair to ask the critics of Samir Shabazz or Shirley Sherrod whether they mean to say that the existence of black bigots is equivalent to the whole history of white bigotry, so that no one has a right to bring up the latter topic anymore. The substance of this argument would be that the impact of white racism on American history is so extensive and so enduring that any attempt to portray black bigotry as somehow equivalent can only look like a desperate effort to change the subject. The Nadeau scandal, meanwhile, seems to disprove any argument that there are no racists on the right, or in the Republican party. Considering what it does prove, I'm surprised that the story hasn't gotten quite as much airplay as one might expect, from what I can tell, in the "liberal media" this week.
Actually, I can comprehend some of the frustration white reactionaries feel at this moment in history. In a democracy, black people are as accountable to everyone else for what they say and do as any other demographic group, but it does seem sometimes that they enjoy a historical exemption from criticism. The problem is that we still seem to be in the compensatory period of race relations, and it seems hard to determine objectively when it will or should end. Neither blacks or whites should appear to determine unilaterally when that time has come, and the aggrieved of either group are unlikely to grant anyone else the right to decide. The mutual impatience with lingering discrimination, from one perspective, and lingering reverse-discrimination, from the other, is only intensified by the presidency of Barack Obama, whose success is taken as proof by one group that the other has no more cause to complain about anything, while the most sensitive in the other group take some criticism of him as proof of persistent bigotry. The Obama administration has inevitably provoked a dispute over the etiquette of opposition. I suspect that much of the defensiveness in tea-party circles regarding the racism charge derives in part from a feeling that there should be no limitation on the vocabulary of dissent, as if not being allowed to call a black President n****r pushes us toward the slippery slope of further limitations on freedom of speech. Apart from incitement to violence, there hasn't really been off-limits language for criticizing a President before, apart maybe from an informal ban on calling Franklin Roosevelt a cripple. Americans are jealous of their freedom of speech, and most likely even the imagination that someone would tell them you can't call the President a certain name would make some Americans furious. I can imagine that there might be a spike in racist rhetoric during the Obama administration, if only because some people will feel that it'd prove that they're still free.
That's the problem with a free society; freedom is a matter of perception as well as law. We live in a country where people are free, yet many feel that they aren't. Those people probably think that I'm objectively mistaken in describing this as a free society. Petty things like the right to call people names may make a major, existential difference for some Americans. Racial attitudes in America are problematic enough, but focusing on them may only skim the surface of our national mood.