27 August 2013

Dream on

August 28 is the fiftieth anniversary of the National March for Jobs and Freedom, better known to history as the "March on Washington," its singular status cinched by Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. This the first of the big five-ohs of the year, the other shoe dropping in November when John F. Kennedy's assassination will certainly be commemorated in morbidly epic style. Today's anniversary has been anticipated with nearly a month of soul-searching in the news media, the question being to what extent King's dream has been realized. This summer may be the wrong time to ask the question. As much as Republicans usually like to claim Mission Accomplished on this one, many of them, I suspect, can't really see it that way this year. For that, they blame black America and its enablers in the Democratic party and the "liberal media." The resentment felt by many whites over the trial of George Zimmerman should not be underestimated. While many blacks see the death of Trayvon Martin as proof that black and white lives aren't valued equally, many whites see Zimmerman's trial the same way -- but they see the whole affair, Zimmerman's acquittal notwithstanding, as proof that black people don't value lives equally. The insinuation of all the charges of selective outrage aimed at black leaders and media figures is that, to them, black lives are worth more than white lives. That's what Republican opinionators mean when they ask why those leaders and media figures, or their political representatives, don't get equally outraged when blacks kill whites, or even when blacks kill blacks. Never mind that these complainers simply ignore all the "Stop the Violence" activity across the country protesting black-on-black crime. What really bugs them is the idea that, for blacks (or liberals, or the "left" in general), a white killing a black is a worse crime than any other color of killing. The outrage expressed at this notion betrays an enduring failure to communicate with black America, for whom it still looks like a struggle to have the killing of a black by a white recognized as a crime at all. As ever, one side's demand for equality is seen by the other side as a demand for privilege. While some people's utopia of multiculturalism is a place where all kinds of "difference" are respected, it can be argued that so long as this crucial difference of perception persists, King's dream goes unrealized.

Republicans were in Mission Accomplished (or Dream Fulfilled) mode earlier in the year when the Supreme Court struck down provisions of the Voting Rights Act, but the predictable backlash from blacks and liberals has contributed to the resentment felt on the right this year. The provisions struck down reduced certain parts of the country to a probationary status, as far as election law was concerned, due to their histories of vote suppression. The Roberts Court argues that sufficient permanent progress has been made to justify ending that probationary status. The backlash from blacks and liberals carries a twofold message to Roberts and the Republicans: we don't believe you, and we don't trust you. Skeptics point to photo-I.D. requirements and other measures as reasons for skepticism, but the other side takes this all personally.  Few if any of them identify with the segregationists of the Sixties, and they resent it when it seems that critics consider them no better than the Bull Connors or unreconstructed George Wallaces of King's time. They wonder whether blacks will ever concede that white racism is dead -- and they won't concede that black racism is dead until blacks make the first move. The problem here, again, is one of perspective. Get any small group of people together randomly and you probably won't find agreement on what racism is. For some it's simply a matter of hating other races, and nothing else. For others, it's a social system defined by inequalities that can be reformed only through government intervention, not by a change in attitude. For some, the Obama presidency, whatever its worth on its own terms, is the ultimate irrefutable proof that racism is dead. For others, Obama is a superficial if not irrelevant factor. So long as these different perspectives seem irreconcilable, people of each race will suspect the other of a kind of existential hatred that, rather than their own attitude, is the root of the problem. Whites demand that blacks trust them not to be racist; blacks demand that whites earn their trust; neither trusts the other to judge the case objectively.

Writing in The Nation, Gary Younge decries the Republicans' familiar emphasis on "the content of their character" as the only valid criterion for race relations articulated in King's speech. As Republicans (and many whites regardless of party) see it, once they renounce bigotry they should be able to judge black people entirely by the c. of c. Younge implies that we can't appraise the c. of c. objectively until everyone is more equal in material terms. So long as there are "vast, enduring differences in the material position of blacks and whites," he writes, judging blacks by the c. of c. standard without first taking into account "the consequences of ongoing institutional, economic and political exclusion" tempts whites to see black poverty or crime as "the failings of individuals."  If  Younge's position is that racial equality can't be achieved without state intervention, another potentially irreconcilable difference of perspective emerges. From the Republican perspective, Younge and those who think like him are the real bigots if they really believe that blacks can never get ahead without the aid of government. They characterize Younge's position as an assertion of essential black "helplessness" requiring them to become permanent clients of Big Government, when Younge obviously believes that the fault lies not with blacks themselves. Worse still from the white Republican perspective is the idea that only state intervention can undo the country's legacy of racism. The idea that "only the state" can do anything other than wage war violates their entire value system, in which the state is rarely more than a necessary evil, the necessity of which is almost always open to question.

Despite Younge's strictures, white Republicans will continue to claim that they can fairly judge the content of black character. In the Obama era, many whites increasingly resent a perceived knee-jerk reaction by blacks to criticism that characterizes the critic as a racist. In Obama's own case, critics resent it whenever they perceive that their criticisms of the President's policies, or his supposed ideology, are written off as racial animus. But while they claim that they're judging Obama as a politician and not as a black man, white Republicans have probably grown more assertive and aggressive, in the Internet era, in their judgments of black men. They dislike the insinuation (even if only inferred) that they have no right to judge blacks by their words or actions, or else have to take stuff like centuries of history into account that they don't have to (so they assume) for anyone else. Of course, the assumption that blacks will always cry racism if you judge them is itself a stereotype, but it's also true that accountability in a democracy is never a one-way street. We make a fetish of "speaking truth to power" as if that's the only morally legitimate act, whether it's blacks confronting whites, the poor confronting the rich, the gays the straights, the taxpayers the politicians (did you see that one coming?) etc. etc. But vice versa is true in every one of those instances, and if context is a condition of the powerful or privileged judging those less so, it should also be a condition the other way around. If blacks can say there's something wrong with white people or white culture, whites can answer in kind, regardless of the truth on either side. So on across the board. And since this article commemorates a moment of optimism in American history, let me suggest that a certain level of interracial anger is an inevitable part of the transition to the nation of King's dreams. Let me put it this way: if blacks and whites are yelling at each other instead of rioting or lynching, that's progress. Happy anniversary!

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