03 December 2014

Choose your prejudice

David Brooks believes that much of the hostility directed toward the late Michael Brown, his family and friends and sympathizers across the country is explained by class rather than racial prejudice. He finds the pejorative rhetoric directed against the Brown faction similar to the rhetoric used by upper-class Britons toward lower-class Britons in the 19th century, in a time and place when race had very little to do with class prejudice. What Brooks is trying to say is that theories of racial inferiority appear to have little to do with reactionary attitudes toward blacks in the 21st century U.S. He prefers to see the contempt currently directed toward blacks, whether they're rioting and looting or not, as part of an indisputable and more expansive contempt among right-wingers for "losers" in general. Brooks blames this attitude on an increased class segregation that allows the "meritocratic" class to dismiss the poor as losers whose poverty can be blamed on poor habits and attitudes. That right-wingers are contemptuous toward "losers" regardless of background can't be denied, but it's naive of Brooks to deny that racism exacerbates that contempt when the object is black people. Very few people today would argue, publicly at least, that blacks are genetically inferior to whites and deserving of an inferior social position for that reason. However, much of the reactionary commentary on the Ferguson case blames a specific black culture for the failings of Michael Brown and his community. Blacks are presumed by many to be culturally alien in a way that handicaps them socially. The irrepressible implication is that, to succeed, they must become less "black." This is an important variation on the usual "personal responsibility" theme that Brooks misses in his focus on class over race. Poor whites may be thought of as losers, but it is not presumed that such people need to transcend their culture in the way deemed necessary for blacks. Read any comment thread about Ferguson (here's a good example from a right-wing news site) and it becomes obvious quickly that the subject isn't poor people in general. Something else Brooks misses in his emphasis on class is that it isn't rich reactionaries alone who have condemned Michael Brown posthumously or wished a fate similar to Brown's on the Ferguson rioters. An animus toward blacks persists across class lines, and may be expressed most viciously the lower down the socioeconomic ladder we go. Just as you don't have to think of Michael Brown as a gentle giant to believe he shouldn't have been killed, you don't have to assume blacks innocent as a race to recognize something enduringly irrational in some whites' feelings toward them.

Whether the basis of prejudice is class or race, can it be cured the way Brooks proposes, through integration in some nebulous "common project?" Brooks's hope is that "Through common endeavor people overcome difference to become friends." What should the common endeavor or project be? Brooks's vagueness on this detail reminds me of a column earlier in November in which he yearned for leaders who could encourage collaboration across partisan and other divides. Taking inspiration from the private sector, he hopes that "collaborative" political leaders will "combine things that were once seen as mutually exclusive." In the private sector, presumably, even when ideas seem mutually exclusive, the people with contradictory ideas still have a common goal: more profits for the company. The problem with the analogy is that the common goal in the public sector is not as self-evident. "The good of the country" only begs the question, on which, as we know all too well, there remains profound ideological disagreement that has much to do with class, if not as much to do with race. We can't take for granted that any "collaborative" leader can reconcile the apparently irreconcilable visions of the common good that prevail in this country today. A less ambitious "common project" might overcome some class or race prejudice, as Brooks hopes, but he had better hope that it overcomes ideological prejudices as well. Classism, racism and ideology all feed one another. Brooks sees class as both the dominant element and the weakest link in the chain that holds the country back, but I'm not sure one can be beaten without beating all three.

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