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Jul. 20 2010 - 11:47 pm | 280 views | 1 recommendation | 4 comments

The racism faux-scandals

Sometime in the mid-1990s, I went through a mandatory two-day course of diversity training. The newspaper management required it for all editorial employees after concerted lobbying by African-Americans on the staff who complained of a lot of casual racism in the newsroom. Lord knows, they were right: there was a lot of casual racism. Sexism too.

But the diversity course was bizarre. I hope they don’t still do it this way: The facilitators were true-believing leftists (ironically working to help corporations avoid being sued). They took it as their mission to convince everyone of the deep-seated oppression of American society towards minorities and women, and the role that white males played in victimizing everyone else. This was done through various exercises in which we were asked to talk about our personal lives and encounters with people of different ethnic backgrounds from ourselves. Our anecdotes were then squeezed into this oppression narrative. The idea was to get white people to see it all from the other side – or else. Some participants found the sharing to be alarming and inappropriate – it was painful to watch them fumble through it. I had recently been covering Latin America, and pointed out that systemic oppression was significantly worse in, say, Guatemala, where you could be killed for your opinions, your ethnicity, or both.

I write this not to complain, but to note that this was basically an earlier iteration of the cycle of stupid that has captured the media this summer on the question of America and race.

Just as my diversity workshop tried to simplistically rig things one way (whites are oppressors, blacks are victims) Andrew Brietbart and others on the right are trying to rig things the other way (blacks are oppressors, whites are victims). It’s a mirror image of the left’s “oppression narrative” – only without actual oppression.

Recently, I got into a brief Twitter exchange with a conservative who was outraged over the New Black Panthers case and the notion that the Obama administration might not be going down the middle, prosecuting blacks suppressing the white vote with a fervor equal to that it displays when the races are reversed. It was brief because it was a ridiculous conversation. He seemed unaware that there is, historically and statistically speaking, no black suppression of white voters in the United States. It is simply not a problem. Even the NBP case dealt with a brief incident in a majority black district; no white voter has come forward to complain of being scared away from the polls. Suppressing the black vote, on the other hand, has a long and ugly history and is still not unheard of.

In the same way, the case of Shirley Sherrod, advanced by the irresponsible Breitbart as a case of racism, illustrates the opposite: it is the story of an African-American who overcame her own prejudices and difficult personal history and helped people different from her.

The problem with the diversity workshop was ultimately in its attempt to compel people to change their thinking. The notion that your employer could do that, or attempt to, is repellent. What’s going on now has even less to do with race relations. And, like back then, everything to do with power.

Just as those true-believing facilitators wielded power conferred by a corporation to pound ideas into our heads, the right is using its media echo chamber to settle scores and reinforce its own “oppression narrative” in which black racism is a major national problem, and in which racism is not measured by material facts, but by what’s allegedly in your head. Here’s what Breitbart told TPM even after it came out that his Sherrod video clip, in context, conveyed the opposite of his original claim: “I think the video speaks for itself. The way she’s talking about white people … is conveying a present tense racism in my opinion. But racism is in the eye of the beholder.”

The good news here is that these faux-scandals are so thin on substance and so short-lived that few Americans are going to notice. They have the feel of late-stage culture warfare, in which the original sources of outrage and grievance have dried up. So the warriors must search for, and manufacture, more.


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  1. collapse expand

    I hope Sherrod gets reinstated. Obama really should have spoken up for her. Obama, just a hint, you want to be remembered as a great president?Just recall the phrase “No guts, no glory.”

  2. collapse expand

    I agree with the substance of your post, but there is one real problem if I may point out, which is the notion of white male original sin. Unfortunately, in America, being born white and male instantly imbues you with a taint of oppression based on history regardless of your ancestors’ actual role in oppression.
    In effect, society tries to balance out the historically unbalanced scales by punishing the present generations for the “sins of the father”, which creates a blatant injustice because the present generations have not actually engaged in oppression, for the most part.
    The force behind all of these faux-scandals for the Joe-the-Plumbers in the world is a very real fear of being punished for something you had no role in, namely the oppressive history. Obviously, the power-brokers use this real fear to manipulate the voting population, just as corporations use diversity training to avoid lawsuits and not to actually move race relations forward.
    The problem is “white guilt” is reinforced throughout our society, by whites and blacks both. Blacks call for reparations and whites seek out punishment to atone for their original sin. The problem is no one can properly punish those responsible for the inequalities because those people are dead.
    The only option left is forgiveness. Until blacks and whites alike can say, “I will always remember, but I will forgive and move forward”, America will be stuck in the vicious cycle of paranoia and inequality. Blacks will be stuck in the spiraling cycle of victim mentality, and every victim must have an oppressor, which is “naturally” white males in our society.
    So while I agree completely these scandals are hollow publicity stunts, the power behind them is a real problem that needs to be addressed through genuine expressions of forgiveness a la Nelson Mandela and post-Apartheid South Africa.

  3. collapse expand

    Main Street America provides momentum to scandal’s such as Breitbart’s because they react out of fear of retribution from the black community for transgressions from the past. A message of forgiveness overcomes the fear by eliminating the possibility of retribution.
    It’s not an obligation of the black community to express forgiveness to the white community. Rather, it is a tactic that could effectively undermine the fear-mongers who are exploiting white guilt to raise the specter of reverse racism, which sets back race relations and perpetuates the very thing we should be moving past, which is racism.

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    About Me

    I'm a journalist and author who writes about science, environment, various forms of government dysfunction, and, against my better judgment, American politics. Also: the media and the future of journalism. My work has appeared in Smithsonian magazine, Wired, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, the Guardian and the Huffington Post. In a previous life I was an investigative/explanatory reporter for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. The edge of chaos, BTW, is that narrow zone between stasis and chaos where complexity emerges and interesting things happen.

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