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by Peter Moskos

April 21, 2012


I'm always amused whenever conservatives get to play "gotcha" when some liberal says something politically incorrect, or expresses a belief more in tune with Republicans. Because you know those same conservatives don't really care about the issue; it's just a brief moment when they finally get to win a round in a game they never wanted to play (hell, they're still trying to figure out the rules).

One again I turn to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who got me thinking about this. He writes:
I think this sort of thinking is endemic to how the conservative movement thinks about racism. For them it isn't an actual force, but a rhetorical device for disarming your opponents.... Even if you have a record of calling out bigotry voiced by people deemed to be "on your team," it doesn't much matter because there's no real belief in it existing to begin with.

The conservative movement doesn't understand anti-racism as a value, only as a rhetorical pose. This is how you end up tarring the oldest integrationist group in the country (the NAACP) as racist. The slur has no real moral content to them. It's all a game of who can embarrass who. If you don't think racism is an actual force in the country, then you can only understand it's invocation as a tactic.
That tradition of viewing racism, not as an actual thing of import, but merely as rhetoric continues today. To abandon that tradition, I suspect, would be cause for an existential crisis.
And it's not just about race. The same could apply to global warming and probably a few other things as well.


Anonymous said...

Coates's argument is a tad disingenuous, tendentious, and specious. The charge of racism lost any sense of rational use long before conservatives/Republicans decided to adopt the tactics of their perceived political foes.

The Martin/Zimmerman case is one in point. Many, including you, Mr. Moskos, jumped to the conclusion that Zimmerman's actions were racist. As the facts have unfolded, some have backpedaled slightly to "seem racist" or similar, but still the core charge that Zimmerman actions were racist or similar remains. This belief isn't supported by any facts, though the opportunity to discover those facts exist. Zimmerman had called 911 more than 50 times in his (self-appointed) capacity as a Neighborhood Watch. Many involved reports of suspicious person. A review of those calls might- and would, imo- show whether or not Zimmerman's definition of suspicious included "black" as an element.

Moreover, Zimmerman doesn't call 911 to say that a suspicious black person is in the neighborhood. He mentions Martin's race as description when asked by the dispatcher.

So, after decades of racism being used unreasonably as a weapon against conservatives, it's no wonder that conservatives decide to start using it themselves.

PCM said...

I think we can all agree that slavery was racist. I think we can all agree that segregation was racist. So now we're in the 1960s. So what year (roughly) did racism become so minor that the charge lost any sense of rational use?

But more to the point, you illustrate Coates's point. Many people believe racism (and race) still matters in very real ways, ie: it is not just a semantic game to "get" people. So to use the term as a gotcha game is, well racist.

And yes, absolutely I believe Zimmerman's actions were racist (even if Zimmerman deep down may not be). If you falsely think a young black male is criminal because he's black, and then chase him, of course that's a racist action! And no, I do not believe that Zimmerman would have called police if Martin had been white. Do you, really?

PCM said...

I did review Zimmerman's 911 calls. And yes, suspicious person almost always means black. Once it was two hispanics and a white.

bacchys said...

A lot of people do use the term as a gotcha game, and they aren't all on the right side of the political spectrum.

Coates doesn't really have a point, so I don't see how I illustrate it. He's complainging that conservatives, having been the target of charges of racism for decades, have decided the record shows its an effective tool.

As for what is racist and what ain't: Bill Clinton's comment about North Carolina going for Jesse Jackson wasn't racist, but that didn't keep some folks from flapping that it was. Biden's observation about then-candidate Obama being "fresh" and "clean" and "articulate" wasn't racist, but to listen to the howls you'd think it was the equivalent of Bull Connor and his firehoses.

Yes, Mr. Moskos, there are those on the left who misuse and abuse the term "racist." You can't talk about state's rights *in any context* without some progressive halfwit claiming states' rights is racist. You can't argue on policy grounds against integration policies that turn children away from better schools because there are too many of their own race inside without someone claiming you're a racist. You can't argue against affirmative action without a charge of racism rearing it's misguided head.

Then there's the ignorant uses of it, such as the D.C. government worker who was fired for using the term "niggardly" correctly in a sentence.

Hell, HBO's "Girls" is racist, apparently, because a white girl writing fiction based on her white bread white girl experiences must be a racist if she doesn't have a passel of non-white characters in the story.

As for Zimmerman's 40+ 911 calls in 8 years, the numbers I've seen differ from yours, with 12 whites (one of which was hispanic) and 5 blacks being "suspicious persons" prompting a call. The other calls weren't about suspicious persons, if I'm reading right, but about open garage doors, an unattended child, children darting into the street, and similar.

PCM said...

Zimmerman made (just) 7 calls for suspicious persons in which the race was identified (the other "suspicious" calls were mostly for cars). Of those 7, 6 were for black men.

As to Coates point, it is that racism is real force and not some game to tally points and cheer on the home team while drinking a beer. Al Sharpton's history (or present) has nothing to do with Martin's death. Even less so that his past misconduct somehow balances things out. And that fact that he (and others) may play the same game does not mean we all should.

Calling people racist is not a tool to win debates. The goal is not to shame people or win points but to identify and eliminate (or minimize) racism. Yes, liberals call people racists. Sometimes they're right. Sometimes they're wrong. But there's a greater issue involved, sometimes, in this case, one of life and death. But when conservatives try and play this game, they don't care about racism. They just want to mock those who do.

Conservatives have (historically) been the active supporters of racism and in more recent times the apologists for various forms of it (eg: W. Buckley, Ron Paul). You may not see State Right's as an issue of racism (mostly I don't either, but that's because I associate it with medical marijuana), but we both must understand that those who do are not halfwits. They simply remember a time (not so long ago but before mine) when that is *exactly* what it was. State Rights in this country have had almost no context outside of race and racism! (now there is drug laws and immigration... have there been any other issues, ever?)

But yes, indeed, if you deal with issues that involve race (and what doesn't?) somebody will always call you racist. So what? Perhaps it doesn't bother me because I learned this lesson early on. I went to public school that were about 30-40% black and the rest mostly liberal whites. Racism (not among students, but more among parents when it came to school policy) was a constant accusation. So what? Evanston (where I grew up) confronted and dealt with race issues, mostly for the better. [For instance I, a white kid, was bused, by (my parents') choice to a magnet school, Martin Luther King Lab, in a black neighborhood--I found nothing odd about this until I went to college.]

bacchys said...

I'm not denying racism is a real force and still a problem (though not the problem it was). I'm pointing out, however, that the label was used as a cynical debate tool unconnected to actual racism long before Republicans/conservatives decided it was mighty effective so they should use it, too.

Which Coates- and you- ignore in decrying the facile use of it by Republicans/conservatives.

The horse fled the barn a long time ago, and youse guys are complaining the mule is heading for the door.

As for this being a life and death issue: yes, it is. Which is why more measured judgement should have been brought to it instead of kneejerk conclusions that Zimmerman acted out of racist impulses. While I still think he is guilty of at least manslaughter under Florida law, and I don't think the second degree murder charges are much of an overstretch, the information that's come out since I first heard of this story points away from Zimmerman acting out of racism. Prejudice, perhaps, but even that prejudice may not have been based on race.

Great blog, BTW. I stop by regularly, and always enjoy it.

PCM said...

What some of the right have tried to do is turn this into a discussion about the left's views on Zimmerman. Certainly some on the left play into their hands. But, as I've said, I don't give much of a damn about Zimmerman except for the fact he chased and killed a black kid who was minding his own business, walking home.

Personally, I think too many on the left are concerned with highlighting every instance of racism rather than focusing on the effects or prejudiced behavior. (Zimmerman may or not be racist, but he certain acted in a racially prejudiced manner. Call that what you will.)

We will never wipe out all racism. And if that is seen as a necessary condition to racial progress in society, we're all doomed.

But for the right to defend Zimmerman, overtly or by inference, to score political points against the left is morally indefensible (and misses the big point).

Thanks for reading. (Though I do hope you've bought my books.) Your comments add to the discussion. So I'm curious if you've done any research and still think the assumption that State's Rights is racist, given the history of "State's Rights" in America.

bacchys said...

I love history, and I've done quite a bit of reading on the history of states' rights. It hasn't always been racist. The Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions were perhaps the earliest assertions of states' rights, unless you want to count the Tenth Amendment.

The principle has been invoked to justify state discrimination against its people. That a power or principle has been misused doesn't ispo facto invalidate it, anymore than the fact police power can and has been misused invalidate it.

Back to Zimmerman: there was a rush to judgement after the story broke to paint it as a racist incident. Zimmerman was "white," until it came out he was Hispanic. For most, the racism narrative gave way to the gun control nuts who decided this was the perfect attack on a law that may not even be relevant to the incident- Florida's Stand Your Ground law. We'll see what a judge in a pretrial hearing has to say about the applicability of Stand Your Ground to Zimmerman's shooting of Martin.

Charges of racism shouldn't simply be a debating tool, I agree. I just don't see getting so upset at the second party to use it so without noting they are the second party.

PCM said...

"That a power or principle has been misused doesn't ispo facto invalidate it, anymore than the fact police power can and has been misused invalidate it."

I completely agree. I'm just saying that given the history of states' rights as a racist tool, I don't think it's unfair for some to assume that states' rights advocates are following this tradition of racism. More to the point, I was simply contradicting the idea that those who think states' rights is a code word for racism are halfwits.

That doesn't mean states' rights are bad in theory, though I don't subscribe to the conservative ideology of many of those who wrap themselves in the states' rights banner when politically expedient (liberals do it to, but less often). It's like being a "strict constructionist" when it comes to the constitution. Fine, if you really believe it. Just don't use it only when it supports your ideological policies.

I'm in favor of states' rights and Federalism. I like the idea of 50 states being a laboratory for public policy. And I also like the idea of getting the feds out of the war on drugs. I also agree that the past misuse of states' rights shouldn't meant the concept is bad. But states' rights have been used as a politically expedient way for conservatives (and racists) to disenfranchise minorities and otherwise ignore the constitution and civil rights. I'm just saying we need to be aware of this history.