Archive for the 'race politics' Category


Grant Hill

A friend posted this — a letter by Grant Hill discussing his career and its relationship to race and education. Specifically, he is responding to comments made by Jalen Rose about his life rising as a basketball star. The crux of the article is that Rose said that Duke recruited black players who were uncle toms, i.e., those black people who like to act “white” or more precisely, those who like to accept white norms of conduct in order to better themselves in society.

Throughout this article, I’m going to discussing some points about race, and I am white, and further, from a very privileged white background. Given that, my perception of these issues is likely to be impoverished (in fact, it certainly is impoverished), but I think Hill’s point, and a more broadly philosophical point, is that everyone is allowed to comment on race and try to learn from others and extract the significance of each other’s struggles.

The whole article was very interesting, and of course, the world of punditry is filled with various small points that deserve to be noted. First, as I understand things, Rose’s comments were in the past, saying how he felt at the time. Second, I could understand why Rose might make this point. Hill is also guilty of a little argument by redefinition. He says what Rose’s point is, and then attacks THAT POINT, but its not clear to me that he characterized Rose’s point in the best light before responding. In fact, he seemed to interpret Rose’s general comment as a very narrow point about people in backgrounds that are very similar to Hill’s.

The big points that I got out of things though are the following, the first one leading, non-too-rigorously, to the second.

The first point is that as many Blacks become more successful, there will become a growing issue concerning the best way to work toward further equality in justice, and a discussion that I foresee fracturing ideas and strategies. Now this is laughable how ivory-tower my experience with this issue is, but listen. I took a class about African American politics, and one of the consistent themes was the clash between liberalism broadly construed and a kind of colored communitarianism.

The former says that all along Blacks were working so that individual Black people could become autonomous and choose their life paths without the constraints of bigotry, low access to social and economic opportunities, etc. In other words, victory for a utopian civil rights movement would mean that someone who was black could go about their life without their race playing a role. What the hell does “playing a role” mean? Well, its controversial, but you might think of it like this. Take two people are exactly alike in personality and dispositions and interests, and economic circumstances. One is white and one is Black (see, notice how i capitalize Black but not white? I’m just playing it safe because I don’t know the conventions, but just the fact that I don’t feel comfortable not capitalizing both of them shows how uneducated well-meaning whites are about the appropriate ATTITUDE one should have toward race). Equality would be reached if the two people could lead the exact same lives.

The latter — colored communitarianism — has roots in the “black power” and “back to Africa” movements, which emphasize brotherhood and black solidarity. I won’t say too much about this because I don’t know enough to characterize it properly. But there is an idea that Blacks have formed a unique type of social harmony due to enduring oppression and that it would be best to foster this type of social organization and to INJECT IT into society at large. On this model, rather than Blacks assimilating or being accepted to white culture, blacks would adjust social conventions so that we are all, “a little bit black,” and feel that solidarity.

These two modes of racial struggle come into conflict, and this Rose/Grant story demonstrates this fact. As some Blacks become increasingly comfortable in respectful and valued positions, there will be questions about how much solidarity they will be able to show to others who have not yet made it. Are these people “uncle-tomming?” There is a risk of that — in other words, a risk that the white world too-eagerly embraces those it has damaged and in a welcoming embrace, crushes Black identity.

All this brings me to my second point, which is that I think white people love to hear MLK’s message about love and getting along. After all, who wouldn’t want to hear that we should all be friends after doing something really bad to someone else for a long period of time? And in Hill’s comments, I imagined many hang-wringing liberals and others applauding vigorously “can’t we all just get along.”

But what this misses, and this is my crude historical point, is that black power and love go hand in hand. Would people have latched on to MLK’s message of peace without Malcolm X’s aggressive challenges to white power. AND VICE VERSA. Thank god I was taught about the Black Panthers and Black Power, and the OTHER SIDE of the civil rights struggle, because otherwise, I would have bought into what Cornell West has called the SANTA-CLAUSIFICATION of the civil rights movement.

Anyway, the big wrap up point is that forgiveness and love always, as a historical matter, work side by side with solidarity and aggression, and that while people are applauding Hill for giving an admittedly, ADMIRABLE, and WONDERFUL expression to racial healing, we should not forget that there is another side (and perhaps Rose’s comments don’t even capture it) to racial justice that by nature requires banding together, expressing solidarity, and in contrast to liberal ideals — putting one’s autonomy and freedom to pursue a life path, BEHIND one’s racial duties.



48 Hours

I just watched 48 hrs., one of the supposedly “best” movies of 1982. I think this movie is a must-watch for someone like me, since it originates the buddy-cop genre of movies, which I actually really like (though of course not for their artistic merit. I like them on a duller, more reptilian level). More importantly, and more universally, this movie has some great lessons about race relations in the U.S. around this time period.

It’s hard to pick out all the parts of this movie that make the point I want, but there are so many examples. Nick Nolte, the white cop who brings a black prisoner (Eddie Murphy) out of jail and they go try to catch a criminal in 48 hours (or something, I think everything takes at least 72 hours).

One fantastic and hard to grasp point that this movie illustrates is that things that seem natural, unproblematic and perfectly reasonable to us at a certain time and in a certain setting, can appear strange, unacceptable, and irrational to us at other moments.

It’s often sad and disturbing to me to see some people who cannot, as it were “step outside” the situation and see things from another direction. Of course, the blame is not on them necessarily. There is a skill to seeing the subtexts and absurdities of a situation. In manifests in humorous and witty people, but it can be trained by reading novels. People with vivid imaginations often have this skill as well. Watching 48 hours, will help train this skill.

Here are some examples. First, when Nolte picks up Murphy, the analogies to slave ownership is unbelievable. He even says “I own you” as they walk out the door. Me comparing this to slavery is not my overactive imagination. Throughout the movie, Nolte asserts his authority in various way, controlling and heckling Murphy, and just generally being snide and mean without even being a badass about it. He calls Murphy a watermelon (and a nigger at another point), and there are other unbelievable striking themes. The two learn to “cooperate” after having a fistfight.

But even after that, there are moments in which the white superiority of Nolte is asserted and emphasized. Again, I can’t name them all, but there’s a scene in which Nolte tells Murphy that he can’t buy class.

Jack: Class isn’t something you buy. Look at you, you’ve got on a 500-dollar suit and you’re still a low-life.
Reggie: Yeah, but I look good.

The dialogue before that exchange might as well have been a confession of white anxiety about the growing wealth of black people in America. One can easily imagine Nolte saying to Murphy “you’re still BLACK’ the message being that money will never be able to buy black people the acceptance they deserve. Interestingly, this is the insight of some black philosophers who point out that Marxism is flawed for the exact reason that it reduces all conflict to economic conflict when in fact racial conflict is heavily involved in repressing marginalized groups of people.

Other themes are played out, such as white anxiety about black sexuality, and in the end, of course, white cop Nolte, saves black criminal Murphy.

Through it all though, there ARE moment of genuine friendship between the two, and even moments of forward thinking on race. Eddie Murphy destroys a bar under the pretenses that he is a cop and he mocks a bunch of white “rednecks” and hillbillies (interesting how moving away from racism requires deploying another stereotype about southern life  that I think is injurious, though obviously less so than racism). He revels in his position as a black person (man?) with complete power while Nolte looks on and condones his power trip. Is this a symbol of a subtle accommodation, that maybe white America was ready to let blacks be in charge, or is just a kind of fake moment of emancipation when the white power structure lets blacks merely PRETEND to be in charge?

It’s not clear, but this movie is followed up by MANY other such movies, and the permutations are endlessly fascinating. First take Beverly Hills Cop. The movie is much less racist and the friendship that develops between Rosewood, Taggart, and Murphy seems quite genuine. More importantly, it is initiated and LED by the black man (the opposite is true with Nolte). Did the 80s result in real racial progress; racial progress that was mirrored in cop movies?

The trend even continues further into the future. In Lethal Weapon, the black/white cop duo concept is taken even further and played with in various ways. STILL FURTHER, there is the RUSH HOUR series in which black and ASIAN are paired for laughs, cultural miscues, and faux racial redemption. What does this tell us about our racial world and what will future movies be able to tell us? I hope I made the point that they might say a lot.


Juan Williams

Again, I’m kind of late getting my arms around this story, but I think its a very interesting microcosm of many things that I constantly bring up on this blog.

Here’s the deal: Juan Williams, a political commentator, was on the O’Reilly Factor where he said these words. He was fired soon afterwards from NPR.

I don’t think his words come anywhere close to being a firing offense and I’m not even sure they are even that offensive (depends if you think he was just confessing an unavoidable prejudice or affirming the value of stereotyping). Overall, I think Williams comes off in this video as being a honest commentator saying what’s on his mind. I’ve seen him before and have found him to be considerate and controlled in his argumentation. Basically, everything a nation trying to sort out its political discourse could appreciate.

Still he was fired at the drop of a hat and even E.J. Dionne, someone who I think is EXTREMELY liberal (for the mainstream media anyway), thought this was too quick.

The weird thing is that you get all these bizarre comments from the liberal blogosphere sniping at Williams but all the while knowing and acknowledging that he didn’t do anything wrong. Take this post from Matt Yglesias (or this one from, I mean,

I didn’t call Williams “average.” Obviously being average can’t be a firing offense. I accused him of “general lameness and lack of valuable contribution to their programming” and on Twitter accused him of offering “replacement-level political commentary.” The latter was intended as a reference to baseball’s VORP concept and means that Williams is well below average.

Which is just to say that I don’t think I’ve dodged anything. Like Jon Chait I don’t like the idea of hair-trigger firings of people who step in it while making on-the-fly comments. At the same time, I’m against non-interesting non-insightful political commentary. And I’m very much against the idea, all-too-prevalent today, that certain kinds of punditry perches should be treated like tenured professorships from which people can only be let go for some kind of egregious misconduct. So while I wish this series of events hadn’t gone down in this way, I can hardly say I’ll miss Williams once he’s gone from NPR.

I have respect for Yglesias, but this comment really bothered me. First of all, he says he’s not dodging, but then he goes ahead and does exactly that, replacing a discussion of the political correctness issue with some unsupported gripes about Williams. I don’t like to get into name-calling, but I will say that the tone here comes off as very arrogant to me. Yglesias admits that he doesn’t like “hair trigger firings” but then goes on to say that he IS against “non-interesting, non-insightful” political commentary. Yglesias has never said complained about Williams before, and he follows his baseless remarks with talk about tenured commentator positions, but I don’t know what this even has to do with anything. Does he think Williams is sleeping with the editor of NPR to keep his job? I mean, he’s got a job and he’s kept it.

The other piece I cited above is, in a sense, even sillier, because it derides Williams for trying to be a moderate conservative who will listen to liberal ideas. HUH!? Why is that a bad thing?

The real lesson here I think is what I’ve said before, the culture of civility is not obeyed even by those who so adamantly and superciliously monitor the public discourse for civility. Notice this is not a reason to stop such policing. I think even hypocrites perform a valuable service when they call people out for inaccurate or offensive comments (and Yglesias has done this before, so good for him on that), but the lesson of this little mishap is that everyone, liberal and conservatives love conflict and hate reconciliation. This sort of thing angers conservatives (rightly) and does nothing to advance any idea. This is destructive discourse for the sake of slaking our basest political impulses.

It seems that the obvious thing for everyone to do would be to say simply “I disagree with Williams and/or his views in general, but he was fired mistakenly.” End of story. Instead, a lot of liberal commentators, rather than nobly acknowledging that political correctness has gone too far (in this case) take this as an opportunity to cut down what seems to be just an average pundit trying to make a living. No one gains.


Islam in America

This week (the show), had a town hall style program in which a live studio audience watched several pundits discuss the perception of Islam in America. There were some really ridiculous comments made, but overall, this was a good attempt to advance the dialogue about these issues.

First, as a small side note, the woman who lost her daughter in 9/11 stole the show with some really powerful rhetoric. I thought she was just a really credible ordinary American with fairly sophisticated view of these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised if she shows up elsewhere. She was impressive.

The point I want to make though is that there was a lot of discussion about Islam as it is practiced globally in some repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Christian commentators on this segment pointed toward Sharia law and honor murders, and other things that Muslims do. As many on the show pointed out, what people do in Iran is not a rationale for treating American Muslims with suspicion, but the error of this point is much more profound.

First, why IS IT that Christians don’t really do barbarous things anymore? The Christian representative on this show wanted to create the belief that Christianity was somehow a trustworthy religion that could live in peace with its neighbors while Islam could not. This could not be more wrong, and it’s very deceptive to boot. Last time I checked, Christianity cooled its jets due to political and philosophical developments during the enlightenment. Basically, governments got tired of Christians killing each other all the time and so invented the idea of tolerance. This idea filtered down to religious people who became easier to deal with. Christians were NEVER on board with this idea and they have accepted it only INSOFAR as society continues to trend in that direction (evangelicals in our country are just the latest incarnation of people who refuse to accept toleration as a cornerstone of modern society).

What this means is that Christianity is likely a liberal religion today because it was FORCED to inhabit liberal European states as they grew during the past 300 odd years (yay liberalism). Many Muslims and ESPECIALLY the ones that do crazy things live in non-liberal and even non-industrial societies. Given that Christianity did crazy things when it flourished within non-liberal regimes, perhaps we should stop trying to theorize an intrinsic hierarchy of religions and think about the governments that various religions inhabit. When religious people live in dictatorships, they do stupid stuff (history is my witness) but when they live in liberal states, they learn to be liberal, thank god (no pun intended). So, we can surmise that as Muslims live in liberal states, they will become more and more liberal. Muslims in Saudi Arabia may remain reactionary for years, but that’s because their government is extremely illiberal and leans on absurd religious practices for the purpose of social control.

This was borne out by the fact that some Imam was yelling at one of the women on the show to put on her traditional attire and she (being Daisy Khan, a liberal, modern, moderate Muslim) just kind of laughed at him. You see, she’s a firm part our secular and permissive society, if we can keep her there.


Dallas versus Boston

People who read this blog know that I’m desperate to prove that Dallas is better than Boston in every way. It turns out not to be possible for some things, because Boston really does have some things going for it. However, these two maps I think are a small win for Dallas in terms of the racial mixing in the city.

Not sure why this would be the case, but I think that since there is no public transportation, there isn’t really a need to live in clusters (near subway stops) and so people can spread out, which maybe makes them less conscious about the race of their neighbors…I really don’t know. Just take a look.




Racism vs. “Racial Insensitivity”

Racism is a big problem in our culture and the arguments about it get very superficial very quickly. Accusations of racism can be launched by anyone and  once made, it’s very hard to get the situation back under control; it seems that too often, the proper response to being called a racist is to allege reverse racism or to find other some problem with one’s opponent. Then someone, usually well-meaning, issues some bromides about the need for a “dialogue” on race in our country. I think one problem with such a dialogue developing is that we lack the tools for a such a conversation, and I don’t mean that in a nebulous way. I mean it very specifically: our concept of what racism is is hopelessly simplified which then make certain type of disputes inherently irresolvable and polarizing as well. Both sides simply get angry and yell.

First a relevant and interesting tangent. I watched Colin Powell on Meet the Press, and I thought he was easily one of the most reasonable and thoughtful guest that has been on the show in a long time. Undoubtedly I disagree with him on some things, but his answers were smart and sensitive to the opposition others were likely to feel to his views. One thing REALLY struck me, and forms the basis of this post.

When asked about Obama’s citizenship, place of birth, and religion, Powell strongly attacked rumors that Obama was a Muslim and was not born in the U.S. When told that more republicans than democrats believed these false accusations, he lamented this fact and gave some reasons, all involving unsavory politics, as possible explanations. This is in SHARP contrast to Mitch McConnell, who, when on the program previously, refused to strongly respond to David Gregory’s question which was essentially “as leader of the senate republicans, do you not have some duty as a statesman to dispel these rumors.” McConnell’s answer was pretty unimpressive.

MR. GREGORY:  Let me move on to something that seems to be related to this and has gotten a lot of attention this week, and this is the poll about the president’s own faith from the Pew Research Center.  Eighteen percent of those polled believe that the president is a Muslim.  Among Republicans, this is striking, 31 percent believe he’s a Muslim.  Of course, he’s not.  Why do you think these views prevail?

SEN. McCONNELL:  Well, look, I think the faith that most Americans are questioning is the president’s faith in the government to generate jobs. We’ve had an 18-month effort here on the part of this administration to prime the pump, borrow money, spend money hiring new federal government employees, sending money down to states so they don’t have to lay off state employees. People are looking around and saying, “Where’s the job?”

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

SEN. McCONNELL:  The president’s faith in the government to stimulate the economy is what people are questioning.

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MR. GREGORY:  That, that, that’s certainly a side step to, to this particular question.  Again…

SEN. McCONNELL:  Well, no, I–the–I–the president…

MR. GREGORY:  …as a leader of the country, sir, as one of the most powerful Republicans in the country, do you think you have an obligation to say to 34 percent of Republicans in the country–rather, 31 percent, who believe the president of the United States is a Muslim?  That’s misinformation.

SEN. McCONNELL:  The president says he’s a–the president says he’s a Christian, I take him at his word.  I don’t think that’s in dispute.

MR. GREGORY:  And do you think–how, how do you think it comes to be that this kind of misinformation gets spread around and prevails?

SEN. McCONNELL:  I have no idea, but I take the president at his word.

And what I want to suggest is our racial spectrum should beyond racist and not, but with racism marking the far negative extreme of a spectrum of “racial sensitivity” or “racial virtue.” This middle ground is very important in a range of national debates. Take McConnell, I don’t think his answer here is racist, of even in the neighborhood, but it is politically cowardly. However, Powell, as a black man, I think is quicker to come to the aid of the president on these matters because, and this is my hypothesis, he is more sensitive to the difficulties of being black in America.

Here’s what I take to be a clearer example: Skip Gates (I wrote briefly about this here). Was officer Crowley racist or just ignorant? Was he a white cop with a stereotypical view of blacks born from prejudice or a non-racist person who absorbed certain illegitimate shortcut inferences about race that cops can fall into very easily. I don’t want to rehash the case but merely to mention that we have no way of dealing with ambiguous situations other than saying that so and so was racist or that so and so was not racist. Why not recognize that there is an ambiguous middle ground. Someone may not be racist but still be racially insensitive. Couldn’t we see how officer Crowley, though not racist, might have been racially insensitive to some of the dynamics involving blacks and police in this country? What about a white person who uses the N word with a black person in an attempt to be colloquial? It does happen.

There are studies about unconscious racism (impulsive judgments about threats from black people) and what about policies that have other justifications, but disproportionately harm black people. If a politician decides to reduce money for low-income housing, could it be that he is not racist — he doesn’t desire to harm black people — but perhaps still he is racially insensitive, because he doesn’t think of the way that certain decisions create more nuanced and diffuse difficulties for black people.

I wrote before about how sentencing laws for cocaine disproportionately resulted in black people being put in jail for longer periods of time and that our prisons are filled predominantly with black people. If someone who wanted to continue these sentencing laws racists, or unappreciative of the ways that our justice system adds to the burdens of blacks in a multitude of subtle ways?

The point is not that we should excuse racism as mere racial insensitivity. We should not. And it might turn out that everyone either IS or IS NOT racist, full stop, but my point is that this middle ground might be a useful way to express the right amount of condemnation for various acts and thus at least a useful distinction TO ADD TO THE DEBATE, which might enrich our race debates.

Like I’ve said before, I don’t think most people who want to halt construction of the Cordoba House near ground zero are racist (more precisely, anti-Muslim), but I think they might be racially insensitive. They misunderstand how thinks look from another perspective. You NEVER hear someone saying “I know this looks bad, but I don’t want the Cordoba House initiative reminds me of. I’ll donate though to the house to show my good faith” or any other of a RANGE of possible good-faith gestures to try and diffuse the situation. Rather, its “we’re not racist, but tear down that mosque,” or is it really like that? Maybe the media just highlights those sort of die-hard people.

Anyway, I just think we could really use a shade of gray in our debates on race, even if it turns out in the end that the world really is made up of unrepentant racists and good tolerant people.


Still more confusions about Islam

I think both sides in the Cordoba house initiative debate are further confusing the relevant issues, though I think there are some bright spots. I wanted to get some of them down to debate them with those who are interested (no one really comments on this site though, so…), but also out of self-interest, because I think some of the things are largely confirming my theory (see mainly here) on this whole debate.

First are some good numbers I found (from this WP article).

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll finds that two-thirds of Americans oppose building the Islamic center near the former site of the twin towers. Four in five of those opposed say their opposition is strictly because of the location. But 14 percent of the opponents (or 9 percent of all Americans) say they would oppose building it anywhere in the country.

The Post-ABC News poll found that roughly half the country (49 percent) holds an unfavorable view of Islam, compared with 37 percent who have a favorable view. That is little changed over the past few years but is more negative than eight years ago. In October 2002, 47 percent said they had a favorable view of Islam and 39 percent said they had an unfavorable view.

This is amazing. October 2002! Right after 9/11 more people were favorable toward Muslims than NOW. That’s pretty incredible and I think a very ominous number given that it directly refutes or calls into question the paragraph right before which claims that most people oppose the Cordoba house simply because of its location. Given that anti-Muslim sentiment is at a very high point (as shown by the second paragraph) then we have reason to wonder how many people are being entirely honest when they oppose the Cordoba house for purely “locational” reasons.

So, as I’ve said before, the issue really turns on what the motivations of people really are. I don’t think we should jump to a cynical conclusion about mosque-opposers, and case in point is people like Newt Gingrich who were against the mosque and claimed that it wasn’t racism. People said “I wonder…” but recently he has been one of the nearly unanimous group of voices condemning the proposed book burning in Florida. Now Newt might be dissembling here too, but I think our society’s very strong reaction against the book burning is absolutely warranted and may do a lot to further the coexistence between Muslims and the more entrenched American religions.

That said, here is huge mistake I’ve seen developing in the mainstream news and the blogosphere: Imam Rauf (builder of the Cordoba house) went on Larry King (on Wednesday I believe). On the program he said it was important to build the Cordoba house to prevent radical Muslims from using the incident to bolster beliefs that America is out to get Muslims. In other words, build the mosque to deny propaganda fodder to radicalists across the world. The developing story about this is that his comments were somehow “threatening.” (see here). I think that’s insane. If there are consequences for doing something, anyone should feel free to bring them up. Yes it’s true, Rauf’s observation favors his position, but so what, a smart person will have reasons to support the positions they take. If Gen. Petraeus said “we have to stay in Afghanistan otherwise there will many more deaths there and a Taliban takeover,” would that be a THREAT? No, that would be his candid military advice and any reasonable person should either take this into account or find reason to disagree. JUST LIKE EVERY OTHER DEBATE.

Still though, I think there is reason to doubt Imam Rauf’s point simply on the merits and not because it’s threatening or not. I think he could be very right that how we interact with Islam in the U.S. has consequences for the way radicals gather support (don’t take my word for it. Here’s an educated American Muslim making the same point, and again a silly counter narrative saying that he is being threatening, here). In other words, even if you don’t believe we should not be racist simply because its wrong, you should at least hide your racism so you don’t swell the ranks of extremists. A fine point, but Rauf is wrong to see a link with the Cordoba house, and that’s because building the mosque won’t cause the furor to go away. America ALREADY blew it by getting angry over nothing, and so extremists already have the ammunition they need (if you believe the whole previous point about Islamaphobia bolstering extremism), which is that 2/3 of Americans oppose the mosque for what I think is no good reason. Building the mosque won’t make that go away and in fact, will probably increase that anger, thus feeding the extremist’s point. So, I think Imam Rauf is not being threatening when he says we should build the mosque to avert extremism; he’s just mistaken (in my view) because it’s too late. Americans expressed anger over the mosque that looks — whether it is or not — like prejudice to the Muslim world.

But again, the simple distinction between the cogency of an idea and the motivations for putting it forward or the persona of the person who believes is blurred. It seems that no matter how much I write about this mistake, our leaders and public figures continue to make it. VERY discouraging.