Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Blame Games: The Toxic Issue of Race In American Politics

I had considered making my first posting of the New Year about one of the various controversies currently brewing among liberals. I had thought about writing on the topic of Leon Panetta's predicted appointment as Director of Central Intelligence (which I support), Dr. Sanjay Gupta's predicted appointment to the post of Surgeon General (which I do not support), or the ugly and constantly compounding mess of gubernatorial and senatorial politics in Illinois.

However, I recently read an article on the Huffington Post by Ed Kilgore entitled Can the GOP Expand Its Demographic Base While Moving Right? that changed my mind. Mr. Kilgore (and Paul Waldman, whose own article is linked in Mr. Kilgore's posting) addresses the racial tones of American conservative politics. Mr. Waldman started out with the simple items, Mr. Kilgore expanded to more subtle and sophisticated racist messages. I want to take it all one step further and talk about race and politics across the board, conservative and liberal.

I am going to begin by violently breaking ranks with many on the right and in the center: one can never afford to stop talking and thinking about racism in America. Even were it to be taken as one hundred percent true that racism in the United States is a thing of the past, as conservatives and some moderates like to claim, the racism of the past has left a deep wound in our nation's politics, society, and culture that has never been properly treated. More importantly, this is simply not the case.

From the primaries on, race played a toxic role in the 2008 Presidential election. Let's ignore all the right wing propaganda of the general election and instead focus on the Democratic primary. It was the Clinton campaign that turned Jeremiah Wright into a campaign issue and it was Senator Clinton who told blue collar white Democrats in Pennsylvania that she was 'one of them' in tones that implied Senator Obama was not. The racial divide is an endemic political problem in the United States, not merely a conservative or Republican problem. Nor is this merely a black vs. white issue, even if that is certainly a great segment of the issue and will be until America's wounds are truly healed. Republicans and Democrats alike support un-American, nativist policies that make many Hispanic Americans feel singled out as criminals.

The worst part of the problem of racial politics is that so few of our leaders appear to be willing to address our country's racial divides as problems to be solved, rather than wedge issues to be exploited. We like to assign the blame for much of this to obvious demagogues, like the Reverend Al Sharpton or Louis Farrakhan. The problem is, despite their demagoguery and their abuse of the problem for their own self-aggrandizement, they are right on many core issues whatever their faults, errors, or sins regarding others. When Reverend Wright accuses the American government of failing the urban black poor, he is correct.

The problem with the blame game is this: ultimately, white America is to blame for America's racial divides. White America imported African slaves and maintained black Americans in slavery for several generations after ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. White America invaded Mexico and waged vicious wars with American Indians in the name of Manifest Destiny. The American government, largely controlled by white Americans, has been dragged into every civil rights reform kicking and screaming. White America's attempts to shift the blame for racial divisions to minority leaders is petty and self-serving, and ignores the fact that even the most radical, militant, and extreme minority leaders (no matter how self-serving their motivations) are still correct in the basic principle that white America has wronged and continues to wrong minority Americans. This is not merely a conservative Republican problem. Moderates in both parties have stood in the away of meaningful reform or attacked civil rights causes as 'radical'. Liberals have advocated half-measures (lowering standards for minority schools in inner cities and affirmative action) that treat symptoms of the basic problem but do not solve the deeper issue. Neither party can escape its fair share of the blame.

This not to say that individuals are not morally responsible for their own choices. The fact that white America is to blame for the country's racial divides has all too often become someone's convenient excuse or political tool. 'The race card' is played on a regular basis by whites and minorities, and minority communities have been all too willing to fight with one another for their 'fair share' rather than to join together to address the larger problem. The real issue should not be of civil rights for blacks, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, or any other minority group but civil rights for all Americans.

The problem shared by all is that all the solutions to this problem are radical and anti-establishment. They threaten the power of the wealthy and successful, of corporate America, and of entrenched aristocracy. We claim the latter does not exist in the United States, but it does. Likely, we will never be free of some kind of aristocracy. The greatest failure of the civil rights movement is that those who have succeeded the most in our modern 'free society' have joined 'white America' regardless of their race or ethnicity.

If we truly wish to solve America's racial problems, the solutions are not most closely linked to racial issues like affirmative action or adjusted academic standards, that 'benefit' one minority group. We will not solve America's racial problems with legislation against 'hate crimes', all acts of violence are 'hate crimes' regardless of the race or ethnicity of the perpetrator or victim. The real solutions to America's racial pitfalls are equality of economic opportunity, equal protection under the law, programs to fight poverty, ending the misguided 'War On Drugs' (which is, if one reads the fine print and the disparities in sentencing for black and white drug users and dealers, the single most racist government policy in American history), and providing all Americans with health care. This will benefit all Americans, and it will benefit poor whites in the rural South and poor minorities in inner cities equally.

Americans must accept that racism is real and must do all they can to rise above it. White Americans must accept that there is a real problem and that the American government has done too little to stop it and too much to contribute to it. Minority Americans must fight injustice, not each other, and must fight racism rather than perpetuating it.

We must all accept that the United States of America has the greatest ideals of any nation on Earth, but has fallen tragically short of living up to them all through its history. We must all strive to improve upon our nation's ability to live up to its dreams. Perhaps that should be our country's New Year's resolution.

Sadly, for most Americans, that would be too radical.

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