White supremacy isn’t something awful that happened in the past, it’s one of the central organizing forces in American life – but that can’t be. We have a black president, and endless white folks have said, over and over, decade after decade, that some of their best friends are black – so there! It’s only Donald Trump and Dinesh D’Souza who think Barack Obama is really Kenyan, not American (white) at all. Even Fox News doesn’t go there, very often. All the others on the far right despise Obama in post-racial ways – Obama wants to take from the rich to make those who aren’t rich suffer less, even if those who aren’t rich should suffer for their abject failure at personal responsibility, so that makes Obama a socialist, or a Marxist, or actually a communist. They also despise him because he hates religion, as seen with that anti-God contraception mandate in Obamacare, that tramples on the religious freedom of corporations who know that aiding and abetting in anything like birth control is a grave sin. Obama has no respect for religion at all, or conversely, Obama is a secret fanatically devout Muslim, out to utterly destroy America for the greater glory of Allah. Some on the far right believe both, as mutually exclusive as the two might be, but then they simultaneous believe that Obama is dumb as a rock, in way over his head, while at the same time believe that he’s a mastermind with a clever plot, or four or five of them, to ruin us all and take over the world – and he’s obviously too well-educated and too well-read and too intellectually sophisticated to be even halfway smart about anything at all. But none of this is racial. Barack Obama only happens to be black. We live in a post-racial America.
The evidence is that we don’t live there at all, given that rich white men like Paul Ryan are saying stuff like this:
We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with.
Was that a racist thing to say? Jamelle Bouie covers Ryan’s denial:
On Tuesday, Rep. Paul Ryan took to the O’Reilly Factor to tell the world he isn’t a racist. “She does not believe that I have these views,” he said, referring to Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who had chastised his comments about “inner-city males” as a “thinly veiled racial attack.” Ryan continued: “She knows me well, and she knows that I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
Bouie is amused, because he offers a long list of white guys taking about the true nature of their bones over the years, including this gem from the past:
Republican Sen. Bob Dole. According to a New York Times report, the kickoff to Dole’s 1988 presidential campaign was met with protests over his opposition to the African National Congress and support for the apartheid regime in South Africa. The protesters stood at the “fringe” of the rally supporting Dole, but they were irritating enough for him to interrupt his speech and address them. “The signs are wrong,” he said. “There isn’t a racist bone in my body.”
Bouie then suggests this talk about bones is a bit misleading:
The problem is that “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” only makes sense if your definition of racism stops at personal animus. If that’s true, then yes, I’m sure that most people lack racist bones.
But let’s broaden our horizons a bit. If we think of “racism” as material harm – or anything that furthers racial stereotypes – then it doesn’t require anyone to hold hatred or show explicit bias. Bob Dole’s support for the South African regime wasn’t racist because he hated black people; it was racist because it bolstered a racist government. Likewise, if Paul Ryan committed a racial offense, it was to perpetuate ugly ideas about low-income black men.
Paul Ryan was actually pulling a fast one:
In other words, the only reason to say “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” is to change the subject: from what someone said or did to who he is.
If your definition of racism stops at personal animus almost no one is really full of hate – everyone has a little kindness in them, or a lot of kindness – but they can do and say things that are hateful. Which should we judge?
In a companion piece, Bouie get a little more specific about how this plays out:
We hear a lot about the racial disparity in death penalty sentencing, namely, that black Americans are dramatically overrepresented on death row.
Less remarked on is the disparity in death penalty support, as revealed in a new Pew Research Center survey. Overall, 55 percent of Americans support capital punishment, and 37 percent are opposed. Among whites, however, support for the death penalty jumps to 63 percent, compared to 40 percent for Hispanics and 36 percent for blacks.
Whites might not have a racist bone in their bodies, but that’s quite a gap, and there’s this:
Religion – or at least, Protestantism- seems to increase the divide. At 67 percent in favor, white evangelical Protestants are more likely than any other group to support the death penalty, followed closely by white mainline Protestants (64 percent). Catholics are the least likely among religious whites to support capital punishment, though 59 percent are still in favor. On the other end, religious blacks and Latinos are even less likely than their peers to support the death penalty.
Something is going on here, and it seems to have to do with our history, and Bouie cites Stuart Banner’s The Death Penalty: An American History – all about our own capital statutes, not the ones we borrowed from England, passed in New York in the aftermath of a 1712 slave revolt. We were on a roll:
In Southern colonies like Virginia and South Carolina (where enslaved blacks were close to half the population), legislatures imposed the death penalty for a long list of offenses. For blacks to do anything to interfere with their enslavement was to court death. “In 1740,” writes Banner, “South Carolina imposed the death penalty on slaves and free blacks for burning or destroying any grain, commodities, or manufactured goods; on slaves for enticing other slaves to run away; and on slaves maiming or bruising whites.”
Virginia, fearing attempts at poisoning, made it a capital offense for slaves to prepare or administer medicine. The Georgia legislature determined that crimes committed by slaves posed dangers “peculiar to the condition and circumstances of this province,” dangers which meant that such crimes “could not fall under the provision of the laws of England.” Georgia accordingly made it a capital offense for slaves or free blacks to strike whites twice, or once if a bruise resulted.
These sentences weren’t always carried out – slaves were valuable! But the point was to create fear and discourage active rebellion or violent resistance.
And we’re still at it:
Wide use of the death penalty against blacks would continue through the 19th century and into the 20th, pushed by Southern whites who saw capital punishment as necessary to restrain a dangerous black population. “If the death penalty were to be removed from our statute-books,” explained former Arkansas governor George Hays in 1927, “the tendency to commit deeds of violence would be heightened owing to this negro problem.” One pro-lynching activist, speaking in 1897 during the heyday of lynching – an extrajudicial form of capital punishment – was more explicit: “If it takes lynching to protect woman’s dearest possession from drunken, ravening human beasts … then I say lynch a thousand a week if it becomes necessary.”
Indeed, it’s noteworthy that as late as 1954, rape was a capital offense in every state of the former Confederacy, and five retained the death penalty for arson. Even now, most executions happen in the South, and Southern whites continue to show strong support for capital punishment.
Our cultural attitudes are unconsciously shaped by our collective history as much as they are consciously shaped by our current context. When you consider the death penalty as a tool of racial control – a way for whites to “defend” themselves from blacks – then Pew’s poll results make sense.
Perhaps we don’t live in a post-racial America after all. We just say we do, because all those white folks who love the death penalty know they just don’t have one racist bone in her bodies. A disproportionate number of black men have been executed over the long years, or more informally, lynched, but they probably deserved it, individually on a case by case basis, or it’s just a curious statistical anomaly. Let’s not think about it. We know better in our bones.
It couldn’t be that white supremacy is one of the central organizing forces in American life, although that’s what Ta-Nehisi Coates contends. He tells the story every black man knows all too well. He’s taking his young son to a concert in Manhattan and the cab won’t pick him up, but immediately picks up two white girls, and he’s resigned to that:
I was angry, and very much wanted to approach the cabbie, idling there at a red light, in ill disposition. I was also with my son. And more, I am a 6-foot-4 black dude who tries to avoid the police. I think, 15 years ago, with nothing to lose, I would have made a different decision, if only because the culture of my young years made a virtue of meeting disrespect with aggression. This culture was not wrong – the price of ignoring disrespect, in the old town, was more disrespect. The culture was a collection of the best practices for making our socially engineered inner cities habitable. I now live in a different environment. I now have different practices.
But that got him thinking about what Paul Ryan said:
A number of liberals reacted harshly to Ryan. I’m not sure why. What Ryan said here is not very far from what Bill Cosby, Michael Nutter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama said before him. The idea that poor people living in the inner city – and particularly black men – are “not holding up their end of the deal” as Cosby put it is not terribly original or even, these days, right-wing. From the president on down there is an accepted belief in America -black and white – that African-American people, and African-American men, in particular, are lacking in the virtues in family, hard work, and citizenship…
Still, there is difference:
From what I can tell, the major substantive difference between Ryan and Obama is that Obama’s actual policy agenda regarding black America is serious, and Ryan’s isn’t. But Ryan’s point – that a pathological culture has taken root among an alarming portion of black people -is basically accepted by many progressives today. And it’s been accepted for a long time.
Coates is not happy about that:
Peddlers of black pathology tend to date the decline of African-American virtue to the 1960s. But pathology arguments are much older. Between 1900 and 1930, blacks were three times as likely as whites to be killed. Their killers tended to be black – blacks were 80 percent of Mississippi’s murderers and 60 percent of its victims. According to historian David Oshinsky, the actual murder rate among African-Americans was likely higher. “We had the usual number of [Negro] killings during the week just closed,” the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reported in 1904. “Aside from the dozen or so reported in the press, several homicides occurred which the county correspondents did not deem sufficient for the dispatches.”
Oshinsky reports that “many of the murders involved liquor, gambling and personal disputes.” Did the ghastly amount of violence afflicting black Mississippians spring from poor blacks “not holding up their end of the bargain?” Or was it the fact that black Mississippians were living in a kleptocracy that had no regard for their lives?
Certainly there are cultural differences as you scale the income ladder. Living in abundance, not fearing for your children’s safety, and having decent food around, will have its effect. But is the culture of West Baltimore actually less virtuous than the culture of Wall Street? I’ve seen no such evidence. Yet that is the implicit message accepted by Paul Ryan, and the message is bipartisan.
That is because it is a message that makes all our uncomfortable truths tolerable. Only if black people are somehow undeserving can a just society tolerate a yawning wealth gap, a two-tiered job market, and persistent housing discrimination.
Jonathan Chait, a big fan of Coates, isn’t so sure Coates is right about that:
Coates, who is one of my favorite writers, advocates what used to be the standard liberal view: that blaming “culture” for the problems of poor African-Americans is a way of blaming the victims and a distraction from the true causes of poverty. … Coates’s argument also forms part of the basis for the still-potent opposition to the 1996 Clinton welfare reform, and it’s odd that he is one of the few writers grappling with this still very raw division within the center-left. Coates interestingly adds historical precedent to his argument, and also interestingly takes on the incumbent African-American president in a frontal way. But ultimately, Coates is circling back to an argument that prevailed among liberals in the 1970s and 1980s, and which Democrats abandoned, correctly.
Chait sees it this way:
Coates treats the cultural explanation for African-American poverty and the structural explanation as mutually exclusive. “I can’t think of a single credible historian of our 500-year tenure here,” he writes, “who has concluded that our problem was a lack of ‘personal responsibility.'” Not even Paul Ryan, whom Coates argued yesterday holds similar views to President Obama on this issue, believes personal responsibility is the singular, root cause of the African-American predicament. The argument is that structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it. It would be bizarre to imagine that centuries of slavery, followed by systematic terrorism, segregation, discrimination, a legacy wealth gap, and so on did not leave a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success.
In short, it’s complicated, a pointless argument about whether the chicken or egg came first, as if it matters now, and anyway, not everyone agrees that black men aren’t holding up their part of the bargain:
There are points of overlap, to be sure, but the Ryan argument is dramatically different. Ryan’s analysis – or, at least, the analysis that follows consistently from his remarks and his policy agenda – is that culture now represents the entirety of the problem with the black poor. He attributes that culture to incentives put in place by the government not to work, and believes that removing those harmful incentives, in the form of cutting benefit programs, would teach poor black people to fend for themselves.
Figures like Obama, Clinton, and (I think) Cosby make a very different argument. They share the view that cultural problems contribute to black poverty, but they don’t equate them with the entirety of it. Clinton combined welfare reform with a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit, higher minimum wage, and other direct benefits. Obama has done the same.
As for Obama telling black men to get off their asses and at least vote, Chait offers this:
Obama’s habit of speaking about this issue primarily to black audiences is Obama seizing upon his role as the most famous and admired African-American in the world to urge positive habits and behavior. Coates is equating exhortation with analysis when he cites Obama urging African-Americans to “get off the couch and stop watching SportsCenter and go register some folks and go to the polls.” Coates responds acidly that African-Americans “voted at higher rates than any other ethnic group in the country. They voted for Barack Obama. Our politics have not changed.”
The Obama quote cited by Coates is from January 2008. Before then, black people turned out in presidential elections at lower rates than white people. Since, then, they have turned out at higher rates.
That’s all Obama wanted in that specific case, but Coates fires back:
The “structural conditions” Chait outlines can be summed up under the phrase “white supremacy.” I have spent the past two days searching for an era when black culture could be said to be “independent” of white supremacy. I have not found one. Certainly the antebellum period, when one third of all enslaved black people found themselves on the auction block, is not such an era. And surely we would not consider post-bellum America, when freed people were regularly subjected to terrorism, to be such an era.
We certainly do not find such a period during the Roosevelt-Truman era, when this country erected a racist social safety net, leaving the NAACP to quip that the New Deal was “like a sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.” Nor do we find it during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, when African-Americans – as a matter of federal policy – were largely excluded from the legitimate housing market. Nor during the 1980s when we began the erection of a prison-industrial complex so vast that black males now comprise 8 percent of the world’s entire incarcerated population.
And we do not find an era free of white supremacy in our times either, when the rising number of arrests for marijuana are mostly borne by African-Americans; when segregation drives a foreclosure crisis that helped expand the wealth gap; when big banks busy themselves baiting black people with “wealth-building seminars” and instead offering “ghetto loans” for “mud people”; when studies find that black low-wage applicants with no criminal record “fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison”; when, even after controlling for neighborhoods and crime rates, my son finds himself more likely to be stopped and frisked. Chait’s theory of independent black cultural pathologies sounds reasonable. But it can’t actually be demonstrated in the American record, and thus has no applicability.
What about the idea that white supremacy necessarily “bred a cultural residue that itself became an impediment to success”? Chait believes that it’s “bizarre” to think otherwise. I think it’s bizarre that he doesn’t bother to see if his argument is actually true.
And Obama needs to get his act together:
The president of the United States is not just an enactor of policy for today. He is the titular representative of his country’s heritage and legacy. In regards to black people, America’s heritage is kleptocracy – the stealing and selling of other people’s children, the robbery of the fruits of black labor, the pillaging of black property, the taxing of black citizens for schools they cannot attend, for pools in which they cannot swim, for libraries that bar them, for universities that exclude them, for police who do not protect them, for the marking of whole communities as beyond the protection of the state and thus subject to the purview of outlaws and predators.
Coates think that it’s time to wake up:
Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict black people today. They believe we need policies – though not race-specific policies – that address the affliction. I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted black people in the past, and continue to afflict black people today, and will likely afflict black people until this country passes into the dust.
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America, nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.
Of course, but everyone has already has the right to live like the normal humans they are, and no one here has a racist bone in their body. They checked. We live in a post-racial America, where kind people do and say… well, they seem to do and say racist things.
How can that be? It could be that white supremacy really is one of the central organizing forces in American life, no bones about it, even if some of your best friends are black. The absence of “personal” animus is not the absence of animus – and thus white folks really should stop talking about their bones. They really don’t matter.