Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Race and the Left

I know race is a touchy subject, but it’s one that won’t go away, especially during a presidential election that features the country’s first African American president seeking reelection. So here goes.
I choose to address race and the left because, being active on Twitter, I see frequent debates between supporters of Pres. Obama, many of whom happen to be people of color, and some of the President’s harshest liberal critics, most of whom seem to be white. In and of itself, that doesn’t mean anything. The President has plenty of white supporters and plenty of black critics; there is no one-to-one correlation between race and support for, or opposition to, Pres. Obama. There are, however, occasions when the issue of race arises in those debates, and that seems to happen frequently these days.
I’m also sensitive to the issue because I it caused a rift between me and a long-time Twitter friend, an individual whom I won’t name because I have no doubt he’s a genuinely decent person, and because I’m certain that he, a white liberal who’s sometimes very critical of the President, is not racist in the least. So I don’t want to sic anybody on this particular Tweeter should my point here be missed.
But that difficult exchange with a former Twitter follower/followee illustrates the crux of the problem, which is two-fold: Yes, I think racism exists on the left; and, no, refusing to talk about it will not solve the problem.
Allow me to explain where I’m coming from. I certainly don’t automatically equate criticism of Pres. Obama – from the left or the right – with racism. I know many critics of the President (again, from the left and the right) who happen to be white yet who, I can say with absolute confidence, do not take race into consideration, consciously or otherwise, when they assess this President’s job performance.
Nonetheless, aside from people I know to be (or, I should say, really, really believe to be) utterly unbigoted, I can’t help but ask whether racism plays a role in some – not all, but some – of the considerable animosity directed to the country’s first black president. Take, for example, the more extreme elements of the Tea Party: Those who called Pres. Obama a Marxist; those who equated the President’s health care reform to the Holocaust; those who insisted he is secretly Muslim (so?); and those who went out of their way to caricaturize his race and ethnicity.
Of course, even the brashest right-winger will deny he or she is racist, and very few people will use overtly racist language in public. But even jurors in a court of law are told that they should “use common sense gained from [their] experiences in life, in evaluating what [they] see and hear.” (See, e.g., Illinois Pattern Jury Instructions (Civil), Instruction No. 1.01.) Certainly we can do the same thing in politics.
In other words, I know racism in a badly misspelled protest sign when I see it.
Racism on the left presents a trickier question, because the same conservatives whose hackles are permanently raised at the mere suggestion of it on their side are the first to accuse liberals of being history’s greatest racist monsters. Hitler was a liberal, they say. Clarence Thomas was the victim of a high-tech lynching! And, via Ann Coulter, there’s this catch-all: “It’s outrageous the way liberals treat a black conservative … Nothing liberals fear more than a black conservative. Ask Allen West. Ask Michael Steele …”
And then, of course, there’s affirmative action. Don’t even get me started on that.
But as misguided as those conservative attacks on liberals may be, it’s implausible to suggest that liberals can’t be racist, or that none of the millions of Americans who call themselves liberal – not a single one – is a racist. This is America; wherever a few million of us are gathered, I can guarantee you you’ll find a few bigots in the crowd.
In any event, it’s my perception (emphasis on perception) that there is a double-standard on the left when it comes to Pres. Obama. Meaning that he seems to be criticized more vociferously than, to lapse momentarily into the argot of my profession, similarly situated Democratic presidents of the past. Take, for example, Bill Clinton, who brought us NAFTA; significantly expanded the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to include physical searches of property in addition to traditional surveillance; and began the practice of extraordinary rendition – that is, sending suspected terrorists to foreign countries for interrogation, countries that do not observe the legal niceties we do (in plain English: they torture). Or Jimmy Carter, the liberal icon who illicitly supported the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after Vietnam deposed Pol Pot in 1979.
Those are some pretty un-liberal things to do; but in my perception (there’s that word again) neither Bill Clinton nor Jimmy Carter ever faced the kind of scrutiny, nor the kind of harsh criticism, Pres. Obama’s been subjected to since the moment he took office. Which is not to say there weren’t lefties who criticized Presidents Clinton and Carter for the very things I mention above; but on the whole those Democratic presidents didn’t face the daily barrage of criticism from the left that Pres. Obama faces.
Or so it seems to me.
Now all I’ve done so far is to identify what I see as a double-standard. That a double-standard exists doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the product of racism. I can imagine any number of reasons why it might exist, or appear to exist, not the least of which is that we’re living in the age of blogs and Twitter and other social media, where virtually everyone is connected to the internet and virtually everyone can (and does) share his or her political opinions all day every day. And then, too, there are some liberals who’d had enough of doggedly supporting less-than-liberal Democratic presidents and decided long before Sen. Obama announced his candidacy that they just weren’t going to take it anymore, no matter who was in the White House.
But the mere existence of certain possible explanations for that double-standard does not necessarily eliminate all other possible explanations. So it’s entirely reasonable to ask whether that double-standard might be due, in part, to racism on the left. Might be due to racism. In part.
Because like I said before, there’s no reason we can’t bring our common sense and life experiences to bear on the issue; and all these gray hairs on my head suggest I have a fair amount of the latter, if not the former. What my life experiences (and what passes for common sense in my world) tell me is that it’s not only possible but likely that racism plays a role in the way some liberals view the President … which, in turn, partly explains the double-standard.
Of course, you’re free to disagree with me. Maybe you don’t think the double-standard exists in the first place. Maybe you think Pres. Clinton and Pres. Carter faced exactly the same type of criticism – the same volume, the same frequency, the same intensity – that Pres. Obama faces today. Or maybe you agree the that a double-standard exists, but you’re certain that it’s not due to racism at all. Fair enough. I disagree, but none of us is a mind reader.
What I’m saying is, I think there’s a double-standard on the left, and I think it’s fair to ask whether it’s partly caused by racism. You know what that is? That’s not some crazy party-loyalty-fueled delusional conspiracy theory. That’s the starting point for an open, honest discussion – one that some people on the left apparently are afraid to have.
So, here’s the deal. If I call you a racist simply because you disagree with the President, by all means: Call me out on it. But if all I do is to point out a double-standard on the left and ask the question whether it could be due to race, at least in part, you don’t get to shut down the conversation just because it makes you uncomfortable.
And you know what else? Everything I just said about race and the left applies equally to gender and the left. But that’s the subject of another post …


  1. Dave von Ebers:

    It is good to read your cogent, perspicacious and well written arguments on these here pages, again, too, also.

    Yes, racism is alive and well everywhere I go. And, no, it's not limited to the KKKnuckledraggers of the ReiKKKwing. I do think that both Carter and Clinton were attacked incessantly while in office but THEIR race was not at issue--it for fuckin'damnsure is with Mr. Obama.

    And you're right about there being liberals (and progressives) who are racists--lots of them. Racism as a default is not however a defining characteristic of the left but it sure is a good descripton for a lot of the rightwing morons.

  2. I agree with you on several points: that some people on the left are racists (and don't want to admit it); that President Obama is taking more flack from some people, purely on the basis of his race, than similarly situated Democratic presidents have before. Bill Clinton took a LOT of flack, not because of his race but because of his class (and his skirt-chasing).

    I know there is racism on the left because I've spent the last 40 years or so fighting my own racism, the racism I got from my Missouri born father, and the fact that I grew up in a segregated California town (Napa) and didn't associate regularly with black kids until I was about 11 and joined the Vallejo Junior Symphony. What you don't know, you fear, as a rule; that's how the human race seems to work. Then while I was at Cal, here came the Black Panthers (while I was in grad school), which didn't exactly give me warm fuzzies about black people. I try very hard now to judge every man, regardless of race, on what he does.

    I'm generally pleased with President Obama, although I don't agree with everything he does; but he's an intelligent, thoughtful man who is putting a tremendous amount of effort into one of the most important jobs in the world. I'm really annoyed with the lefties who reject him because he hasn't put enough effort into "their" cause (yes, I mean you, immigration people, and until very recently, gays). What do they think the alternative will be if he isn't re-elected??

    The biggest problem with race in this country is that we don't talk about it except with people who are the same color we are. And that goes for all races.

  3. It's more convenient to pretend that racism is itself stereotypical than admit the subtle code of class and color is universal. You don't need a Southern accent to be racist. You can have an Ivy League degree and be racist. You can be an avowed liberal or progressive and be racist -- because racism is a universal phenomenon. We all *do* profiling in our minds because that's how our brains work.

  4. Matt Osborne:

    I do think that we humanimals are hardwired to distrust, dislike, attack the OTHER. We are NOT that far removed from the troops of chimps. OTOH, we are--on paper, at least--the putative reasoning species.

    Racism or just Otherism is at least a vestigial trait. The difference is that we CAN apply logic and generational wisdom to problems like racism and, one hopes, arrive at a better model. Given the overt/covert uses of "dog whistles" by racists and the fact that many children are still inculcated with the idea that they are superior by reason of their skin's pigmentation does not help to arrive at that more highly evolved place of acceptance.