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“Words, Ideas, Actions, And The Tangle Of Race”: Sometimes Language Isn’t Really The Problem

We seem to be having one of those moments when a series of controversies come in rapid succession and make everyone newly aware of the relationship between language, ideas, and actions. And naturally, it revolves around our eternal national wound of race.

Nevertheless, it’s nice to see that in a few of these controversies, we aren’t actually arguing about what words mean. This is often a focus of disagreement when somebody says something that other people take offense at; for instance, when Paul Ryan said a few weeks ago that “[w]e 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 of the culture of work,” conservatives believed he was being unfairly tagged as racist for using a common phrase, while liberals objected to the connection between the word and the idea that followed. There’s nothing racist about the term “inner city” in and of itself, but when people say it they are usually referring to urban areas where black people are concentrated, and when you then describe a pathological laziness that is supposedly prevalent there, then you’ve said something problematic.

But when Cliven Bundy offered his fascinating thoughts on the state of black America, people weren’t appalled because of his use of the outdated term “Negro” in “Let me tell you another thing about the Negro.” It was what came afterward. He could have said “Let me tell you another thing about the African-American,” and it would have been just as bad, and not only because he was about to paint all members of a race with the same ugly brush. (Cliven, it’s safe to surmise, would never say “Let me tell you another thing about the white,” because the idea that all white people are the same in some fundamental way would be ridiculous to him.) To conservatives’ credit, they got this immediately and ran away from Bundy as fast as they could, even if there was still plenty to criticize about the fact that they embraced him in the first place.

And then there’s Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who has apparently been caught on tape telling his “girlfriend” (I put that in quotes because there’s just no way to even think of a relationship between an 81-year-old billionaire and a 31-year-old model type without being seriously repulsed) that he doesn’t want her publicly associating with black people, putting pictures of her with black people, or bringing black people to his games, despite the fact that we’re talking about an NBA team here. Even weirder is that the black person in question is Magic Johnson, one of the most revered and beloved sports heroes of the last half-century or so.

A statement released by the Clippers said: “Mr. Sterling is emphatic that what is reflected on that recording is not consistent with, nor does it reflect his views, beliefs or feelings. It is the antithesis of who he is, what he believes and how he has lived his life.” Which is the kind of thing you say when there’s a dispute over the interpretation of a word or phrase. We all say things we don’t exactly mean sometimes, or say something in a way that can be misinterpreted. But when you go on and on about how you don’t want people to know that your “girlfriend” hangs out with black people, that’s hard to misinterpret. And so, no one is defending Sterling. Some ridiculous conservatives have tried to make the case that since he donated money to a couple of Democrats a couple of decades ago that this is yet more evidence that Democrats are The Real Racists (Michael Tomasky vivisects that here), but not even many of their compatriots are going to bother with that.

As Jay Smooth points out, it’s interesting that Sterling’s longstanding and widely known record of racist actions, like trying to keep blacks and Hispanics out of rental buildings he owns, weren’t enough to generate calls for him to get booted from the NBA, but some racists words were. Despite all our arguments about the ambiguities of language, it’s his language—or, more properly, his ideas expressed through language—that everyone can agree on. And there wasn’t a racial slur in his conversation, as though he knows which words are OK to use and which ones aren’t, but he still thinks it’s OK to express racism toward black people, so long as you just call them “black people.”

Which brings us back to Paul Ryan. McKay Coppins of Buzzfeed has a piece out today about Ryan that features this exchange:

At one point, as he tells me about his efforts during the presidential race to get the Romney campaign to spend more time in urban areas, he says, “I wanted to do these inner-city tours—” then he stops abruptly and corrects himself. “I guess we’re not supposed to use that.”

His eyes dart back and forth for a moment as he searches for words that won’t rain down more charges of racism. “These…these…”

I suggest that the term is appropriate in this context, since it is obviously intended as an innocuous description of place. He’s unconvinced, and eventually settles on a retreat to imprecision: “I mean, I wanted to take our ideas and principles everywhere, and try for everybody’s vote. I just thought, morally speaking, it was important to ask everyone for their support.”

Ryan is laboring under the misimpression that all he did wrong before was use the term “inner city,” and if he banishes that term and any other dangerous ones from his vocabulary, then everything will be cool. Sorry, Congressman—it’s not so easy.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 28, 2014

April 29, 2014 Posted by | Race and Ethnicity, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Racists Among Us”: No, Racism Isn’t Back. It Never Went Away

Let’s not pretend that deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy and basketball team owner Donald Sterling are the last two racists in the United States. They have company.

I hear regularly from proud racists who send me — anonymously — some of the vilest and most hateful correspondence you could imagine. You’ll have to trust me about the content; this stuff, mostly vulgar racial insults directed at President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, is too disgusting to repeat.

My sensibilities are not delicate. I grew up in South Carolina as the civil rights movement reached its climax, a place and time where racism was open, unambiguous and often violent. I would be the last person to deny that we’ve made tremendous progress against discrimination. But it is obvious that we have miles to go.

Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. was harshly criticized five years ago when he said we are “essentially a nation of cowards” in our reluctance to confront the racial issues that remain. In retrospect, Holder was merely telling a truth that many still will not acknowledge.

Bundy’s hideous assessment of “the Negro” — he wondered whether African Americans were better off as slaves, picking cotton, than they are today — should have come as no shock.

A Nevada rancher who refuses to pay for grazing his cattle on federal land, Bundy belongs to the far-right, anti-government fringe. I’m talking about the kind of people who deny the federal government has any legitimacy and expect black helicopters to land any minute. This worldview has found a home in the tea party movement, which harbors — let’s be honest — a racist strain.

This is not to say that all or most tea party adherents share Bundy’s ugly prejudices. But it has been obvious since the movement emerged that some tea partyers do. Media-savvy leaders eventually convinced those attending rallies to leave the racist placards at home, but such discretion says nothing about what remains in those people’s hearts and minds.

Racist words from Donald Sterling, a real estate mogul who owns the Los Angeles Clippers, also should have been less than surprising. In 2009, Sterling agreed to pay $2.73 million to settle a Justice Department lawsuit alleging discrimination against African American and Latino tenants in his apartment buildings. In an earlier discrimination suit, settled for an undisclosed sum, one of his property managers quoted Sterling as saying of black tenants in general that “they smell, they’re not clean.”

Still, the recording of the alleged conversation between the 80-year-old Sterling — there has been no denial that it’s his voice — and his young girlfriend dominated the weekend’s news, perhaps because it was not only racist but truly weird.

“It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people,” the voice believed to be Sterling’s says to the girlfriend, V. Stiviano — who is of mixed African American and Mexican heritage.

Sterling apparently believes that since Stiviano is light-skinned and has straight hair, no one has to know that she is part black — if only she would stop posting photos of herself with African Americans, such as basketball legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson, on Instagram. He instructs her not to bring Johnson to Clippers games.

Throughout the recorded conversation, which was obtained by TMZ.com, Sterling is unable to grasp why a black woman might resist his demand that she not be photographed with other black people. He apparently views racial segregation, at least in public, as the way things still ought to be.

Sterling’s racism has the National Basketball Association in an uproar — understandably, given that nearly 80 percent of the league’s players are black. Even Obama, midway through a trip to Asia, felt the need to comment on what he called Sterling’s “incredibly offensive racist statements.” He said Sterling was advertising his “ignorance.”

But something more sinister than cluelessness was involved. Sterling made clear in the conversation with Stiviano that African Americans were unwelcome in his “culture.” This is old-fashioned “separate-but-equal” racism, pure and simple.

The Republican Party, Fox News and a majority of the Supreme Court would like to believe such naked prejudice is history. Yet some big-city school systems are as segregated as they were in the 1960s. Leading public universities are admitting fewer black students than a decade ago. The black-white wealth gap has grown in recent years. Blacks are no more likely than whites to use illegal drugs, yet about four times more likely to be arrested and jailed for it.

No, racism isn’t back. It never went away.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, April 28, 2014

April 29, 2014 Posted by | Discrimination, Racism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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