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Finding racism where it’s not as blatant, and inventing it where it’s not present

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Falsely crying racism for political gain is a good way to make some people believe racism doesn’t exist any more.

I said that on Twitter this morning and was treated to a barrage of inanity from liberal writers like Matt Yglesias and Oliver Willis. But the point I made is true and important. I’ll elaborate here.

Here’s one problem I think we face in American race relations: Many people, including a lot of white conservatives, operate under the assumption that racism isn’t really a problem in America today.

We don’t have slavery, lynching, or whites-only bathrooms anymore, and in my experience almost all decent adults aspire to treat people equally regardless of the color of their skin. I wrote “aspire to.” I don’t think most of us are always successful at this effort of treating all of God’s children as equals, but we try, and every year, as a society, we succeed a little bit more, I think.

I think it’s pretty easy for a white person to (1) decide to treat black people equally, (2) assume he is treating black people equally, (3) if he witnesses no or very few acts of blatant racism decide that generally black people are treated equally, and then (4) conclude that the proper approach to race is total color-blindness.

Preaching color-blindness often implies a couple of things: (A) completely rejecting any type of affirmative action; and (B) wanting minorities to quit putting so much stake in their minority-ness. Both of these stances are mistaken, in my opinion, because the premises behind the doctrine of color-blindness are mistaken.

Folks who preach color-blindness, I think, often fall short on both introspection and empathy.

On introspection: It’s really hard to actually be colorblind with strangers. You can probably forget that your friend is black, hispanic, or Indian. But when a stranger, or a rough acquaintance enters the picture, race probably subconsciously enters your judgment of that person. If you decide a certain character on the subway is sketchy, it’s often for reasons you can’t fully articulate. Clothes, demeanor, grooming, posture all matter. And sure, you’ll be more wary of the leering tatted-out white dude than the black guy in a suit on his iPad. But skin color probably plays a role in your subconscious, even if it’s not always the deciding factor.

In other words, even when you’re trying to be color-blind, you’re probably not being color-blind. This shouldn’t be surprising. Man  is a fallen creature.

And this leads us to the empathy issue. Black males grow up being eyed with suspicion more than white males do — whether because of subconscious racism, people profiling based on crime statistics, or overt racism, it happens. So, if you say to a black person, “stop acting as if your race matters,” you’re asking him to be color-blind in a society that isn’t.

Probably more important: even where no White Man is Keeping Them Down at the moment, African Americans still suffer from the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow. Black children are more likely to be born into poverty, and into a fatherless home, which makes it harder for them to get out of poverty, and more likely they will fall into crime — and maybe leave their own kid in fatherless poverty.

The average white person alive today may not bear any blame for this situation, but that’s why I’m invoking empathy here — just because it’s not your fault that a black kid started life with a disadvantage doesn’t mean you should pretend he didn’t start life at a disadvantage.

I realize here many people will cite affirmative action and claim it’s easier to make it as a black man. I think that’s true in some microcosms, and only after clearing many hurdles. That is, if a black kid does well in school, gets good SATs, and keeps his life in order, he’s more likely to get into Harvard, probably. But those initial hurdles are harder to clear for the average black kid who comes from, on average, a poorer home and went to, on average, a worse school.

The upshot: there are a lot of things where a well-meaning white guy might mistakenly think race is irrelevant or racism played no role.

But then there’s another set of circumstances where the white conservative might disagree with a liberal attributing things to racism or race: when the liberal is just harping on race out of habit, out of dishonesty, out of honest mistake, or out of the first principle that white conservatives are per se racist.

There’s an entire genre of journalism dedicated to finding racism in every criticism of Obama. Is there racism in some criticism of Obama? Sure. But consider these, just a few off the top of my head:

  • Michael Tomasky at Daily Beast said Romney’s use of the word “Obamacare” before the NAACP made him a “race-mongering pyromaniac,” and a “race-baiter.” Yes, for using the word “Obamacare.”
  • MSNBC’s Ed Schultz said in 2011 that Rick Perry’s reference to “a black cloud of debt” hanging over America was racist. To help him make the point, he edited out Perry saying “debt.”
  • Jack Hitt at Harpers heard a bunch of Republicans chanting “USA! USA!” had no idea why, and so decided it must have been a racist effort to drown out a Republican Hispanic speaker.
  • Other words,off the top of my head, that are really code-words for Obama’s being black, according to liberal journalists: “skinny,” “Chicago,” and “golf.”

Once MSNBC asked if there were “racial overtones” to an anti-Obamacare protestor legally bearing arms. They even zoomed in on a holstered gun — so far that you couldn’t see that the gun-toting protestor was a black man. NBC famously edited the 911 call of George Zimmerman to make him say “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” They edited out the part where the dispatcher asked what Trayvon’s race was. Throw in Joe Biden claiming Republicans want to put black people “back in chains,” and most of Al Sharpton’s career, and you’ve got a toxic situation. While some liberals are correctly trying to convince some white conservatives that racism is more present than they think, other liberals are blatantly inventing or unfairly imagining racism where it doesn’t exist. This isn’t a good way to begin a discussion. Soon, many white conservatives believe almost all cries of racism are false, and some think it’s clever to create the impression of rampant black-on-white racism — which is what it looks like Drudge is doing these days. My points: We’d be better off if conservatives stopped believing that we are a color-blind society, and started accepting that life is generally harder for black people than for white people. We’d also be better off if liberals stopped instinctively assigning racist motives to political disagreements.