Wednesday, September 16, 2009

THEIR NEGRO PROBLEM -- AND OURS. I'll be honest with you. I don't think racism is the biggest problem in the country. Of course I'm inclined to feel that way, since I'm white, but I've also made the judgment that it's the manipulation of racism that makes much of the trouble that we attribute to the thing itself.

The provenance of the outrage applied to the Belleville West High School incident is obvious if you've been alive for more than a couple of years. Normal people know that in different situations, black kids will victimize white kids and white kids will victimize black kids, and it's part of the sad but slowly improving situation of the United States. I knew it when I was younger and things were much worse. (I saw a little of both sides, too -- I don't mean figuratively, but with my eyes.)

Normal people work through such resentments as these incidents bestir in them as best they can. A certain type of person tries instead to work them.

To a certain extent, playing with that particular kind of fire doesn't have to come out badly. New York City is a pretty good example. There are lines, albeit thin ones, between solidarity and isolation and between righteous indignation and rage. When it goes wrong, you get the Draft Riots, "Irish confetti," the 60s riots, Crown Heights, etc. When it goes right, you get political clubs and affinity groups, which do business with other clubs and groups and get deals done to their mutual benefit.

One of the reasons conservatives classically hate New York is because we have mostly worked out our ethnic tensions this way, in informal power sharing arrangements. That angers them because it reveals something they don't like to face about racism -- that it has to do with power, and that cooling its tensions may require that grievances be addressed and redressed. Maybe some jobs have to be shoveled toward ethnically distinct neighborhoods that don't have many of them, and maybe the mayor won't always line up with the cops when a member of a minority group is killed under suspicious circumstances.

It ain't always pretty but it more or less works. You may prefer that men be angels and rise above this sort of thing, but that sort of liberal utopianism is beyond me. I do notice that people of different races seem to get along here pretty well -- certainly better than they did 30 years ago -- so maybe the incremental approach, assisted by liberal applications of grease, will get us to Valhalla anyway, albeit slowly.

Members of white majority parties resist this thinking because it suggests that they may have to give something up. So they concentrate on ways in which they can portray white people as victims of some sort of black hegemony, and adopt the prerogatives of grievance themselves. You'll remember that conservatives originally tried to get at ACORN by suggesting that it was redirecting wealth unfairly to black people. (It was only when that failed to inflame the public imagination that they turned to child prostitution stings.) The clear message of the Belleville uproar is that people of color are getting away with something, and simple justice demands that white people hold the line.

Robert Crumb explained this better than I have. I will add that I am in some sympathy with Jimmy Carter's remarks -- is it really so controversial to observe that a lot of people can't accept the idea of a black president? -- but I think he may be missing the angle shot. I wouldn't be shocked to learn that the people who are stirring the shit up at present aren't casual racists at all. (Some of them certainly go out of their way to give the impression that they're cool with black people.) But they know what racism can accomplish with a little help.

UPDATE. I found part two of the Crumb thing, which is also worth your while.


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