Category Archives: Racial Equality

The Dilemma

I have found Charles Blow to be one of the most thoughtful and incisive columnists at the New York Times, and a recent column is an example.

Like many of us, Blow is ready to “move on,” but unsure what such “moving on” requires. Worse still, we are (choose your image) caught between a rock and a hard place, or faced with the perennial choice between chicken and egg. Blow uses an everyday dilemma faced by Blacks as an example:

You are receiving a service for which tipping is a customary practice. Maybe you’re taking a cab or receiving a beauty treatment; maybe having a drink at a bar or eating at a restaurant.

Your service provider is not Black. The service is poor. Your server is not at all attentive. You wait for things far longer than you believe you should or far longer than you believe others in the space are waiting.

When the check comes, what should the customer do? Blow says that there are studies showing  that Black people on average tip less. Studies also show that servers on average provide Black people inferior service. Given the accuracy of those results, a good-sized tip that rewards poor service might help erode the perception that Black folks don’t tip well–and as Blow says, perhaps make the next Black person’s service better. On the other hand, an average or below-average tip, the size merited by the poor service, risks cementing, in the server’s mind, the belief that Black people are poor tippers.

Neither alternative is particularly attractive.

Blow then points out that this is very similar to the dilemma faced by members of minority groups when the party that wants to keep them unequal loses an election.

There is always so much talk of unity and coming together, of healing wounds and repairing divisions. We then have to have some version of the tip debate: Do we prove to them that we can rise above their attempt to harm us or do we behave in a way that is consummate with the harm they tried to inflict?

There is a legitimate argument to be made that a spiral of recriminations will always descend into a hole of collective harm. Still, there must also be an acknowledgment that the prejudiced were trying to harm you and that, but for a few hundred thousand votes in the right states, they would have succeeded in exacting that harm.

There has been, as the column notes, ample evidence of Trump’s bigotries–against Blacks, against women, against (brown) immigrants. The vast majority of people who voted for him were well aware of that evidence. What Blow doesn’t say–but I will–is that Trump’s bigotries and racism were features, not bugs, of his campaign. His endorsement of bigotry– his normalization of racism and sexism–was at the heart of his appeal to more voters than we like to recognize.

The best you can say is that his voters certainly didn’t consider his “out and proud” racism disqualifying. So we are back to the chicken and egg.

Joe Biden, as he has always said, is seeking to be a unifying president, to be the president of the people who didn’t vote for him as well as the ones who did. I want to have that same optimistic spirit, but I must admit that my attempts at it may falter.

I don’t want to be the person who holds a grudge, but I also don’t want to be the person who ignores a lesson. The act of remembering that so many Americans were willing to continue the harm to me and others and to the country itself isn’t spiteful but wise.

Next month Joe Biden will be sworn in and the next chapter of America will begin. I plan to meet that day with the glow of optimism on my face, but I refuse to vanquish the shadow of remembrance falling behind me.

We share the conundrum. How do we model better, more truly patriotic behavior without inadvertently giving unacceptable and harmful behaviors and attitudes a pass?

 

Picturing Change

I know this blog can often be a downer. Especially during the Trump years, there has just been so much damage, so much polarization, so much hate–it’s sometimes hard to focus on areas of actual improvement.

Today, however, I want to do just that.

Social and cultural changes are almost always slow, but I am not the only observer who looked at the people protesting after George Floyd’s murder and saw multi-racial, multi-ethnic crowds who weren’t there during previous era protests. And much as I worry about disinformation in today’s fragmented media landscape, I firmly believe that certain of the changes in that media have prompted social change for the better.

Pictures matter.

Until he retired, I team-taught a course–Media and Public Affairs–with Jim Brown, then Dean of the Journalism School. We created the course, which was offered to both journalism and public affairs students. Thanks to Jim, I learned a lot–probably a good deal  more than the students.

Jim was a photojournalist, and thanks to his insights, I learned to appreciate the impact of pictures on social attitudes, and to see how photojournalism practices of the country’s newspapers had fed and supported racism. For years, the old media truism–if it bleeds, it leads–led to the publication of (often dark and grainy) photographs of people accused of crimes.  Those photographs tended to be disproportionately of Black offenders. Worse, in the early days of television and in rural areas of the country, those were often the only portrayals of African-Americans that white Americans saw.

There weren’t interviews with Black scientists or doctors, no “human interest” pieces about Black educators or successful businesspeople. Aside from sports, television didn’t feature talented Black performers. A recent “Sunday Morning” interview with Leslie Uggams included the story of her hiring by Mitch Miller; she was the first regular Black performer on a nationally-syndicated show, and a number of southern stations threatened to stop airing it if she remained. (Miller, to his credit, ignored the threat.)

Today, our televisions and newspapers, as well as our workplaces and other parts of our environments, are far more representative of American reality. There are African-American newscasters, entertainers, scientists…And that increased representation isn’t limited to Blacks. Women are now news anchors, weather-people and even sports commentators. Figures with Asian and Latino names are prominent.

For the past decade or so, the media has been delivering a far more accurate picture of America and American diversity.

If you look at the names on the list of credits accompanying a television drama or movie, you will see a wide range of ethnicities represented. Actors no longer feel the need to “Americanize” their names in order to be acceptable to folks who might be put off by anything stranger than Smith or Jones.

And then, of course, we had a Black President.

Granted, the response from the hard-core racists to all of this has been hysterical. When Obama was elected, the rocks lifted and the cockroaches crawled out in force. But for eight years, the rest of us saw a class act–a cultivated, brilliant lawyer with a great sense of humor, an impressive way with words, an equally accomplished wife and an impeccable family life–a vivid contrast with his crude, inarticulate and ignorant White successor.

This forced encounter with the reality of America’s diversity has been anything but smooth or easy. Those old White guys of a certain age (and plenty of younger ones) have looked at the pictures that are everywhere–uppity women executives, newscasters of all races and genders (many with Latino or Asian names), Black people famous for something other than sports (and uppity women who are famous for sports!)–and seen only their own loss of dominant status. They’ve resisted. Some violently.

But the pictures are there, not just in the traditional media, but in the viral testimonies captured by those ubiquitous cellphone cameras. The visual environment has changed, and with it, the broader culture. Americans are talking about privilege. We are talking about injustice. About representation. We’re seeing the world–and ourselves–far more accurately.

We aren’t nearly “there” yet. But we’re picturing it.

 

 

Two Problems, Inter-related

Conversations with friends keep returning to a question I’ve been unable to answer: who are the Trump voters? Who are the Americans who lived through the last four years and marched to the polls wanting more of the same?

The answer is emerging. Votes for Trump are almost all attributable to two things: racial resentment and the rightwing media ecosystem.

Right now–thanks to years of Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Breitbart and literally thousands of internet sites–it is perfectly possible to reside in an alternate reality, to live in a world that confirms your every preferred bias. When that world is at odds with the reality the rest of us inhabit, it absolutely precludes rational discussion and debate.

As I often tell my students, if I say this piece of furniture is a table and you say, why no, it’s a chair–we are not going to agree on how to use it.

As Jennifer Rubin recently wrote at The Washington Post,

The greatest challenge to our democracy is not that we hold deeply polarized beliefs, but that one party refuses to operate in a fact-based world that might challenge its beliefs. Whether it is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) propounding Russian propaganda, or the Wall Street Journal editorial page fanning Hunter Biden laptop conspiracy theories, or right-wing websites circulating falsehoods about crime and immigrants, we are awash with conservatives seeking to exploit the fears, ignorance and prejudices of many Americans

Rubin attributes the right-wing hysteria over “socialism” to that media bubble–she suggests rightwing media is “marooned in a weird time warp in which the ‘other side’ is some Cold War-era Marxist caricature.” Until very recently, I would have agreed with her analysis–I’ve frequently engaged in efforts to point out that the things that usually get labeled “socialism” are simply elements of the (necessarily) mixed economies of all modern nations, the public goods that markets cannot provide.

What I have finally understood–it takes me a long time, I’m dense–is that when the typical Trump voter hears “socialism,” that voter doesn’t think of an economic system. (Most couldn’t define the term accurately if they were asked.) What today’s Republican hears when an opposing candidate is labeled a “socialist” is: “this candidate wants the government to take your hard-earned tax dollars and use them for the benefit of ‘those people.'” (And we all know who “those people” are.)

Fear of “socialism” is where rightwing media and racism intersect.

Recently, a friend sent me an essay that laid it all out. Its central thesis is that more than half a century of white hostility to any kind of social progress has taken the country to a place that is dangerously close to social collapse,  culminating in Trumpism.

The author, Umair Haque, writes that “white Americans, as a group, have never, as a group, voted for a Democratic President. Never in modern history…. This trend goes back to JFK and perhaps before.”

Furthermore, Haque says that “Liberal, sane, thoughtful White Americans often overestimate how many of them there are,” and he backs that observation up with data showing that a majority of White Americans have approved of segregation, endless wars, inequality– and have made guns and religion primary social values. Majorities of White Americans have voted against most of what we think of as public goods–and against desegregation, civil rights laws, access to healthcare, retirement programs, and childcare.

The article is filled with depressing data. You really need to click through and read it in its entirety. (If you are White, you might want to pour a stiff drink first.)

I vaguely remember an old song titled “Two Different Worlds.” It ended, as I recall, with a promise that the “two different worlds” that the lovers inhabited would someday be one. Our task is a lot harder than the one in that sappy love song–we must somehow get a handle on the disinformation and propaganda and conspiracy theories–the media ecosystem that blocks out inconvenient realities and sustains White Supremacy. Then we have to have a White version of “the talk.”

Until we all see the same furniture, we aren’t going to agree on how to use it.

Alternative Dangers

As my post-election posts have rather clearly demonstrated, I have been shaken by the evidence that nearly half of Americans–after 4 years of Trump’s destructive circus and “in your face” bigotries– still support him.

My efforts to understand why have led me to characterize those voters–to treat them, as one commenter complained–as a bloc. It’s a valid observation/criticism, especially since I have a fairly long history of bemoaning a “we versus they” approach to statecraft–or really, to anything else.

And yet.

Probably because I am Jewish, and old enough to remember the Second World War and the hideous revelations in its aftermath, I see dangers in both approaches. There is certainly danger in “writing off” Americans who voted for Trump, in failing to try, at least, to understand the how and why of their world-views. But those of us from families that perished in the Holocaust, or from tribes eradicated in other genocides, see a countervailing danger: failing to understand the depth, persistence and reality of racial and religious hatred.

In the wake of the election, I did what depressed academic types do. I researched the question why “nice Germans”–people who loved their children, helped their neighbors, maintained their properties, went to church–nevertheless actively supported the eradication of German Jews. One good resource was titled “Why Germans Supported Hitler,” and it is an enlightening read.

Even more on point was an article from Psychology Today. Some of its most pertinent observations:

The vast majority of active German participants and passive bystanders had quite normal and stable personalities before Hitler came to power. Their family lives were remarkably similar to those of average middle-class American families today. They had jobs to support their families, sent their children to school, donated to local charities and socialized with friends and family on weekends.

As the author notes, neither the active participants nor the passive bystanders showed signs of having psychopathic or sadistic dispositions prior to the Nazi era. Nor is there any evidence that many participated out of fear or coercion.

Even when explicitly given a chance to opt out, most recruits went on to participate in killing and torture. Out of the 500 ordinary men in Germany who were recruited to do roundups of the 1,800 Jews in the village of Józefów, only fifteen decided not to participate after being told by Major Wilhelm Trapp that they were to shoot the woman, children and the elderly but could step aside if they didn’t want to be part of the killing…

The Germans who voluntarily signed up to do roundups or work at Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, Dachau and other concentration camps where the inmates were killed in gas chambers or used as human guinea pigs in sadistic medical experiments came from all social classes and trades. Recruits for camps and battalions included soldiers, police officers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, secretaries, train engineers, factory workers and academics…

While military-trained people were in command of the camps, ordinary Germans executed the actual atrocities. People who had previously lived side by side with Jews, willingly carried out, assisted with or facilitated sadistic human experimentation.

The article has many examples, and in searching for explanation, the author notes that simply the existence of dehumanizing stereotypes didn’t explain behaviors so vicious that the vast majority of Hitler’s executioners would not willingly have subjected their pet dogs to them.

The difference was a hatred with a much longer, deeper history. The majority of German citizens had been conditioned to hate Jews. They had been taught that the Jews had destroyed the economy, that Jews were secretly scheming to destroy non-Jewish Germans and enact a Communist coup.

They “had been mentally prepared for the ugly war long before it started.”

Since well before the Revolutionary War, a large number of Americans have been similarly socialized into racism. Today, they are constantly being told–by Fox News, by their friends on Facebook, their compatriots in QAnon, often even in their churches– that the demographic shifts we are experiencing are a threat not just to their continued dominance, but to the very survival of their way of life. The election of Obama electrified them–and not in a good way.

This is the parallel that causes my angst, my concern that well-meaning, good-hearted admonitions to “reach out” and “try to understand” may be self-destructively naive.

America’s original and persistent sin is racism. It’s our fertile soil, just as Europe’s long history of anti-Semitism nourished and fertilized the Final Solution.

Since the advent of ubiquitous cellphone cameras, we’ve had evidence that–as Sinclair Lewis warned us–it absolutely could happen here.

Facing Reality

At this moment, it looks as if Joe Biden will win. But no matter who is President when the smoke clears and the votes are all counted–if they are– we learned some things on Tuesday. And the lessons weren’t pleasant.

The most obvious–and ultimately least consequential–is that polling is not nearly as “scientific” as the pollsters think. The effort to figure out what went so wrong will undoubtedly occupy pundits and nerds for a long time.

The far more painful lesson concerns the nature of our fellow-Americans.

I read about the thuggery leading up to the election–the “good old boys” in pickups ramming Biden’s bus, the desecration of a Jewish graveyard in Michigan with “MAGA” and “Trump” spray paint, the consistent, nation-wide efforts to suppress urban and minority voters–but until election night, I’d convinced myself that those responsible represented a very small segment of the population.

I think what I am feeling now is what Germany’s Jews must have felt when they realized the extent of Hitler’s support.

I am not engaging in hyperbole: the research in the wake of 2016 is unambiguous. Trump supporters are overwhelmingly motivated by racial and religious animus and grievance. White nationalist fervor has swept both the U.S. and Europe over the past few years, but it has taken firmer hold here. The QAnon conspiracy has clear roots in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and America’s racism–our original sin–has provided fertile ground for the alt-right sympathizers who defend tearing brown children from their parents, treating both immigrants and citizens of color as disposable, and keeping women in “our place.”

Trump didn’t invent these people, but he has activated them. Indeed, he is one of them.

I thought it was tragic when Trump’s approval ratings forced me to recognize that more than a third of America fell into that category. I find it inconceivable–but inarguable and infinitely depressing–that the actual number is close to half.

Evidently, the America I thought I inhabited never really existed. I’m in mourning for the country I believed was mine.