Wednesday, June 17, 2009

A Plea for Racism: Let it Mean Something

Kim Gandy, the president of NOW, in her recent Below the Belt column, responded to the charge of reverse racism against Supreme Court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor. According to Gandy: “Reverse racism -- an oxymoron, since the systems that oppress cannot be simply reversed, and certainly not by a single individual …” This is a common response by many liberals when conservatives throw around charges of racism of their own. The meaning of the word “racism” is redefined to mean the acts of oppression of the dominant culture, i.e. people who are white, Christian and male. The idea here is that not only is a given member of a minority group, whether they are Hispanic or Black, not guilty of racism, but that by definition they are incapable of being racist. I speak here not as a conservative trying to score points but as a liberal. As a follower of the liberal tradition, this willingness to narrowly tailor the meaning of racism concerns me as it should concern anyone for whom racism is a real issue to be fought and not just a charge to be thrown around as part of some power game.

Let us consider some of the implications of this definition of racism as something that only applies to people outside of power. Gandy does not seem to appreciate that racism often arises from a perception of powerlessness and a desire to strike out against a perceived racial oppressor. Take the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstructionist America, a definitive example of racism if there ever was one in American history. From the perspective of Southern apologetics (Watch Birth of a Nation if you want to see a good example of this.) it was white Southerners who were being oppressed by an alliance of Northerners and blacks. Now, one has to admit that these Southerners had a point; the South lost the Civil War, was devastated and at the mercy of the North. Northern abolitionists wished to help former slaves and saw them as useful allies in ruling over the former members of the Confederacy. This does not justify the actions of the Klan. Personally I think the South deserved what happened to them and actually got off too lightly. That being said, the Klan was coming from a position of lacking power. They may have struck against those who had even less power, but that still does not make their actions that of the powerful. At the end of the day, as horrible as their actions were, these were actions that came out of a lack of power. If we apply the liberal definition of racism honestly then we must accept that however we wish to describe the horrors of the Southern response to Reconstruction we cannot call it racism.

What about Nazi Germany? The Nazis arose after the defeat of Germany in World War I and the crushing peace treaty of Versailles. I am not suggesting that the Allies were not in their rights to put forth such a treaty nor am I blaming Versailles for Hitler. What we have to realize that Nazism came out of Germany’s loss of power. So the Nazis might have preached about the inferiority of Jews and other racial minorities and murdered them out of a sense that these groups were subhuman, but the Nazis cannot be labeled as racists since their actions came from their not having power. It should even be noted here that the bulk of the killing of Jews happened during the second half of the war when Germany was clearly heading toward defeat so even these actions were those of a lack of power.

On a more serious note, how should a person like me respond to Jewish “racism?” Many Haredim and even people who are supposedly Modern Orthodox like to claim that non-Jews, in some sense do not have souls or do not have souls equal to that of Jews. (I admit that there are legitimate Jewish sources for such opinions, but such opinions must be rejected. I would wish for Jews to do something similar to what the Lutheran Church did in regards to Martin Luther’s statements on Jews and officially declare such views to be outside of what a Jew is allowed to believe today.) Jews, particularly Orthodox Jews, do not dominant Western culture and these statements are meant specifically to target people of the European Christian tradition. As such it fits perfectly into the model of an oppressed group striking out against the dominant culture and therefore, by definition, can never be racist. If I am going to follow this liberal model I, therefore, cannot call such statements racist. What does a supposed liberal like Gandy want me to do? Does she want me to simply keep my mouth shut, wink and smile at such statements? There are many things that one call such a course of action, liberal is not one of them.

The liberal definition of racism would, if followed consistently, rob the term of any meaning. For me, that is a problem. As a follower of the liberal tradition, I believe that ultimately human beings are one group and should work together for the good of the human race as a whole. As such any form of tribalism, the idea that one should prefer one’s group over another is a problem. I am a realist and recognize that there is a little tribalism in us all. I am therefore willing to put up with a moderate level of tribalism as long as it is kept to the sensibility of “our men are the strongest, our women the fairest and our land the most beautiful” and that even this is recognized as something absurd to be laughed at. The moment this tribalism turns to racism, that some groups are above having ethical obligations and that others are below deserving them, we have something truly dangerous on our hands. Racism is the end of all humanism and will destroy the free society. Why should members of the “master race” bother to follow the rules of a free society and why should members of “inferior races” be allowed to benefit?

I have not formed any strong opinions on Judge Sotomayor and I have no idea if she is a racist or not. For now, I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. That being said I believe that this is an important question to be asked. As a white Jewish male, raised with the best of liberal values, I grew up knowing that I had responsibilities beyond simply white Jewish men and needed to look out for human beings as a whole. I do not claim to be perfect and I have my tribalist biases. I still know, though, to be ashamed of them and seek to limit them through regular doses of self-examination, exposure to people who are not white, Jewish or male, and, most important of all, to laugh at myself. I, therefore, have every right to ask if Sotomayor has this same sense of working on behalf of everyone and not just Hispanic women. I deserve an answer to that question and not just to be told my question is meaningless.


Miss S. said...

I stop and wonder how you stumbled upon an article produced by the National Organization for Women (I was not familiar with the that reprehensible?). I never knew you were a closet militant feminist. Anyway, in regards to the article, perhaps you need to redefine (as in come up with another term) "your" idea of liberalism so that it can be distinguished from the kind of liberalism Ms. Gandy is subscribing to. You know, that form of liberalism where minorities and women can do no wrong, and must have their every desires granted by the powerful host majority. However as a Black woman I have no desire to pack American WASPs into Aladdin's lamp. I would much rather gather representatives from all the groups and go sit on the Dr. Phil show. Maybe pass around some shots of Jamison, and get everyone to speak about their grievances.

Racism is something I abhor; however it is not the biggest crime in the world to be racist. I think that it reveals a serious flaw in either a person's intelligence or character, but in the end, you can hold it against someone no more than you can hold a low intelligence against someone. What really upsets me however are those who state they are not racist, and yet clearly are. Of course you cannot tell them otherwise...because they say they are "colorblind". Ms Gandy is a White woman; what does she really know about "racism"? Is she willing to admit that she herself has some racist tendencies? I am not implying that she does (or doesn't). What I am implying is that she widen her definition of racism beyond that of White men making fun of n!@@ers, k!k$s, and sp!#s; that the first step in solving the problem of racism is to stop pinning the problem on one group and realize that everyone needs to adjust their attitudes regarding "the others".

Miss S. said... can hold it against someone no more than you can hold a low intelligence against someone


cory said...

i enjoyed this post very much. thanks for writing!