[The fourth post in my series on race in contemporary America. Remember that your suggestions, and guest posts, are very welcome!]
The difficult but important task of separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to charges of racism.
Most of the time I give virtually no credence to the idea that “political correctness” has been a force for ill in our contemporary society—perhaps because I almost always hear that idea advanced by bigots who miss the ability to express their bigotry without fear of the consequences—but a couple recent cases have illustrated that worries about perceived racism can indeed reach a silly and yet destructive level. In addressing the New York Knicks’ first real losing streak of the Jeremy Lin era, three different sports journalists used the clichéd phrase “a chink in the armor”; it seems as clear as it can be, to me, that in all three cases the journalists did not think for a moment about the racist version of that first word, and in fact no public outrage or even offense was expressed in any of the cases. Yet the journalists’ organizations took extreme steps in response, not only apologizing for the potential offenses but punishing the journalists—ESPN fired the young website producer who had written its headline and suspended the host who had used the phrase, while MSG “disciplined” the broadcaster who used it.
The real problem with these incidents isn’t just that the figures in them were harshly punished (at least in the case of the fired ESPN producer) for, at best, questionable mistakes; it’s also and especially that such over-reactions on behalf of perceived (or even hypothetical) offenses can make it seem as if the concept of racism has indeed become simply a matter of over-sensitivity and “political correctness” run amuck. And that perspective, in turn, can make it easier for actual expressions of racist beliefs to return to our public discourse, framed for example as the harmless views of “non-racist racists.” That phrase is precisely how a Rutgers University graduate student described herself, in a December 2011 letter inviting fellow students to a viewing party for the Walt Disney film Song of the South (as subsequently reported by some of those students to the University newspaper); the student went on to express a desire for her attendees to bring their own “Darkeyisms,” and warned potential guests that she “might yell racist things at the TV.” After the newspaper article appeared, the party itself apparently never happened, Rutgers apologized for the letter, and the whole incident could be seen as another case of making a mountain out of a relatively non-existent molehill; yet I believe that phrase “non-racist racist” is instead a very telling one in our contemporary culture.
After all, the two most prominent late 20th and early 21st century histories related to race in America suggest that we have made great strides in achieving racial equality: the Civil Rights Movement can be rightly seen as the beginning of those strides; and the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency, particularly when coupled with other noteworthy individual achievements such as Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court, can and has been read as a culmination of those strides, as what Civil Rights leader John Lewis famously called “what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” It was in part in response to this link that former Reagan Secretary of Education William Bennett said after Obama’s election that “you don’t take excuses any more from anybody who says, ‘The deck is stacked.’” Yet Bennett’s assertion can be framed instead as precisely an example of this non-racist racism, as a statement ostensibly in support of an equal, post-racial society that in fact directly attacks all those African Americans (and other minorities) in whose lives institutional racism and other discriminations continue to play significant roles. It would be the deepest of ironies if some of the most ideal and hopeful progressive America moments contributed to a backlash of bigotry and hatred, to a return of the kinds of divisive perspectives that were the national norm before those advances; but America is no stranger to ironic turns of history, and the worst thing we American Studiers could do is to pretend that such racisms have not returned, and are not worth combating.
Next in the series tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?
3/29 Memory Day nominee: Enea Bossi, Sr., the Italian American immigrant and aviation engineer who co-founded the American Aeronautical Corporation (AAC), built the first stainless steel airplane (the BB-1) in 1931, and invented the pedal glider, among other significant achievements.