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January 15, 2004

The Failures of Anti-Racism

Enjoining discussions about race in America is like mountain biking with nitro-glycerine in your backpack. I've been to the mountaintop, but I did so in the days before mountain bikes and backpacks when climbing was done with quiet determination. Now from a neighboring peak, I sadly witness the steady rumble of explosions like an X-Games blooper reel. I'm getting tired of listening.

What's happening in American discussions about race is disheartening to me on the whole. That is because the kinds of outrage one is most likely to hear is the kind that attends the failures of the privileged to get more privileges. Surely black politics is migrating from civil rights to social power, but too many folks have forgotten what basic justice is all about. All the high falutin' outrage doth grate mine own nerves.

A casual examination of several key incidents over the past few years leads me to the provisional conclusion that few things will correct this degrading situation. One of them is the crusade of Ward Connerly. Connerly faces two enormous challenges. The first is that his interpretation of Civil Rights Law is mostly devoid of the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Matters of racial justice are wholly different than matters of racial privilege, by conflating the two, he overemphasizes the importance of his rant against privilege and demeans the struggles of the 60s generation. He would do much better by not appropriating, but perhaps he's too old to change. The second is simple. He's not elected, he is merely a political consultant - a domain rife with hacks and charlatans. It is not enough to be a good guy on a noble mission, and the price he pays is that he is forced to lie down with dogs. Even he cringes at the mention of 'quotas' by some of his Republican cronies.

Connerly is the titular head of a cause without any rebels. Like Reparations, the cost of not addressing it is low. The failure of his proposition in California, like the failure of Pete Wilson's bid for re-election marks the end of an era. The culture wars are over, and the good guys won. It cannot be refought and every time he brings up his subjects, the shushing will get louder.

Reparations itself is yet another principled fight better left unfought. It doesn't stop people from trying, and in this matter the black senior citizen in charge of bringing the noise is Randall Robinson. I find him both singularly brilliant and utterly befuddled. His book, The Reckoning left me so profoundly disappointed I question my own abilities as a judge of character. But his character is beside the point. The Reparations debate is about as useful as that putting a human colony on Mars.

We have become a country whose racial debates are framed mostly by the opinions of a select few. Race is no longer the all consuming issue it once was. So many battles have been won, so many retired warriors keep rehashing their prior glories, the debate has become stale and ossified. This leaves most folks in a quandary. And yet the outrage that attends these debates seems both so predictable and real that they cannot be ignored - yet we do year after year, black history month after black history month. We shout, we sweat, we get frustrated, we calm down, we go home. We prepare for the next time.

I am beginning to believe that this kind of outrage becoming common is defacto evidence of the failure to create a substantial anti-racist coalition across the two parties. Much of the blame falls to liberals who have assumed a false leadership based on the premises of 'race relations', although conservative intransigence and ignorance has contributed mightily.

As David Bernstein notes, anyone anywhere seems to have license to cause a panic by claiming racism. Even as I have worked to generate dialog and consensus on the web for a few years, I find things coming apart. What I believe we are witnessing is a fundamental disagreement with what racism actually is and how closely we should examine it, if at all. We are doing so with a striking amount of unanimity that racism exists and that it must be fought, but the inability to define and put the existence and effect of racism in commonly held terms has disabled all effective combat.

This is a problem of will and priority, because of all of the problems we Americans study that of race is probably more well understandable than any. The problem remains in getting over the elementary hurdles and barriers to discussion. People have to want to talk constructively about it. By and large we don't.

As I said a few days ago, there is no question that if Johnnie Cochran were made Assistant US Attorney for Civil Rights, all racial chalkline walkers would be on immediate notice. If every tender American out there wants racism ended, why can we not make such a thing happen? I think it's because all of the partisans want total victory, which only proves an unwillingness to see eye to eye and work hand in hand.

On this MLK Weekend, you can rest assured that people will temporarily wake up their passions. That is if they are not too tired from skiing or armchair quarterbacking (Go McNabb!). This temporary lucidity is yet another step in a circular dance that goes nowhere.

America's racial history is a scar on our face long past healing and too deep for makeup. We have grown accustomed to our face. There is no getting around the fact that there will be no bipartisan adjudication. The future of race in America will be like wildflowers in Chernobyl. The catastrophe is buried in immovable concrete. What's past will never be systematically smoothed over or fixed. But those are real flowers.

Alright that was metaphor hell, but I'm too tired to talk about it and so are you.

You're not? OK go here.

Posted by mbowen at January 15, 2004 10:00 PM

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Reading this blog is an odd experience because I agree with everything you say - except when you write about race - and as to all racial matters you are completely wrong.

This alone is no problem - lots of people are wrong on race. And perhaps it is the destiny of a man, at a certain age, to decide he's got it all figured out and settle into comfortable rhythms. It'll probably happen to me. Maybe it already has - some of the kids' music these days just sounds like noise to me...

But for pete's sake, man, ease up on the "I've been to the mountaintop" schtick. It's such a central feature of your race commentary as to be a major distraction. Anyone who reads Cobb for more than a month is likely to be reminded 3-5 times that you long ago attained racial enlightenment (old school, you know, the first on your block to send Kwanzaa cards and all).

Your smug certitude is a glaring weakness in what is otherwise a brilliant offering at Cobb. If you're too "tired" or "bored" to bother with ideas (ideas!) that fail to conform with your self-defined Platonic Ideal Of Pure Racial Thought, then why bother writing about it at all? Are we just supposed to come here and receive your wisdom from on high? Are we to defer to your pronouncements merely because, according to you, you've been thinking really really hard about these issues for a long long time?

No thanks, man. Persuasion begins with respect. It is apparent from your breezy dismissal of race heretics (which, given your own quirky outlook, seems to be nearly everyone) that you're primarily interested in self-affirmation.

Some people are blinded by passion. You seem blinded by habit. Shake it off!

Posted by: BTD Steve at January 15, 2004 07:03 AM

Maybe I'm full of myself, but I've not been successfully engaged in ways that have ended up being a learning experience.

I'm sure that I'm the same way about software, but at least that can be consistently rewarding and ever-changing.

There are a million ideas about everything, including race, but only a few of them can be right. Whether or not Cobb presents a useful guide to implementation is a difficult matter because it's at odds with its intent which is to be a particularly chauvinistic stream of Old School, an unknown quantity in contemporary American culture.

Still, I don't think I'm any more chauvinistic and certain on race than I am on religion or politics.

What stands clearly however is that I have spent many years talking to thousands of people online specifically about race, and certainly Cobb doesn't reflect the kind of openness and interactivity of Boohab. But Boohab is dead. I was a host at Cafe Utne's online forum and we talked the matters to death. I went everywhere, all the time and heard out everybody.

Again, it's all in the record and I'd gladly discuss some real issues - I've got the entire website of the Race Man's Home Companion in that spirit.

You're probably very right. Writing as Cobb, I really don't have the patience to say more than been there, done that. But I'm certainly willing to defend the Boohabian work and the Race Man's Home Companion with an open mind.

In the opening salvos of this blog, I set a limit of 3000 dead, A Lynch Factor, to raise me to the level of passion worthy of continued discussion. That put the Civil Rights Movement in a certain way beneath consideration. I simply don't see race as a life and death struggle in this country, so I think we can all afford to be a bit cavalier about it. And I think we all are. After all, who is really taking Howard Dean seriously as a white man who talks to white people about race? Who is going to raise the taxes to equalize the infrastructure of racial ghettoes?

Posted by: Cobb at January 15, 2004 08:30 AM

I suppose my frustration with you is two-fold.

1) You could really make a difference, if you cared to, but on a practical level your All-Knowing routine detracts from the impact of otherwise provocative ideas. It gives the skeptical reader a handy excuse to ignore you. You don't care - apparently you think you've heard it all before - and no one needs an excuse to ignore you, anyway. Still, based on my own reaction to your attitude, I think it is likely there are other people who consider themselves open-minded, who disagree with you but are willing to be persuaded, who instead blow you off because you come across no longer being interested in thinking.

2) I've never heard of Boohab or Cafe Utne. Stop acting like everyone has, or should have, already heard of you and your various projects.

On the positive tip, the cartoon with the bulls is absolutely hilarious, and I exist in perfect harmony with your pop-cultural judgments. Your writing is eloquent (though unnecessarily cryptic) and overall I love the blog. I bitch because I care.

Posted by: BTD Steve at January 15, 2004 12:35 PM

I see where you're coming from but really how hard is it to google boohab or cafe utne?

I want to help and I think that I have, but I really don't believe there is a concise way to put all that into the context of Cobb. I have satisfied myself that there is no way to do much more online - the only thing that's remaining is a book. Sooner or later I will write one - there's certainly enough material.

I don't want to be a race man no more. It has got to be somebody else's turn and I don't believe in a lifetime of sacrifice. I want other people to do the work, and other people are doing the work. Mac Diva, for example.

At any rate, the best introduction to my work online in a historical fashion is here.


Posted by: Cobb at January 15, 2004 06:05 PM

I know only a few black people well. One is a friend of mine and your writing reminds me of his strength of character. We argue and agree from a level of mutual respect. But it's so unusual for white people and black people to be similar enough to communicate informally. It makes me fear that black men like him (and you?) live in a permanent minority status, and that is why so many smart and well-read black people may seem overly race-conscious to readers like BTD Steve.

The other was my first boss. She was a black woman who hired me for a glorified data-entry job. The work force in that job was about 50% mature black women and the rest of us were "other" -- but a lot of white kids with college degrees. I remember how empty the department was on MLK day, and I was one of the few around to work since the company only allowed for voluntary holidays on that day. It didn't occur to me then to use a vacation day for MLK back then. Now, he's part of my American pantheon...If I take George Washington Day, then I take MLK day.

When I "moved on up" after only a few months, I expected the people in my old department to resent me -- at least partially because of race -- but they didn't. They seemed to expect it. I don't know why--I think I was better suited to exec-level work and so did the people I worked with, but how much of the resignation I saw in the eyes of my old manager was racial? She remained more than cordial to me for the time that I worked at that company, even after I made executive management. But I was always thinking that in her eyes I was a white guy who was supported by the system, no matter how she felt about me personally.

My situation seems to be a textbook racial problem -- white guy promoted past black people and it seems a paradigm for a larger systemic racism, even though objectively it wasn't racist. My black friend gets promoted past other people and ends up feeling isolated. Why do race relations still seem so fucked up?

Maybe your "been there, done that" attitude turns off BTD Steve, but I feel alright talking to you about this. You seem to have a grip on this stuff.

Posted by: Christopher at January 16, 2004 05:22 PM

In some ways I feel exceptional because of the many ways I've dealt with race. I started out with a headstart that I took for granted, and then came back around and purposely dealt with racial issues from ground zero with no assumptions.

At the same time I don't feel particularly special because what I know anybody could know. I understand that living is very different from reading, but I do expect people to read. It's nothing I've really talked about so let me show you one of myListamania Lists from Amazon. I'm the last one who is going to say that you understand race or blackness because of the color your skin, but by the content of your character. Still I expect people think that I'm just talking off the cuff and I happen to make sense. But don't consider myself any more extraordinary than anyone else who has read the same books, although I'm probably more of a popular casual writer. Racial understanding is hard work, which is why I don't have a lot of patience for people who aren't willing to do the work. Nothing I say is going to make people read those books. So if you don't care that much, you don't care. Fine. No problem, just understand that you can only be taken so seriously. I'm not going to excuse anti-intellectuality. It's not just being a father of three in his 40s.

All that's true and I'm perfectly happy that 'people like BTD Steve' just dig the comics. Perfectly fine with me.

I think race relations is fucked up because people are afraid to talk about it and get their feelings hurt. I don't care. I understand, but I really don't care. It may sound very Buddha but the path to wisdom is rocky and you have to transcend the pain to gain enlightenment. As I mentioned about SCAA, you have to live in that place and then try to honestly try to see why people hurt each other purposefully. A lot of things become clear.

At any rate, if there were just two books I would have anyone read to get a long perspective on the black / white thing in America they would be Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks and Jazz by Toni Morrison.

Cloudsplitter basically obliterates the myth that our complaint about racism is 'modern' and something that earlier Americans couldn't grasp, or that being black is a pre-requisite to a perfect grasp of the problem. You cannot read this book and not be transformed.

Jazz is nothing more or less than a book that puts the entire black & white thing in the context of family. Blackfolks and whitefolks are a divorced family.

I wish, Christopher, I could tell you where folks discuss race honestly and respectfully online. I had considered hosting such a forum and still might again in the future after I become wealthy and/or well-connected. I think you need to understand that there are thousands of stories like yours that nobody knows where they can go to talk about it. The stories get bottled up inside, precious, fragile. You speak up at the wrong time or place and get a verbal smack. It happens too often. So a safe place is needed...

This sounds like a contradiction. On one hand I say I don't care, on the other hand I say I understand the pain. But my attitude about race is the same as it is with marriage. There's the right way and there's everything else. People who find it necessary to get it right will put in the effort and get the results they deserve with no help from me. People who lament the sorry state or get in trouble... what am I supposed to do, hang out a shingle? People do not need to be instructed on how to get over in their own lives - that is a different matter however from those who take it upon themselves to instruct, to engage in politics and agitate for change. I'm one of the latter and I've had enough people tell me personally that I've made a positive difference to know I've done a few things right. So I'm not going to let any half-assed charlatans off the hook. That's a matter of ordinary morals, and not wanting to see my country polluted, but it's not a profession and I am not going to be like an old mobster who gets pu-u-u-u-lled back in.

In case I haven't made it abundantly clear. This is college material. If you laughed and joked through your American Studies class, it's your loss. The best thing to do is assume that there are smart people who get it. Find them and hang out. Enjoy life and fight racism when you can.

Posted by: cobb at January 16, 2004 11:15 PM

Did anyone catch the second episode of that reality series "The Apprentice" vying for a job with Donald Trump? One team is all female, and the one black female on the team (Omorosa) and another white female (Erika) are arguing back and forth over some issue about teamwork and respect. These two have not gotten along at all. Erika derides one of Omorosa's comments/criticisms as "the pot calling the kettle black". Omorosa then accuses Erika of a racial slur, and Erika is flabbergasted. I have to admit I saw nothing racist in the comment, either in tone or in actual content, and was shocked by the accusation. but apparently Omorosa did hear or infer something, or was trying to play a race card to back Erika down. My opinion is if the majority of black americans would feel the same way as Omorosa, I fear there is little hope of a constructive dialogue between blacks and whites occurring in the near future. But I have to believe we are not that far apart?

Posted by: brad at January 17, 2004 08:54 PM

Somebody named 'Omorosa' is always going to have to live up to her name. Maybe she'll get in the history books for her great contribution to the legal framework of Civil Rights by banning the phrase 'pot calling the kettle black' from television. I'm sure her grandchildren will be thrilled.

Posted by: Cobb at January 18, 2004 10:11 AM

Hey - thanks for the links and book recommendations. It's not hard to Google "boohab." Apparently I was unsuccessful in communicating that my critique was stylistic, not substantive.

The "just dig the comics" line was gratuitous, but I guess I shouldn't bitch since I wrote the "no longer interested in thinking" line. I'm the last pot in the world to call the kettle black.

Even though you've been there and done that, you're now reaching another audience - one which doesn't know anything about you. Ultimately of course the choice is yours, but my purpose in posting here is to urge you to throw us a line down here at base camp rather than looking on bemusedly from the neighboring peak. Come on - if you REALLY didn't think it was worth the effort, why would you write so much?

All the best, word up, whatever,

BTD Steve

Posted by: BTD Steve at January 19, 2004 03:22 PM

Thanks, I will read those books!

Posted by: Christopher at January 21, 2004 01:44 AM

Christopher sez: "...My situation seems to be a textbook racial problem -- white guy promoted past black people and it seems a paradigm for a larger systemic racism, even though objectively it wasn't racist. My black friend gets promoted past other people and ends up feeling isolated... "

Been there, seen that. Add to this the dimension of competence vs. incompetence and it's a 2x2 matrix.

Not every promotion will be readily accepted in a shop -- management had best consider that the remaining peons will react somehow when a peer gets the nod.

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