Racism, White Liberals and the Limits of Tolerance

Published in LIP Magazine, www.lipmagazine.org, 12/04/00.

Let me get this straight: If three white guys chain a black man to a truck and decapitate him by dragging him down a dirt road, that’s a hate crime; but if five white cops pump nineteen bullets into a black street vendor, having shot at him 41 times, that’s just “bad judgment?” And what’s more, we should pass hate crime laws that require enforcement by the police? Call me crazy, but something about this brings to mind the one about the foxes and the henhouse.

Don’t get me wrong: I realize there are horrible acts of bias-inspired violence perpetrated every day in America against people of color, not to mention gays and lesbians, women, and religious minorities. And I have no problem in principle with passing special laws to send a message that such hatred won’t be tolerated. But is this really the point? Does it do anything to address the larger issues of racism, sexism, or homophobia that plague our society? And will it save Amadou Diallo, or prevent Abner Louima from getting a toilet plunger shoved up his ass by bigots in blue uniforms? Of course not. Hate crime laws make us feel better. But in the end, the biggest injuries suffered by people of color continue: job and housing discrimination; unequal access to health care; and the development of a prison-industrial-complex that is locking up black and brown folks faster than you can say “three-strikes-and-you’re-out;” all of which could and would persist, even if there was never another cross-burning on a black family’s lawn, or another violent assault on an immigrant.

And this is what’s wrong with our national dialogue on race. It only takes place in a comfort zone where pretty much everyone can agree. So when James Byrd gets dragged to death in Jasper, everyone, including the Klan, is quick to condemn the atrocity. But when the Centers for Disease Control and National Center for Health Statistics report that several thousand African Americans and a few thousand more Latino/as and American Indians die annually because they receive inferior health care relative to their white counterparts (and who, in other words, wouldn’t die were they simply white), few people say anything.

When we hear about people of color harassed by neighbors in white communities and forced to move due to the bigotry of a few, most of us react with horror. “How terrible,” we insist, “people should be able to live wherever they choose.” But when study after study indicates that people of color are denied home mortgages at twice the rate of whites, and considerably more often, even when they have similar credit and even higher incomes, and that they face housing discrimination over two million times a year because of more subtle biases — far less blatant than the racist neighbor — few raise their voice indignantly, and no one thinks to send bankers or real estate agents to jail for bias crime.

And when we turn on Jerry Springer and see some Klansman or skinhead ranting about the inferiority of black and brown people, we laugh, and yell at the TV, and collectively condemn them. But when two well-respected social scientists named Murray and Herrnstein write a book like The Bell Curve — which argues pretty much the same thing, only with footnotes — we not only fail to condemn them, but white folks go out and make their book a best-seller: half-a-million copies sold in the first eighteen months. Furthermore, Murray gets interviewed on every major news show in America, and is then asked to speak to the GOP Congressional delegation one month after the Republicans took over Congress.

My point is simple, but given what passes for our national understanding of these issues, apparently in need of explicit recitation: The problem of racism is not to be found at the extremes. It’s not about “intolerance,” and a need to “love your neighbor,” hold hands, and sing Pete Seeger songs. The problem is the everyday discrimination, inequity, and mainstream silence about these things by folks who pretend to care about racism, and think they can prove it by condemning lynch mobs: an act that ceased to be courageous about forty years ago.

To that effect, we have groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center spending their time (and contributor’s money) taking a handful of Nazis to court, tracking hate groups on the internet, and sending out stamps that say “teach tolerance” to folks on their mailing list so as to raise more funds (despite an endowment of over $100 million dollars). In addition to the Center, there are at least a half-dozen organizations nationwide that focus almost exclusively on doing battle with “the far-right.” They can tell you everything you’d ever want to know about even the most insignificant Christian Identity church (members of which believe Jews are Satanic and persons of color are “mud people” without souls), or let you know who attended the most recent meeting at the Aryan Nations compound, all of which might be helpful the next time you’re sitting around playing militia trivia with Morris Dees, but is likely of little use the rest of the year.

It makes one wonder: with all these nice liberals focusing on intolerance and “extremists,” who’s challenging the persistent institutional injustices which will do more damage to people of color in the next ten minutes than the National Socialist White People’s Party has done in their entire history? Unfortunately, the answer is not nearly enough folks to meet the challenge. Indeed, not only does mainstream liberal discourse on these issues siphon off time, money and energy from the real battles against structural injustices, it makes it harder to convince anyone those problems really are problems after all. When someone like former President Clinton says, “We have torn down the barriers in our laws. Now we must break down the barriers in our lives, our minds and our hearts,” it makes it easy for people to believe racism is nothing more than an attitude problem in need of adjustment, or perhaps a 12-step group to put us on the collective road to recovery. What’s more, since hardly anyone will admit to racial prejudice of any type, focusing on bigotry, hatred, and acts of intolerance only solidifies the belief that racism is something “out there,” a problem for others, “but not me,” or anyone I know.

Extremism and the Focus on “the other”

Ask any white person what a racist looks like, and you’re likely to get a response involving the kinds of characters one sees on talk shows: men and women wearing sheets, hoods and swastikas, yelling slurs at people of color. Having seen these types of bigots on a regular basis, folks become convinced that they and they alone are the problem.

Consider one of the women interviewed by Joe Feagin and Hernan Vera for their 1995 book, White Racism, who, when asked her opinion of blacks replied: “They look like apes…I dislike them, except when they treat me with respect…I don’t say I hate every black person, (just) the majority,” but then went on to explain, “I don’t consider myself racist. When I think of the word racist, I think of the KKK, people in white robes burning black people on crosses…or I think of the skinheads…”

Indeed, it’s doubtful that the seventeen percent of white Americans who readily tell pollsters that “Blacks lack an inborn ability to learn,” would consider themselves racists; nor the 31 percent who claim “most blacks are lazy;” nor the 50 percent who believe blacks are “more aggressive and violent” than whites; nor the 75 percent who express the belief that “Most blacks would rather live off welfare than work for a living.” In fact, despite these numbers, only six percent of whites admit they are “racist or prejudiced”–about half as many as will say they believe Elvis is still alive.

Even more disturbing than these individual’s own denials of their racism, is the seeming disregard paid such everyday prejudice by “anti-bias” organizations. Despite the fact that 17 percent of the white population — the percentage admitting they believe in black genetic inferiority — comprises 34 million white Americans; and despite the fact that this 34 million people is equal to the size of the entire black population of the U.S., groups like Klanwatch, the Anti-Defamation League and others seem to care little about challenging these folks’ racism, unless of course they join a hate group or kill someone, in which case they will then become a problem worth addressing.

Again, call me crazy, but I’m more concerned about the 44 percent who still believe it’s alright for white homeowners to discriminate against black renters or buyers, or the fact that less than half of all whites (according to polls in the early 90s) think the government should have any laws to ensure equal opportunity in employment, than I am about guys running around in the woods with guns, or lighting birthday cakes to Hitler every April 20th. Sure, folks like that can do serious damage (just witness Oklahoma City for example), but the fact remains that the Tim McVeighs of the world get these ideas somewhere, long before they stumble across white power websites or read racist hate novels like The Turner Diaries.

Where Would They Get Such a Crazy Idea?

Ever notice how people seem genuinely amazed whenever yet another vicious hate crime takes place, or when they hear about an increase in the number of openly racist organizations in the U.S? Each time one of these “isolated incidents” like Jasper occurs, the teeth-gnashing begins and the tears flow anew, and the sense of confusion as to how anyone could become such a hateful racist in a nation like ours begins to set in.

But is it really that hard to understand? Is it that hard to imagine that young white people who look around and see police locking up people of color at disproportionate rates, might conclude there was something wrong with these folks? Something to be feared, and if feared then perhaps despised? Is it so difficult to believe that whites who hear politicians blame immigrants of color for “taking American jobs,” or “squandering welfare dollars,” might conclude that such persons were a threat to their own well-being? Is it that difficult to believe that someone taught from birth that America is a place where “anyone can make it if they try hard enough,” but who looks around and sees that in fact, not only have some not made it, but that these unlucky souls happen to be disproportionately people of color, might conclude that those on the bottom deserve to be there because they just didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t have the genetic endowment for success?

When police in Riverside, California shoot Tyisha Miller in her car, because, after they pounded on her window and woke her from a diabetic stupor, she reached for a gun to protect herself, what message is sent regarding the value of black life? And how does it differ from that of the Klan?

When police in Philadelphia shoot Dontae Dawson in his car because he raised his hand and they “thought he had a gun,” (which he didn’t), what message is sent about the value of black life? And how does it differ from that of White Aryan Resistance?

When New Jersey State Troopers pump eleven shots into a van occupied by four black and Latino students on their way to basketball tryouts, simply because the van, after being pulled over, started to slowly roll backwards and they thought the young men were “trying to run them over,” what message is sent about the value of black and brown life? And how is it different from that of the skinheads?

When a cop in Chicago shoots Carl Hardiman for refusing to drop his “weapon” (which turned out to be a cell phone), or when Brooklyn officers shoot 15-year old Frankie Arzuega in the back of the head, kill him, and then don’t report the incident for three days, at which time they’re never disciplined, or when Anibal Carrasquillo is killed by yet another Brooklyn cop, shot in the back, for no identifiable reason, or when Aswon Watson is killed by still another of New York’s finest, shot 18 times sitting in a stolen car, unarmed, and the grand jury indicts no one, or when Aquan Salmon, age 14, is shot in the back by an officer in Hartford, Connecticut after being chased for a crime he didn’t commit, what message is sent about the value of the lives of people of color, and how does it differ from the message of David Duke?

And lest anyone think these are mere “isolated incidents,” it should be noted there are over 15,000 cases of alleged police brutality on file with the Justice Department, languishing for lack of funds to investigate; and that brutality complaints in New York City alone have risen by 62 percent since 1992, costing over $100 million in damage payouts to victims; and that studies have found that anywhere from 80-97 percent of brutality victims are people of color, while the overwhelming majority of officers involved are white; or that in 75 percent of the cases where police kill someone, the person killed was unarmed.

But the message that people of color are “different,” “dangerous,” and need to be controlled is sent out by more than just local police. The criminal justice system from start to finish inculcates such a mindset. Even though African American and Latino crime rates have remained roughly steady for two decades, the numbers of persons of color incarcerated has tripled, thanks to intensified law enforcement in communities of color. The war on drugs — fought mostly in poor and person-of-color-communities, despite the fact that whites are 74 percent of drug users — has contributed dramatically to the growth of a prison-industrial-complex, which is quickly sapping resources from education, job training and other vital programs.

Nationwide, spending for job creation and training has fallen by more than half since the 1980s, while spending on “corrections” has exploded by 521 percent. In California, spending on higher education as a share of the state budget has fallen by nearly 99 percent since 1980, while spending for prisons has mushroomed by nearly 800 percent. In New York, spending on prisons has increased by $761 million since 1988, during which time funding for the City and State University systems was slashed by $615 million. A decade ago, New York spent twice as much on higher ed as it did on prisons. Now, the state spends almost $300 million more annually locking mostly people of color away. Since 1980, the number of whites incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 103 percent, while the numbers of blacks incarcerated for drug offenses during this time grew by 1,311 percent, and the number of Latinos incarcerated on drug charges grew by over 1,600 percent.

What message does our society send when we allow, and even cause by a combination of policies, the kind of housing segregation, isolation, and poverty which confront all too many persons of color? When blacks who work full-time, year round are still three times as likely to be poor as whites who do the same, and Latino/as working full-time year-round are still four times more likely to remain poor? When unemployment for persons of color remains in double-digits and twice the white rate even in times of economic recovery? When white college grads are two-and-a-half times more likely to find work than black college grads, and whites with only a high school diploma are just as likely to have a job as an African American or Latino with a college degree? Why should we be surprised that at least some persons, witnessing the way the larger institutions of our society neglect (at best) and oppress (at worst) people of color, might reach the conclusions that they were superior, more deserving of opportunity and perhaps even life, than those same persons?

Simply put, any nation that allows corporate polluters in communities of color to get away with fines that amount to only one-fifth the amount they would pay in white neighborhoods, is going to have a hard time convincing me it’s serious about cracking down on hate or racism of any kind. Any nation that thinks nothing of strip mining uranium on American Indian land, thereby causing Navajo teens to develop reproductive organ cancer at 17 times the national average, doesn’t have much moral capital to expend lecturing Klansmen who burn down black churches. Any nation that funds education mostly through property taxes, thereby guaranteeing massive inequity between the schools and resources available in poor urban and rural areas relative to more affluent suburbs, deserves to be laughed at when it proclaims itself committed to fairness, tolerance, and equity.

In other words, even to the extent that we should concern ourselves with combating “hatred,” or “intolerance,” be it of the individual or organized type, it is still necessary to consider the ways in which such overt bigotry is instilled by the larger workings of the dominant culture, and by institutions run not by “extremists,” but by acceptable, respected and mainstream Americans. This is the vital context to the politics of hatred which is rarely explored, let alone addressed by the organizations who proclaim themselves dedicated to an antiracist mission.

The Defeat of David Duke and the Victory of “Dukism”

There is perhaps no better example of the inadequacy of simply fighting extremists, and overt racism, than in that provided by the decade-long struggle against lifelong white supremacist David Duke, in Louisiana. The best-known organized racist in modern times, Duke was elected to the Louisiana legislature in 1989. Thereafter he received 44 percent of the vote (and 60 percent of the white votes) in a losing stab at the U.S. Senate in 1990; lost in his bid for Governor in 1991 (although he received about 55 percent of all white votes cast), and then faded considerably in subsequent campaigns for President, and a second run for a Senate seat as well as another Gubernatorial campaign.

At the time of Duke’s electoral collapse (around 1995), many proclaimed him finished, a has-been, with no ability to influence American politics in the future, let alone win office. And yet,in 1999, even after a solid eight years of being exposed as a vicious racist and anti-Semite, there he was, pulling down 28,000 votes (almost one-fifth of all votes cast), and running third in the race for the U.S. Congress seat vacated by Bob Livingston. Missing the runoff by only about 4,000 votes, Duke can rightly claim that although he is not likely to win elected office anytime soon, he has had a significant impact, and will continue to do so, on the face of politics.

Even though his electoral support base is now largely limited to fairly hard-core racists — who haven’t been put off by his reversion back to open advocacy of white supremacy — the fact remains that even in those elections Duke has lost, the other candidates, including the winners, have been forced to move to the right on issues like welfare, affirmative action, crime, education, and immigration. Likewise, campaigns across the nation have increasingly sounded like those he was running eight and nine years ago, with candidates literally falling all over themselves to “steal from Duke’s playbook,” as Pat Buchanan termed it (shortly before doing it back in 1992).

So unfortunately, even as Duke, the “extremist” has been defeated — and don’t get me wrong, it was proper to target him as a Nazi, and I was part of the Coalition that did just that in the early ’90s — the fact remains that the salience of race politics, and the mainstream acceptance of racial scapegoating which existed before Duke came along (and has been such a large part of American politics since at least George Wallace), made Duke’s rise possible, and even in the midst of his fall, ensures his unfortunate but continued relevance. Unless antiracists, including those of us who fought so hard to convince voters that Duke was a white supremacist, and an “extremist,” can do just as good a job undermining the ideological basis for his political appeal, he will never be finally defeated, and the danger he posed and poses will never be finally passed. Reorienting the discussion won’t be easy, committed as most are to lauding the legitimacy of mainstream institutions even as they attack the “extremes.”

Consider the recent flap over whether or not neo-Nazi Matt Hale should be allowed to join the Illinois bar. Hale, a graduate of Southern Illinois University Law School is currently being blocked from his chosen profession by those who claim his participation in the administration of justice would somehow “pervert the process,” and call into question the state’s commitment to the administration of “color-blind justice.” Imagine that, in a state which has sent at least a half-dozen known innocent persons of color to death row in the past few years, and from what I can gather, has no intention of disbarring any of the esteemed jurists who participated in these despicable exercises.

Again, just who is the bigger problem: Matt Hale, whom everyone knows is a bigot and whom everyone will be watching for signs of racist behavior, or the Cook County District Attorney and a handful of overzealous cops, looking to send some guy — any black guy will do — to his death so they can proclaim a big murder case solved? To even ask the question is to answer it. It is precisely the visibility of the former’s racism, contrasted with the invisibility of the latter, which makes the latter so much more problematic, not to mention more worthy of our attention and concern.

The same is true for hate crimes. To punish those overt and violent expressions of bigotry is all fine and good, but what about the underlying mindset that gives rise to such acts, and the institutional inequities that make such a mindset seem rational? And which crimes are the ones we should punish anyway: the retail versions perpetrated by lone bigots and hate groups, or the wholesale versions which form the basis of institutional racism, and are the very fabric which comprise the tapestry of American society? And who makes this decision? Local district attorneys and federal prosecutors? And who sentences the hate criminals? Juries like the one that thought nothing of the Rodney King beating? Thanks, but, surely there has to be a better way.

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