As citizens of the United States, our very political consciousness is in large part structured by notions and experience of racism, black and white. We are the descendants of a brutal legacy of white supremacy and colonial violence, usually thought about through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the conquest of the Americas and genocidal liquidation of the Native population. This legacy of racism and white supremacy functions as ever-present spirit, filling the air with its noxious bile, poisoning interpretations of contemporary events, structuring perceptions of ourselves and one another, and deeply influencing the very policies and actions we as a collective decide, through democratic praxis, are just and reconciliatory. Racism and ‘dealing with it’ are part and parcel what it means to be ‘American.’
Racism is not just a historical residue, a legacy that we have for better or worse been ‘dealing with (Voting rights act, Civil Rights Act, Affirmative Action, etc).’ Notions of racism are ever-present in contemporary political discourse and mainstream media representation: most often thrown out as charges of racism against the tea partier or ‘conservative,’ and sometimes back at the ‘liberal.’
Of the two, the liberal sees her/him-self as perhaps the most sensitive to issues of race: multicultural, supporter of ‘equality,’ and tolerant. This is not without some justification based in the history of civil rights legislation and activism.
Despite this demonstrable ‘better than them’ political identity, the ‘liberal’ citizen, and their political representatives and media, are as racist as any tea partier or ‘conservative.’
This is a contradiction of ‘liberal’ common sense. Common sense is often based on unquestioned assumptions, foundations that when investigated prove to be erroneous. The unquestioned assumption, in this case, is not rooted in the intention of the ‘liberal.’ It is that the ‘liberal’ even knows what racism is. Mainstream liberal ideology does not.
That is, despite ‘racism’s’ presence, our absolute submersion within the concept and its lived actuality, upon close examination one realizes something rather shocking. Despite our collective obsession with racism, we (as a culture, and in mainstream media representation) have no idea what the word ‘racism’ means.
This fundamental ignorance can best be demonstrated by asking the following 3 question(s):
- What is the difference between racism, racial prejudice, and bigotry?
- Are the terms synonymous? If not, what is their differentiation?
- Does dominant discussion in liberal media mark the distinction?
DEFINING TERMS – THE INDIVIDUAL ATTITUDE VERSUS INSTITUTIONAL OPERATION
A visit to the dictionary may provide some insight into question 1 and 2:
1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.
Ok. How about prejudice?
1. an unfavorable opinion or feeling formed beforehand or without knowledge, thought, or reason.
2. any preconceived opinion or feeling, either favorable or unfavorable.
3. unreasonable feelings, opinions, or attitudes, especially of a hostile nature, regarding a racial, religious, or national group.
stubborn and complete intolerance of any creed, belief, or opinion that differs from one’s own.
All three definitions mention particular attitudes, ideas, beliefs, feeling, or opinions of the individual. In fact, prejudice and bigotry are limited exclusively to individual attributes. In the former, we speak of opinion and feeling: unfavorable, preconceived, and unreasonable. Forming opinion and having feeling, though others can share them, is an individual act. In the latter, we speak of intolerance for the beliefs and creeds of another that differs from one’s own. To have a belief requires a single individual to be the ‘believer.’
The definition of race also speaks of individual intolerance. It is in part 2 of the definition that the term ‘racism’ does something else besides, something that neither the definitions of prejudice and bigotry do. It talks of the institutionalization of discrimination. Not simply an individual attitude or belief like bigotry and prejudice, Racism is structural. That’s why it’s an ‘ism.’
To define terms most succinctly then, the main difference is that Racism is rooted in the structures and institutions of society: it is codified law, the institutional practice of privileging one racial group over another. Bigotry and prejudice refer to the attitudes of individuals within such a racialized society.
The real question to be asked then, in a critique of the ideology of liberalism, is how can these two things exist side by side? How can we make ‘progress’ culturally with regards to the elimination of individual prejudice, yet still maintain brutally racist systems, without antagonizing ‘liberal’ consciousness? How much of liberal ideology is geared towards this function of disappearing the analysis of the United States as fundamentally racist in institutional operation?
THE EFFECT OF COLLAPSED TERMS WITHIN LIBERAL IDEOLOGY
Here’s where it starts to get gnarly (gnarly defined as ugly, brutal, racist, internally colonizing). The terms are used synonymously in ‘liberal’ discourse, but only in a very particular way. When issues of racism are discussed, only the individual attitudes, accomplishments, beliefs, and feelings of individuals are addressed. Racism is spoken of as if it were only an attitude. The hard institutional operation of racist systems of power is largely ignored, allowing them to function unimpeded by criticism.
This muddled and collapsed definition of racism is then applied in our assessment of ‘how far we have come’ on the path towards racial parity and reconciliation. Multiculturalism, individual tolerance, the work of being empathic to one another and evidence based on tokenism comes to stand in for notions of racial justice in its entirety, thus disappearing the actual codification of racist law and institutional operation which function to privilege one racial group, whites, over another(s).
It is not that multiculturalism, tolerance, and empathy are bad things, but they can be put to deceptive and nasty ideological uses. If these notions come to be the limit of what we can conceive of as the work me must do to achieve racial justice in this society (elect a black president, and have by extension, have a ‘non-prejudiced’ liberal voting base to elect him), then they effectively disappear the terror at the heart of institutional racism. Through collapsing notions of racism to individual prejudicial attitudes, liberal ideology constructs a shadow of racism without ever attenuating the substance: racist policy and institutions.
‘Liberal’ common sense recognizes in itself a lack of bigotry and prejudice, thus thinks itself not racist. The terms have collapsed, become synonymous. You may not be prejudiced or a bigot, but that does not mean you are not a racist.
If you are white, in a society built upon the subjugation of people of color, you benefit from that system. It is inescapable. Without the dismantling of that system, you are a racist. In the same way that an Afrikaner in Apartheid South Africa, even if he felt black folks should be equal, still benefitted from Apartheid structure, whites benefit in the United States from the war on drugs and mass incarceration. There is difference in degree, though perhaps not as much as ‘common-sense-liberalism’ asserts
Racism is not a matter of empathy and tolerance, lack of bigotry and prejudice, held by individuals. Bigotry and prejudice are belief systems that emerge after the fact so as to justify the existence of the racist system, itself. The system is bigger than citizens and citizens are embedded within it, rewarded part and partial based on the color of one’s skin.
When ‘liberal’ media critiques tea-party racism, it speaks in terms of prejudical utterances, disgusting signs, bigoted caricatures, etc. Through these very critiques is constructed a notion of racism that doesn’t include its institutional or structural elements, only its prejudicial aspect. Liberal ideology doesn’t critique the tea party, for example, for their support of the prison industrial complex, the closing and/or privatization of public schools, the exporting of the manufacturing base, etc. They support and have largely themselves written many of these racist practices and institutions into law. Thus, they operate together, the tea partier and the liberal critic, bad cop/good cop, to develop an absolutely limited notion of racism, one that more accurately should be called prejudice. This need not be conscious, but just the natural expression of the internalized definition of racism in the culture itself. Liberal ‘ideology’ can’t even imagine what ‘justice’ would look like, a radical reformulation of societal structures that have grown out of a historical legacy of racism, without any substantive overhaul.
If we want to get rid of prejudice and bigotry, we must get rid of racist institutions; they flow from it. To try to deal with prejudice and bigotry, while citizens are embedded within racist structures is to grasp at whisps of smoke, and fundamentally irrelevant to people’s lives.
It’s lucky for the ‘liberal’ ideology that the tea party is so outright prejudiced. It allows ‘liberals’ to not look in the metaphorical mirror, and to recognize one’s own participation and benefit from a racist society. Many racist policies are supported by ‘liberal’ and ‘tea-party’ ideology. There is a fundamental consensus on much of the racism (once again, defined as institutional practice and either support for it in the case of the tea party, or allowing it to function through disappearing it, in the case of the liberal establishment) prevalent in the United States.
LAWRENCE O’DONNELL, THE ‘KID PRESIDENT’ AND FALSE LIBERAL SENTIMENTALITY
An example of the liberal ideology of racism was demonstrated on Thursday April 4th, 2013. On ‘Last Call,’ Lawrence O’Donnell aired a segment on the ‘Kid President.’ Kid president is a character, real name Robby Novak and a third grader from Tennessee. He is an African-American child. The Kid president video is an Internet set of videos/themes that were made famous through Rain Wilson’s website, ‘soul pancake.’ Kid President In a white house PR campaign, ‘Kid President’ was invited to visit the white house, and Lawrence’s segment was coverage and commentary on this visit, and the soul pancake video which documented it, to be seen here.
O’Donnell uses the kid president oval office visit to tell the story of U.S. ‘progress’ on issues of race. ‘Look at this,’ it effectively asserts. “A black president and a black child in the oval office. Anything is possible.’ At once sentimental and touching, the piece attempts to describe the work that we have done as a nation with regards to race, through the narrative of ‘we have a black president.’ He begins with Obama speaking in 2004, first introduced to the nation at John Kerr’s nominating:
“PRES. OBAMA: Now, even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us. The spin masters, the negative ad peddlers, who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them, tonight there is not a liberal America, and a conservative America. There is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America. There is the United States of America.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
O`DONNELL: Before we saw Barack Obama give that speech, we could all imagine that one day in the distant future there would be an African- American president. When we saw that speech, that night, we could finally put a face on who that African-American president would be. We could put a timetable on his ascension to the presidency. An African-American president was no longer a dream (my emphasis). It was an ever-expanding political reality, as soon as Barack Obama completed that convention keynote address.
And, now the White House that was built by slaves is home to descendants of slaves. The American myth has always been that anyone can grow up to be president. That was our mythology back when slavery was still legal….
…There are too many traps in modern American poverty, and too many complexities to the socioeconomic dynamics that produce our presidents to allow us to say, without reservation, that this really is the country where anyone can grow up to be president.
But throughout our history, we`ve been moving ever closer to that ideal (my emphasis). Anyone can grow up to be president. We took a giant step closer to that ideal with our election of the first African-American president. We knew then that one of the nongovernmental benefits of his election was that black children and other children would be able to see new possibilities in their lives more clearly….
The video you`re about to see of Robby Novak`s quality time with Barack Obama was posted today at soulpancake.com. It`s funny, it`s cute, it`s truly awesome. And not just because Robby says it`s awesome. Some people in our office today cried when they watched it, and couldn`t say exactly why. And, I think it`s because this man, and this little boy, together, tell us a story that is deeply profound, without ever trying to be pro found. They just meet and chat and laugh. But they do it in the oval office.
And their meeting in that room can`t help but evoke our painful past and our always hopeful future. This meeting in the oval office is empty of politics and full of love and hope and grace. You can see in it more hope for this country`s ideal than any speech could ever deliver. The ideal that any child in this country can grow up to be president.” full transcript here
In ‘liberal’ discourse exists the notion that because we have a black president, we have done tremendous work with regards to racism within the United States. By extension, issues of race can be de-prioritized; equality is a foregone conclusion. It is only a matter of time. This radically disappears an alternative analysis, one evidenced in the work of people like Michelle Alexander, who asserts that through mass incarceration, there is actually a continuity with the Jim Crow system, a new Jim Crow, which maintains a permanently racialized underclass; those excluded from ‘the dream’, and brutalized in a political/policing and economic system which views these particular black and brown bodies as utterly expendable.
While O’Donnell waxes eloquently about the progress made on race in this country, and his staff sheds tears (though they don’t now why), what he excludes from his analysis is the following:
“While people of color make up about 30 percent of the United States’ population, they account for 60 percent of those imprisoned. The prison population grew by 700 percent from 1970 to 2005, a rate that is outpacing crime and population rates. The incarceration rates disproportionately impact men of color: 1 in every 15 African American men and 1 in every 36 Hispanic men are incarcerated in comparison to 1 in every 106 white men.”
“According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, one in three black men can expect to go to prison in their lifetime. Individuals of color have a disproportionate number of encounters with law enforcement, indicating that racial profiling continues to be a problem. A report by the Department of Justice found that blacks and Hispanics were approximately three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop than white motorists. African Americans were twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.”
The whole tone and tenor of the O’Donnell’s coverage is to praise ‘our’ progress, and to describe a liberal type of empathy and non-prejudice of the ‘liberal’ (the staff crying out of joy for how far we have come and in recognition of our flawed and brutal history – as opposed to our present). Yet this sentimentality can only flow as if racism was over, or damn near so. It is not. To assert this narrative of ‘dream achievement’ disappears racist institutions like the New Jim Crow of Mass incarceration, racialized poverty rates, lack of education, health and housing based on race that destroys people’s lived experiences. It is really to either not understand how powerful and grotesque are our operative racist institutions are, or to ignore them. It is effectively silencing black and brown voices, victims of massive structures of oppression that are absolutely terrifying, as brutal as any conceived in the 20th century, and to delegate the victims of these institutions to the dust bin of history. All for the sake of a false narrative of achieved equality.
To put it succinctly, O’Donnell’s Kid segment is ideologically dangerous. In themselves, the sentiments he expresses are not bad. But within a ‘liberal’ ideological nexus which is limited, not raising the existence of racist institutions like the PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX, O’Donnell’s view gets espoused as ‘common-sense,’ the ultimate horizon of what the so-called empathic liberal can imagine, see or analyze with regards to race relations in the United States. The pre-determining structures of capital determine what is allowed to be said, construct liberal opinion, and O’Donnell operates firmly within their confines, with no recognition of such. Yet to truly deal with issues of race, requires an analysis which moves outside these bounds, that can see the economic drivers behind the PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX and the war on drugs – those systems which cannot accommodate millions of black and brown people into systems of production, so must disappear, immobilize, and in worst circumstance, liquidate them. While O’Donnell praises how far we have come, what has been emerging since the 1970’s is a proto-fascist disciplining and punishing state, that due to liberal ‘representation’ of issues of race, is largely invisible to those most likely to do something about it, the ‘crying’ sentimental liberal, the multicultural, the humanist.
Notice the language of ‘dream.’ This language of ‘dream’ in relation to the African-American condition is a reference to the Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech. Through using the language of ‘dream,’ O’Donnell is explicitly announcing his alignment, his support for King’s vision of equality. ‘See? I am on your team. I share the dream.’
But pay attention to what he describes as King’s dream, as the dream of African Americans: the ascension of the black man to the presidency. Was this King’s dream? No, this is a castrated dream, one severely constrained espousing no challenge to contemporary arrangement of power. King’s dream was about the political economic and social equality of all African-American people. O’Donnell’s liberalism makes an equivalence between an African-American becoming president and the work that needs to be done to achieve true equity, work that was as much economic as it was social., and much more difficult to achieve. For in the contemporary situation, what we have upon closer examination, is an African – American president, but a president of a country that still employs vast institutions of racism- social, political, economic – that brutally defend the existing order, rooted in white privilege. It uses the ‘black presidency’ in order to deflect criticism of its racist institutions. It is a defense of existing economic arrangements. King’s dream could not be achieved without a challenge and restructuring of those who effectively own the economy.
There is something reprehensible about having a white, ‘liberal’ establishment media pundit praise how far we’ve come with regards to racism while millions of black and brown people, all across this country, have their lives destroyed and communities shredded by poverty, the war on drugs, mass incarceration and limited access to resources for survival. One envisions a detached, elitist master sitting atop a mountain of mangled and mutilated racialized bodies and tormented minds, voices that are silenced, all the while praising the magnificence of such a system. Whereas the white liberal sees themselves as beyond race, the victim of all this, the person of color engaged with such systems of brutality must feel they have fallen down a rabbit hole of Orwellian insanity. The racism is obvious, on the surface.
Since the enlightenment, we in the west have held notions of progress, perhaps best exemplified by King’s “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. The liberal attitude shoot be rooted, fundamentally, in a ‘critical’ attitude, because this very notion of progress (as in where the term ‘progressive’ comes from) implies a constant striving towards justice, equality is never reached. For if it were reached, then one would, by definition, wish to ‘conserve’ it.
That is, through self-congratulatory rhetoric, the so-called ‘progressive’ O’Donnell gets off the arc of justice, examining the social arrangement. He is no longer ‘progressive,’ in the sense of holding a fundamentally critical disposition, asking where we can ‘improve,’ but instead operating as a conservative, praising the fundamental justness of the system, American exceptionalism, the ‘dream.’ In this particular manifestation of ‘progressivism,’ the term has lost all substantive meaning, and is simply a political label representing a set of status quo interests. How does one pat oneself and his ideological allies on the back with regards to race when we have a fundamentally Jim crow-esque system of racial privilege operative in the country, if not apologizing for those very institutions?
Where are these voices of the victims of this system? Where are the critics that actually recognize its function, the reality of institutional racism in the United States: Angela Davis, Dylan Rodriguez, Ruth Wilson Gilmore? What foundational and sub-conscious filters determine who has the right to speak on issues of racism and reconciliation, within mainstream ‘liberal’ media ? Why O’Donnell and not them? Why Obama and ‘kid president and not Angela Davis and an incarcerated teen?
You can’t talk about ‘dream’ achievement, justice, literally ‘cry’ over progress on racism, when we have an exclusionary, terroristic, proto-genocidal ‘justice’ system unless you don’t now or are running the system yourself.
“Liberal’ ideology tends to hold up the election of the first black president as some type of overcoming of history, a fundamental restructuring of race relations; we have entered a post-racial age. Self-congratulatory pats on the back are, to say the least, premature. No matter the color of the president, the systems of society itself are still racist. You can’t vote for changes to these systems, they are off the table. Globalization, notions of the market and ‘individual choice,’ are the fundamental, unquestioned assumptions, the ordering principle of American-capitalist ‘democracy’ itself. And without their overhaul, policy and actions will continue to oppress people of color, a permanent underclass with token-movement at the margins, despite who stewards the helm. Liberal ideology allows one to operate in such a position of power, managing racist systems, and escape cognitive dissonance. That is its function.
O’Donnell, and by extension ‘liberalism’ in mainstream discourse, may have eliminated prejudice and bigotry from their doctrines. They may hold positive feeling and sentiment towards people of color. The democrat/liberal may vote for a black president, and said president may hold PR events inviting black kids to the oval office; This all functions to make the liberal feel good about oneself and to eviscerate white guilt over historically racist legacy of the United States. But it does absolutely nothing to challenge and confront the still-exiting racist institutions of our society. It does nothing to develop the consciousness, amongst people potentially sympathetic to the understanding, that in the U.S. the racist war on drugs and system of mass incarceration are absolutely vita and necessary to the functioning of our ‘free-market’ capitalist system. These institutions are the regulators, the ‘allowers’ of U.S. neo-liberal capitalism to exist. They are the obscene underside of the system, a system in which based on the color of your skin, you are more likely to reap the benefits from. Before anyone can comment on the ‘progress’ we have made, they must have, at bare minimum, come to understand these institutional realities and integrated them within the overarching narrative of the ‘arc of moral progress.’