The Most Mis-Used Word in the English Language: Racism

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I’m offering my thoughts on the most mis-used word in the English language.

What does racism mean? To some it’s a condition that all “white” people possess and exhibit even when they’re being nice to someone who’s “black.” To others it can be attributed to anyone who opposes certain policies, including reparation for slavery and freeing all black prisoners.

Ironically, people who pay attention to other people’s skin pigmentation don’t consider themselves racists while using that term to denigrate people who don’t pay any attention to pigmentation. Thus, Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton don’t consider themselves racists although their views of other people are based on their “race,” while conservatives, who believe all people should be treated equally without regard to race, are considered racists because they won’t give minorities special treatment.

To label someone a racist is currently a convenient way of trying to shut that person up, to deny his or her right to an opinion. It’s a form of political blackmail. Either agree with me, the person who accuses others of being racists is saying, or I’ll call you a racist.

I worry for young people who don’t have the strength and knowledge to fight back against such tactics—high school and college students who are coerced into staying quiet or supporting policies that when exposed to the light of day are built on lies. Take for example the BDS movement.

Groups on college campuses that support a boycott of Israel, claiming it to be an apartheid state based on absolutely not one iota of truth, compel students, including some who are Jewish, to support their cause for fear of being called racists. These groups also threaten violence by implication. It takes great courage, especially when college administrators often keep their heads in the sand, to stand up to these tactics.

Another example is the charge that anyone who opposes granting citizenship to illegal immigrants is a racist. Why? Because most illegals are “minorities”––i.e., from non-European countries. The implication of the charge is that there could not be non-racist based reasons for opposing that policy. Of course, that’s absurd, but again, I worry that too many people cower in the face of such charges instead of standing their ground.

Dr. King’s words will be used today to justify a variety of contradictory positions. I won’t commit that form of larceny. Instead, I’m appealing to people to stop calling other people, including Donald Trump, racists, and when someone uses the term in an inappropriate manner—i.e., to deny others the right to speak—that you speak up––just as if someone used the ‘n’ word or some other slur. Speak up. Tell the speaker you’re not going to cave in to that charge, that racism won’t die until people stop calling each other by that term.

Happy MLK, Jr. Day to one and all.

Bigotry in the name of Fighting Racism

A letter to the (Albany, NY) Times Union printed August 27 typifies how any excess in the name of fighting racism has become acceptable in today’s America.

Tony Emanatian of Watervliet, NY wrote “We all knew President Donald Trump was a racist before he decided to run for president,” basing his conviction on Trump’s being “the leader of the birther movement.”

He goes on to charge “every politician or voter who supports Trump is by extension also a racist.” (my emphasis)

Ignoring the faulty logic of both assertions, that the Times Union would print such a letter without an accompanying editorial comment distancing themselves from Mr. Emanatian’s accusations is testimony to how far the mainstream media has departed from the once recognized standard of ethical journalism.

As a former editor, I would have printed Mr. Emanatian’s letter, but used to occasion to point out the danger of his faulty logic––not just in the fact that he smears 60 million plus people who voted for the President last November, but the implications of the letter in today’s climate¬¬: to wit, if everyone who supports the President is a racist, doesn’t that justify firing Trump supporters from their jobs or as the CEO of Camping World said not serving customers who are Trump supporters? Doesn’t such bigotry in the minds of the antifa supporters justify preventing speakers they consider facist from speaking on college campuses? Doesn’t it justify destroying the property of companies they consider not demonstrating sufficient opposition to the President?

The sad consequence of this letter’s bigotry is that it undermines real efforts to fight racism by making the term meaningless since it now can be applied to anyone you don’t like whether their words or actions justify that label or not.

I don’t dispute Mr. Emanatian’s right to hold and express such distorted views, but for any newspaper to print such a letter without distancing itself from those views is an invitation to additional attacks on rational discourse both verbal and physical. For shame.

How Liberalism Divides America: A Review of Shelby Steele’s Shame

Shelby Steele, Shame, How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, Basic Books, 2015

Don’t be misled by this small book’s subtitle, or even the title for that matter. Neither reflects Shelby Steele’s thesis that post 1960s Liberalism is built on a house of lies that has relegated many blacks and other minorities to positions “of inferiors and dependents.” (179)

Shame reveals among other things why eight years after the election of the first African-American president, issues around race still divide our country. Steele also explains why Liberalism seems to be more about absolving whites and government from America’s past than helping minorities overcome that past and why conservative commentators are not taken at face value.

To understand Steele’s thesis one needs to start with slavery because slavery was not just an evil in and of itself, it was a black mark against the foundational principle of American exceptionalism––the core principle embodied in the Declaration and the Constitution that freedom of the individual is the ideal foundation of a just society. Although some did oppose slavery from the start, it took half a century before it was abolished. Unfortunately, slavery was replaced by another pernicious social institution––Jim Crow, which was based on theories of African-American inferiority. Segregation and its rational survived until the 1960s when the struggle for equality became the central issue of the day and the necessity of extending the promise of freedom to all brought about a massive social upheaval.

Shelby Steele’s contribution to what happened next reflects his experience growing up in an era where America sought to show the world it had broken with its past by instituting a variety of programs designed to remedy that past, including the War on Poverty, affirmative action, racial preferences in hiring, lowered welfare standards, et al. The short-term impact of these programs was to give blacks an opportunity to join the mainstream of American society, but there was an unintended longer-term consequence that both handcuffed blacks and gave rise to the distorted political culture we call Liberalism.

Steele illustrates how blacks have been hampered by these post-Civil Rights policies by citing the case of Clarence Thomas who found getting into Yale Law School undermined people’s willingness to give him credit for his accomplishments. People assumed Thomas only got into Yale because he was black and that his high grades at Yale were not deserved. This “catch 22” still hampers blacks today. One wonders if Barack Obama feared he was only elected president because of his race, and not his qualifications or platform? Does that explain the aloof manner by which he conducted himself as president?

The flip side of the post 1960s liberal equation is that many whites feel they must continually prove they are not racists by asserting that America is a racist society despite the fact blacks today are “far more likely to receive racial preferences than to suffer racial discrimination.” (17)

The 1960s gave rise to the notion that America was inherently evil as evidenced by its treatment of women, blacks and other minorities, by its disregard for the environment and by its willingness to interfere in third world liberation struggles––the war in Vietnam being the primary example. The remedy was affirmative action on all those issues and in the process discrediting of the notion that a commitment to the freedom of the individual was sufficient. In Steele’s terms, America embarked on a new mission “to establish ‘The Good’ . . . on par with freedom.” The Good requires equal results be guaranteed not just equal opportunity. The purpose of The Good, he writes, “became absolution for the American people and the government, and not actual reform for minorities.” (128)

The Good was a relativistic solution––a commitment to results over process and it required people to dissociate themselves from America’s past. Liberal public policies and programs were promoted as evidence of rejection of America’s evil past and refusal to endorse such programs was seen as lingering affiliation with that past. Belief in America as a city on a hill, as a beacon of freedom for the oppressed peoples of the world, as an exceptional nation was rejected. “American exceptionalism and white supremacy [became] virtually interchangeable.” (164)

Liberalism underscored its commitment to The Good attacking traditional American culture and invading the political arena. To post 1960 liberals the drive for political power was seen as “nothing less than a moral and cultural imperative.” (156)

In order to maintain their political and cultural dominance, liberals have become committed to what Steele calls the ‘poetic truth’ of American society, a false vision that is necessary to support their ideological position. The chickens of that falsity, embodied in academia, big government and groups such as black lives matter, came home to roost in November, 2016 when sixty plus million people rejected the liberal candidate.

Criticism of liberal programs by whites can be dismissed as evidence of a person’s association with pre-1960s America, but it’s harder to make that label stick when the critics are black. Labeling people like Clarence Thomas, Michelle Malkin, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Dr. Ben Carson, and Shelby Steele ‘uncle toms’ only demonstrates how unglued liberals become when confronted with facts that fly in the face of their make believe world.

Sadly books like Shame rarely get the visibility they deserve. I found no reviews in the New York Times or the Washington Post, despite the fact that Steele is a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution and author of the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning book The Content of Our Character (1990).
Shame has only 49 reviews on Amazon and a 4.3 rating while Ta-Hehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me has 3,157 reviews and a 4.6 rating. Coates has received numerous awards for his writing, including a MacArthur “genius grant,” but Coates’ thesis that racism survives because whites are attached to the benefits of being white is a perfect example of what Steele unclothes––a false narrative that is accepted because it re-inforces the story that America is as tainted today as it was in the time of slavery. Coates views “whiteness” as inevitable and permanent but fails to recognize that the price of conflating slavery and segregation, discrimination and unintended bias is that blacks will never be free! That’s where Steele parts company with Coates.

Steele gives us a window into his evolution from a sixties radical to a twenty-first century conservative. The turning point came in 1970 when he and his wife spent several weeks in Africa where he discovered that the revolution the Black Panthers and others were championing was a false and bankrupt dream. His experience reminds me of the degeneration of the civil rights movement in Albany, New York around the same time. I had been involved in the optimistic years before King’s assassination, which understandably caused many to become bitter and the rhetoric of revolution to gain currency. When the Black Panthers came to Albany, however, they sent a heroin dealer as their representative. Apparently at that point anyone willing to spout their revolutionary rhetoric was acceptable.

While post 1960s liberalism has been losing currency at the polls, it still dominates our culture, the entertainment industry, and the news media. Conservatives who reject the relativism of Liberalism, who stand behind the founders’ original insights, have an opportunity to turn the tide. Steele urges conservatives to be sensitive to the “psychological and cultural damage done to minorities by American hypocrisy,” by showing how the original dream of equality for all and a commitment to freedom, is still America’s essential truth. The time to win that war is now.