Monday, June 15, 2015

Race & the Left

Being a (white) leftist myself, I am often embarrassed by my fellow travelers' attitudes toward African Americans. Not as embarrassed as I would be if I were a Republican, but embarrassed nonetheless.

I think the main thing one has to know about most middle- to upper-middle- class white people between, say, 20 and 60 today is that they grew up in a suburb. I don't have the statistics to prove this, but my experience bears it out. During their childhoods, suburbs were very segregated racially and economically. Through most of their school years they attended schools with a high proportion of people who looked like them and whose economic and social status were quite similar to their family's.

For those who grew up to watch Fox News, their background established a norm against which the rest of their life is judged. To be fair to those on the right, they probably don't explicitly think of their monochromatic childhoods as "the norm," but lots of different people, contexts dominated by different people, different people assuming unfamiliar and symbolically important roles--these things tend to set off their alarm bells, and they usually find other (cultural? technical? procedural?) pretexts to express their alarm. They know darn well that racism and xenophobia aren't nice. They don't like to think of themselves as racist or xenophobic. They honestly believe they aren't. It's just they don't pursue the matter with even the slightest rigor.

So far, so not-particularly interesting.

Those that grew up to love Rachel Maddow are a different, and altogether more complicated case. Or set of cases, I should say.

And I guess I should also say that I am both in and out of this category of white liberals. I am IN it insofar as I'm a white guy who has been afforded many of the privileges of white guys tend to take for granted in this world: a decent primary education; teachers who expected a lot of me, who assumed I'd be a leader and treated me that way; parents who had high expectations of me and who were willing to make considerable sacrifices betting on my future; and as I got older the ungrudging acceptance by those in authority that I would become one of them eventually. I am now older and more or less a part of the institutional power structure. And I am a liberal who is quite sensitive to the fact that not everyone gets the chances that I got, and not everyone is prepared as well as I was to exploit the opportunities that I got.

And I have a bit of distance from this category of white upper-middle class liberals because I didn't grow up in the suburbs. My family wasn't upper-middle-class. My schools weren't, on the whole, very good. (Every public school I attended (grades 3-8, 10-12) was ranked in the lowest quintile in the state on standardized tests.) And most of the opportunities I got were not given to me because I was a white boy. They were given to me grudgingly because my mother was the pain-in-the-ass from hell as far as teachers and school administrators were concerned. She was convinced I was the boy genius, that I was going to college, that I was going to be a doctor or a lawyer or something similar. And she damn well wasn't going to let me slip through the cracks of the school system like my four siblings did.

My father played right along--teaching me to read when I was barely much more than a toddler, responding to every bit of idle curiosity with piles of encyclopedia entries (he bought three sets), and passing along intellectual rigor as a way of life.

None of those four siblings received a high-school diploma. Several of them ended up in institutions at one or more points in their lives. My extended family has a long and interesting history with law enforcement and a rather spotty history with the educational system.

Thus I looked upon my privileges as gifts bestowed upon me by my parents, not privileges that were afforded to me merely because I was white. My siblings, after all, were also white. The big difference between me and them was a mother who had learned well from hard experience and a (different) father who brought a set of values and a level of dedication worlds away from theirs.

That's a rather different experience that most of my suburban-bred cohorts.

The schools and neighborhoods I grew up with also meant that I grew up amongst a great deal more diversity than they did. Where a lot of suburban schools had a very small number of blacks and Hispanics, and maybe a good representation from one Asian country, my classes at school were very diverse indeed. If you were white, native-born and English was spoken at home, you were in a minority in many of my classes. African Americans were a significant presence in my schools from 7th grade up and I had a chance to become acquainted with, befriend, play with and fight with black kids.

(Fighting: Where and when I come from, fights in and around school were commonplace, and ANY new boy or new group of boys had to be sorted into the pecking order. Thus when I was 8 I moved from one neighborhood to another in Philadelphia. I ended up in the office about 40 times that first year in my new school for fighting. Granted, I was somewhat unusual in my reluctance to back down from a fight, but this gives you a fair picture of the general atmosphere. There were MANY interracial fights in my schools, most of which were not primarily motivated by race (though, of course, it factored in heavily).)

So, by the time I got to college, dealing with black folk was relatively normal for me. NOT to say it was just the same a dealing with the Italian guys I knew. Racism was a huge factor and a huge rift between whites and blacks. Though my family was tolerant and, in fact, vocally anti-racist, the fact of the matter was that plenty of the white people around me were quite racist. And any black person dealing with a white person in my neighborhood would be stupid to assume that person wasn't racist. And you, as a white guy, had to know that any black person you dealt with probably assumed you were a racist and probably was more than ready to hate your guts. It made for some pretty tense dealings, but it could be overcome to a certain extent. That background never went away, though.

When I got to college and later went on to university I began to see what was to me a new phenomenon: white people who had NEVER really dealt with a black person from the city. Maybe there were a few black folk back in high school--the children of a black teacher hired in an affirmative action program, or maybe a stray doctor or business owner who had moved into the school district to give his kids a leg up or maybe, if they were lucky, some folks from an historic black suburban enclave. But for the most part these black folk were thoroughly assimilated into the upper-middle class world they inhabited. While they may not have had all the opportunities and may have put up with more hurtful bullshit than their white peers, they were a world away from their ghetto-rasied peers.

My undergraduate institution was quite different from my previous experience. First it was only about half the size of my high school (2500 vs. 5000). Second, hardly anyone there came from an urban public school. I think there were about 10 kids in my entering class who had grown up in a city and maybe 5 of those had gone to the regular public school in their city. Nearly everyone at the school came from very nice, very white suburban public or private schools from places in New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island and Massachusetts.

They were generally complacent, if not contented, and conservative. The faculty, who large came from the same background but who mostly came up in the 60s and early seventies, absolutely despised the student body and its politics. The usual stance assumed by the faculty was that they knew exactly where we came from, and knew precisely what our moral failings were. In vast majority of cases they were right, but for a city kid who, but for a sick Mom would have gone to Berkeley (in the laughably naive hope that it was still the Berkeley of Do It) their condescension was infuriating.

The typical faculty ploy during any discussion that touched on the big social and political issues of the day was to use the suffering of urban blacks and people of color worldwide as a way of eliciting guilt, and on this guilt they built a following. Because no one particularly *likes* feeling guilty. Guilt in most people creates a pretty strong motivation to somehow expiating that guilt. If the guilt is about something truly bad and something that one is to blame for and one is able to do something about, then the way to expiate it is to eliminate the cause of the guilt. This was where the white freedom riders came from: they saw an injustice in their land, they felt the pain of its being there and they acted stop it. They transformed their guilt into a sense of mission: to give black people the basic rights that they thought should be afforded to any person.

But that had been done. Blacks now voted in Alabama and ate at formerly whites only lunch counters in Mississippi. That didn't mean they were getting a fair chance at the "American Dream" of justly rewarded hard work.

And to make things rather more complicated, the people who were hectoring us about the plight of the African American and the privileges afforded to whites had all landed themselves pretty cozy positions in that world of privilege which they had absolutely no intention of giving up. Any reasonable accounting of who had undeserved privilege in 1986 would fairly soon come to the door of tenured liberal arts faculty. Besides, none of those guilty students actually felt guilty enough to give up anything serious. What was wanted was symbolic, rather than material expiation. Expiation through the forms of faith rather than through good acts. And those forms came to be known in the 1990s as "Political Correctness."

to be continued