What Is Often Misunderstood

Or, "The Problem With Sean Hannity."

With the nation hanging on every note of the Presidential race, there's a lot of race relations and racial politics talk going on in the mainstream conversation. With the possibly historic speech by Barack Obama on race from March 18, "A More Perfect Union," it feels like the country is starting to have a difficult discussion about racial politics. The problem is that it brings to light all the sincerely uninformed opinions out of the woodwork. It does not do the heart good to hear such low level understanding of how race in America works.

It is a shame that such a grey, articulate speech that conveys a lot of where racial problems come from is being misinterpreted and misrepresented in the mass media. It is a shame that some write it off as an attempt to distract from Jeremiah Wright, instead of realizing that the speech is not the issue, it's the mindset that pervades a community that is often misunderstood by society.

There's all these recent news stories about reports of who's saying what in the news, and frankly, it's frustrating how little Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity understand, or are even willing to consider.

Let's take a look at this fallacy: Obama said in his speech that he cannot disown his pastor any more than he can disown the black community. He cannot disown his pastor any more than he can disown his own grandmother, who has uttered stereotypes and admitted that she fears black men that pass her on the street. It's not hard to see where Fox News might latch onto.

They called it throwing his grandmother under a bus. They questioned why a man, no matter what point he wanted to make, would sell out the woman who raised him. This is not even a valid idea to bring up. It completely distracts from the point of the speech and completely, blindly and amazingly misinterprets the point. The point is over here, and Fox News is planting a flag on the moon.

It is not a public outing of his own grandmother as racist. It is the profound realization that no one is immune to racism. It is the admittance that no one is beyond rethinking their opinions, thoughts and philosophies on race relations, that no one, no matter how liberal you are, no matter how many black friends you have, and even if you yourself are black - We all have a lot to learn.

The anecdote about the grandmother also reveals what everyone has that no one wants to talk about: That we as a society, particularly older generations, have internalized all of these ideas and stereotypes about race relations. It becomes part of our subconscious. There are racist ideas in all of our minds, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, and whether we act out on it or not. When we assume that the bad driver in that car is Asian, or that Hispanic guy is poor, or that black guy walking down the street might hurt you, we are expressing the stereotypes and harmful, racist ideas that mass media has socialized and ingrained on our brains.

There's an important distinction to make here. While no one is immune to racism, we are not all racist. There is a difference between racist words and racists themselves. Just as good people have the capacity to do bad things, which is a basic moral that stories like Lord of the Flies and millions of other works teach us, non-racist people have the capacity for saying racist things. Grandmothers of Barack Obama included.

He was not throwing her under a metaphorical bus, but showing how deeply racist ideas penetrate into our national subconscious.

When asked to explain it, Obama chose to expand his point and said:

The point I was making was not that my grandmother harbors any racial animosity, but that she is a typical white person. If she sees somebody on the street that she doesn't know (pause) there's a reaction in her that doesn't go away and it comes out in the wrong way.

People chose to jump on the minor stumble of words - "typical white person." Oh, god, here comes the cries of reverse racism. One of the most infuriating, outrageously false ideas. It was a poor choice of words and a poor way to end a period, but let's be real here: It's not too far from the truth. The problem is that Fox News interprets equating typical white people to his grandmother, he is equating typical white people to racists. But, as I explained, he is not accusing his grandmother of being racist. The typical white person does, indeed, have these internalized notions of what people are like. The typical person does. Is that bad? Yes, but it is so universal that it is hard to demonize someone for it. It is a flaw that needs recognition before we can really work on it.

The only fault he bears in the quote above is that he couldn't think on his feet and come up with a better way to convey or choose better words. Nothing more, and a common flaw in off the cuff interviews.

Doing some research, I saw this transcript of Reverend Jeremiah Wright on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News before the whole controversy blew up. It was about the ridiculous notion that his church was a "black separatist church." The silliness:


HANNITY: This is on the Web site today... It says, "Commitment to God." ... Commitment to the black community, commitment to the black family, adherence to the black work ethic. It goes on, pledge, you know, acquired skills available to the black community, strengthening and supporting black institutions, pledging allegiance to all black leadership who have embraced the black value system, personal commitment to the embracement of the black value system.

Now, Reverend, if every time we said black, if there was a church and those words were white, wouldn't we call that church racist?

WRIGHT: No, we would call it Christianity.

This is one of those arguments that I hate with a passion. It is so backwards and so harmful to the empowerment of people of color, but so many adhere to it because it makes sense on a basic theoretical level if you don't think about it too hard. When you put it into reality, when you don't boil it down to the basics, it reveals itself to be total bullshit.

A "black church" is not racist. An "asian student association" is not racist. A "chicano student programs" department is not racist. They are measurements put in place to fight off the overhanging, white-centric society that we live in. On a basic theoretical level, on paper, it seems like we should have a color-blind society. It seems like such churches and associations and programs shouldn't exist, if we truly treat everyone equal. Or that at least white people should get these special treatments too.

The fact is, minorities have specific needs that aren't being catered to or addressed in the larger world.  Our communities of color need these special safe zones, these comfort zones, because the mainstream zones are overwhelmingly white. As long as if they do not physically forbid other people from entering that church or joining that club, there is nothing wrong with focusing on a particular community's needs. Black churches serve the black community, but that doesn't mean they'll stop white people from entering its doors.

If you're of the mind that these mainstream places should be comfortable for everyone, and that there's no reason it shouldn't be a safe zone, perhaps you should look at your very argument as an argument for why it's not-so-safe. You don't even like it when they assemble with others of similar backgrounds, when they use words like "black church" because you think it's a threat. And you want them to get rid of these safe spaces to join you?

Instead of just calling it a double standard and pretending like we see things that others don't see, it is better to ask questions like: What problem is this causing us? Who is being negatively affected by a church labeling itself as being dedicated to the black values, to the black work ethic and all of that?

Sometimes people call racism when, say, a white person applies to a black scholarship and then is denied his winning because he is white. The problem here is entitlement: with the disproportion in economic income, the disproportion in college enrollment, the disproportion in the poverty line, the entitlement of the applier is the problem, not the meaningless face-value "racism." Scholarships, programs, and any other "exclusionary" institutions are here to fix and/or ameliorate our long-standing societal inequalities, and if a white person is truly an ally, they would know when their presence changes the conversation, when their entitlement distracts from the work.

White people, considering that they hold a majority of power and so vastly outnumber people of color in the nation, do not need a special "White person club" because everywhere is that club. On paper, it's a double standard, but the double standard is not the problem. It is a symptom of the greater problem, which is that people of color are not on an equal playing field, they are at an institutionalized disadvantage, and require such outlets.

Having restrooms for men & women isn't a double standard, it's an addressing of our needs as a society that has values and cultural institutions that make it uncomfortable for two genders to share the same private space.

The day we truly have a color blind society, when black people don't have to pay more for mortgages, when a disproportionate amount of black and brown people are not below the poverty line, when our media represents people with the same amount of individualism as they do white people, then we can talk about making a color blind society. But we need to make up for the failings of the past and have everyone at the same starting line before we strip away any notion of race.

What is often misunderstood is that voluntary segregation is not racist, it is a tool for empowering a historically oppressed minority so that we can all reach a truly equal present.

Even people on the defensive side of the argument often misunderstand that and fail to bring it up as a defense. The right wingers like Sean Hannity like to bring up MLK at times like these. They like to point to the line in I Have A Dream - "Judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." They like to pretend MLK wanted us to have a color blind society so something like Affirmative Action should be outlawed because it's racist blah blah fallacy fallacy.

MLK did not in all likelihood believe in color blind society. Color blindness ignores the white hegemony and becomes a tool for stopping the advancement of people of color. That is not to say that we should start judging people on their race, but that we cannot pretend that we do not identify differently. We can't pretend that we aren't different, with different histories, and different problems. What is good for one identity may not always work for another. We can't pretend that everyone is playing the same game or treated to the same benefits.

These are all these things that i wish would penetrate our national consciousness, even if they don't agree with it, I wish that society would at least hear these arguments. I wish society had the opportunity to consider them, but I never see them on the pundit shows. I rarely see the people they ask, like Al Sharpton, really articulate these arguments. Obama's speech was the closest I have ever seen any public figure articulate some high concept stuff about race relations.

But how do you get this idea out there? I would love for these people, these Hannitys and Dobbs, to hear these basic fucking things you can find in Introduction to Sociology textbooks. I would welcome debate and counterpoints to these pieces of thought. The best I can do is write it down, hope to never forget it.

I've been writing hard edged political/identity stuff this month. It's been on my mind a lot. The next post will be about comic books, I promise.