Wednesday, February 19, 2014

White privilege: Embracing the lie

At least Ross Kaminsky acknowledges that Michael Dunn (the man who murdered Jordan Davis)  is a racist.
He seems to use the word “thug” as a synonym for “young black male.” In a letter he wrote from jail to his grandmother, Dunn said, “The Jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots when they're threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

In my opinion, stipulating that my information is limited, Dunn seems to be an angry racist who was looking for trouble.
But I expect he mirrors the feelings a lot of white people have to the recent verdict in this case. And so its worth deconstructing what he has to say. Kaminsky levels his most virulent criticism at the response of Ta-Nehisi Coates - who provided this historical context.
I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy, and shall not be extricated through the latest innovations in Negro Finishing School. I insist that racism is our heritage, that Thomas Jefferson's genius is no more important than his plundering of the body of Sally Hemmings [sic], that George Washington's abdication is no more significant than his wild pursuit of Oney Judge. I insist that the G.I Bill's accolades are inseparable from its racist heritage. I will not respect the lie. I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting to which, likely until the end of our days, we unerringly return.
For Kaminsky, this reference to a few examples from our history is a dangerous and twisted view of the United States. Of course, he's the one doing the twisting when he says that Coates claims that Jefferson's treatment of Sally Hemmings is more important than his writing of "the single most important political document in human history." That's not what Coates said...he said the latter is "no more important" than the former. This might sound like I'm nit picking. But exaggerating someone's point is a typical tool used to try to discredit them.

Normally I'd try to avoid Godwin's Law in a situation like this. But Kaminsky goes there.
I wonder if Mr. Coates would say that no Jew should ever forgive Germany...

As a Jew, I admit it hasn’t been easy, even though I was born two decades after the end of World War II, to consider each German I meet as an individual rather than just tar them with the brush of their country’s brutal (and relatively recent) history. But, especially when I was living in Europe and traveling to Germany for tourism or on business, I did just that and found most Germans to be like most people in any other western country.

But Mr. Coates gives me, a white guy, no such benefit of the doubt...
At this point I'm scratching my head trying to figure this one out. Nowhere does Coates address the issue of forgiveness. So I'm not sure how Kaminsky got there. But his analogy fails on a more important level. Conflating his ability to forgive individual Germans for the Holocaust to the African American experience of racism fails to take into consideration that most Americans don't even know the history Coates is referring to (lets have a contest to see how many people know about Oney Judge or how blacks were excluded from the benefits of the G.I. Bill). We've simply whitewashed it all. I have to wonder how much forgiveness Kaminsky would feel when confronting a German Holocaust denier?

But for Coates to simply try to remind us of a few episodes from that history, Kaminsky calls him "a race hustler of the first order" and "dangerous, bordering on evil." In other words, its not slavery and Jim Crow that were evil, but Coates insistence that we face that part of our history.

When Paula Deen wants to have a "plantation-themed" wedding reception, Republicans keep suggesting that African Americans were better off during slavery, a Duck Dynasty star says he never saw an "unhappy Negro" during the Jim Crow era and even a Supreme Court Justice suggests that things were better for black people prior to the Civil Rights Movement, its clear that too many Americans are clueless about our history. And so I'd suggest to Mr. Kaminsky that when we can finally face all that - perhaps THEN we can start talking about forgiveness. Until that happens, he's just asking us to continue embracing the lie.

5 comments:

  1. As you said, it's relatively easy to "forgive" someone for something that their grandparents and/or their grandparents' elected officials did, especially if the person being "forgiven" wasn't around to commit or prevent the crime and if he or she isn't denying or defending those crimes. It's a whole different issue if the person in question is of the same mindset as yesteryear's perpetrators.

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  2. As a middle aged white woman, I see the reaction to Black males daily. From the woman who gunned her car through a crosswalk when a Black man was starting to cross, to the adults who shrink from teens being loud - laughing - it's everywhere every day. I'm not afraid of Black teens or men because I have spent decades with them as my neighbors. But I watch them - even as homeowners - disappear into their houses when there's a minor issue that might bring the police. The immediate assumption may well be that a totally innocent male is the perp even if he's the victim. It has fallen to me more than once to be the 'truth teller' of what is happening because I am AUTOMATICALLY believed, given a pass, determined to be credible. They are never so assured. I mourn the deaths of these young men gunned down by fearful and vicious white people. Coates may make us uncomfortable, but he's telling the world what I see all the time. It's not over.

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  3. Hi SP
    As an AA senior citizen, I remember my father telling me for years and years, NO ONE can be better or more important than YOU! So I never allowed the racist to transfer their virus to me. I worked in all white environment in the deep South for most of my career. They never could understand why I was so happy, self-assured, confident. In fact, it made them uncomfortable.
    I say this to say that as AA we hold all the aces! We have inner strength, brilliance and natural skill sets (President Obama) that are the envy of conscious whites. I just smile and I taught my 4 children to "just" smile.
    Smilingl8dy

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  4. Having read the excerpts of Kaminski's piece, I have trouble believing he actually read what Ta-Nehisi Coates actually wrote. Therefore, it's difficult to treat his would be take down seriously. I find it especially telling that Kaminski choses to devote much time to his sense of wounded honor as a white man rather than the crux of Coates' meditation. Nowhere does Coates call all whites racist, although one is tempted to wonder why that's what Kaminski took from the piece? I've long come to the conclusion, that sadly, most whites simply are unwilling to honestly confront our racist heritage and will resort to all kinds of derailing tactics. We as African Americans simply cannot fix white folks, that is something they will have to do themselves. I guess we'll find out sometime this century if they are up to the task.

    Kath


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    1. I agree, and put a comment on his piece suggesting that he misread Coates. The thread's probably dead, but it was worth a try. In particular, note (as I am sure you have) that the end of that quote uses "we" to describe society's attitudes. Not "you," not "whites," not "some of us," but "we." That's important. I remember in the early 1980s pushing back at people who pushed back at me for saying that "we elected Reagan" — for me, the identification with the society as a whole was and is much more important than the lever I may or may not have pulled, so to speak, or the subcultures I see myself as part of. Had we elected Romney, or McCain, I would have been disappointed. But this would still have been my society. I cannot make it much better; but we can. It's a long haul, and we've lost a lot in terms of economic inequity over the last few decades, but we've gained a lot in social and cultural acceptance of people who used to be seen as outsiders. Things really can get better.

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