Race Against Time

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In his 1996 book Dreams of Millennium, the Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell paraphrased the premises of then-recent works like Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism and Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve:

If some whites despise black English, rap music, the wearing of African dashikis, or the invented Afro-Christian holiday Kwanzaa, then once more this is evidence not of racism but of the belief that black culture just isn’t very impressive.  The implication of such arguments is clear enough:  whites are just being rational; now blacks have to stop blaming everyone else for their problems and get with the program.

If anything, the attitudes Kingwell described are stronger in 2016 than twenty years ago. More and more conservative whites seem to feel free to express anti-black, anti-Hispanic, or anti-Muslim sentiments with a preface of “I’m not racist, but…”  Hard as this may be to believe, it’s progress of a sort:  few today would advocate for Caucasians’ biological superiority, or for a return to Jim Crow-type segregation.  (The logo for last month’s Republican convention in Cleveland featured the outline of a Stratocaster electric guitar, the instrument favored by Jimi Hendrix and numerous other black and white rockers.) But when Martin Luther King said he wanted his children to be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, he didn’t mean he didn’t want them to be judged at all.  So if reflexive hostility towards supposed inferiors has died out, whites can now regard non-whites merely as one community objectively evaluating another.  They are not trying to preserve a status they no longer enjoy in a hierarchy that no longer obtains; they are just citing their own interests in a society where those interests have for five decades been routinely shamed as privilege and prejudice.  So they’ll tell you, anyway.

In a popular culture dominated by black (or black-influenced) entertainers, and a political culture topped by a black US president, the familiar charges of white advantage are increasingly in dispute.  Yet as the presumption of white dominance erodes, there is a convoluted insistence that it endures.  Today, for instance, the most well-meaning white person can be accused of harboring an innate racial bias, or of responding to “dog whistle politics,” merely because of her color.  The logical terminus of such suspicions is that all whites are inherently racist, just as all straight people must be homophobic.  It’s this guilty-until-proven-innocent stigma which many of the white folks now cheering Donald Trump resent.  No doubt there are also unrepentant bigots among them too, but eventually even moderate politicians – and moderate citizens – will have to address the same matters of ethnicity and history, demographics and democracy, currently riling up the GOP.

Around eight years ago the comedian Chris Rock was asked if he was proud to see a black person campaign for his nation’s highest office.  Rock said he was proud to see Barack Obama do so, rather than, say, comic rapper Flavor Flav; his point was that supporting a qualified African-American candidate was different than supporting any African-American candidate at all.  Perhaps an inverse distinction is now being made by racism-denying whites – they might fear some Muslims, blacks and Hispanics will blow up their airplanes, steal their cars, and take their jobs, but they take pains to assert that they have no problem with Muslims, blacks and Hispanics generally.  Maybe that’s the moral arc of the universe bending, ever so slightly, toward justice.


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