Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tim Wise, Race & A Black Tea Party

Recently, a friend of mine (and an excellent pianist) made me aware of a recent blog post by anti-racism writer Tim Wise titled; "Imagine if the Tea Party was Black"

The basic hypothetical is that we imagine that every aspect of the tea party movement was racially flipped. So instead of a majority white population organizing big rallies and shouting down various Congress-persons, we think about what would happen if it was a majority black population.

Let's overlook the fact that there is a massive and extremely obvious divide within the Tea Party itself, one half - let's call it the "Ron Paul" half - being principled and committed to limited government, sane foreign policy and an end to the abominable economic policies that have pervaded the government for decades.  This group includes many libertarians, and larger grass-roots groups like Young Americans for Liberty (who's modest UCLA chapter I recently produced a miniature "documentary" about 10 days ago).

Much like the students in this video - I strongly believe that at least the Ron Paul half of the Tea Party movement hasn't one predominately racist component to it what-so-ever.  In fact, like many of the interview subjects above, I feel that the racism claims made by many people in the media are purely a way to discredit an otherwise valuable and intelligent message... I think the overwhelming evidence vindicates that position to boot.

Regardless, there is the other half of the Tea Party to contend with - this we'll call the "Sarah Palin" half.  I have less sympathy & understanding for this conglomeration of GOP whiners.  These are more likely, in my opinion, to be the ones who give the whole movement a bad name.  I don't have any direct evidence to back that up, but the people at UCLA weren't Sarah Palin fans at all - neither am I or are really any of my friends who are involved in this kind of thing.  It remains a mystery to me why people seem to be attracted to her contradictory and often transparent set of predictable appeals to the "social conservative" base.

In omitting this divide, Tim Wise already suggests that he doesn't really understand the movement itself very well and is content to label what is actually a relatively diverse group of people into one racial stereotype.

But setting all that aside, while Tim Wise makes a couple valid points, most of his article is way off base for one primary reason:

It's not 1964!

Tim asks a number of poignant questions which are worth some deeper examination... For example, he poses the following "hypothetical":
"Imagine that hundreds of black protesters were to descend upon Washington DC and Northern Virginia, just a few miles from the Capitol and White House, armed with AK-47s, assorted handguns, and ammunition. And imagine that some of these protesters —the black protesters — spoke of the need for political revolution, and possibly even armed conflict in the event that laws they didn’t like were enforced by the government? Would these protester — these black protesters with guns — be seen as brave defenders of the Second Amendment, or would they be viewed by most whites as a danger to the republic? What if they were Arab-Americans? Because, after all, that’s what happened recently when white gun enthusiasts descended upon the nation’s capital, arms in hand, and verbally announced their readiness to make war on the country’s political leaders if the need arose."
Well, no... I don't think they'd be seen as "brave defenders of the Second Amendment", but I also don't see any reason to believe that's what their intent would have been.  But more importantly, what's glaringly missing here is the difference in media portrayal of the "imagined" scenario - and this is true in each case.

In this first hypothetical, we have historical examples of exactly this happening... 50 years ago.

In that case many state & local governments thought of the people looking to assert & defend their own natural rights as scary militias (some, like the Black Panthers, actually were of course...) who needed to be stopped.  In those instances National Guard and other agents of the state unleashed tear gas & fire-hoses on many of the protesters.  The fire-hose may have gone out of style today, but the taser sure is popular now instead...

Yet... Again, this is not 1964. The media now looks back on those protests and the fire-hoses as a victory for progressivism (historically probably the most ironically inaccurate portrayal ever given that the progressive movement were huge sponsors of eugenics), and swells with pride at something like that happening again... Led specifically by black people or some other arbitrarily decided group.

So today, if there was a movement of 80-90% black people marching against a white president, I think the media portrayal would be heroic and it would be shown as a new victorious battle for civil rights. I also think that the 6 people carrying guns at such an event would be ignored by the media entirely - rather than highlighted, parroted and freaked out about - in order to use the media in such a way that the majority of the public is largely put at ease.

As a result, I think the majority of Americans would be feeling the opposite sentiments to Tim Wise' conclusions.

Such a protest would be widely supported in America today.

There's more from Tim Wise though:
"Imagine that white members of Congress, while walking to work, were surrounded by thousands of angry black people, one of whom proceeded to spit on one of those congressmen for not voting the way the black demonstrators desired. Would the protesters be seen as merely patriotic Americans voicing their opinions, or as an angry, potentially violent, and even insurrectionary mob? After all, this is what white Tea Party protesters did recently in Washington."
First off... I guess we have to overlook the fact that the incident being questioned here was wildly overblown and not in any way a deliberate "assault". In that instance, it's pretty clear from multiple video sources that the Congressman was spit on accidentally while an angry protester was yelling at him.  I once had a science teacher (amusingly named "Tim Wiseman") in middle school who did that so often no one wanted to sit in the front row in his class. Way annoying and kinda gross... Definitely unhygienic... However, it was not something I'd have thought to arrest him for, much less consider an "assault" of any kind.

But again looking at how the media would have portrayed such an incident in general here in 2010, my guess is that it wouldn't have even made the news. The Congressmen involved would have been too busy pandering to the crowd trying to fend off any accusations of racism to be outraged by a little spittle in their faces.  If it had made the news at all, the media would be spending so much time fawning all over this new glorious civil rights movement that shouting down members of congress and getting in their faces would be portrayed as courageous and daring.

Of course, the two examples above are purely hypothetical - we haven't really seen instances of this in recent memory so I'm really just speculating on what the public reaction might be.  But Tim Wise gives me something even better to discuss here - perhaps unwittingly - in the next idea he asks us to "Imagine" because they are things that have actually played out in real life.  Here's Wise:
"Imagine that a rap artist were to say, in reference to a white president: “He’s a piece of shit and I told him to suck on my machine gun.” Because that’s what rocker Ted Nugent said recently about President Obama."
Haven't we seen almost exactly this kind of thing repeatedly within the past few years??

What were Kanye West's many inflamatory statements about President Bush such as his 2005 remarks about Bush not caring about black people?

What was the Death of a President "mockumentary" portraying what would happen if President Bush was murdered in office?

What exactly was Oliver Stone's "W", the endless stream of Bush-Hitler posters (available for sale at CafePress, in fact!)?

And what about Alex Ross' beautifully iconic Bush-as-Vampire sucking the blood of the Statue of Liberty painting?

No outrage, no mass panic in the media, and no widespread concern for the safety of the president - or the republic - was reported at the time. Nothing.  Zip... Nada.

All of this got (correctly) defended as free speech. Tasteless, obnoxious, stupid, a waste of time and intellectually vapid - damn right - but all perfectly acceptable ways of expressing discontent. What's more is that virtually all of the "fear" was on the government doing things to curtail speech.  At the time, everyone was talking about how they felt like they "couldn't" speak their minds and that they were afraid of reprisal by the Bush administration... No evidence of that happening really ever cropped up, but the concern was that the government would abridge liberties and prohibit free speech. Not that the people protesting were going to overthrow society as we know it.

That is the correct concern to have considering the government holds all the guns, handcuffs, courts & muzzles... But that concern has completely disappeared. The government hasn't gotten less powerful, less insidious, corrupt or dangerous in the last 2 years... If anything it's only gotten worse... But now, it's the protesters that are the crazed, dangerous lunatics!


So for what it's worth, I think we have as close to a real-world example of what Mr. Wise is claiming as we're likely to get, and the result was precisely the opposite of what he seems to be suggesting. Far from reacting with fear & terror at the idea of black people publicly attacking politicians, the news media typically shows non-whites as the noble underdogs regardless of the evidence of the case.

All this was going on just a few years ago, so you'd think that Tim Wise would actually be able to remember it.  But I don't think he does... Instead, his claim (after a number of straw-men not really worth mentioning surrounding statements from Rush Limbaugh & Ann Coulter, etc.) is this:
"To ask any of these questions is to answer them. Protest is only seen as fundamentally American when those who have long had the luxury of seeing themselves as prototypically American engage in it. When the dangerous and dark “other” does so, however, it isn’t viewed as normal or natural, let alone patriotic...

...And this, my friends, is what white privilege is all about. The ability to threaten others, to engage in violent and incendiary rhetoric without consequence, to be viewed as patriotic and normal no matter what you do, and never to be feared and despised as people of color would be, if they tried to get away with half the shit we do, on a daily basis."
Who exactly is "we", Tim?  White people?  I guess we're all the same, huh?  Nothing racist about that kind of remark, is there?

At any rate... Of course these protests are mostly made up of white people, but it's worth noting that since some 94% of black voters voted for President Obama, it's hard to imagine blacks being a huge component to the Tea Party movement no matter what... At least not until they realize that the actual policies endorsed and acted on by Obama are every bit as bad as anything President Bush did - and often even worse purely because the current president is standing on the unconstitutionally built shoulders of the previous one.

Mostly what I take issue with in Mr. Wise' essay is the idea that society, and especially the mainstream news media,  hasn't actually changed significantly since the 60s. One thing Mr. Wise really should do at this juncture is step back and realize that his voice represents by far the majority opinion in news-rooms across the country.

Fundamentally, I think that his failure to recognize those differences has led Mr. Wise to some seriously erroneous conclusions. There is an enormous difference in the way the media frames these kinds of debates today than even just a couple years ago. If Bush had still been in office another term, he'd be getting harangued from absolutely every angle on the expansion of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the bailouts, the take-over of health care, the government's ownership of that colossal failure of an auto manufacturer known as "GM", unprecedented deficit spending, an explosion of national debt and for listening to economic advisors who were not only completely wrong on the state of the economy in 2005-2007, but who have consistently failed to produce even their most conservatively predicted "results" through economic stimulus spending and other idiotic boondoggles.

If it was a primarily black movement in opposition to Bush, I think it's fair to assume that it would have been portrayed as a laudable throwback to heroic times... Certainly the "they're all racists!" meme wouldn't gain any traction (since as we all know, non-whites cannot be racists) and the media might actually be taking a deeper look at the actual issues being brought up.  And of course, dissent would still be "patriotic".

But dissent isn't patriotic anymore.  It's now referred to as "the party of no", "obstructionist", and "dangerous".  Funny thing is, the fears of racism & violence are simply convenient ways to distract from the issues that need to be addressed. And as the video above notes; while of course there are probably a number of racists out there who hate Obama and are willing to show up at big events with stupid signs, racism is most certainly not the main focus of the movement at large.

Writing about race is a delicate subject - and as the top of my blog states, I welcome differing opinions here, so feel free to disagree.  But the important thing is to remember that we're living in 2010 now. We have the ability to look back on the Civil Rights era years and understand that if anything the current Tea Party movement actually has more in common with  the civil rights activists seeking more freedom through the more even application & reduction of government force than they do with the agents of government turning on the spigots and firing beanbags into crowds.

Naturally public schools do a horrific job of explaining this point clearly, but institutionalized racism and even slavery itself wasn't a "natural" condition of humanity.  It required the backing of laws, guns & jails to maintain, since without those things all those who were enslaved would simply have gotten up and walked away.  Slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, "separate but equal", and racial discrimination were aspects of government control on society... They were most expressly not a problem of "too limited" government.

It was, in fact, limited government that was the goal of civil rights activists - insofar as they wanted the government to no longer have the authority to oppress them and other unfavored minorities and wanted the removal of all the various laws preventing blacks from enjoying the same rights as white people did. Some went beyond this by asking for additional types of reparations - which, at the time, given that many individuals had personally lived through legally mandated segregation, violations of basic rights to liberty, property, speech & due process, and other egregious offenses to humanity; there's no doubt in my mind that many of those reparations were warranted.

But that was 1964...

Today... The scene is altered significantly, even though the root of the issue for the Tea Party crowd is somewhat the same... Government has power it shouldn't have, should never have had, and doesn't know what to do with. So while sure, there's still racism out there, Tim Wise' world view suggests that the reaction to a massive black protest movement would be like it was in the 60s when in fact that's probably the opposite of true now... Wise' views are now "the establishment" that he might have been fighting against 50 years ago, and those protesting against the established order are now the activists & rebels seeking limited government today.

Funny how things turn in cycles like that, isn't it?

Personally I hate writing about race.  It is always the least interesting thing, by far, about any person I meet... But occasionally, I find myself wading into its murky waters purely because of articles like this one from Tim Wise.  Of course, as I noted above, the Tea Party movement - or at least the vast majority of it as far as I can tell from its outskirts and from talking to real people involved (rather than speculating on intentions or whining about what Rush Limbaugh said this week) - just isn't focused on racial issues... It's focused on spending, taxation and government power issues instead, and that is something that I would think all minorities would be able to appreciate - but far too many people who don't look very closely are truly and amazingly missing the point.

People like Tim Wise.

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