Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dem ole black debbils

-- by Dave

There's probably nothing more pathetic and unseemly than old white guys trying to advise black people that they just need to police their own, as if their own behavior had nothing to do with the problem. They always seem to want to know why black people can't be more like white people, ignoring the reality that white people more often than not actively resist letting them, even if they wanted to. And who would really want to model themselves after people who often reveal themselves as either hateful or thoughtless bigots anyway?

Take, for example, Fox's John Gibson, discussing the civil-rights marches at Jena, Louisiana:
GIBSON: So, this is -- what they're worried about is a mirage of 1950s-style American segregation, racism from the South. They wanna fight the white devil. I -- you know, there's no -- you can't go fight the black devil. Black devils stalking their streets every night gunning down their own people -- can't go fight that. That would be snitchin'.

A "mirage"? Obviously Gibson is harkening from the "racism no longer exists" school of white apologia.

Never mind that at Jena right now, the white supremacists and neo-Nazis are circling. Indeed, some white supremacists are calling for retaliation.

Not that Gibson would particularly be bothered by this; he has a history of repeating white-supremacist talking points, a fact always reflected by the eager discussions his remarks whip up at white-supremacist sites like Stormfront.

Also, never mind that "racism from the South" is still very much manifested in many places besides merely Jena, and not merely by white supremacists. Take, by way of small example, the state of Georgia, where the hate crimes against Hispanics have been surging dramatically in recent years.

Or you can travel to Forsyth County, where blacks in 1912 were the victims of what Eliot Jaspin calls a "racial cleansing" in his book Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing, and where in 1987 thousands of whites turned out in force to threaten and intimidate black civil-rights marchers. In 2000, of a population of about 120,000 in the county, only 684 of them were black.

And it's because of places like these -- which persist not merely in the South, but throughout the American landscape -- that blacks in America not only believe, but know that racism is very much alive and well in this country (which is why they still march in places like Jena). John Gibson, of course, would have his audience think otherwise.

Putting Gibson's argument into slightly more rational terms, he seems to be saying that blacks ought to worry less about any effects of lingering racism (which doesn't exist anyway, evidently) and worry more about the problems of black-on-black crime.

It seems never to occur to people like Gibson that the two are decidedly interconnected. The plague of black-on-black crime is a product of persistent poverty. And persistent white racism, in subtle and not-so-subtle forms, plays a major role in the continuing impoverishment of African Americans.

First, remember that most studies have found that there is no direct correlation between race and crime rates, especially since there is no evidence of any actual causal relationship. In contrast, there's a strong and distinct correlation between poverty and crime rates, partly because there is a fairly clear causal relationship.

But by pretending that race, and not poverty, is the cause of black crime rsates, most white Americans can avoid confronting the fact of continuing rates of poverty for some racial groups (particularly blacks) that persist largely because of prejudicial hiring practices (see, for instance, the recent study that found that whites with prison records were more likely to be hired than blacks without one) and the persistence of racial residential segregation.

That's where places like Forsyth County come in. They represent the yet-unaddressed persistence of the effects of "Sundown Towns" on the American racial and cultural landscape.

It would be one thing if, in the wake of the Civil Rights Era, Americans living in these former communities actively worked to overcome the segregationist mindset they represent. But instead, the legacy of sundown towns is one that reinforces, generationally, the false stereotypes that created them a century ago. People like John Gibson not only indulge that delusion, they help foster it on a massive scale.

James Loewen, in his book on the subject, observes [pp. 320-321]:
During the past 25 years, while teaching race relations to thousands of white people and discussing the subject with thousands more, I have found that white Americans expound about the alleged character and characteristics of African Americans in inverse proportion to their contact and experience with them. Isolation and ignorance aren't the only reasons why residents of sundown towns and suburbs are so ready to believe and pass on the worst stereotypes about African Americans, however. They also have a need for denial.

The idea that living in an all-white community leads residents to defend living in an all-white community exemplifies the well-established psychological principle of cognitive dissonance. No one likes to think of himself or herself as a bad person, argued Leon Festinger, who established this principle. People who live in sundown towns believe in the golden rule -- or say they do -- just like people who live in interracial towns. ...

What could make living in an all-white town right? The old idea that African Americans constitute the problem, of course. In 1914, Thomas Bailey, a professor in Mississippi, told what is wrong with that line of thinking: "The real problem is not the Negro, but the white man's attitude toward the Negro." Sundown towns only made the problem worse. Having driven out or kept out African Americans (or perhaps Chinese Americans or Jewish Americans), their residents then became more racist and more likely to believe the worst about the excluded groups.

That's why the talk in sundown towns brims with amazing stereotypes about African Americans, put forth confidently with nary an African American in their lives. The ideology intrinsic to sundown towns -- that African Americans ... are the problem -- prompts their residents to believe and pass on all kinds of negative generalizations as fact. They are the problem because they choose segregation -- even though "they" don't, as we have seen. Or they are the problem owing to their criminality -- confirmed by the stereotype -- misbehavior that "we" avoid by excluding or moving away from them.

Of course, such stereotypes are hardly limited to sundown towns. Summarizing a nationwide 1991 poll, Lynne Duke found that a majority of whites believed that "blacks and Hispanics are likely to prefer welfare to hard work and tend to be lazier than whites, more prone to violence, less intelligent, and less patriotic." Even worse, in sundown towns and suburbs, statements such as these usually evoke no open disagreement at all. Because most listeners in sundown towns have never lived near African Americans, they have no experiential foundation from which to question the negative generalities that they hear voiced. So the stereotypes usually go unchallenged: blacks are less intelligent, lazier, and lack drive, and that's why they haven't built successful careers.

As I noted before, sundown towns and their continuing legacy have also had a profound psychological impact on blacks, including the internalization of low expectations, and the exclusion of blacks from cultural capital, as Loewen describes [pp. 353-355]:
Confining most African Americans to the opposite of sundown suburbs -- majority black, inner-city neighborhoods -- also restricts their access to what Patterson calls cultural capital: "those learned patterns of mutual trust, insider knowledge about how things really work, encounter rituals, and social sensibilities that constitute the language of power and success." ...

Making the suburbs unreachable for nonwhites, as I've said before, similarly restricts them from making the social connections that are critical to forming networks that help us find work and move ahead in the workforce. Loewen notes that "the trouble is, these networks are segregated, so important information never reaches black America. ... Sundown suburbanites know only whites, by definition, except perhaps a few work contacts. Thus sundown suburbs contribute to economic inequality by race."

In the case of Gibson, and right-wing Republicans and their mouthpieces generally, that's all dead history. It means nothing. It's similarly meaningless that the Southern Strategy is employed as the heart of a top-down electoral strategy by the GOP to this day. Who cares? That's all ancient history, isn't it?

Well, as Bob Herbert observed today:
This is the party of the Southern strategy -- the party that ran, like panting dogs, after the votes of segregationist whites who were repelled by the very idea of giving equal treatment to blacks. Ronald Reagan, George H.W. (Willie Horton) Bush, George W. (Compassionate Conservative) Bush -- they all ran with that lousy pack.

Racism -- much of it unthinking, thoughtless, and heedless, a product of privileged arrogance and blindness -- is hardly the dead letter that John Gibson seems to think it is. Indeed, he need only take a good hard look in the mirror for evidence of that.

[Note: Jeralyn at TalkLeft has a terrific analysis of the Jena situation from a legal viewpoint.]

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