Rethinking Racism

The Andrew Breitbart and Fox News smear of former USDA Shirley Sherrod, and the NAACP and White House’s complicity in her defamation and firing, still has lots of people thinking and talking about race and racism.   Unfortunately, the focus has been on individual racism. This is a proposition we’ve got to rethink.

Racism, as we’ve discussed here and elsewhere, is systemic.  If you’d like to know what systemic racism at the USDA looks like, it looks like this. Black farmers have been systematically discriminated against by the USDA for decades.  They were due assistance – given to white farmers, but not to black farmers – and were denied this because of their race.   Black farmers went to court to get redress for this, won the case, but still cannot get the money that is owed them.   There was another set back for black farmers this week, as the Senate stripped $1.2 billion for the claims from an emergency spending bill, along with $3.4 billion in long-overdue funding for a settlement with American Indians who say they were swindled out of royalties by the federal government.

Rather than focus on this systemic nature of racism, the Breitbart smear and the fall out afterward have people focused on the endless and pointless question about who is/is not a racist.   This is a distraction from the larger and more intractable forms of racism that really plague the U.S.   Rinku Sen has a brilliant post at TruthOut which makes this case.  She writes:

What the right wants us to forget is that race relations are rooted in systems, and that not all racism is individual, intentional and overt. Individual bias plays a role, to be sure, but it’s the institutional rules, written and unwritten, that enable such racism, not the other way around. You can’t “heal” a system; you have to rebuild it.

This is where the left often loses its way on race. I was surprised, for instance, to read the following in Joan Walsh’s column on Wednesday: “People are spending a lot of energy to get folks like the Spooners and Sherrod to think they should be enemies, when the real issue is class.” Walsh, who has a solid history of responsible reporting on race issues, goes on to say that’s what the left should remember from this debacle, because the right wants us to forget it.

I take the opposite lesson: The intersection of race and class is a complicated thing, deserving of more attention, not less. Treating class as the “real issue” means treating race only as a function of it, which amounts to colorblindness for leftists. It’s a highly limited answer to working-class white resentment of working-class black people. Progressives’ over-reliance on the “same boat” argument doesn’t help keep multiracial alliances together. Rather, it stumps us when we need to explain exactly how racism works, not just in the economy, but also in education, prison, health and, yes, agriculture. Liberal silence on race is what allows Breitbart to distort the definition of racism, to strip it of all discussions of power, history, policy or collective responsibility such that the notion of reverse racism has enough merit to be taken seriously in the first place.

Sen is spot on here when she notes that the progressive left’s inability to speak cogently on race is what opens up a space for right-wingers like Breitbart.    She also makes an excellent point about the overlap between race and class.   Perhaps this will serve as a wakeup call for those on the left to get smarter about race and racism so that they aren’t “snookered” by the likes of Breitbart again.