A Spectrum of Racism: Milwaukee culture is more than black and white politics
The thesis is simple: over the past two decades there has been a steady infiltration of racism and racist thought into the entire American political spectrum, and that until the public understand the enormity of what has happened, they won’t be able to combat it successfully.
Racialized thought has become pervasive at all points along the spectrum, to the degree that there are now points upon which the Alt-Right and the Liberals/Progressives actually touch. Here is the spectrum, which is not a perfect measure but serves as a basic framework:
The Alt-Right version: White civilization is being extinguished
This one is easy because it can be publicly labeled despicable, and to most people it is limited to surefire nutcases like Richard Spenser or David Duke. It is so clearly “beyond the pale” that most people feel relatively safe ignoring the true crazies or dismissing them as “homegrown terrorists” without taking the time to realize that their presence – largest since the last KKK resurgence in the 1920s – and their ideas – echoes already in major K-12 textbooks and in conservative think-tank papers – are slowly gaining acceptability in civic discourse, with the most skilled practitioners conflating them and thereby co-opting the “defense of Western white civilization.”
The Religious Right/Social Conservative version: There were Black slaveowners!
This one is a new favorite of the people who cherry-pick quotes to “prove” that our entire Republic is based on evangelical protestant Christianity, and that we need Bibles back in our classrooms. The variations go from the utter and outright lie “a bigger percentage of Free Blacks owned more slaves than White people” to “why don’t White people ever get the credit they deserve for ending slavery?” to “I didn’t personally own any slaves, so why should I feel guilty about slavery?” Racializing attacks like this are one argument in the same bundle with “teach the controversy” of Creationism vs Evolution and “government schools are indoctrination camps for liberal ideas” because they do not teach the “real” history of the US. This is part and parcel of a much larger anti-intellectual, anti-science movement, but the racial element has become deeply internalized.
The Libertarian version: Taxation is Theft
It is not that the Libertarian Party is politically consequential, but it is important to note how all the creeping spectrum of racism is infiltrating everywhere. A decade ago Libertarianism and the “Liberty Movement” was about a smaller and less intrusive government, smoking weed, and the 2nd Amendment. Today the rhetoric has been taken over by “taxation is theft” which is really anarcho-capitalism, not libertarianism, and the idea that people either bootstrap themselves or get left behind. The racial implications here are subtle but pervasive. Any form of public assistance or safety net, which is almost always directed toward minorities, is repackaged as stealing from the “productive” in society and as socialist or communist. We are beginning to see open references to the merits of Social Darwinism in these discussions. For example, a poor, single mother whose newborn required several hundred thousand dollars worth of surgery to survive, wrote a detailed account of the ordeal and posted about how lucky she was to have Medicaid to save her daughter’s life. She was almost immediately bombarded with comments asking her why she thought she had the right to steal from other people’s children to save her own, and noting that people like her daughter “needed to make better personal choices,” as newborns, or better yet “deserve nothing but a bullet.”
The Conservative version: I’m Colorblind!
Tomi Lauren said “I don’t see race.” Most people are not personally a racist, and do want to see everyone lifted out from under the unfair burdens of government spending and taxation, so that everybody can rise on their merits without Government interference. They are mostly willing to help all the poor people get ahead by paying them less – reduce minimum wage; enterprise zones; repeal right to work; end job training programs – so that they will learn the virtues of hard work and self-sacrifice that others were born knowing. Oh, and by the way, “White Privilege” is just something made up by liberal elites to expunge their own guilt at their failed policies. It is just another way of trying to make people who worked hard on their own to be successful feel bad about themselves and justify new taxes to support lazy Black people.
The Center-Right version: All Lives Matter (and it is a sad fact that Black people are so violent)
The original Civil Rights movement, like feminism, was about laudable goals like voting rights and ending segregation. Now that we have done all that, these people want more. They want “special” rights and considerations, and they have become so radical that they are attacking the people and institutions that make our country great, like law enforcement. How come nobody in the lying media covers it when ravenous cannibal hordes of urban Blacks kill white people? How come nobody talks about Black druggies shooting our cops? What about Black-on-Black violence? There is this nice African-American couple that lives down the block who is an engineer of some sort and his kids are well-dressed and respectable, how come the majority of Black people cannot be like them? It is a fact that that Black people do more drugs and commit more violent crimes, and it is a shame that more young Black men are in prison than in college, but it is really their choices that got them there.
The Middle-class Suburban version: Charter schools are public schools!
The public school system has failed by trying to integrate the inner cities with the suburbs, bringing my kids down without doing any favors for those poor Black kids. So we need to disassemble it and use innovation to rebuild it, with merit-based charter schools, and a whole raft of inner-city charters where we can put all the promising little Black children together so that they can learn to excel – and not call it segregation. We believe in public education, but not at our child’s expense, which is why we need to make certain schools exempt from rules like providing school lunches or having to pay back transportation money they did not spend. If those people in the city really wanted their children to go to suburban charters they would have made the choices necessary to work out the transportation issues. It is a real short jump from dismantling a public school system based on the premise of educating ALL children as an ideal, to dismantling the idea of having basic health care available to ALL children and people. There will not be some kind of new consensus for Medicare for All or other extended social programs if we have decided that “Education for All” is a losing proposition. This is where we find States cut their education budgets by tens of millions of dollars while eliminating estate taxes for the wealthy.
The Liberal/Progressive version: We failed because we didn’t offer enough to the white working class
This should be really scary for liberals and progressives, because the fact that it is even on the table is an indication that their movement has been co-opted and is in danger of extinction. It literally means that uppity Black people should be taken out of visible leadership positions, that they should stop talking about racism or social justice or police brutality or inner cities or educating poor kids, and start talking about the issues that matter to White voters because White voters really are America – or at least the race who wins elections. It is about giving up the moral position of being crusaders for what we believe is right, in order to win power so that others can “slowly” do what is right—eventually when the country is ready for it. Just not now, because it is too politically costly. It is about the intellectual and moral hollowing out of the liberal/progressive tradition.
We live in a country now where mainstream center-right political figures can get away with saying, “You become a racist when a liberal loses an argument to you.” And since everyone knows that liberals are always wrong, there really isn’t any racism in America any more, just people who who are proud of their heritage, and what’s so wrong with that?
All these statements are difficult to swallow, because to admit that the past sixty years has not even come close to eradicating racism, and that the past twenty years has seen a huge resurgence of it, even after the nation elected its first Black president, is a hard sell. But the reality is that we are currently living in a country that has moved substantially further along the racist spectrum in the past twenty years than most people would like to believe, and even fewer are willing to talk about because it will endanger their relationship with those long-perceived as either allies or at least honorable opponents.
There is no magic proposition for reversing this trend, and building more buildings as an illustration of progress is a complete self-delusion on dismantling the powerful social force of racism and segregation in Milwaukee.
However, the first step in dealing with any problem is to acknowledge the problem exists, and to define it. Then at least our community can move out of the denial stage. The denial stage is continuing to believe that what is going on in Trump-fueled politics is NOT about race. It could not have occurred without a steady definition of “racism” and the infiltration of racialized thought into nearly every facet of American politics.
The second step is to realize that this did not just come out of nowhere. There has always been a strong racialized strain in American politics and society, and as demographic trends change, especially as Protestant Whites realize that they are losing their hold on the society just through actuarial means, it would be insane not to expect them to fight back. In their “history,” they built this country and they see it being taken away from them. So they have started to fight, tooth and nail, to keep it on their terms.
It is also important to recognize that a lot of really good people, from all walks of life and all parts of the political spectrum, have been caught up in this rhetoric. For the most part, yelling at them will not work. The need to shout comes from the short-term tendency to see the need for a win in the next election to “save the country.” This too is wrong thinking. There needs to be election strategies, and candidates, but there also needs to be a realization that this war has been going on in America since the early 17th Century. Racism has won a major battle over the past twenty-odd years, but not the war.
But in order to win a war, we have to know what war we are fighting.