The Pundit Pontificating
Notes On The Enduring Riddle of Race In America
Sometimes erudition, no matter how eloquently expressed, burdens rather than buoys an argument, obfuscates more than it enlightens. On such occasions what sounds like weighty argument upon first hearing quickly metamorphoses into sophistry after close examination. That was my reaction after giving a close reading to a much cited September 18, column analyzing the causes of the enormous hostility expressed towards President Obama by the untutored right wing mob that descended on Washington last Saturday. Written by David Brooks, an editorial Page columnist with the august New York Times, it was pompously titled :”No, It’s Not About Race.”
First I was aghast at the know-it-all tone of the piece, and then somewhat offended, as I pondered the finality with which Mr. Brooks delivered his pronouncement. The vibe was like: the great white father has spoken…that is all…there isn’t anymore to be said on the matter! Of course part of this has to do with the mind set of all commentators, a conceit from which I cannot claim to be exempt, but then Mr. Brooks is also writing on the editorial page of the New York Times, which claims to “print all the news that’s fit to print.” Hence in the normal course of human nature chances are a Times columnists must feel even more prescient than the common lot of us.
However, given the hostility toward the Times from ideologues of the left and right, I’d like to make it clear that I am a big fan and devoted reader of the Times; I find it a reliable and comprehensive source of news about the important events in the world, a marvelous first draft of history, without which my life would be immeasurably impoverished – although I must confess my bias for Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich among the columnists for both style and intelligence. And for sheer intellectual gravitas it’s Paul Krugman,the reigning Nobel Laureate whom Barack Obama would have done well to listen to. And for solid reporting, social conscience, high purpose and advocacy for the poor and voiceless Bob Herbert is my man. So I’m a fan and friend of the New York Times – although I like the London times even better because they have been generous in publishing my work in the Sunday Edition, “The Culture” magazine to be exact.
Yet unlike Mr. Brooks, who is persuaded that the “progressive news media…exaggerates stories like the Joe Wilson shout and the opposition to the Obama schools speech to show that small town folks are dumb whackos,” I am convinced the very fact that most of the people at the Tea Parties proudly confess their belief that FOX television news is a more reliable source of information about the bewilderingly complex issues that confront us than the New York Times, is irrefutable evidence that they are ignorant whackos!
That’s why they listen to verbose ignoramuses and racial arsonists like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingrahm and that rotund racist dope fiend Rush Limbaugh, and mistake them for wise men! And we need not engage in a Freudian analysis of symbols to know that the fundamental tone of these demonstrations are racist; the protesters carry sings that make it plain that they are racist, and the verbal feces that flow endlessly from their nasty mouths co-signs the signs. Although there is no deficit of fools that hail from big cities, on average small town people are behind the times when compared to cosmopolites who inhabit the great cities of the world. That’s a fact jack! And the exceptions only prove the rule.
Having grown up spending my winters in a small town in Florida and my summers in Philadelphia and New York, and now regularly travel all over this country, especially in the old confederate states of the south, by Grey Hound Bus in order to mingle and talk with real people – even though it is sometimes more expensive than flying – I feel I have as reliable an impression of what the temper of the country is these days as anyone – and I find racial tensions at a boiling point throughout the south. Both races are armed to the teeth and the shooting could start any minute. That’s the truth I see. And Mr. Brooks, in spite of the ostentatious erudition displayed in his column, is clueless!
I will assume that the gentle readers, including Mr. Brooks if I’m fortunate, will at least concede my point that anyone who turns to the air head verbal arsonists on WABC – Rushbo and his minions – is by definition a certifiable moron. If not you should stop reading now, because this argument will surely be over your head. I know that most of the people from the untutored mob in the march will have been hopelessly lost already, if perchance they happened upon my text and had a dictionary and Thesaurus on hand and made it thus far.
Mr. Brooks talks about how he formed his opinion of who these people are and their attitudes about race by casually mingling with them; interrupting his workout routine jogging around the capitol, because “Sociology was more important than fitness.” Well, as an avid and long time reader of sociological literature, having been indelibly influenced by the late great C. Wright Mill’s treatise “The Sociological Imagination” and I gained my first real understanding of how this country works by reading his learned and insightful book “The Power Elite.” And it would be hard to exaggerate the insight I’ve gained about questions of racism, poverty and social policy from careful readings of the scholarly tomes of William Julius Wilson – especially “The Truly Disadvantaged, Racism, Privilege and Power, When Work disappears, etc – I agree. Sociology is indeed important.
In fact I could cite a treasure trove of brilliant sociological treatises on the problems of race and class in America that, had Mr. Brooks, and other over-privileged “ conservative” white guys like him, bothered to read they wouldn’t say some of the silly things they say. For instance if our intrepid reporter really understood social Science methodology he would know that although the participant observer is a legitimate method of investigation it requires a much longer and in-depth interrogation of one’s subjects before grand generalizations can be made about the forces that motivate them and determine their behavior.
Alas Mr. Brooks thinks the fact that he saw some of the white marchers buying food from black folks who were partying on the mall and attending a rap concert there is more compelling evidence that the white marchers were not racist, than the blatantly racist signs and unambiguous hatred they have for him personally. Is his knowledge of American racial etiquette so shallow that he does not know that even at the height of racist caste system white folks loved black cooking, especially in the south!
And while Mr. Brooks view white folks listening to rappers as evidence that they are not racists, I’d like to remind him that at the turn of the 19th century, the period the eminent Afro-American historian Rayford Logan called “The Nadir” – which is French for “lowest point” – in a seminal book on the Post reconstruction period, “The betrayal Of the Negro,” the most popular music in the county was “Ragtime,” an Afro-American invention just like rap. Dr. Dubois summed up that curious phenomenon by wryly remarking “White folks lynch Negroes while singing their songs.”
And what, after all, is the President’s offense that’s got the Tea Party kooks so atwitter? He is trying to provide health care for everyone…to heal the sick as commanded by their avowed lord and savior Jesus Christ! Yet Mr. Brooks has declared that these people are neither racists nor dumb whackos. He may get over with this muddled apologia in some quarters, but I find Mr. Brook’s sociological observations on race relations unconvincing to say the least. Yet there remains much we can learn about race relations from real sociologists, especially those who have personally suffered the slings and arrows of racism.
Over a century ago the Afro-American scholar Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, returned from Germany armed with the latest theories and techniques of “social Science” – having studied with and become a close friend of Dr. Max Weber, the scholar who invented the discipline – and produced the first American sociological classic: “The Philadelphia Negro, which was published in 1898 under the auspices of the University Of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Dubois was convinced his scientific investigations into the causes of the black predicament in America and the relationship between the races would lead modern men of good will whose lives are governed by reason to adopt enlightened policies to relieve racial oppression and advance American civilization beyond the barbarism of racial caste oppression, with it’s attendant reign of extra-legal violence and ritual murders called lynching.
However after a decade of such scientific investigations, and hosting a annual conference of social scientists on the campus of Atlanta University – a small all black school devoted to a first rate liberal education like that DuBois received at Harvard – which were attended by his friend Max Weber, Dubois began to have doubts about the effectiveness of scientific knowledge in persuading white Americans to change their evil ways. When he began his studies at Atlanta, producing a serious scholarly monograph every year, he had said “The world is thinking wrong about race” and believed science could make it right.
It is instructive to understand that during the years when Dr. Dubois was carrying out his studies African Americans – mostly males – were being publicly crucified in ritual murders in which they were hung, shot and burned alive for the amusement of white mobs every two and a half days from 1882 to 1916! The pictures are in the archives and they show the carnival atmosphere that prevailed at these gruesome events, which the distinguished Harvard sociologists Orlando Patterson has convincingly argued was a form of collective cannibalism on the part of the white mobs in his book Rituals Of Blood.
That’s a bit of sociology that Mr. Brooks needs to read if he wants to understand why howling white mobs calling for the death of a black man – like the crowds at the Palin McCain rallies at Pottsville Ohio – look like lynch mobs to African Americans. These ritual murders of black men caused Dr. DuBois to abandon his scientific work, although he had designed a plan for one hundred years of continual research, and become an activist and propagandist for racial justice and economic equity. His 1903 literary classic “The Souls Of Black Folks” was the beginning of that effort which led him to become a founder of the NAACP six years later and establish “The Crisis” which chronicled the struggle for racial justice and promoted Afro-American Art and culture throughout the twentieth century and is still in publication.
What is most telling about where Mr. Brooks is coming from – i.e. his vision of the American story – is his selective reading of history; it is the most white bread interpretation possible. For those of us who know something about the history of race relations it sounds like the ramblings of an ignoramus or a charlatan. The one thing that any intellectual flim flam man can count on is that he can say virtually anything about American history and the vast majority of his listeners will have no idea if they are listening to fact or fiction, and they will find no resolution to this confusion in most of our high school history texts, whose editorial policies are determined by sales departments who have discovered that it’s not good business to tell the truth about race in America.
We need only witness the bitter battles over attempts by some school boards to adopt the text “Land Of the Free” written by the distinguished Afro-American historian John Hope Franklin, in collaboration with two white professors. White parents in the school districts that rejected the book said in no uncertain terms that they didn’t give a shit whether the facts contained in the book were true or not, they didn’t want their children reading it because it tarnished their white heroes! Hence the political theorist and cultural critic Harold Cruse was right when he concluded that Americans were “anti-intellectual and anti-historical.” And if this is true of Americans in general it goes triple for right- wing Republicans, who routinely demonstrate contempt for the truth.
Hence we get this bit of silly sophistry from Mr. Brooks that is repeated as real wisdom ad nauseum by the talking air heads in the media who are even more ignorant than Mr. Brooks. Only someone blinded by white privilege – what some black folk call “whiteitis” could discuss populism in America and not mention the role of white racism in defeating that movement among radical agrarians led by Tom Watson at the turn of the twentieth century. Had he read “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel “ by the distinguished southern historian C. Van Woodward, Mr. Brooks would understand the absurdity of his approach to the question of populism and racism.
And it takes a special pair of blinders not to recognize that everybody he cites in an attempt to decouple populist thought from racism were all arch racist! Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder whose racist views are well documented. Here is a man who was so depraved he deflowered a thirteen year old girl, Sally Hemmings, had seven children with her and yet kept her and his children as slaves until his death! There is hardly a more disturbing document on the pathology of American family life than the memoir left by Jefferson’s son Madison Hemmings, which is included as an appendix in Professor Fawn Brody’s path breaking book “Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.”
Andrew Jackson was an arch racist who was not only a slave holder but a notorious Indian killer who dispossessed whole nations and drove them from their ancestral lands. Dr. Gerald Horne, the Moores Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Houston – who is perhaps the most broadly learned and prolific historian writing in America today – and has also held appointments as a professor of law – is presently writing a book about how Andrew Jackson destroyed a large and prosperous African and Native American community in Pensacola Florida and massacred the inhabitants when it was still a Spanish territory!
The white folks called him “Old Hickory” the defender of the “common man.” But they conveniently leave out the critical adjective “White” man. It is instructive that the rights of women were not a part of his advocacy, and the native Americans had another name for him: “Sharp Knife!” The native American’s view of “Old Hickory” can be read in “Bury My Heart At wounded Knee,” which is the voices of Native Americans recorded by government stenographers.
Although I was already astonished having read thus far into Mr. Brooks exercise in Republican apologia and what historians call “special pleading,” masquerading as serious historical analysis, I was never-the-less shocked by his citations of the racist Louisiana Demagogue Huey Long – who was the model for “The King Fish” in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “All The King’s Men.” And the notorious anti-Semite father Coughlin, who used the radio to whip up hatred against the Jews in the same way that Dr. Goebbles used the radio airwaves of Germany to goad the Christian Germans into committing genocide against the Jews that resulted in the slaughter of millions of innocents! Longtime village voice writer Nat Hentoff recalls his father having to pull off the highway to calm his nerves after hearing one of Coughlin’s anti-Semitic diatribes on the car radio.
Furthermore Father Coughlin is the model and spiritual father of the incendiary radio and television racist of today ala Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity et al who seem to be trying their best to push this country into a race war. By choosing the historical actors he chose Mr. Brooks defeats his own argument, because they read like a rogues gallery of racists and anti-Semites! In fact, it strongly suggests that perhaps racism is an integral ingredient in populist movements in the US. Strangely, all of these facts seem to have escaped Mr. Brook’s in his white bread reading of history. Interestingly enough, the one historian Mr. Brooks did refer to has little or nothing to say about the fundamental question the column pretends to address: What is the role of racism in the present demonstrations against President Obama?
Hence I would like to give Mr. Brooks an assignment that will better prepare him to offer and analysis that enlightens more than it obscures the next time he ventures into these troubled waters – assuming that education and not obfuscation is his objective. This assumption however requires a heroic leap of faith given the lies and racist demagoguery that has become the standard for the Republican contribution to our political discourse. In order to understand what is happening with the so-called “Tea Party Rebellion” there is two books Mr. Brooks must absolutely must read – and based upon the convoluted nonsense he has presented as serious argument it is obvious to this writer that he has read neither.
The more important of the two is “The Politics Of Rage,” written by the distinguished Bancroft Prize winning historian Dan T. Carter who, ironically, was a longtime professor at Emory University where President Jimmy Carter made his spot on assessment of the role of racism in the irrational hate mongering of many of the demonstrators and the talking media heads who egg them on. I have already posted my views on that controversy in “A Self-Evident Truth,” so I won’t belabor the matter here.
Dr. Carter’s book is the best single treatment on how the Republican Party replaced the Democrats in the former confederate states of the South, which for most of the twentieth century hated the Republicans like they now hate the Democrats. What this work shows is that in both instances the critical factor was maintaining white supremacy, which is, after all, the raison d’etre for racism. With the careful arguments of the accomplished historian Professor Carter systematically marshals the evidence to show how the Republican strategy that resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan – which represents the triumph of the far right in the US – was originally authored by George Wallace, during the period before his rejection of racist doctrine and embracing a posture of racial reconciliation.
In fact, it is a measure of how reactionary the Republican base is on this question that George Wallace’s daughter supported Barack Obama for President and is now supporting his old law school class mate for governor of Alabama, while the most powerful spokesman for the Republicans, Rush Limbaugh, is stoking the fires of racial hysteria! The point here is that the reason why none of the leadership in the Republican Party will denounce the obvious racism of the Tea Party Demonstrators or the racist broadcast bloviators is because they understand that their bread is buttered with white racism.
Hence to call the racist by their proper name could spell the end of their political career. And thus they have made a Faustian bargain with racist – whether every Republican personally harbors such views is irrelevant in this context – and it is devouring the soul of the Republican Party while embarrassing our country around the world and pushing us toward racial violence! Furthermore, several experts on Presidential assassinations have gone on record saying that all of this inflammatory racist rhetoric emanating from the Republican camp is greatly increasing the chances of our President being assassinated! This assessment is supported by the Secret Service’s revelation that they are receiving more threats against the life of Barack Obama than any previous President.
The fear of assassination has been an abiding fear of African Americans – this writer included – in fact, I went down to the Talkers Magazine awards ceremonies accompanied only by Scott Pellegrino of FAIR and accused Sean Hannity of trying to get Barack Obama assassinated during the presidential campaign. It can be viewed on You Tube – see “Playthell Challenges Racist White commentators.” It was this fear on the part of Colin Powell’s wife Alma that kept the General from running for President, and in retrospect kept him from becoming the first black man to occupy that high office. It was a fear that deprived us of the wise leadership of this great American and inflicted eight years of George W. Bush on the nation, a blunder of epic proportions that even Republicans now admit was a colossal mistake.
Hence Mr. Brook’s attempt to deny the role of racism in the present attacks – many of which are explicit, or implicit in the pervasive coded language like “we want our country back” and attempts to deny his American birth – is a fool’s errand. Alas, this is an odd mission for a man who pretends to wisdom and wishes to be taken seriously by serious people. Mr. Brooks appears to be so out of touch with reality he would almost certainly argue that his position on the editorial page of the New York times has nothing to do with the fact that he is a WASP male with a passably reasonable conservative point of view. That, I believe, is characteristic of his point of view on benign the role of race, gender and ethnicity in deciding who gets what in contemporary American society.
Finally, the second book that Mr. Brooks desperately needs to read is “Nixon’s Piano: Presidents And Racial Politics From Washington To Clinton,” By the eminent historian of racism and American politics Dr. Kenneth O’Reilly.=On “The Great Democratizer” Andrew Jackson, Mr. Brook’s champion of the common man, Professor O’Reilly tells us: “the Jacksonian movement invented a party and style of presidential leadership that knew no higher purpose than protecting slavery forever.” Yet, as Abraham Lincoln and the “Free Soilres” would later point out: the existence of slavery prevented free white labor from being able to bargain for a fair wage!
Yet most of the poor whites, who were the vast majority of southerners, supported slavery because of their commitment to the ideology of white supremacy even if was against their interests. Just like the poor whites that make up the base of the party of the plutocrats. However the most important point in Nixon’s Piano – among many eye opening revelations that contradict the conventional wisdom on the role of racism in American politics – is that white politicians need not harbor racist views themselves in order to utilize racists for political purposes.
This was especially true in the case of Ronald Reagan and George Bush as opposed to “Tricky Dick” Nixon, author of the infamous “southern strategy,” who was both a racist and an anti-Semite. And it is also true of all the Republican aspirants for President today; which is why John McCain remained silent as Sarah Palin – the ignorant shrew who would be President – whipped up white mobs into a racist frenzy against Barack Obama. And the fact that Barack went on to win the election does not mean – as the President himself has implied when he reminded David Letterman that he was black before he was elected, racism is not a driving force in the protests against him. His remarks must be seen as political wisdom not a candid assessment of the facts. For it is certainly wise for him to avoid personal entanglement in the question if racism, which could derail his grand objectives for the nation.
The plain fact of the matter regarding the state of race relations in America is that most of those whites who voted for Barack have moved beyond the well established white pathology of “nigger hating.” But a great majority of those who did not are royally pissed that a black man is in the white House and are trying to do everything they can imagine to ruin his presidency in order to manufacture a self-fulfilling prophecy that no black man can lead this great country – just as President Carter said! And thus they can kill two birds with one stone: insure our President’s failure – as Limbaugh has publicly committed himself to – and insure the American people will not dare vote another African American to this high office again! In spite of the anti-health care rhetoric this is the real aim of the Tea Party movement.
How the President looks to the Republican Demonstrators
Alas, Mr. Brook’s foray into historical interpretation only adds confusion to a discourse that is already riddled with Republican lies and myriad distortions. Since I cannot know the true sentiments of Mr. Brook’s heart, I shall refrain from labeling him a secret agent for the racist Republican rabble, and conclude that he is simply clueless!
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem New York
September 23. 2009