Friday, May 20, 2005

Race and the Republicans

For the second time this year (the first being on Social Security reform), the Republicans are cynically appealing to African Americans to gain support for their conservative agenda. This time its over judicial nominees, currently being blocked by Democratic filibusters in the Senate. Because one of the judges in question is an African American woman (Janice Rogers Brown), Senator Frist met with black clergy members to racialize the Democrats opposition. At the show and tell event made for the media, Bishop Harry R. Jackson Jr., asked Democrats, "Why are they afraid to put a black woman on the court? Because a black woman, everybody knows, is not going to be ruled by the Democrat or Republican party." Jackson isn't entirely wrong in his logic--Brown's opinions are not the run of the mill Republican conservativism, especially on race issues such as racial profiling.

Regardless of the potential legitimacy of Jackson's statement, it seems hard to believe that Democrats are opposing Brown because she is a black woman. And coming from a Republican Party that has used identity politics before--Ronald Reagan's speech to white Mississippians supporting local rule, Jesse Helms anti-affirmative action ads with a white man crumpling up a rejection letter, George Bush's Willy Horton ad, and we can go on and on--this is clearly crass politics only legitimate within the new rules for crassness that the Republicans have established.

The manipulation of identity politics and descriptive representation certainly creates challenges for the Left. Most of us support diversifying politics and the workplace, and many of us (myself included) support the idea that descriptive representation has true merits. But the Republicans are quickly undermining the foundation of this position. People of Color and women have long known that there are opportunities for personal advancement if you promote conservative policies. But the Republican agenda--knowing that Democrats are less willing to attack conservative appointments who are Latino, black, or Asian American--is creating an absurd world of conservative minorities in high positions, opposing many of the principles that made it possible for them to get there. The Republicans aren't the only ones doing this, obviously. Walmart--as our fellow blogger Dorian Warren has well pointed out--is equally pernicious in using race to divide the left, weaken unions, and allow them more stores and profits. And as Dorian points out, a big reason for this is because the Left has not had a real conversation about race that has allowed them to move to a point where they can respond to clearly strategic race baiting by the Right.

(see Dorian's quotes about Walmart in: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050328&s=featherstone)

So what do we do? Short term, defeat these candidates. Long-term, start an honest discussion that doesn't begin with simple assumptions that race is meaninglessly, that identity politics is undesireable/artificial, or that racism doesn't exist on the Left. Until we do that, we will continue to have to watch on the sidelines as the conservatives manipulate our agenda for their own self-serving purposes.

1 comment:

Marc Schneider said...

What the conservatives are doing with respect to racial politics is appalling. But where did they learn it from? They obviously learned it from the left. So how can you complain when conservatives start to play the same game?

I'm not oblivious to the fact that this is not a color-blind society as conservatives contend. And it's not unreasonable to support policies that give the benefit of the doubt to minorities. But the left has so muddled the concept of merit--making it into an enemy of equality--that I think liberals have very little room to complain when conservatives start shooting it back in their faces.

I know--we are not against merit, we just want to redefine it. But how many times does the left use race or racism as a catchall explanation for anything that doesn't fit in with their vision of egalitarianism? It would be ridiculous to say that race is not a factor in America or that minorities do not face obstacles to success. But is race ALWAYS the underlying determinate factor in all cases? Isn't it possible that sometimes a minority candidate is denied a job because he or she is not qualified? And isn't it possible that race is sometimes brought into the discussion as an excuse?

You talk about having an honest discussion about race. In fact, the way you describe such an honest discussion really is more likely to stifle honest debate. You say let's not presuppose that identity politics is bad. But aren't you assuming that identity politics is a good in itself? What should be the goal of our society? Should it be a color-blind society or should it be explicitly based on racial identity. Today, our racial identities are becoming ever more blurred. Does it still make sense to espouse identity politics? Does identity politics advance or impede racial progrss?

Let me make this clear. I do not agree with the conservatives' obsession with non-racially oriented remedies. It makes sense as a matter of reality to set aside scholarships for minorities. But I believe there are legitimate questions about identity politics and affirmative action, for example. Yet, my observation is that anyone raising such questions is likely to be treated on the left as racist.

IMO,the left needs to look at itself in the mirror when it complains about conservatives misusing race.