Sunday, August 21, 2011

White People Are Awesome

White people are awesome! We really are. – John Oliver

J-Ol said this in the context of his enthusiastic review of The Help, a film in which an awesome white lady showed her bigoted neighbors what’s what as she led the struggle for civil rights way back when. Actually, I haven’t seen The Help, so this description is based only on reviews and other secondhand sources. But I think I know enough to appreciate John Oliver’s snarkiness.

John Oliver - Awesome Guy

When the civil rights movement gained steam in the 1960s, a lot of us liberal white people found ourselves well positioned to feel good about ourselves. You might say, paraphrasing Churchill, that “never in the field of human conflict have so many benefited so much for doing so little.” Really, all a guy had to do in those years to feel good about himself was not be a raging bigot. It was awesome (for some of us).

Of course, the story of racism is by no means over, despite what bigoted blowhards like Rush Limbaugh would have us believe. The more I learn about the way racial prejudice works and has worked, the more complex, occasionally subtle and downright horrifying it seems. A wise and gentle white woman of my acquaintance has said more than once, on reading about racial abuses of the past, that she would have wanted to explode with rage had people treated her daughter the way African-American children were customarily treated in the past. Naturally, exploding with rage was not an option for those tens of millions of African-American parents who wanted to remain alive for the long-term benefit of their children.

I have heard some white folks say things like, “What about black prejudice against whites?!” Yes, I’m guessing there is some of that out there. I wonder where it comes from.

But back to the real problem: Racism has gone underground to an extent, but it is still very much with us. And, though it can be found far and wide, it is most pronounced among those who call themselves conservative. Last Tuesday in the New York Times, an article by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam (Crashing the Tea Party) pointed out that Tea Partiers are overwhelmingly white and “they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.”

Imagine, if you will, that scientists have invented a Bigot-o-meter that measures the intensity of racial and ethnic prejudice of individuals and gives them a score from 10 (Rush Limbaugh) to 0 (Mohandas Gandhi). If everyone with a score of over 2.5 were denied the right to vote, I believe the Tea Party would lose most of its influence. In fact, the Republican Party as a whole would have trouble winning any elections at the national level.

Absent a Bigot-o-meter, there are other ways to identify people who harbor in their hearts more prejudice than becomes a fair-minded and reasonable person. One indicator is an individual’s approach toward the immigration issue.

Now we know that there are millions of immigrants who have come into this country from Mexico and other Latin American countries without legal documentation or have been born to such people. They have come here to escape economic hardship in their home countries, and they have found that many American corporations will make it easy for them to get jobs as fruit pickers and such. You could say that these companies have offered these low-paid workers a welcome mat, and we who have been able to buy inexpensive fruit and vegetables due to low labor costs, have benefited from this arrangement.

Obviously, this is no way to police a border or organize an economy. Something needs to be done. But what a given individual claims should be done is a litmus test of prejudice almost as accurate as the imaginary Bigot-o-meter.

If you see someone angrily denouncing these undocumented aliens, insisting on labeling them as “illegal,” claiming that “anchor babies” present a huge problem for us, declining to acknowledge the benefits that some corporations derive from this cheap and docile work force, refusing to acknowledge the economic benefits we as purchasers of inexpensive foods enjoy, and refusing to acknowledge that the services these workers purchase ultimately result in job creation, then I’d say you’re looking at about the equivalent of an 8.5 on the Big-o-meter.

Of course anti-immigrant bigotry isn’t the only kind of racism that still flourishes in the seedier corners of our society, but it is the one that now stands front and center in our ongoing political debate. If we could all work together - black people, white people, immigrants and so on - to get a handle on the real problems that a leaky border engenders, and do so without the anti-Hispanic vitriol that pollutes current discussions, then maybe we would have a right to say that we Americans are awesome, and we wouldn’t have to specify color to do so.