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Saturday, October 31, 2015

racism: it is not just rednecks

Racism has a double aspect: there is a racism of sentiments and a racism of structure. It is a mistake to think that these aspects are governed by the same dynamic, and will reflect the same “moves.” And yet, they are “aspects” – ultimately, sentiments and structure form a unity.
In a society that has  bought into the myth of methodological individualism, the unity becomes ever more mysterious. According to that myth, if we operate on the individual sentiments, we are engaged with the determining cause of racism. If, that is, we could through some process make sure that nobody “feels” racist, then we eliminate racism.  
Although intellectually many liberals think that structural racism is semi-autonomous, in some way, in everyday discourse these liberals tend to reflect the hegemonic position that it is sentiments that count. Thus, without considering that, objectively, those who achieve some success in a society that is structurally racist are themselves complicit in racism – or to be less wishy washy, are racist – they will much prefer looking at some other as the bearer of racism – the white redneck or trailer trash being, of course, the popular bugbear.
This is understandable. The relationship between sentiments and structure is a complex one, and not always easy to unentangle.
But even if the source of the racism, the aspect that is the larger factor in a particular instance, must be subject to analysis, one can still spot it pretty easily if we think about it. To give an example off the top of my head: Robert Caro’s analysis of LBJ’s election to the senate in 1948. This is how the NYT chose to summarize it:

“Mr. Caro maintains that although ballot fraud was common in the late 1940's in some parts of Texas, the Johnson campaign of 1948 raised it to a new level. Mr. Caro supports his charge with an interview with Luis Salas, an election judge in Jim Wells County who said he acknowledged his role only after all others involved in the theft had died.
Determined to Win at All Costs
It has been alleged for years that Johnson captured his Senate seat through fraud, but Mr. Caro goes into great detail to tell how the future President overcame a 20,000-vote deficit to achieve his famous 87-vote victory in the 1948 Democratic runoff primary against a former Governor, Coke Stevenson. A South Texas political boss, George Parr, had manufactured thousands of votes, Mr. Caro found. Johnson died in 1973, Stevenson and Parr in 1975. Mr. Caro says the election showed Johnson's determination to win at all costs as well as his coolness under fire and his ability to select gifted lieutenants, whom he then manipulated.”
One notices that the focus on ballot fraud lightly skips over the fact of real voter suppression in Texas in 1948. According to the Census of 1950, the population of Texas was 12.9 percent black, or 977,458, but until 1944, the state law allowed the Democratic party to exclude at its own will voters in the primary. That law was used to create a so called “white primary.” In one of the most important cases that the Supreme Court has ever decided, Smith v. Allwright, the Court ruled that this was an illegal infringement on African American civil riths. Interestingly, the 1948 senate race was one of the first statewide races after the Supreme Court ruling. So instead of speaking of “ballot stuffing” under the assumption that elections before 1948 were more licit, one should be asking whether lifting the long term illegal suppression of black votes made the 1948 election more democratic. More, I say, since grassroots voter suppression of black votes in Texas was still going on. It is only in the context of this much larger scandal that we can talk, with some historical understanding, about white election irregularities.
But the NYT synopsis of Caro’s research doesn’t touch on this, or even seem aware of the irony of talking about election irregularities in a system founded on a gross, systematic election irregularity. After all, that part of the story is in a separate compartment.  It goes under black history, and the NYT would dutifully report on it if called to do so. But running the two compartments together, hyphenating the African hyphen American story? That falls under the excluded middle.

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