Wednesday, March 19, 2008

At the Heart of White Resentment

"So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town, when theyhear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed, when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time."

Senator Barack Obama, March 18, 2008, Philadelphia
(read the entire speech in today's NYTimes )

Like a specialist who combines brain surgery with psychoanalysis, Dr. Barack Obama reached into the souls of white folks yesterday in Philadelphia and displayed, as if in anatomy lab, ugly and wiggling, still very much alive, the viscera of white anger about race in America.

And at the very heart of that tangle was fear about crime in urban neighborhoods. Obama named two other iconic sources of white political heat (and not surprisingly, the very stuff of racial wedge issues in American politics) busing and affirmative action, but busing itself was very much about fear of crime and the outrage that white parents felt (and feel today wherever its active) they were being forced by government to expose their kids to risks of crime in neighborhoods they had sought to separate themselves from.

For white Americans since the 1960s, urban crime has appeared as a kind of civil war or insurgency directed against them. In return they have authorized a war on crime that has often been nothing short of a real war against minority/majority inner city urban neighborhoods. That reaction and response have dominated American politics and government for two generations. (see my book if you want that elaborated on a bit).

But Obama's insight is so keen that he sees as even a greater burden on the white soul, the perception that this fear reaction and response is itself racist (essentially what Rev. Wright noted in his 3-Strikes sermon).

In far less then the analytic 50 minute hour, Dr. Obama took white Americans right down to the heart of our racial neurosis and offered us a path toward healing.

Stop the war on crime, which is not a reflection of white racism, but a source of racial division.

4 comments:

RacyKacy said...

If Obama can give us the path to healing then this is the path we should walk

Mike said...

When we talk about racism in this context, I wonder what precisely we mean. Any thoughts?

Depending on how we define the term, I don't think it's unreasonable to argue that the scope and nature of incarceration in America is partly the product of white racism.

Mike said...

Another thought in relation to Obama's comment.

I am interested in what people think of the idea that punishment from the late-1960s onward became one of the mechanisms for the white middle-class to expiate or deny their guilt over slavery and segregation.

I have been working with the idea for the past few months and I'm still not completely clear on what I have in mind. At just the point that I was about to drop the idea, Obama's comment leads me to think that perhaps it's worth giving some more thought.

The idea first occurred to me as I was thinking about the relationship between guilt (pychological or emotional, not legal) and the desire to punish. Discussion of the relationship goes back to Freud, Fromm, and others, but there has also been one scholar who recently put forth the hypothesis that many persons seek to punish criminal offenders out of "a sense of guilt" over their own behaviors and desires. So, for instance, we feel guilty about how we neglect our children and we then project that guilt on child sex offenders.

This hypothesis got me to thinking about America's "original sin" and how Americans have come to terms with it. Remarkably, looking at the historical record, just three years after the end of the Jim Crow era, the response appeared to have been--and still is--"law and order." This is a familiar history but nonetheless astounding when you think about in these terms.

What is perhaps even more remarkable is the rhetoric that Nixon used to justify his new politics of "law and order." Nixon not only called attention to violence on the street; he also reassured white Americans that they were "not racists or sick" nor "guilty of the crime that plagued the land" and that "there [was] nothing disgraceful, nothing to be ashamed of, about . . . wanting to live in a law-abiding country."

There is clearly evidence of denial in Nixon's rhetoric. Was it also present in the white middle and working classes? There is some evidence that it was but it's sparse and scattered. Did guilt lead to the resentment that Obama is referring to? Did that, in turn, lay the foundation for the politics and policies of mass incarceration?

I am in the process of reading Stanley Cohen's book "States of Denial," which hopefully will give me some theoretical guidance on this idea.

Is the idea off the wall? I'd love to get feedback.

Michael Zhou said...

I wholeheartedly agree with this post, because so much of our political discourse on welfare policy and crime policy is merely code for race, and Obama should be applauded for pointing out that the way we carry on these discourses is merely an epiphenomenon of the way we think, but don't talk, about race relations.