Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mr. Rangel and the Politics of Race

There is a school of thought which maintains that it is simply impossible for white people to be the victims of racism, because only members of racial / ethnic minorities can ever be considered victims. This view is so confidently held by educated liberals that they need no prompting to respond derisively and condescendingly to anyone who is white and claims to have been a victim of racist attitudes at one time or another. 

I’ve never been comfortable following the “party line.” Whenever a belief is held uncritically and one is made to feel embarrassed for not sharing the belief, I become suspicious of it, perhaps because of a rebellious streak in my nature. And I am reminded of Mark Twain’s advice, “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority,” or let’s say on the side of received wisdom, “it is time to pause and reflect.”

Notwithstanding the received wisdom on the subject, there are many white people who are under the impression that they’ve been on the receiving end of racist attitudes: 

A recent Public Religion Research Institute poll found 44% of Americans surveyed identify discrimination against whites as being just as big [sic] as bigotry aimed at blacks and other minorities. The poll found 61% of those identifying with the Tea Party held that view, as did 56% of Republicans and 57% of white evangelicals (source).
Admittedly, these particular poll results are a bit ridiculous, because whites cannot claim to have suffered racial discrimination to the same extent as blacks. It is monstrous to ignore African Americans’ long history of being enslaved and marginalized in America. But, just as it is risky to hold a belief uncritically, it is risky to reject a belief uncritically. 

Let us suppose that white Americans do in fact experience something which feels like oppression or at least feels like marginalization. Maybe it is not a matter of race at all, and the mistake is that these marginalized whites have falsely attributed the problem to race. 

When Frederick Law Olmsted toured the Southern states during the antebellum period, he noticed that white men believed that they were denied things to which people feel entitled: the opportunity to work, the opportunity to rise up from poverty, the opportunity to be heard by their elected political leaders. Olmsted concluded that poor white men had been damaged – economically, politically, and morally – by the institution of slavery.

What we know of antebellum America is this: plantation owners were wealthy aristocrats who controlled state governments. They fought bitterly to maintain the institution of slavery because it was to their financial advantage to have lower labor costs than their competitors abroad. They were loyalists to King George III during the War of Independence. Perhaps they ought to have been treated like the traitors that they were, but as often happens in history, after a revolution has occurred, there is a sudden urgent desire to settle differences and make a fresh start. 

I suggest that today, the vast majority of Americans white and black have been marginalized by a small clique of oligarchs. And I will suggest that many Americans fail to recognize this. Whenever holders of great wealth come under harsh scrutiny, there is a reflex action which brings to mind Communism, and most people have decided that they are anti-Communists (and with good reason). Whenever social class is proposed as a plague on this country, many people will cling the more tightly to the nostalgic view of America as a class-free society. 

When wealth and class have been excluded from consideration, this leaves people in search of an explanation.  Poor whites compete against blacks for low-wage jobs, and this may lead to a sense of racial animosity. Families and networks of friends that consist solely of whites will talk among themselves, and agree to look out for one another. This may quickly evolve into a sentiment of “us versus them.” This tribal, parochial attitude ensures that the great masses of marginalized Americans will continue to blame one another, rather than look up and see that they are under the heel of modern day plantation owners whose plantations are hidden out of sight in places like Mexico, China and Cambodia, where conditions are not so very different from the conditions experienced by African slaves in America. 

So, when I read that Charlie Rangel (D-NY) has declared that members of the Tea Party are the same “crackers” who opposed the civil rights movement, I read this as an indication that white people are in fact the victims of racism. But it is a manufactured racism. I suggest that Charlie Rangel, even if he is an African American, is deceitful when pretends to be a member of an oppressed minority and seeks to stir up partisan animosity. Below, I quote from the Wall Street Journal:

Earlier this month [Mr. Rangel], the Chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee ‘amended’ his 2007 financial disclosure form—to the tune of more than a half-million dollars in previously unreported assets and income. That number may be as high as $780,000, because Congress's ethics rules only require the Members to report their finances within broad ranges. This voyage of personal financial discovery brings Mr. Rangel's net worth for 2007 to somewhere between $1.028 million and $2.495 million, while his previous statement came in at $516,015 and $1.316 million (source).
So yes, Mr. Rangel is a one percenter. His unearned income comes from investments he makes with J.P. Morgan, Merrill Lynch, Oppenheimer and BlackRock. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, it is a blatant conflict of interest for him to be doing business with any of these Wall Street malefactors, but then, members of Congress write the rules by which they govern themselves.


  1. Class is absolutely a problem in America.

    But a rich black man may still be followed in a department store. So can an American Indian woman with a good job.

    Or an American Indian man with a good job.

    White men do not suffer this.

    And dress them all in good clothes, and the first three will still experience this. Never the white man.

    THAT is the racism minorities speak of and whites don't understand.

  2. I am grateful for your comment. I will not say that you are wrong -- you are mostly right -- but I will suggest that there are whites who do get followed in department stores, and it has to do with inequalities in terms of education, income, and class. I do not want to belittle the disadvantage of people of color. But, I do want to frame the issue in terms of the shared struggle of people who've been left behind by society.