Brand New Bag
As Christmas drew near, a bleeding Trent Lott finally looked to the horizon and glimpsed the apparition of Hooded Jesus coming for him. His demise as Senate majority leader met with ample self-congratulation on the part of outraged libs and relieved Republicans alike. It was left to Bill Clinton to suggest that perhaps the gesture contained just a hint of cynicism: "They try to suppress black voting, they ran on the Confederate flag in Georgia and South Carolina, and from top to bottom the Republicans supported it."
True enough, and yet not quite the point. Lott's real trouble was that institutional racism changed and he didn't. He was a square-jawed if usually circumspect segregationist, an old schooler, and thus a hindrance and an embarrassment to the practitioners of modern race-baiting. Under the new rules, categorical bigotry is out and a more surreptitious class-driven bigotry is in. Nowadays racism in politics is all about what you can manage to say by euphemism and innuendo. Bill Clinton understood this as well as anyone. His eight years in the White House--and particularly the days leading up to his 1996 welfare overhaul--were punctuated by carefully worded diatribes about poverty, crime, family pathology, and responsibility, and we all knew who he was talking about.
Granted, Clinton was not the one who put a black face on poverty and welfare; that was bequeathed to him. But he exploited the association with deftness and real verve en route to his celebrated abolition of welfare. So it won't do for Bill to protest too much at the Republicans' use of the Confederate flag. The fact that Clinton confined himself to rhetorical figures did not make him any less a master of racist symbolism. And before you ask: No, I don't mean that Bill Clinton is a closet bigot. I'm sure he is not, at least as most people would understand the word. I mean to say that the question is irrelevant for purposes of measuring the new racism of American politics.
Certain things have changed in the last generation. Thirty years on, it's evident that one of the primary accomplishments of the 1960s was to clear a path to the professional classes for a comparatively small but much-photographed cadre of black and brown people. And there you have the great irony of the civil rights era: What started as a people's movement in the Deep South became the vehicle for delivering up W.E.B. DuBois's vision of a "Talented Tenth." "The Negro Race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men," wrote DuBois. "The problem of education then, among Negroes, must first of all deal with the 'Talented Tenth.' It is the problem of developing the best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the worst."
DuBois believed that black America's best and brightest would lift up the race by their example and by their investment in black communities. It didn't work out that way. Remember that he wrote those lines around the turn of the 20th century, when black people still lived closely bound together under color of legalized segregation. His Talented Tenth arrived just as the shackles of legal segregation were being loosed, and the nascent buppie class did what all good Americans who find themselves with a little money are acculturated to do: They got the hell out of the 'hood and ceased to have much in common, beyond skin caste, with their old neighbors. The ethos of this new "black America" is reflected in this comment on Oprah Winfrey, from the excellent new weekly the Buffalo (NY) Beast: "A leading citizen in a world where rich people are neither black nor white."
The upshot was that black-on-black cultural tensions as old as the distinction between house slaves and field slaves gradually grew into a genuine class gulf, one tinged with mutual feelings of contempt and betrayal. This divide afforded a new opening in race politics. The elevation of an essentially reactionary minority middle class--people like us!, few as they were--meant that any clever politician could earn an easy pass on the vexing problem of race. Every president since Reagan has understood as much: If you wrap one arm around the better sort of colored folk, you can cheerfully blast away at the rest without anyone raising much of a fuss. A certain visible portion of the black and Latino intelligentsia will even stand and cheer.
The Republican party at large was slow to learn. (Remember the "big tent" that Pat Buchanan brought crashing to the floor at the 1992 convention?) Bill Clinton finally gave them religion. The way he managed to push every button during the welfare debate, to paint black America as a cesspool of crime and dysfunction while at the same time preaching tolerance and compassion and brotherhood--that was good stuff. The lesson was not lost on up-and-coming Republicans like W, who cozied up to Hispanics throughout his tenure in Texas.
So now we have a politics in which all the old notions of racism, like all the old notions of liberal and conservative, are no longer meaningful. Racism is all about class and xenophobia and coded speech now, but its role in American politics remains as vibrant as ever. In the past year plus, since 9/11, there has been a marked decline in the sport of public black-bashing as the whole country has turned its eye to the teeming masses of Islam. But here again the racism is oblique, and couched in an explicit denial of racist motives. You may recall that figures from Bush to Rudy Giuliani spent the first days after the attacks pointing out that Arabs and Muslims per se were not the enemy. With that said, the administration proceeded to write itself a blank check for warmaking anywhere and anytime, a sweeping mandate that was in the end predicated entirely on racist myths about crazed Arabs who value human life less than we of the Christian nations do.
If you doubt that this is so, consider what happened to Patty Murray recently. A couple of weeks ago, the Washington senator had the poor judgment to tell a high school honors class that Americans would do well to ask why Osama bin Laden enjoyed such popularity among Muslims the world round. She pointed out his public works, the roads and schools and hospitals. The real issue was not the purported merits of Osama but the sentiments of Muslims who admire him; Murray was only making the innocuous and essentially conservative observation that it is in our long-range interest to understand why the land of the free is so roundly despised by so many. For her trouble she was energetically bitch-slapped by Republicans from Seattle to Washington and back, and to my knowledge no Democratic colleague rose to defend her. She then ran up the white flag with a press release that began, "Osama bin Laden is an evil terrorist who..." Better. Where the perfidy of Arabs is at issue, no explanation but evil will be tolerated. And that's the end of the discussion, since we all know why evil people do evil things: because they're evil, stupid.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the lull in homegrown white-on-black racism at the top levels of government is likely to end sometime this year. Already you can see the stage being set in the odd wire story. Around a month ago there appeared an AP story with the salacious headline "Gang Bloodshed Surging in Some Cities." The numbers really do not bear out the implication; besides Los Angeles, where a long-standing gang truce has fallen apart over the past few years, the murder rate in most major cities is flat. But the story is larded with grave pronouncements from cops and think-tankers about a rising national tide. "We had a stranglehold on it and we allowed them to breathe," in the words of Wes McBride, president of the California Gang Investigators Association. "We relaxed our grip and now they're back." Somewhere Jack Webb nods grimly. What is to be done?
Pronounce them terrorists, that's what. The details of the backstory are yet to be determined, but they hardly matter. Right-thinking Americans are conditioned to believe practically anything they're told about the world's dusky hordes, including the ones who walk among them. So perhaps another Jose Padilla will drop into Ashcroft's lap, some putative gangster who says or does something that smacks of treason. (Padilla was the Latino Muslim nabbed for attempting to download bomb plans from the Internet. He is being held indefinitely without charges, largely because the government cannot make a case that he posed a serious threat and it does not want to be embarrassed.) More likely the Bush administration will play its ace in the hole and announce that the drug traffickers who supply the gangster distribution networks in the U.S. have ties to terrorist groups, and therefore so do all American gangbangers. Presto: enemy combatants among us, and a warrant for subjecting more American citizens to the kinds of unconstitutional scrutiny and detention the government so prizes.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.