The Future of Racism

In a pair of provocative posts inspired by the Obama/Louis Farrakhan controversy, both Noah Millman and Russell Arben Fox decline to be all that exorcised by the links between Obama and black chauvinism. Here's Noah, comparing the racially exclusivist views espoused in and around Obama's church to the "Jewish souls are superior to Gentile souls" views held by the Chabad Lubavitchers:

... I do not believe that Jews are distinct from other human beings, having a fundamentally different soul, not being created by God, or any of that – nor are these mainstream Jewish beliefs. But neither do I believe that I am obliged, to remain a member in good standing of polite society, to cast Chabad into the outer darkness and refuse to associate with them. Nor do I believe that Senator Obama is obliged to denounce his pastor. I believe the bar should be set really high for these kinds of defenestrations, and that the important thing to discern is not whether you believe the right thing, but whether you do the right thing.

And here's Fox, on a similar theme:

I don't make any apologies for Farrakhan, and the many times times he's been caught making antisemitic statements over the years; he's been schooled in, and has never separated himself from, a paranoid, weird, even hateful worldview. But associating with Farrakhan, and praising the kind of self-reliance, pride, and community-building his preaching invokes, does not make you a member of the Nation of Islam, or even necessarily an advocate of it. I was in Washington DC during the Million Man March, way back in 1995, and sure, there was a lot of dubious and even borderline contemptuous rhetoric heard that day, from Farrahkan and all the rest. But frankly, I found the whole thing—-complete outsider and foreigner to their collective project that I was—-rather inspiring just the same. The anger of the speakers that day was mixed with positive messages about responsibility and dignity, about remembering all that which their ancestors and progenitors had accomplished, and about conserving and building up that which remained of those accomplishments. As Noah notes in his description of the arguably "exclusivist" (even racist) elements in some Jewish talk, and as Alan Ehrenhalt noted years ago in his defense of the localist, communitarian priorities which held together neighborhoods in 1950s Chicago, many such positive arguments practially depend upon a certain amount of exclusion, of collective self-identification and unity. This isn't an excuse for racism (and it should be noted that Obama has rejected his church's association with Farrakhan and some of his more outrageous statements), but for myself at least, if the point of the message is one of identity, community, and dignity, then I figure I can handle of little bit of non-violent racism along the way.

These excerpts don't do justice to the full argument of either post, but I plucked them out because they hint at an interesting question - namely, whether our tolerance for “non-violent racism” of various sorts will increase as the the black-white binary recedes and the possibility of a horror like Jim Crow grows ever-more-remote. At the moment, there seems to be a tacit agreement – in the media elite especially, but in the wider society as well – that racial chauvinism among African-Americans is grounds for more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger disapproval, whereas racial chauvinism among whites is grounds for outrage, and dismissal from polite society. This double standard, though, coexists with a widespread sense (outside of the “whiteness studies” precincts of academe) that insofar as we tolerate Farrakhan-style chauvinism in the black community, we do so only out of deference to the legacy of slavery and all the rest, and we aspire to grow steadily less tolerant of it over time. Like affirmative action, it’s meant to be a temporary response to a temporary problem, and I assume that many people who don’t hold Barack Obama responsible for his pastor’s views today, or his pastor for Louis Farrakhan’s, aspire to inhabit a society in which no candidate for President would even contemplate an affiliation with a church tainted in any sense by racism.

Maybe this vision will come to pass. For instance, it's possible to imagine that in the multi-ethnic landscape of America’s future, the need to maintain social peace will require some form of ostracism for anyone, black or white or anything else, who even hints at chauvinistic sentiments: The Al Sharptons and La Razas of the future may be treated the way David Duke is treated today. But it seems just as possible that we’re headed toward a society that’s actually more tolerant of non-violent racism than our own, and more likely to agree with Noah and Russell that race-based chauvinism alone shouldn’t be grounds for defenestration from the national conversation. As someone who’s broadly sympathetic to the point they’re making, I like to think that this could come to pass for good reasons – for instance, because the threat of institutionalized racial oppression eventually seems so remote that even white chauvinism feels more like a curiosity to be tolerated than a threat to the liberal order that needs to be extirpated at all costs. But of course the future could belong to the Farrakhans and Jeremiah Wrights (and their counterparts in other communities) for less congenial reasons as well.