“It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white,” Michael Jackson sang, even as he embarked on a journey to crudely transform himself from one to the other through plastic surgery. Around the same time a biracial man who had grown up in a white family was protesting on behalf of a vehemently racist black professor. That man, who would later make it to the Senate and then the White House, chose to identify as black.
In the Chicago Tribune, Obama’s hometown paper, its columnist, Leonard Pitts Jr, insists that George Zimmerman is white because race is a construct and whiteness is not color, but privilege, making it completely indistinguishable from class. To indict Zimmerman, who is Hispanic and part of a multi-racial family structure, as a white racist, Pitts is forced to argue that race isn’t race. Anyone who is of the “oppressed of the earth” is really black and anyone who is privileged is white.
This news comes a little too late to spare Michael Jackson millions of dollars in plastic surgery, which he didn’t need because he had actually turned “white” once he became successful. It also makes it impossible to have a black president, since the very path that leads to the White House lifts one out of the status of blackness and into whiteness. Barack Obama has as much claim to being a black president, as Clinton did, less since Clinton was at least born into poverty, while Obama was the grandson of a bank president.
The Pittsian notion of race opens up all sorts of possibilities. The white homeless veteran on the curb is actually black. The CEO of BET is actually white. But then why bother using race as a metaphor for class at all except in the service of exploiting racial hatred and stereotypes? Why not just revert to the old left’s class warfare without any Jacksonian confusion about color theory?
Coding privilege as white and oppression as black is outdated but political useful, it rewards the base of a particular party, while fostering conflict and confusing identity. In a prosperous country, using the civil rights movement as the keystone moment bypasses any questions about socialism and power, and cuts straight to the burden of guilt.
Pitts correctly identifies race as a construct, but he incorrectly places the blame. Whiteness and blackness were both imposed definitions, swirling flavors in a melting pot in which people increasingly did not know who they were and identified themselves by what they were not. But even this is not true. White people have had the identification of white thrust on them as a collective burden of racial guilt and black people have had blackness thrust on them as collective solidarity. This two tone world made it easier to militarize a racial conflict based on notions of race that had little relevance in the nation as a whole.
This understanding of race was easier to thrust on an America whose black population had its ethnic identities wiped away by slavery. It is much less relevant in a country whose black population is being tipped by immigrants from Africa who know their ethnic identity quite well. That includes Obama who despite cleverly playing on the ongoing identity crisis knows quite well where his roots lie.
The two-toned racialism made it easy to erase complexity. It avoided asking why Northern Catholic and Jewish immigrants who had arrived right before and during the Civil War and made a disproportionate contribution to the Union armies should be held accountable for a legacy that they had no hand in making. Instead the burden of coping with civil rights troubles fell disproportionately on their heads. The Irish, Italians and Jews, not to mention many others, were to be held accountable on account of the color of their skin.
The hallowed liberal shrine to everything from Bleeding Kansas to the firehoses of Birmingham has no relevance in a country where people like George Zimmerman, who is part Latino and part something else, and Barack Obama, who is equally a racial cipher, are caught in the meat grinder of race. The game is still being played, but like royal families and debutante balls, it’s ceremonial, a ceremony of innocence in which everyone is trying to extend the rules of a contest that stopped mattering around the time that disco died.
Faced with the abyss, liberals trot out privilege as race. But if privilege trumps race, then privilege also trumps privilege. What is privilege if not the ability to disregard someone else’s views and even personhood based on the color of their skin. And that is what the left’s privilege card does. It not only dismisses the views and rights of white people, it dismisses the views and rights of non-white people who are assigned to the white category, because the one crying privilege has deemed them privileged.
Charging someone else with privilege is itself a privileged status, which causes the shell game of race to topple over its table, point frantically in the other direction and run away. That is that only thing it can do. The privilege card isn’t just political correctness, it’s political censorship, silencing speech by disregarding “white women’s tears” and the expressions and views of anyone that the privileged consider too privileged to speak. But the privilege of privileging others is itself privilege. It’s a last ditch effort to silence dissent and monopolize speech by an establishment built on a fallacy.
These days anyone can be white, so long as they’re guilty of something, and anyone can be black, so long as they’re innocent of something they’re accused of doing. Those racial codes of oppression are almost as sacred to its wielders as the ghost of JFK and Woodstock. But they mean nothing. No one is innocent anymore, if they ever were. Black men sailed slave ships and white men died to free them. Slavery and the resistance to it was not coded by color, but by character.
The inability to articulate this fundamental truth made any meaningful progress utterly impossible and left the black community has been locked in ghettos created by political machines and overseen by the utterly corrupt. Its narrative of eternal white oppressors and black victims has fed generations of hate and guilt. It has made it possible for racial hucksters to exploit both blacks and whites, while feeding tensions and hate.
The modern day American slave looks more like George Zimmerman, than like Barack Obama or Leonard Pitts. But if truth be told, he looks more like Jeremy Lin, since the bulk of the slave labor that our tolerant society needs in order to provide a barely affordable lifestyle for working class members of both races has been outsourced to Asia. The cost of that outsourcing is paid for with massive unemployment of working class of both races who are plied with subsidies and cheap goods and when the gas prices go high enough, with manufactured racial tensions.
This isn’t our America, but this is the America of those who took it over, hijacked it, ransacked it and then posed on magazine covers. It will matter very little whether the son of slaves hit the son of a Mexican immigrant first or vice versa, when the massive pile of debt created by the half-Kenyan, descended partly from slave owners, destroys the country.
Michael Jackson did have a point after all. It doesn’t matter very much whether you’re black or white, except to your own mirror and your own family, unless you intend to bank on that identity. That was something that Jackson tried to do until it destroyed him. The Gordian Knot of race can’t be untied and cutting through it with a surgeon’s scalpel is a bad idea. But the binding power of the knot is also an illusion, like most identities, it holds you to the extent that you want it to.
It was the melting pot, the ideal dissolution of national origins and identities, that helped make race so critical. Multiculturalism broke the pot, but had nothing to replace it with except collective identities based on racial constructs. And yet Americans tend to get along better than Africans or Europeans do.
White people and black people in America get along better than the Irish and Ulster Scots or the Flemish and Walloons or any number of other groups unwillingly clustered together in a narrow space. If you listen to NPR, you might think that race relations in America are the same of the world. The truth is that on a global scale, we have done far better than most of the world has. If you doubt that, look at Sri Lanka or Rwanda.
Group differences and xenophobia are part of the human makeup. We can no more get rid of them, than we can turn ourselves inside out. The larger question is how we manage those tensions and who stands to profit from the violence. The ascendancy of Al Sharpton makes it rather clear that liberals remain wedded to exploiting racial tensions for power and profit. It matters to them whether you are black and white, because they have coded class as race and use class and race wars as tools of power.
We don’t live in a post-racial world, but we do live in a world where the old codes are no longer simple or mean what their users would like them to. Race does not indicate a power relationship, it is a detail and it is the transactions between individuals that determines its force in their lives. Racism cuts both ways, as does any form of prejudice. Definitions are constantly changing and the very notions of race do not hold up too well in the face of a George Zimmerman or a Barack Obama.
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