A Long Way From Home

We don’t eat in no white restaurant,
we’re eating in that car.
Baloney again. Baloney again.
We don’t sleep in no white hotel,
we’re sleeping in that car.
Baloney again.

You don’t strut around in these country towns,
you best stay in the car.
Look on ahead, don’t stare around.
You best stay where you are.
You’re a long way from home, boy.
Don’t push your luck too far.
Baloney again.

— Mark Knopfler, Baloney Again

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Race Factor. During the hundreds of addresses our 43 white presidents have given to Congress, nobody ever jumped up and called them liars. Is it a coincidence that it happened to our first black president?
  • Tea With the Home Folks. The 9-12 Tea Party rally in Washington was bad enough. But did they have to do one in my hometown? While I was visiting my parents?
  • Short Notes: Health Care. We’re #37! Why the Baucus Plan is so bad. Domestic violence is a pre-existing condition. Why can’t a program that saves money and prevents crime get Republican support? And the public option doesn’t need a trigger.
  • Other Short Notes. Sotomayor doubts corporate personhood. Christianism in our public schools and the military. Politico “balances” Joe Wilson with … the Democrats who were right about Iraq. And why Obama scrapped Bush’s missile shield program.

The Race Factor

Tuesday, responding to incidents like Joe Wilson shouting out “You lie!” during President Obama’s address to Congress, Jimmy Carter said what a lot of other people had been thinking:

An overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity towards President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man.

Carter’s statement brought a predictable response from the Right. Rush Limbaugh, for example:

I have serious concerns about today’s media and their new standard, which is this: Any criticism of an African-American’s policies or statements or misstatements is racist, and that’s it. Therefore, the question: Can this nation really have an African-American president? Or will the fact that we have an African-American president so paralyze politically correct people in the media that the natural scrutiny and process through which all of our presidents are put through and vetted do not occur

Commenting on race is tricky these days, because it’s so easy to either understate or overstate its importance. Conservatives want us to believe that President Obama’s election marked the end of the race issue in America: If a black man can be elected president, what more is there to prove?

On the other hand, it’s easy to forget what racism meant just a generation or two ago. Hitler was a racist because he tried to annihilate the Jews. The southern tradition of lynching had diminished by the 1950s, but still continued. In his 1963 inaugural address as Governor of Alabama, George Wallace announced: “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever!”

We like to think of that as ancient history, but it’s not. I was six. When Martin Luther King was murdered, I was 11 — old enough to see that not everybody was sad about his death.

Dramatic examples of American racism have been immortalized in novels and movies like To Kill a Mockingbird and Mississippi Burning. But we’ve had a nationwide conspiracy of silence around the everyday racism that not so long ago was a fact of life — not hidden or subtle or anything normal people were ashamed of. Its undramatic-but-accurate depiction of a 24/7 atmosphere of racism and sexism is one reason Mad Men deserves its Emmys. I picked Baloney Again to lead off this Sift because it similarly captures the undramatic everyday anxiety blacks lived with during Jim Crow.

Today’s racism, by those standards, is pretty tame. That’s why so many older people don’t want to call it racism at all, or resent the implication that they might be racists. Whatever prejudices they still feel, they know they’re not Hitlers or even Wallaces.

It’s easy to get preachy on this subject, so let me tell you one of my own racist blunders. One morning last summer, I had just checked out of a hotel in D.C. and was in a hurry to get somewhere. The guy standing by the door was black, had a suit on, and just looked like a doorman to me, so I asked him how to get my car out of valet parking. He turned out to be some African diplomat.

Now, that incident doesn’t prove that I’m secretly a white supremacist. But it does show that my unconscious mental reflexes assign blacks to subservient positions. A white guy in the same suit, standing in the same place, wouldn’t have looked like a doorman to me. To that extent, at least, I’m a racist.

At this point I imagine most of my white readers saying, “Honest mistake. No harm done.” But try looking at it from the other side: You’re a black man of some accomplishment, and every so often a white takes you for a doorman or a clerk or a waiter. And lots more whites don’t blunder that badly, but they just look surprised when they discover that you’re actually the branch manager or the department head or the owner.

I bet that gets old. It must seem like you’re constantly being told you should be subservient, that you are somehow violating the natural order by being a person of consequence and authority.

Any white woman who has been the first female something-or-other should be able to identify. Guys constantly come in asking you to get the boss, and then they have to blink a few times after you inform them that you are the boss. Maybe it was funny the first time. The 20th, not so much.

Now let’s talk about Joe Wilson and Obama’s other over-the-top critics. All presidents face opposition, and presidents who try to change things face lots of opposition. Nothing new there. But no Congressman ever shouted out “You lie!” during any of the hundreds of addresses our 43 white presidents have given to Congress. Then the first black president gives his second speech, and bang, it happens.

You want to tell me that’s a coincidence?

Respect is one of those mental reflexes, and lots of white people — especially, it seems, conservative white congressmen from South Carolina — are not in the habit of giving it to blacks. I don’t believe Joe Wilson consciously thought “Stick it to the nigger” before his outburst. But when Wilson saw a young black man lecturing him from the podium, I don’t think he connected the situation to the long tradition of white presidents addressing Congress. I don’t think Obama looked like a president to him. Maybe he looked more like a doorman or a clerk or a waiter.

So here’s my assessment of the role race is playing: Opposition to Obama isn’t just racism, but a white Obama would be getting more respect and more benefit of the doubt. Obama’s opposition arose quicker and is
ruder, cruder, and more violent than it would be if he were white. Whites (especially southern whites) believe absurd things about Obama on flimsy evidence — he’s Muslim, he’s Kenyan, he’s the anti-Christ, he wants to kill your grandma — things most of them would never believe about a white president. And they’re angrier at him than they would be at a white man.

I doubt that Wilson or many of the other Obama critics are racists in a conscious Hitler-Wallace sense. Even among themselves, I don’t believe they talk about shipping the blacks back to Africa, starting a race war, or reinstituting Jim Crow. I think they’d say no if you asked them “Should we be more afraid and less trusting of a black president than a white president?”

But they are more afraid and less trusting of Obama, because stuff like fear and trust and anger comes out of the unconscious. Like me sometimes, they reflexively think different thoughts about blacks than they do about whites. If you don’t want to call that racism — if you’d like to reserve the racist label for Nazis and segregationists — then come up with some other word for it. But it’s a factor and we need to talk about it.

A few years ago during the Don Imus flap I raised the issue of today’s more subtle racism vs. the unapologetic 24/7 racism that Americans over 50 remember very clearly. That sparked a fascinating intergenerational conversation (535 comments) on DailyKos, as older commenters told some of the everyday-racism stories nobody talks about any more. For example, 20-somethings today don’t know (and all 50-somethings do) that the “Eeney-Meeney” children’s rhyme used to include the word nigger. Young people are stunned when you tell them.

In Friday’s NYT, Charles Blow quotes a 2003 study by researchers at Rice University:

One of the greatest challenges facing black leaders is aversive racism, a subtle but insidious form of prejudice that emerges when people can justify their negative feelings toward blacks based on factors other than race.

Try the online Implicit Association Test to measure your association between white/black and good/bad. I expected to see some unconscious racism, but I was amazed how difficult it was for me to react when I had to sort images into white-or-bad vs. black-or-good. It was easy for me to lump together black faces and bad words, but much harder to lump together white faces and bad words.

You can find a lecture on unconscious prejudice here.

The House reprimanded Wilson on a mostly party-line vote. Just for comparison, consider the Iraqi guy who disrespected President Bush by throwing his shoes. He went to prison and claims he was tortured. Of course I’m not suggesting that Wilson … well, it is unfair, isn’t it?

Lest you think I have no sense of humor about race, I offer this scene from Clerks II.

Tea With the Home Folks

It’s a bit unsettling when the craziness jumps off of the Fox News Channel and lands in your old hometown.

I spent September 12 in Quincy, Illinois, dealing with some of the consequences of my parents’ recent health problems. I had forgotten, but six months ago during his weepy we-surround-them monologue Glenn Beck had picked out 9-12 as a special day. As the day after 9-11, it is supposed to represent a time when all Americans were united. What goes unsaid is that on 9-12-2001 we were united behind a conservative president. Beck, of course, is not calling for us to unite behind our current leader. Quite the opposite.

So in Quincy, as in D.C. and a few other places, 9-12 was an appropriate occasion to hold a Tea Party Rally. The Tea Parties are another new conservative thing. They hit public attention after Rick Santelli’s mid-day rant on CNBC last February, which was cheered on by a spontaneous mob of real grassroots Americans — the commodity traders on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. The Tea Parties are sponsored and organized by Freedom Works, an organization started by former Republican Congressman Dick Armey and funded by the usual collection of conservative billionaires and corporations.

I was too busy to cover the 9/12 Quincy Tea Party in any depth, but I did find time to wander through the crowd. The people seemed genuine, I knew one of them, and in general they looked like the kind of people I generally see around Quincy — the white people, that is. Quincy is hardly a racial melting pot, but there is a black neighborhood, a large number of our doctors and other imported professionals are South Asian, and there is at least a smattering of Hispanics and East Asians. I didn’t see any of them at the rally.

The signs were mostly homemade, and I was struck by how many of them talked about “the People”– “We the People” or “Listen to the People”. And that’s a clue to understanding the whole movement, I think, because in fact we did listen to the people: We had an election, and Obama and the Democrats won. Carrying out the agenda they ran on — like national health care — is listening to the people.

But the tea-party folks don’t think so, because in this context the People does not mean the voters. One of those unconscious racial things I was talking about in the previous article is: When you say “the People” who are you picturing? Who are the real Americans?

For the folks at the tea parties, the People are white and heterosexual and Christian and speak with one of the standard American-English accents. When Beck talks about “you and your neighbors” in We Surround Them, the pictures that flash up are all of whites. And while the videographers’ biases control who gets interviewed, I had a hard time finding any non-white faces in the background of any clip I saw of the D.C. rally.

If you make those restrictions — if you ignore blacks, Hispanics, gays, Jews, Muslims, Asians, first-generation European immigrants, and anybody else who might be considered weird or strange (like people from San Francisco or New York City) — then McCain won. He won by quite a wide margin, actually.

And yet somehow this strange usurper Barack Hussein Obama managed to take power. No wonder the People are so upset.

Almost as jarring as watching a tea party next to the Lincoln-Douglas monument in Quincy’s Washington Park was seeing the the local newspaper — where I had my first job — cheerlead for the event. I had to write them a letter, which, to their credit, they published.

National coverage of the tea parties also became an issue. Fox News took out a color ad in the Washington Post accusing the other major networks of “missing” the D.C. rally. This ticked off CNN’s Rick Sanchez to the point that he spent six on-air minutes demonstrating CNN’s coverage of the rally and lecturing Fox on the difference between covering an event and promoting an event. Sanchez summed up by quoting Joe Wilson: “You lie.”

If you want to see how “promoting” works, somebody filmed Fox filming the event. And even as the Fox News reporter is saying “they’re black, they’re white” — try to find any non-white faces in the crowd behind him.

A picture “proving” the tea-party crowd was larger than “liberal media” estimates was apparently taken before the National Museum of the American Indian was built. Nate Silver believes the fire-department estimate of 60-70,000 people, not the 2 million figure that some on the right have thrown around.

Some independent liberal video journalists were in that crowd: NewLeft Media and Max Blumenthal.

Short Notes: Health Care

At last, a good health-care music video: We’re #37! by Paul Hipp. It’s got kind of a Bruce Springsteiny sound.

Senator Max Baucus finally came out with his “bipartisan” health-care proposal. As I (and a lot of other people) predicted no Republicans supported it. And Democrats aren’t wild about it either.

Paul Krugman has critiqued the Baucus plan. And Marcy Wheeler has pointed out why his proposal is so bad: The document metadata indicates that it was mostly written by Baucus aide Liz Fowler, a former VP at health insurance giant WellPoint. So basically, the Baucus Plan is the Insurance Industry Plan.

Meteor Blades thinks Max did liberals a favor by making it totally obvious that bipartisanship is a waste of time: No matter what Democrats give up, Republicans don’t compromise.

from here on out, on health coverage reform and quite a number of other issues, when anybody suggests that the Republicans have to be part of the mix, we’ve got Senator Baucus’s Sisyphean effort to point to. He hacked great chunks off that stone he kept trying to push up Capitol Hill, and the GOP rolled it back on top of him every time.

Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim calls attention to one of the more outrageous pre-existing conditions: domestic violence.

Under the cold logic of the insurance industry, it makes perfect sense: If you are in a marriage with someone who has beaten you in the past, you’re more likely to get beaten again than the average person and are therefore more expensive to insure.

This is just one more example of how badly the concepts of profit and care fit together.

As the button says, Good Karma Is Cost Effective. Here’s an example: Years ago some states started sending nurses to visit low-income pregnant teens to coach them about baby care, hoping that this would save money because the kids would need less medical care later.

They did, and money was saved. But a longer-term study has now followed the kids up to age 15 and noticed that they are also significantly less likely to get arrested. So in addition to the medium-term saving in medical costs, there’s also probably a longer-term reduction in crime.

Naturally, Republicans are against making this program part of the federal health-care reform bill, calling it an example of “Nancy’s nanny-state“.

Scarecrow on FDL points out that we don’t need a “trigger” — a few more years to observe private competition — before starting a public option. Massachusetts has already run that experiment.

Massachusetts’ experience should be enough to answer Sen. Snowe’s notion that we need to see what happens before triggering a public option. We’ve seen the future, and it doesn’t work. Just having an exchange in which the existing private insurers compete doesn’t seem to create more price competition or produce significant downward pressure on insurance premiums or provider costs.

Other Short Notes

It’s early, but I’m liking Justice Sotomayor even more than I thought I would: She just suggested that corporate personhood might have been a mistake.

What do you think would happen if a Muslim football coach at a public high school got nine of his players to pledge themselves to Allah? Well, a Baptist coach took 20 of his players to a revival meeting where nine got baptized, and the district superintendent is standing up for him.

More on how the Christianization of the military hurts the security of the United States: Top Ten Ways to Convince the Muslims We’re On a Crusade.

Matt Yglesias has an outrageous example of “balanced” reporting at Politico: They compared Joe Wilson seizing center-stage among Republicans with the “crazy” Democratic congressmen who went to Baghdad and predicted President Bush would mislead the American public into going to war. Given what we know now, a better adjective than crazy might be prescient or insightful.

In Foreign Policy, Joseph Cirincione summarizes Obama’s decision to scrap the Bush missile defense plan in eastern Europe:

President Barack Obama replaces a system that did not work against a threat that did not exist with weapons that can defend against the real Iranian missile capability.

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