TRENTON, August 29, 2013 — Fifty years after the March on Washington, the nation is short of King’s dream and even shorter on ideas why. “Not there yet” is how both Presidents Obama and Bush, John Lewis, and Reince Priebus all described our distance from King’s dream this week.
But there is no “there” there until we define our terms.
Measuring progress toward King’s dream requires moving beyond categorizing people and events as either racist or not. A more sophisticated analysis appreciates gradations of racial harm. Using the Model Penal Code as a template, produces a “Scale of Racial Wrongdoing” which looks like so:
Type #1: Negligence - Negligence is when a person neither knows nor intends the harm they’re causing, but should have known. This is the lowest culpability level and includes having racial and ethnic stereotypes, unconscious implicit associations, or what are called “micro-aggressions.”
Examples of causing racial harm negligently include Spanish golfer Sergio Garcia’s comment this May about serving Tiger Woods fried chicken, the Daily Caller using the acronym “HNIC” that same month, Sen. Harry Reid referring to President Obama as having “no Negro dialect” and Joe Biden referring to Obama as “clean” and “articulate,” in 2008.
Likewise, Rep. Steve Cohen joking this summer the results of his paternity test made him black (adding “Yo”), and standard-fare comments about black women’s bodies: “Rolling Stone” calling Serena Williams a “monster truck,” and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner criticizing Michelle Obama’s backside are acts of racial negligence.
Each acted negligently because it’s reasonable to assume they didn’t know they were causing racial harm. But they should’ve known.
Type #2: Recklessness – Here, again, a person doesn’t intend the harm they’re causing. Yet they’re aware their words or actions can cause harm, and consciously disregard that unjustified risk.
Newt Gingrich acted racially reckless in coining “food stamp president,” as did Rep. Don Young’s by using “wetbacks” this April. Or John Sununu’s use of “lazy” and “learn to be American” to describe Obama. Then there is the Obama rodeo clown in Missouri this month, Sarah Palin’s charging Obama with “shuck and jive,” and Joe Biden slipping into mock black dialect to tell a black audience last year Republicans would “put y’all back in chains.”
Type #3: Knowing – To be consciously aware of one’s belief in superiority and inferiority of racial groups, whilst “meaning well”, or without intending harm by it.
A tell-tale sign of someone acting knowingly but not intentionally racist is beginning a sentence with, “I’m not racist, but…”
Examples here include Jason Richwine, fired from the Heritage Foundation in May for asserting Latinos have lower IQs than white people, and we should discriminate against them on that basis.
In the category of knowingly causing harm are the white nationalists Richwine associated with: the Alternative Right, who’s founder runs an organization for “the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States.” The group also has the anti-immigrant website VDare.com, and the Occidental Observer which describes itself dedicated to “white identity, [and] white interests.”
There are also the knowingly white supremacist, like the 23 members of the Towson University White Student Union who crashed a seminar of black Republicans to ask why Frederick Douglas didn’t thank his slave master for giving him shelter.
So inspired by that spectacle, students in Georgia founded their own White Student Union and an August poll found a plurality of all Georgians, 43%, support the forming of a White Student Union.
Knowing exactly what he was doing, too, was the Sen. Rand Paul staffer, Jack Hunter, resigned this summer after preaching white pride and seccession while wearing Confederate flag masks.
This category includes just about everything Bill Clinton said in South Carolina in 2008. When Clinton said of Obama “a few years ago, this guy would have been carrying our bags,” he knew what he was saying.
And when his wife, the future Secretary of State, said Obama isn’t Muslim “as far as I know,” she too, knew what she was doing.
Type #4: Purposeful – This, the highest level of moral culpability, should be reserved for the most hateful acts intended to do racial harm. This would include hate crimes and discrimination, and throwing bananas at black soccer players which happens almost every year in Europe.
But this also includes the previous Rand Paul staffer fired in 2009 for participating in a heavy metal band that wished people “Happy N***** Day” on MLK day, with a photo of a lynching.
Doing racial wrong with a purpose are the many groups in the Richwine race-IQ cabal, like the white nationalist American Renaissance (the editor of which said after Katrina, “When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western Civilization—any kind of civilization—disappears”) and the whole neo-Confederate libertarian fringe of which Hunter is an exemplar.
Ditto Mel Gibson, Michael Richards, and Riley Cooper’s n-word tirades, and Rep. Steve King’s Latinos-as-drug-runners hate-mongering.
Yet, the dishonor of the most racist public act this year goes to Jon Entine, from whom the American Enterprise Institute, inexplicably and inexcusably, published a column arguing for bringing back eugenics. (“Are blacks modern übermenschen…supermen in baggy shorts and Air Jordans?,” Entine asked).
In sum, in 21st Century America, race wrongs no longer come in the simple on/off switch of racist or not, but, rather, in at least four distinct flavors meriting at least four distinct responses.
Hate speech and hate acts done purposefully should be treated as crimes. Racial harm committed knowingly but not intentionally should be met with education, to understand, for example, the false equivalence of a White Student Union, and to create a public that politicians cannot attract with coded appeals like “as far as I know.”
In the case of recklessness and negligence, much can be solved by more genuine interracial friendships, first, because it’s harder to “hate up close”; and, second, by appreciating that “offensive” has become a far, far overused word.
The country should jettison talking about “offending” people, and instead understand negligent and reckless racial acts are morally wrong because they disrespect and violate the dignity of persons.
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