The End of Racism in Ferguson, MO
Note: I’ve been working on and off for almost a year now on one or more comprehensive long-read pieces about race in the United States. I’m still struggling with what I want to say, but a common thread would be that so much of our very real progress over the past century seems to have been built on a rotting foundation, and how the stress put on that weak foundation is forcing us backward on so many fronts. I have finally decided to stop struggling with getting my thoughts perfect, and have decided to do what I should have done at the outset: Just write, and see what comes out over time.
So over the next month or so, you’re going to be seeing a lot of short pieces that are desperately feeling their way in the dark. As always, please feel free to let me know where I’m getting it wrong.
And with that out of the way, let’s begin…
I’m not entirely where or how to best begin this post; and so I will defer to the opening salvo from Dinesh D’Souza’s The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society.
Written almost twenty years ago, the book — whose central thesis is that misplaced, anti-white African-American rage aside, racism does not exist in the United States and indeed never really has — has reappeared from obscurity in the Obama era, as D’Souza himself has become a kind of de facto intellectual leader of the Tea-Party era Right.
Here is D’Souza’s initial argument racism against blacks in America does not exist:
In 1992, a white congressional aide working for Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama was accosted at his home in Washington, D.C., and shot to death. A few weeks later, Edward Evans, a young black man, was arrested. Two friends of Evans testified that they saw him shoot the ung staffer. One of them said that Evans harbored strong anti-white sentiments and promised he was going to kill a white man. The material evidence against Evans, presented at trial, seemed overwhelming. Yet although eleven jurors including five blacks, initially agreed that Evans was guilty of murder, one African American woman, Velma McNeil, refused to convict. A frustrated white jury foreman claimed to the judge that “one juror” was simply unwilling to give credence to the prosecution’s evidence against Evans. He also stated later that, during jury deliberations, McNeil told fellow jurors that the exoneration of Los Angeles police officers who beat black motorist Rodney King showed the systematic bias of the judicial system against blacks. Juror McNeil denied that her refusal to find the defendant guilty was based on race, pointing instead to possible contradictions in the statements given by the two eyewitnesses. The consequence was a hung jury, and the judge was forced to declare a mistrial. A Washington Post photograph shows McNeil emerging from the courtroom, smiling, chatting, and embracing a relative of the accused.
I thought about this argument and the countless other similar anecdotes that ripple throughout The End of Racism as I watched D’Souza’s documentary America: Imagine the World Without Her last month in an empty theatre.
America was more than anything a kind of curiosity, beautifully odd in some places and aggressively vapid in others. If you want a good and thorough takedown of the movie’s so-called scholarship — and believe me, it deserves one — Michelle Togut provides a pretty damn great one here. But historical errors aside, what stood out to me were D’Souza’s take on racism in the United States.
For example, in the film he doubles down on this statement from The End of Racism:
I reject [the] widely held premise that… slavery was a racist institution, and the Constitution’s compromise with slavery [was] racist and morally corrupt.
His argument that slavery wasn’t really racist used in America matches pretty exactly his argument from his book: Rather than deal with the actions of the whites in power, D’Souza instead focuses on the moral purity of blacks. In The End of Racism he reports on very real news stories where some black person committed murder; in America, he reports on the very real history that some number of freed black slaves chose to themselves own slaves. “Look at the blacks,” D’Souza seems to argue. “Black people aren’t pure at all; in fact, some of them do evil things.” And thus, for him, is the nascency of racism exposed as a parlor trick, forged by the hucksters of liberalism.
At first, of course, D’Souza’s reasoning seems bizarrely incongruent; whom that reports on racism, after all, claims that non-white people do not sin? The only way that D’Souza’s argument works, semantically and grammatically speaking, is if you read to say this: Believing that blacks — generally speaking, of course, some of my best friends and all that — are beings to be feared is not racist, because by gosh those people are scary and we should all be wary of them.
It would be easy, of course, to simply label D’Souza a crank and be done with it. The problem is, that he seems to speak for a significant segment of America. America has been universally praised on the right, and everywhere in the right’s media you look D’Souza and his movie are being praised as one of conservatism’s crowning intellectual achievements.
And this isn’t just Media Machine noise. America earned an A+ score by Cinemascore, the well-respected, non-partisan, Hollywood polling company that picks random audiences throughout the county to rate the movies they just saw. And to put that in perspective, in the 40 years that Cinemascore has been gathering data for studio execs, there have been only eight films that have earned an A+: Gandhi, Dances With Wolves, The King’s Speech, Driving Miss Daisy, Forrest Gump, Titanic, Schindler’s List, and now America: Imagine the World Without Her. The theatre where I saw America happened to be empty on the Thursday morning matinee I attended, but according to the theatre manager of the downtown Portland, liberal art-house theatre I went to, it’s actually been well attended and audiences have loved it.
Whatever you might think of Dinesh D’Souza’s message or scholarship, his message resonates.
I have been thinking about D’Souza’s dual and seemingly conflicting message of “whites-are-never-racist” and “black-men-are-scary” as I’ve been reading about the events unfolding in Ferguson, MO. Not surprisingly, I tend to agree with pretty much everything Ethan has to say about how these events speak to the militarization of America. I certainly agree with him here:
Casting Ferguson in the light of a ‘race relations’ problem, which doesn’t even come close to capturing what’s going on there, overlooks a simpler starting place: U.S. citizens in Ferguson, Missouri are having their rights abused, or ignored altogether, which for one citizen in particular, Michael Brown, cost him his life.
And yet despite that, to me the race-relations part seems worth examining on its own, if not for the police’s actions, then for our reaction to it.
Take, for example, the different ways we in America process this story. Over at Josh Marshall’s TPM, nearly every story on Ferguson (and believe me, there are a lot) has some form of this phrase in the description of the origin event: “shooting of the unarmed 18 year old Michael Brown.” Contrast that with the phrasing being used in the same news sites that went out of their way to praise D’Souza’s America a month ago. This Daily Caller report is pretty typical:
Ferguson police officer shot Brown following an altercation on Saturday. The officer claims that Brown, who is black, assaulted him and tried to take his weapon.
Two accounts of the same tragedy, each equally accurate, and yet each telling very different stories. On one side, you have a story about police over reaction; on the other, yet another story of a wilding black man tragically needing to be put down.
As I said above, I’ll be continuing with this issue for a bit. This seems more than enough to chew on for now.
More than ever, thoughts, comments, and disagreements are welcome.
 For example, the entire setup of the movie revolves around its eponymous concept: What would have happened if George Washington had died, the American revolution had been won by the Crown, and the United States have never existed? Politics aside, its conceit is a fascinating one. Which made it that much more head-scratching when, after spending the first 10 minutes announcing that this was the idea we would be exploring in his film, D’Souza then inexplicably and bizarrely abandons it, never really bothering to address the question again.
It’s like watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas, if in the first five minutes it dropped the story lines about Grinches, Whos and Christmas entirely, so that Max the dog could talk for ninety minutes about how Cap & Trade doesn’t really pencil out.