I was ready to argue politics, but unprepared to go to war over race.
I’ve written a few pieces over the last two weeks regarding interactions with conservatives through my writing. I was hoping for engagement and I am definitely getting it whether I like it or not. What surprised me was how much race was the primary trigger for many of the conservative responses to the article. My personal and ‘academic’ perspectives of the responses serve as the basis of this article. The quotes are pasted directly from comments with no editing or grammatical changes.
My New Year’s resolution was to write more. I’ve been published as an academic and have presented a dozen papers at conferences. But for a variety of reasons I chose to focus on producing more consistent content for my website, drillbitnews.com. I have studied international relations, political theory, and American history throughout my 25+ years as a student and professor. I’m an avid consumer of political news and I try to develop broad knowledge on issues as much as possible. I follow CNN and the New York Times but try to match up narratives with stories in the Wall Street Journal and on the Fox News app… then I check out the BBC’s version for a baseline. As far as really digging into political analysis and commentary I felt like I was ready, and I still do.
A few weeks ago I published a piece “Dear Conservative,” which I offered as an open letter explaining “why I disagree with you, am confused by you, get angry at you, and still respect, love, and will continue to engage with (most of) you.” I wrote about what I saw as a certain hypocrisy within the conservative core regarding their principles and beliefs (religious and otherwise) versus their practical support for the president’s behavior and policies. I wrote about sympathy for some of their positions (e.g. the abortion debate), and my perspectives on how both edges of the political spectrum are prone to conspiracies. I mentioned the increasing false narrative surrounding the economy as Trump’s great success, and greater consistency in the promotion of respect for women’s rights. I wrote about all these things in the context of initiating an honest and critical political dialogue.
But none of that really seemed to matter because I also talked about race.
Of the 34 comments posted as a reply to the article on the Drillbitnews.com Facebook page 32 of them were from conservatives. Of those, 10 referred directly and only to the discussion of race in the article. Adding another five which seemed to imply that race was their problem with the article as well, and half of the overall focus was on only one of the dozen issues I discussed. Throughout the responses I noticed a few common themes worth exploring further. Not just because of my own personal response, but because they were versions of broader narratives in the overall politics of race in America.
Whataboutism, Slavery Style!
The comments ranged from half sentences to 2-page explanations, but one common theme can be summed up with this post:
“Here we go with white people again for slavery when it happened all over the globe I got a direct question for you. When will you hold Africans responsible for slavery?”
It immediately struck me that this is the application of whataboutism on a whole different level. We are far beyond trying to rationalize the potential crimes of our favorite political candidate in the 2016 election. Deflecting responsibility for political misdeeds or financial corruption from Trump to Hillary (or vice versa) seems to have become a set play in everyone’s political playbook. But the idea of turning blame for slavery on to African-Americans themselves is as insulting as Holocaust denial must be to Jewish-Americans. It was sad but predictable that some commentators went further to make connections to other narratives within the conservative lexicon…
“If ANYONE is responsible for slavery…go to the Root…Muslim Slave Traders raided African Tribes…..Start THERE and we will talk….”
I was floored. This was not just whataboutism where deflection does not necessarily mean you’re ignorant of your own responsibilities. This was a direct attempt to transfer the entire institution of slavery and its associated immorality onto African-Americans themselves, with the bonus of connecting Muslims to the conspiracy as well! A follow-up commentator then posted a conservative article to support the claims which took great liberty with historical facts concerning the African slave trade and its relationship with the Atlantic slave trade. But of course, since it was published by a black man it was the academic equivalent of, “I’m not racist because I have a black friend.” These were not one-off comments, but repeated by others, each garnering several thumbs-up from sometimes very enthusiastic supporters. For many however, even bringing up the relationship between conservatism and racism in America was enough for them to completely shut down.
“You lost me when you started talking about my white privilege . I was actually enjoying your article up to that point then I quit reading .”
This is the point at which I started to get discouraged. I began to realize that no matter how much my life and education had led me to believe in continuum, most of the people I was trying to connect with were seeing the world in black and white, literally. The educator in me was demoralized at the thought of someone dismissing my knowledge or expertise simply because of what I might be leading them to consider about themselves. But the writer and idealistic entrepreneur in me was distraught at the idea that large groups of individuals might begin reading my work only to dismiss it halfway through because of my unavoidable perspectives on race. This was especially concerning because to my surprise conservatives have represented between 65 and 70% of the 50,000 views I’ve gotten since the beginning of the year! I know the liberals are out there, but when it comes to political discussion on Facebook the conservatives seem to rule.
The Real White Privilege is only Worrying about Race When You Want to
I think the greatest irony regarding the perspective that African-Americans bring up race too much is the assumption that we want to. Contrary to popular belief most African-Americans do not leave their door every morning in search of racists to blame for problems. I myself am way more tired of the issue of race than ANY white person alive precisely because it never goes away… EVER. It certainly does not cease to be an issue for me because I decided not to read a particular post or article.
“I tried to read it. Then the race card came out, and I was done. Just more lies and propaganda here..”
I’m an African-American male in a society that enslaved people like me for the first 150 years of the country’s existence. For the next 100 years the country discriminated against me and segregated me from opportunities that are now the foundation of America’s greatness. Everything from the Industrial Revolution and the Settlement of the West, to the deeds of ‘America’s Greatest Generation’ in World War II and the Digital Revolution transpired with African-Americans receiving only a small fraction of the American dream. The reality is that even if cultural and systemic racism were nothing more than footnotes in American history, a legacy of racism still exists in the country today. And it is demonstrated by more than the few overtly racist comments I received in response to the article.
“Could it be that Africa has hardly any money to pay you what your wanting?”
There are lots of data points and statistics that I could use to try and demonstrate the fundamental impact of the legacy of racism in America. I keep coming back to private land ownership as the most telling however. White Americans own 98% of all private land in America worth over $1 trillion while African-Americans own less than 1% with a combined value of only $14 billion. Every racist in America could disappear tomorrow and the impact of this sort of inequality would still be monumental relative to the ability of African-Americans to succeed in the same way that white Americans have for generations.
I would argue that property ownership has been the most consistent and direct illustration of the American promotion of liberty and constitutional rights throughout our history. It has also served as an essential component to economic success stories and the establishment of family legacies. Property is not just a source of wealth, but a source of opportunity. And when one considers that Ted Turner owns as much land as a quarter of the entire African-American population the inequalities ingrained in our society as part of the legacy of racism become apparent.
I think the thing that upsets me the most about arguments that African-Americans blame racism for their own lack of success is that it completely overlooks just how long we were denied the ability to even try to succeed. One can certainly argue over how exactly the concept of white privilege should be defined. But anyone who’s allowed to accumulate 98% of the chips on the table before the poker tournament even begins must be understood to have an advantage over everyone else.
I Said Conservatives, Not Republicans
I have lots of issues with the way in which various political terms and philosophies are used in American politics. But throughout the comments I received there was a consistent tendency to conflate conservatives with the Republican party. As a result, several respondents argued that conservatives can’t be racist because Lincoln and the Republican Party ended slavery.
“First I will begin with slavery, Jim Crow, and the KKK. It seems that you attribute all of these to conservatives. I recommend that you check history. All of those are issues held by the Democrat Party. The Republican Party was started as the Party to end slavery.”
So we are clear; conservatism is a political philosophy, Republicans are a political party. Despite clearly stating at more than one point in the article that conservatism was a philosophy used by BOTH Democrats and Republicans throughout American history, there was still a consistent ‘they started it’ component to many of the posts. Whether it’s identifying which party has been historically associated with racism, or judging the misdeeds of Trump and Hillary, I still don’t understand why so many people attempt to judge the morality of a certain behavior by whether it’s been done before by someone they don’t like.
“he failed to say his own party created the kkk so one might ask why you are a member of the party that inflicted that upon your race..”
Whether Africans or Muslims or anyone else practiced slavery before it became an institution in early America is irrelevant to its impact on African-Americans. Whether Hillary Clinton has been fairly punished for supposed crimes with emails and uranium has nothing to do with whether Trump should be punished for potential crimes before and during his presidency. You would hopefully never accept a friend of yours mugging someone because another person you don’t like committed the same crime and got away with it. Yet that is the approach many on both sides of the political spectrum take when attempting to rationalize the misdeeds of their allies, or unjustified attacks on their foes.
In the end, the tendency to misuse and swap large political and philosophical concepts is masked by verbal word games that amount to five-year-olds exchanging, “I know you are, but what am I?” It creates a merry-go-round of blame and deflection where neither side wants to jump off because they’re afraid that will cede control of the narrative to their opponent. And my recent experiences with angry conservative reactions made me realize that as an African-American I couldn’t jump off the merry-go-round of the race debate if I wanted to. I’m handcuffed to it, sometimes struggling to get my feet under myself and at other times spinning wildly in the wind, all the while just along for the ride.
At first, I was thrilled that my article was getting hundreds of views a day. And then after the third morning in a row of waking up to an increasing number of venomous, demeaning, and racist posts I shut down for a few days.
“Or you still upset that White men created our Constitution without your approval? News for you it’s one of the most important document to ever be created.These White men made it into a living documents to change with times and that’s how you got freedom and what a great thing that it is,just look you get to write bullshit like you did in this post without fear.”
I’d love to tell you that the consistent massacring of English grammar was the thing that caused me the most pain in posts such as this one. Truth is when I read the entire post (of which the quote above is just a small part) I am still overwhelmed by how many threads of racism and moral superiority are wrapped up in indignation over my lack of appreciation for what “these White men” did for me. One can say that this is just an extreme right-wing Facebooker who is in no way representative of a broader group I should be worried about. But I am a politically moderate intellectual African-American male from New York living in one of the reddest states in the country and I can tell you while it might be extreme, it is not unique in any way.
“So tell me, what nation would you rather live in, besides America? Move there if you believe you would be better off.”
I can be angry about the history of racism in this country and still love the ideals that the Constitution and American dream represent. I can know for a certainty that white people in America today benefited from the extremes of American racism that existed in the past and not think that they themselves are racist. I can continue to talk with, listen to, and be friends with conservatives who I know I will never actually agree with. I can even accept that my children and my children’s children will most likely share a country with people who hate them solely because the color of the skin, and still have nothing but amazing visions of the future of America.
But what I will never be able to do is accept a demeaning of my experiences and accomplishments, both personally and as a member of the African-American community, in order to help someone else avoid their own tests of conscience. I’ve been asked to stop bringing up slavery as an unfair indictment of the role of white people in establishing the earliest foundations of racism in America. I assure you I will be the first to never mention slavery again the moment the last white person stops waving Confederate flags in celebration of those same people as heroes of white heritage.
“‘I don’t hold all white people responsible for slavery, but here’s me holding you responsible for slavery.’ Summarized.”
The country made incredible strides in overcoming slavery and its associated culture of racism. Then after a century of segregation and Jim Crow the country once again rose up through the civil rights movement and shattered the systemic racism that existed until only recently. It is true that things have gotten better. But it is also important to consider just how awful things had to have been to make room for those sorts of enormous strides. And considering the inequalities that continue as a result of America’s legacy of racism most African-Americans will continue to be hyper-vigilant to questions of race and equality in America. As a result, some conservatives will continue to be angry with my work because I’m one of those African-Americans.
But at least I’m ready for the battle now.
Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website drillbitnews.com, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.