Apparently Kerry saw no irony in giving this speech on an elite college campus before an audience which undoubtedly consisted of rich white kids for the most part. Yale's faculty is 2.8% black and 1.9% Hispanic. Fortunately, it seems Yale has not been corrupted by the wave of "reverse discrimination" that is sweeping the nation. Nor did Kerry seem to recognize any irony in the fact while he lectures poor black people about "self-reliance," Kerry has essentially never had to do anything for himself. Kerry was born into an obscenely rich family that would go on yachting trips with the Kennedys. Since he became a politician his bank accounts have been generously stocked by corporate lobbyists. He has also married some of the richest women in the world, including his current wife, Teresa Heinz. It's hard to imagine how such a person could even have a concept of "self-reliance." John Kerry preaching to poor people about self-reliance seems rather like a blind person trying to teach people about the colors of the rainbow.
Irony aside, Kerry makes some pretty outrageous claims here. Some have suggested Kerry's speech was a political ploy designed to make himself appear more "moderate." This would not be surprising. The Democratic Party has a long and sad history of selling out its most vulnerable constituencies for the sake of attracting white middle class voters. Single mothers, blacks, immigrants, union members, and poor people are all very familiar with this kind of cynical political "pragmatism" often practiced by white liberals. However, I'm willing to assume that Kerry really meant the things he said in his speech. If that is the case, then he is utterly clueless about the reality of racism in America. In fact, he buys into a worldview that is so explicitly right-wing it ought to cast doubt on his ability to tackle other social problems not related to race.
Kerry's speech represents a dramatic capitulation to the "white backlash" against the gains made by people of color during the civil rights era. Race relations in America have been characterized by periods of progress and backlash. After the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, America had an opportunity to atone for the racial injustices of its past. For a while, things seemed to be on the right track. During Reconstruction the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed along with a series of constitutional amendments designed to guarantee blacks equal rights under the law. Some of the South's first public schools were built during this time. Blacks made unprecedented gains in employment. Hiram Revels became the first black member of the U.S. Senate.
However, as blacks made gains, the white majority became more and more nervous. That nervousness eventually culminated in a full-fledged backlash against racial progress. This period is often referred to as the "nadir" of American race relations. Southerners called it the "Redemption." Membership in the Ku Klux Klan soared to over 3 million at one point. The courts began to chip away at the foundation of civil rights with decisions such as Plessy v. Ferguson. Blacks in the South were forced to work as sharecroppers, making them anchored to the land with little or no prospects for social mobility. Blacks in the North were excluded from the new industrial economy and labor unions. Within a few short years white supremacy had been restored in both the North and the South. The white backlash turned back the clock on almost all the gains made by blacks during Reconstruction.
A similar backlash befell the country after the civil rights era. After years of black insurgency, the movement won the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Affirmative Action was never developed as a coherent policy. It evolved through a series of executive orders, administrative decisions, and court rulings. At a time when many in the movement were talking about a revolution and radically redistributing wealth and power in the country, affirmative action was seen as a very moderate and reformist policy. The fact that it is now seen as such a controversial issue indicates how successful the white backlash and the right-wing's exploitation of it has been. As it was after the first backlash, the courts have been chipping away at the gains made by the civil rights movement. The focus and blame for racial inequality has shifted from white racism to blacks themselves. We have even seen a return of the pseudo-scientific racism that inspired the eugenics movement with the publication and subsequent success of The Bell Curve.
In the typical cowardly tradition of white liberalism, Kerry has in large part bought into the notion that blacks themselves are responsible for their misery. While he agrees that white racism still exists, he only makes a fleeting mention of it before going on to attack black people. As part of his solution, Kerry says we must focus on "law and order," and has called for a large increase in the number of police officers on the beat. In reality, crime is a symptom of racial inequality, not a cause of it. The first candidate to make "law and order" a major campaign issue was Richard Nixon. The "law and order" message was in response to a series of ghetto uprisings that started in Detroit in 1967 and spread across the country like wildfire. The "law and order" theme was an integral part of the infamous and misleadingly-named "Southern Strategy," which played upon the racial fears of the white majority to win elections.
In other words, when a politician talks about being "tough on crime," what he's really saying is "If you vote for me, I'll put all those scary black people in jail where you won't have to worry about them anymore." Kerry says "we cannot equate fear of crime with racism," but that is precisely what it is in many cases. Violent crime is usually associated with images of black males on TV news at night. Never mind that white people are much more likely to be attacked by another white person. Never mind that "white-collar" crime costs the country far more than all the robberies and petty thefts combined. While most white folks think of cops as "our" upstanding "Boys in Blue" whose primary goal is to keep "us" safe, to black people, cops are blackshirt thugs that keep them relegated to a colonized status in their own country. The word "order" can have very different connotations depending on which side of that "order" you're on. The only street that could use a few extra cops in America is Wall Street, but don't expect Kerry to do anything beyond a few token reforms to beef up law enforcement there.
Another response to the "race riots" of the late 1960s was the Kerner Report, which famously stated that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal." Far from blaming black criminality, the report said that "white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end o World War II." As a remedy the report suggested more vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination laws and extending affirmative action. It also called for numerous reforms in housing, education, and welfare. Nixon denounced the report, saying it was too divisive: "What we need is more talk about reconciliation, more about how we're going to work together." Kerry made similar remarks when he said "we must rebuild the consensus that brought us the civil rights movement in the first place." In other words, the overriding concern of white liberals is to avoid racial conflict rather than achieve racial justice. Martin Luther King Jr. eloquently denounced this kind of behavior in his famous letter from a Birmingham jail:
"I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, 'I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action'; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advised the Negro to wait until a 'more convenient season.' Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
In addition to the mistake of placing "order" and "harmony" over equity and justice, Kerry makes the mistake of treating racism as an attitude or a psychological aberration of some kind when he says, "The truth is that affirmative action has kept America thinking in racial terms." Actually, racism has kept America thinking in racial terms; not that people "thinking in racial terms" is of any significance in the first place. The matters of importance are the deep-seated inequalities embedded in the institutions of American society, not the "terms" that people are thinking in. People who adhere to this naive conception of racism seem to believe that if black and white people get together, hold hands, and sing "Kumbaya," all of our racial problems will disappear. It's easy to understand why treating racism as an attitude has so much appeal to white folks. It takes the focus away from the vast array of privileges that we enjoy as a result of the color of our skin. As Dr. King pointed out in that same letter, "History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily."
So excuse me if I don't shed any tears for the white people who feel like their government has "abandoned" them. In reality, no group has received more support and subsidy from the government than white people. After World War II white people took billions of dollars in loans from the government and used it to buy homes in the suburbs. Those loans were essentially off limits to black people, and now that generation of white folks is handing down trillions of dollars in government-created wealth to their white progeny—and that is just one striking example. Yet when the government steps in to help people of color, whites recoil in horror, crying "reverse discrimination." This isn't new. Right after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson complained that the 1866 Civil Rights Act was "made to operate in favor of the colored race and against the white race." In 1883, Supreme Court justice Joseph Bradley said it was "time for the Negro to seize being the special favorite of the laws and instead assume his place amongst all others in society." This was only a few short years after chattel slavery had been abolished.
Kerry criticizes the "culture of dependency" he says exists in black America, echoing the fears of Reconstruction critics who claimed blacks were becoming "permanent wards of the state," as was the popular phrase of the time. Presumably, he is talking about the number of black people on welfare, even though most welfare recipients are white. Kerry voted for Clinton's vicious welfare reform bill in another of his cynical attempts to appear "moderate." The "generations of welfare families" that Kerry talks about are a virtual nonentity. Even before welfare reform, over 80% of all welfare recipients stayed on the program for 5 years or less. There are "generations of welfare families" that taxpayers ought to be concerned about, but their names aren't Tamika and Latoya; their names are Rockefeller and Morgan. White-owned corporations have been sucking away at the public trough much longer and much harder than black single mothers ever have or ever will, but again, don't expect Kerry to do anything serious about it.
The lowest point in Kerry's speech is when he stereotypes urban communities as having "a violent, drug-ridden, rat-infested reality," without ever mentioning how those conditions came to be. He apparently chalks it up to the inability of black people to obey the law and stay off welfare. He doesn't mention the fact that while the government was subsidizing "white flight" to the suburbs, it was denying those loans to black people. He doesn't mention the rampant "redlining" of black communities or racist lending practices by banks that saddled black people with crippling debt. He doesn't mention the process of "urban renewal," and how it displaced black residents and tore apart their communities to make way for strip malls and highways designed to make it easier for white folks to make it to the city from their new suburban homes. He doesn't mention the rampant racial discrimination that goes on to this day in the housing and banking industries that make it nearly impossible for people of color to get out of the "ghetto" even if they want to. As a result of these practices, whites with only $13,000 in annual income are more likely to own their own home than blacks who make $48,000 a year.
Then again, the fact that black people are less likely to get those loans means that white people are more likely to get them, which brings us back to the question of white privilege. During the civil rights era, white people were dragged kicking and screaming down the road of racial progress by the black protest movement. There was no "consensus" between whites and blacks that allowed for progress to be made, as Kerry claims, and there never has been. White people vigorously defend and justify their privileges just as any privileged group would. Kerry's capitulation to the white backlash and endorsement of "blaming the victim" type explanations for racial inequity indicate that he would not hesitate to turn back the clock on racial justice if the political climate pushed him in that direction. While his campaign platform says some promising things about supporting affirmative action and low-cost housing initiatives, it is unclear from his record and past statements that he understands why those things are necessary, how necessary they are, or how sincere he is in saying he supports them. Remember, this is the same Kerry who criticizes the Iraq war, the Patriot act, and numerous other things he actually supported in the past.
If Kerry needs proof that affirmative action is not "reverse discrimination" and is actually a measure designed to level a playing field that is tipped heavily in favor of whites, here is a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of studies for him to consider:
* A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research indicated that after sending out 1,300 dummy resumes, black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.
* Devah Pager, a sociologist at Northwestern University, conducted a study in Milwaukee which showed whites with a criminal record were more likely to be hired for a job than similarly qualified blacks with no criminal record.
* A recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition showed that subprime lending activity typically increases in neighborhoods with greater numbers of blacks, even when other factors such as income, creditworthiness and housing are constant.
* According to a study by the Russell Sage Foundation, blacks are 36-44 percent less likely to be hired in white suburbs even if they search for work longer and more aggressively and are equally qualified to their white counterparts.
* Estimates by the Urban Institute indicate that blacks lose over $120 billion in wages due to labor market discrimination every year.
* The Wall Street Journal has reported that almost 70 percent of whites with poor credit are still able to receive a mortgage loan whereas only 16 percent of blacks with equally poor credit could do the same.
These are the facts that Kerry should be talking about; not the fact that a bunch of over-privileged white people feel neglected by their government. Those of us with white skin are in no position to be complaining about racial exclusion. We are all stockholders in a corporation called white supremacy, and we profit from that investment on a daily basis. We don't have to worry about being racially profiled by the cops on the way to work and we don't have to worry about being denied a promotion because of our skin color once we get there. Kerry's overriding concern for harmony between the races echoes claims by Southern segregationists that desegregation would only harm black people by "increasing racial tension." Similar arguments were made by advocates of slavery.
In other words, it doesn't matter how much lip service Kerry gives to his alleged devotion to improving the conditions of black people. Bill Clinton pandered to blacks more than any president in American history and ended up doing virtually nothing for them once in office. Black voters need to hold Kerry's feet to the fire and force him to make a strong commitment both to affirmative action and other measures that are necessary to promote racial justice.
Justin Felux can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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