Are Mexicans a “race”? (And is Mark Halperin a “journalist”?)

If you think too hard about the fact that the Republican Party is about to nominate for President a man who calls a judge born in Indiana, both of whose parents were citizens, “a Mexican,” and says that the judge’s ethnic pride makes him unfit to handle a case involving that nominee, it will just make you sad and angry, which doesn’t do anyone much good, though it might cheer you up that no even reasonably prominent Republican has been willing to defend Trump on this. (Alberto Gonzales doesn’t count.)

So instead of the outrage to common decency, the rule of law, and the fundamental principle of American patriotism that descent doesn’t define citizenship, let’s concentrate instead on the side-show provided by the ever-willing Mark Halperin.

When his colleague John Heilemann called Trump’s latest ravings “pure racial politics,” Halperin replied “No, it’s not racial … Mexico isn’t a race.” Some commenters are willing to treat Halperin’s point as technically correct, though irrelevant to the larger issue involved. That’s too generous to Halperin.

Yes, Twentieth-Century anthropologists defined “race” in terms of a handful of groups sharing biological ancestry, and that’s the current use of the term in popular discourse: “Caucasian” is a “race,” while “Italian” is not. (Scientific discourse is a more complicated matter.)

But “race” in English and its cognates in the Romance languages derive from the Latin radix (=”root”), and through at least the Nineteenth Century the primary meaning of “race” was simply “descent group.” The distinction between biological and linguistic relationships wasn’t clearly made, and the differences between, e.g., the “Anglo-Saxon” English and the “Celtic” Scots or Irish were understood as “racial” differences.

Nazi ideology was based on this older concept of “race.” A definition of “racism” that leaves out Nazi hostility toward Jews (and Slavs and Roma), and their belief in a Nordic “master race,” leaves out a lot. And of course the Nazis were not alone in regarding Jews as a “race.” When Australia largely rejected Jewish refugees from Hitler, one official said, “as we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”

The differences between European-descended people in the U.S. and most Mexicans is in fact “racial” (in the restrictive contemporary sense of the term) as well as national and linguistic; most Mexicans trace the majority of their ancestry to the original inhabitants of the Americas and not to Europe.

So it would be charitable, but wrong, to treat Halperin’s remark as heartless and pedantic but technically correct. It was merely his usual derp.

Footnote Trump’s attack on Judge Curiel isn’t the only case where he’s not getting much backing even from those Republicans who have verbally endorsed him; he was also pretty much alone when Hillary Clinton shredded him on foreign policy. The wheel of karma still turns, and time wounds all heels.

The higher a monkey climbs …

I have to respectfully disagree with D.R. Tucker about the Berkshire Eagle’s decision to open its op-ed column to the local Republican party, leading to the publication of this stunning bit of racist rant.

There remains a widespread belief – supported by journalistic convention – that the country currently has two mainstream political parties, holding different views but equally able to govern. That belief is false. Of course there are lots of decent Republican voters, and lots of responsible Republican elected officials. But the party as a whole is now dominated by its lunatic fringe, well represented by Mr. Nikitas. The failure of the Republicans who are actually running for President to denounce Donald Trump’s nativism is the best recent illustration of that point.

So I want to thank the Berkshire Eagle for doing a public service by helping to reveal the truth. The content of the Nikitas column deserves forthright denunciation. But the decision to print it was fully jusified. The sooner the country comes to understand that the Republican Party has become an extremist organization, the better the prospect for the sort of electoral disaster that might shock it back into respectability.

This country needs two serious parties contesting for power. But pretending that it currently has them is counterproductive.

Does Scott Walker love America?

Rudy Giuliani, speaking at a Scott Walker fundraiser, with Walker present:

I do not believe – and I know this is a horrible thing to say – but I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.

Now we get to see whether Scott Walker is a man or not.

The smart money is on “Not.”

Footnote This came the same day as the Tweeted comment of another right-wing heart-throb, Dinesh D’Souza, saying of the President “You can take the boy out of the ghetto … ”

No, it’s not reasonable to hold everyone in a political movement liable for the comments of everyone else in that movement. But there’s a pattern here. At some point, Republican office-holders and office-seekers have to either disown the racism that plays so well to the party base, or own it. 

On Blaming Black Leadership

This fine piece in In These Times  reminds us how instrumental Federal policies on homeownership and road construction were in killing Detroit, and gives the lie to those who want to blame the city’s bankruptcy on corrupt leadership–specifically, corrupt Black leadership.

Certainly there were, and are, Black leaders whose personal weaknesses interfere with the progress of the entities they seek to lead; but the pattern of blaming Black leaders comes from the same bag of racist tricks as the suggestion that the President isn’t really an American because he has black skin.

Detroit is not struggling because its leaders, or its people, are Black.  Its troubles lie at the door of white legislators who made abandoning cities a winning proposition for white families, and white regulators who contributed to the same flight, and white car company executives who decided they owed nothing back to the city of their birth.

To claim otherwise is simply to blame the victim.

 

 

The Party of (assassinating) Lincoln

Rand Paul’s social media director and co-author thinks that the bad thing about the murder of Abraham Lincoln was that it made Lincoln a hero, when he was actually not only “the worst President” but “one of the worst figures in American history.”

Rand Paul – not, of course, to be confused with his racist, anti-Semitic, crooked gold bug of a father, but a serious candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination in 2016 – hired as a “co-author” (i.e., ghostwriter) and “social media director” a neo-Confederate former shock jock who regards praising Lincoln as equivalent to “worshipping Satan” and who every year toasts John Wilkes Booth’s birthday.

Naturally, the silence from Paul’s libertarian admirers has been deafening.

Update Matt Welch at Reason Hit & Run calls Paul’s co-author on his “weird crap.” (See this earlier Welch post – directed at Ron Paul rather than his slimy son – for the weird history of libertarian flirtation with white-populist resentment.) A commenter points to an earlier post (by a Cato Institute staffer but not on the Cato website) disowning the Paul candidacy based on the new revelations.

The Public Be Damned: Using the Amtrak Script to Destroy the Post Office

If the conversation about the end of the U.S. Postal Service sounds familiar, it’s not just because we’ve heard variations of it since 1970, when the old Post Office Department became a separate business.  It’s also because the destruction of mail delivery closely parallels the wrecking of American  passenger rail.  Apparently the Congress has it in for quasi-public institutions with work forces composed disproportionately of African-Americans.

Passenger rail has always been a losing proposition; the money is in freight.  But until the late 20th Century, as the price of using public assets—tracks, switches, signals and the rest—freight railroad companies were required to carry passengers at a loss.  Then somehow this social compact broke down.  Both railroads and their regulators started talking as if railroading were an ordinary commercial enterprise instead of a public utility.  Ordinary for-profits aren’t expected to maintain business lines at a loss.  Indeed, to the extent they do so, they’re considered incompetent.  So the people making money from national railroad facilities were able to persuade Congress that they shouldn’t have to bother maintaining passenger service.  In other words, the railroads figured out how to shift their burden—what had been a simple cost of doing business—to the public.  Voila: Amtrak.

Independent passenger rail was bound to be a financial failure, and it was.  So year after year after year Congress has complained about Amtrak’s losses and tried to reduce them by shrinking the system until by now it’s small enough to drown in the proverbial bathtub.  Little-noticed along the way is the fact that many of the jobs being lost belong to black people.

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the first black-led union recognized by the AFL, and probably the most powerful union dominated by African-Americans in the United States.   Much of the foundation of the black middle class was laid on the decent wages and benefits and pensions fought for and won by that union.  So whatever hurts Amtrak—and these days, pretty much everything does—also hurts the African-American community.

Now connect the dots to the Postal Service.  Mail, like rail, is a public utility.   (If you doubt that, take a look at the Constitution, where the Post Office rates a specific mention.)  A group of companies—the mailing houses and catalog producers—get to use this public utility to make a private profit, and they’re doing very well by that arrangement.

Once again, though, the price they were supposed to be paying for this benefit was to subsidize service to individuals.  So once again, someone re-conceived this public utility as an independent corporation subject only to the iron law of profit and loss.  Now the profitable commercial service can  continue on its merry way while the money-losing public service is forced to resort to the kind of cuts which predict—if they don’t actually cause—an imminent visit to the scrapheap (or bathtub).

And once again, an outsized group of the fired employees are African-Americans, because the Post Office was an equal opportunity employer before the phrase had even been coined.  So right in the middle of the Great Recession another pillar of the black middle class is knocked down.

There is an alternative to the current flood of crocodile tears over the death of written communication.  We could return to the social compact that regarded mail service—and rail service, for that matter—as something to be paid for by the people who benefit from it most.  That doesn’t mean those of us who receive an occasional Saturday letter, or sometimes take the Metroliner—it means the freight shippers.  In the case of the Post Office, at least, the public has been subsidizing them instead of the other way around.  End that particular piece of corporate welfare and see how many post offices can suddenly re-open.

Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that these two agencies, staffed by black workers, have been asked to do the impossible and then punished for failing to manage it.  But coincidences of this kind—which permit imposition of exceptional harm on one group provided the primary purpose of the harm is making money—are precisely what is meant by the term “institutional racism.”

It isn’t too late to remember that rail and mail are public utilities and to govern them accordingly.  Otherwise, we’re just echoing the words of an earlier Gilded Age, spoken by a railway man as he was cancelling a mail train: “The public be damned!”

“Speak Softly and Carry a Big Stick”: The Coach and the President Heed an African Proverb

African-American leaders know better than to frighten their followers. Shouldn’t the rest of us know better than to berate them for their self-restraint?

The people who’ve spent the past several seasons calling for the head of Coach Lovie Smith on the grounds that he’s “ignorant and weak” and “emotionless” (among many less printable adjectives) are nowhere to be found since he led the Chicago Bears to the NFL Conference championships. Having failed to bury Smith, they absolutely refuse to praise him.

Why?   Because Coach Smith is a soft-spoken professional who leads not by shrieking but by—well, leading.   Chicagoans, particularly Chicago sports fans, can’t seem to wrap their heads around the notion that this gentle man— this gentleman—could possibly be any good at coaching football. That’s because the mold for Da Coach was set by Mike Ditka, a screaming, foul-mouthed, temper-losing maniac whose heart attack only narrowly missed taking place on the field.   If you’re not yelling like that, you must not be leading.

But if Coach Smith behaved like that—berating his players and abusing the press in rants liberally sprinkled with profanity—we’d hear nothing but tut-tuts about what an angry black man he was.  Probably neither the fans nor the team itself would be willing to follow him.  It’s no accident that the most successful African-American coaches — Tony Dungee, Mike Singletary, Lovie Smith — are all matter-of-fact and free of braggadocio.   That’s the way black men have to negotiate the world to avoid waking the not-very-soundly sleeping dogs of white racism.

Which brings us to the case of President Obama.   Everyone who derides him for not being tough enough—for not being Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson—seems to forget that they’re speaking of someone whose life has required constant attention to the problem of being non-threatening.   That’s quite a challenge for a man who’s tall, brilliant and black.

But the President has succeeded at it through a combination of self-deprecation (“a skinny kid with a funny name”) and unshakable composure (“No-Drama Obama”).   If instead he’d emulated FDR in saying of his opponents “I welcome their hatred,” Fox News would have announced that he hated all white people. (Oh, right, someone on that network did that anyway.)   If like LBJ he’d insisted a reporter accompany him while he used the toilet, he wouldn’t be considered a lively and original character but just some ghetto type who didn’t know how to behave.

Consider the reportage when the president held a news conference explaining his decision to make the tax-cut compromise.  Having answered a series of questions designed to get him to say that he’d betrayed his promises, his party and his people, he was finally irate enough to respond, “It’s the health care battle all over again. Some people would rather rest in their purity than get something done,” or words to that effect.   As a rebuke goes, his was a pretty mild one.   But it was sufficient to produce several weeks of headlines about how the President had “scolded” his party and how “angry” he was.   If he’d actually been angry, we’d probably have seen articles of impeachment.

So all the people who want to give the President—and the Coach, for that matter—lessons in leadership should bear in mind that both men have learned precisely how much force they can use before that force is turned against them.   And they haven’t learned it from the Op-Ed pages or the screaming-heads fests.   Experience keeps a hard school but we will learn at no other.

I myself wrote—but fortunately did not post—the following incredibly misguided advice:

I understand the President’s unwillingness to assume the role of Angry Black Man into which his opponents wish to thrust him. But when the people on the other side of the table are card-carrying members of the Paranoid Style in American Politics, it’s time to stand up and call them the proto-fascists they are.   And hoping they’ll be willing to compromise seems a deliberate act of denial, like whistling past the graveyard. Instead, Barack Obama should emulate Harry Truman.   Give ’em hell, Barry!

WRONG!   As the Tucson shootings demonstrate, the last thing we need right now is public officials giving each other high-decibel hell.   And even if hell were called for, a black man in power couldn’t be the one to deliver it.   That’s an indulgence reserved for powerful white men—and every powerful black man knows it. It’s time the rest of us learned the same lesson.

The volume of reproach and disappointment and disapproval and correction directed at Coach Smith and the President says nothing about their leadership ability.   It’s purely a reflection of the fears and fantasies a significant subgroup of American white people have about American black people.   The fact that one of them produced a championship team, and the other achieved the health-care reform none of his white predecessors could manage (among many other victories), demonstrates that they’re far better leaders than anyone less challenged could dream of being.

So let’s stop giving them hell.

Playing the race card

Bill Clinton plays it, hard and crudely.

Well, this one wasn’t hard to call, though I’d expected a little bit more subtlety:

Bill Clinton: Race, gender key in S.C.

By CHARLES BABINGTON, Associated Press Writer

DILLON, S.C. – Bill Clinton said Wednesday he expects blacks to vote for Barack Obama and women to vote for Hillary Rodham Clinton, and the dynamic may cause his wife to lose the South Carolina Democratic presidential primary Saturday.

Racist? You tell me. The message is clear: Obama is going to win South Carolina, but that won’t really count, because he’ll be doing it with the votes of black folks. (Maybe those ballots ought to count only as 3/5ths of a vote each?)

The basic fact of the contest is that if it becomes racial, Obama loses, while if it becomes gendered, HRC wins. It would have required patriotism, decency, and attention to the paramount goal of beating the Republicans for the Clintons to refrain from playing the race card. Apparently those qualities are in short supply.

Update A pro-Clinton reader furiously accuses me of inventing the racist edge to Bill Clinton’s remarks. So let’s hear from his old adviser (and Trent Lott’s), Dick Morris, who is surely an expert on the workings of Bill Clinton’s mind and on the political uses of racial prejudice:

How Clinton Will Win The Nomination by Losing South Carolina

Hillary Clinton will undoubtedly lose the South Carolina primary as African-Americans line up to vote for Barack Obama. And that defeat will power her drive to the nomination.

The Clintons are encouraging the national media to disregard the whites who vote in South Carolina’s Democratic primary and focus on the black turnout, which is expected to be quite large. They have transformed South Carolina into Washington, D.C. — an all-black primary that tells us how the African-American vote is going to go.

By saying he will go door to door in black neighborhoods in South Carolina matching his civil rights record against Obama’s, Bill Clinton emphasizes the pivotal role the black vote will play in the contest. And by openly matching his record on race with that of the black candidate, he invites more and more scrutiny focused on the race issue.

Of course, Clinton is going to lose that battle. Blacks in Nevada overwhelmingly backed Obama and will obviously do so again in South Carolina, no matter how loudly former President Clinton protests. So why is he making such a fuss over a contest he knows he’s going to lose? Precisely because he is going to lose it. If Hillary loses South Carolina and the defeat serves to demonstrate Obama’s ability to attract a bloc vote among black Democrats, the message will go out loud and clear to white voters that this is a racial fight. It’s one thing for polls to show, as they now do, that Obama beats Hillary among African-Americans by better than 4-to-1 and Hillary carries whites by almost 2-to-1. But most people don’t read the fine print on the polls. But if blacks deliver South Carolina to Obama, everybody will know that they are bloc-voting. That will trigger a massive white backlash against Obama and will drive white voters to Hillary Clinton.

(Emphasis added.)