Movie Friday: Tim Wise and the illusion of “post-racial”

I am depressed.

I am depressed for two reasons. First, I am depressed that no matter how hard I work, I will likely never get as good at talking about issues of race and racism, history and the importance of advocacy as Tim Wise is:

The second reason I am depressed is that it seems like the forces of reason are losing the fight to the forces of revisionist history, post-hoc rationalization and short-sighted self-interest. I realize this post is much longer than what I usually post for Movie Friday (and has fewer jokes), but if you’ve found any of my posts on “the good old days” or the importance of recognizing black history, or really anything that I’ve said about race to be interesting (and the numbers suggest that at least some of you do), then you’ll absolutely love this clip.

Any of you who have watched any black beat poetry or other forms of spoken word, you’ll recognize that Tim uses a lot of their cadence and punctuated rhythm to get his points across. It’s not just a lecture – it’s verbal poetry. Amazing stuff, and I really really hope you watch it.

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If you’re surprised, then you haven’t been paying attention

We often like to delude ourselves into thinking that we have, as a society, somehow transcended racial barriers. That through sheer will-power and positive liberal vibes, we’ve managed somehow to craft the first society in the history of the world where racism is a thing of the past. Even those who reject my view of racism will point to the fact that at least we don’t see black men getting beat up for the crime of being black, right?


The people targeted in assaults in February by four men alleged to be white supremacists say the attacks were provoked by race. “I couldn’t believe something like this could happen,” one of the victims, who was born in Saudi Arabia and raised in Canada, said Wednesday. “I was upset and angry.”

The young man, who CBC has agreed not to name, was having a cigarette on the sidewalk outside a Whyte Avenue bar early on Feb. 13 when a friend was bumped by one of a group of men. “My friend looked back and he was like ‘Hey, excuse me,’ and the guy just ran towards him … I put out my hand so I would just stop them and he just punched me,” he said.

I cannot be clear enough about this point. When I say that we are all racist, I do not mean that we are all capable of doing something like this. I do not wish to imply that I look at my fellow citizens with fear and suspicion that, given the opportunity, they would assault me for being black. The very idea is nonsense – my race probably means more to my black friends than it does to my friends from other racial groups. I’d go so far as to say that 99.9% of Canadians would recoil from the idea of perpetrating physical violence against people based on their racial background. White supremacists of this type represent a vanishingly small proportion of the overall population, and can be looked upon as fringe elements that do not reflect the attitudes of the general public.

In fact, I’d imagine that even among the white supremacist community, these men are seen as outliers. They claim to be members of a white supremacist group known as Blood and Honour (link totally NSFW, and probably not safe for eyes either – bright red background), which is somewhat dubious given that B&H isn’t really known for violence. However, it’s not particularly relevant which particular supremacist group these particular assailants belong to – the point is that even among white supremacists they are a minority. White supremacists tend to exist in largely rural areas, where their extreme form of race-based hatred is considered a minority opinion.

However, a more general kind of race hatred does tend to exist in greater volume in many rural communities – a generalized intolerance and feeling that non-white people are somehow the “other” that deserves special scrutiny and attention. This is not because people who live in rural communities are bad people; I was a child in a racially-monolithic rural community, and the people there were some of the warmest, friendliest and most welcoming people I’ve ever met. All the same, my “otherness” was palpable from a very young age. The attitude within these rural communities is a concentrated version of a generalized feeling of racial normalcy that exists as a popular myth in the broader culture that says that America was founded by white people, for white people, and PoCs are here by the magnanimity of their white brethren (so don’t forget to genuflect).

So here’s the thing: each one of the subcultures I’ve mentioned here gain support and succor from the larger group they exist in. While most members of Blood and Honour would likely repudiate the violence perpetrated in their name, they would likely agree with everything else the attackers stand for. While most rural people disagree with the members of Blood and Honour, they tend to tolerate the non-violent race bigotry of their neighbours. The general sense of mistrust and non-citation-supported anti-immigrant sentiment prevalent in the rural communities gestates in the larger sea of the white Canada myth. Each level of the pyramid is supported by a larger group in an act that diffuses responsibility, and makes the act of a handful of extremists seem to come out of nowhere.

Of course those of us who have been paying attention know better than to waste our time with arch-liberal hand wringing about how this could happen in our “post racial” utopia. We know that we all bear responsibility for at least a little piece of what happened in Edmonton, and by challenging the larger societal lies we can make the acts of violence even more unlikely.

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Why I’m not content to “leave it be”

Go on any Youtube video that has anything to do with religion. Go ahead – I’ll wait.

Found one yet? Good. Now scroll down the comments section. I’m willing to bet money that somewhere in the first 3 pages (unless the pages are dominated by a conversation between a troll and someone patiently attempting to explain evolution or Pascal’s Wager or cosmology to said troll) there is a comment from someone saying something like the following:

“man we shood all chill wit this religion arguin shit let ppl believe wut they believe……i believe in god…..if u dont theres no judgin… doesnt affect me so therefore idc and dont judge me sayin that im livin a lie bcuz thats not wut i believe and wut i believe matters to me…..not opinions from u guys tryin to prove your theory…..there is no way to prove god…….but let ppl believe wut they do and chill da fuck out!!”

I’ve talked before about this kind of response and why it’s a futile one. In religious circles it’s “let people believe what they want!”; in racial circles it’s “black people need to get over it”; and in LGBT circles it’s “gay people need to stop complaining”. These kinds of comments are reminiscent of nothing more than a child whining that they’re quitting a game because the big kids are meanies. It’s the rhetorical equivalent to standing up and proudly refusing to take part in a conversation because you’re too lazy. Issues are important, and the truth is even more so. If you don’t want to be part of the conversation, that’s your business; only don’t insert yourself into it only so long as it takes to chastise everyone else for having the courage to take a stand.

Here’s the problem with everyone just “chilling da fuck out” – it assumes that the only reason people are arguing is to hear themselves talk. While I don’t doubt this happens in some circles, most of the time there is a solid reason why people are getting amped up about human rights:

Police are searching for a suspect after a homosexual U.S. man was beaten unconscious and left nearly naked in the snow after telling another man about his sexual orientation at a central B.C. hot springs. Police said the Dec. 29, 2010, incident near Nakusp, about 240 kilometres northeast of Kelowna, started when two gay men were sitting in a hot tub and were joined by a third man.

Things like this don’t happen in a vacuum. People don’t beat the bejeezus out of each other for no reason. They certainly don’t assault a man and leave him for dead (in the absence of any kind of preceding conflict) at random – this world would be a very different and far more dangerous place if that was the case. Hatred for a group of people doesn’t spring forth from the mind spontaneously – it comes from a variety of sources: upbringing, education, and the prevailing social climate.

“The beating lasted for a little bit of time, where it ended up about 50 feet away from the hot springs. The victim obviously attempted to get away, but was continually kicked and punched and pushed to the ground as he attempted to flee. “He was essentially left unconscious in the snow, in his shorts and in a wilderness environment.”

There is a large contingent of folks who, at times like these, trot out the old chestnut “all crimes are fueled by hate” or some other such nonsense. The premise of their argument is that any assault is fueled by hatred toward the other person – if you didn’t hate them why would you assault them? Of course this is fallacious reasoning that ignores the larger picture: that hate is being propagated against specific groups more than others. If we pretend otherwise, we’re simply trying to sweep the details under the rug, which allows the status quo to continue unabated. Gay and lesbian people (particularly gay men) are being physically assaulted simply because they’re gay; the only way to conclude otherwise is to stick fingers in your ears and refuse to see a pattern where one exists.

I’ve said before that I’m not an advocate of punishing hate crimes as being separate from regular crime. My reason for saying so is that the lines drawn around what kinds of groups are considered targets of “hate” seem pretty arbitrary, and laws with arbitrary definitions are notoriously easy to abuse. I have to amend my position, however. Crimes like this one don’t start and stop with the perpetrator and victim – every gay man who hears about this story is made a victim of hatred:

He said the main obstacle for the victim and his 39-year-old partner, who is from B.C.’s Lower Mainland, is the emotional turmoil they will have to overcome. “Physically, he’s fine,” Hill said of the victim. “All his wounds will heal . . . but the biggest scar he’s going to have is emotional, for both of them. You can only imagine the fear that one would have to go through to be beaten in the wilderness and left in the snow . . . disoriented and not even knowing where the hot springs were.”

Similarly, failing to recognize the abhorrent nature of the assailant’s attitude toward gay men sends a message to every homophobe out there that hatred of gay men isn’t really a problem.

Hate crime legislation isn’t enough though. It does not accomplish the goal of changing people’s minds – only punishing those whose minds are fucked up. The only way to change minds is for people to stand up and refuse to “leave it be”. In the meantime though, we can do our best to protect each other from the kind of hatred and bigotry that erodes the foundation of our civilization and propagates these kinds of attacks, and if hate crime legislation helps accomplish that goal then I can be brought around to supporting it.

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Free speech vs… assholes with bike locks

I’m pissed off.

Chained by his neck to two female protesters, University of Waterloo doctoral student Dan Kellar was nevertheless in control of the situation at a campus lecture hall last week, as he sat on stage and chanted slogans to prevent journalist and author Christie Blatchford from speaking about her new book on the native protests at Caledonia, Ont.

I’m not just pissed off because the asshole in question is from my alma mater.

Ms. Blatchford, the Governor-General’s literary award-winning writer of Fifteen Days, was slightly delayed by traffic on Friday, and as university spokesman Michael Strickland announced this to the small audience, he was shouted down with calls of “racist, racist, racist.”

I’m not just pissed off because this asshole is trying to advocate a position that I consider similar to my own, or that I will be lumped in with his assholery.

I’m not just pissed off (although I am mightily pissed off) that free speech is being run over roughshod by a dick, using the principle itself to deny another person the right to speak.

No, all of that would be tolerable. I could deal with these insults and more. The reason I’m really pissed off?

Bike lock, $28
Rent-a-protest, $150 pizza bill
Suppressing the free speech of someone you don’t agree with, priceless.

This asshole has forced me to agree with Scary Fundamentalist. Come on, man! That’s beyond the pale. It’s like when the NAACP got all hot and bothered about Shirley Sherrod and I had to be on the same side as Glenn Beck. I had to take an extra-hot shower after that. Now I’m in the same camp as Scary? C’mon dude! Not cool.

I joke, of course. While pretty much everything that SF says makes me want to ragevomit all over my keyboard (I wear a bib when browsing his site), we are definitely allied on the cause of free speech. Free speech has nothing to do with left or right – it is the only way that a democratic society can work. Where we differ is on… well… everything else.

I don’t care what your position is, whether or not I agree with it, and I am absolutely not above criticizing the assholery of those who are on my end of the political spectrum. You don’t get to be a total douchehat and lock yourself to a podium to protest someone’s speech. Tearing down a building, maybe. Protesting against the government, sure. But to prevent someone from speaking? That’s bullshit.

Usually I’m a bit more articulate than this, but quite frankly, I’m too pissed off to be clever. I also try to have a pithy little signoff at the end of these things, but I can’t think of one, so here is a picture of Johnny Cash expressing exactly how I feel about Dan Kellar.

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Attention liberals: you’re racist too

I pride myself on being a liberal progressive. There’s a great line I heard in response to this Tea Party nonsense that’s been dominating the political scene recently:

Conservatives want their country back. Progressives want their country forward

I am proud to claim membership in a group that wants to adapt to the reality of the world we live in, rather than obstinately cling to ideology as a substitute for evidence. If the evidence says “privatize health care”, then we should do it; if it says “shut down welfare”, then we should do it; if it says “religion is a sufficient and useful basis upon which to build a society”, then by all means let’s have more of it. However, the evidence repeatedly comes down on the side of the progressive agenda, forcing conservatives to embrace positions that are more and more to the bizarre fringe.

However, liberals can be just as guilty of becoming mired in ideology. We’re not better people; we just have better ideas. However, occasionally we’ll do something so boneheadedly stupid as to make me question my allegience:

US broadcaster National Public Radio has fired news analyst Juan Williams for saying on Fox News that he gets nervous if he sees Muslims on a plane. Williams, who has written several books on the US civil rights movement, made the remarks last week on chat show The O’Reilly Factor. NPR said in a statement that Williams’s contract had been ended on Wednesday.

I’m sure some of you think that I’m referring to what Mr. Williams said as an example of liberals being racist. I’m not. It’s arch-liberal NPR that I’m disgusted by:

Williams: “But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said before Mr Williams was sacked that such commentary from a journalist about other racial, ethnic or religious minority groups would not be tolerated. In its statement, NPR said Mr Williams’s comments “were inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices and undermined his credibility as a news analyst with NPR”.

Here’s what I see – I see a guy who is openly and honestly recognizing his race biases and the prejudice that he sees within himself. I see a guy who is doing exactly what we are supposed to do, which is to confront our own privilege and investigate how much it plays into our decision making. I see a guy who said something impolitic, but in a self-reflective rather than hateful way.

What does NPR see? Someone saying something that isn’t puppies and rainbows about their interactions with a minority group! And as everyone knows, liberals aren’t racist at all. Therefore, he must be fired immediately.

The sad thing is not only the fact that a guy was fired in a Shirley Sherrod-like flurry of left-wing idiocy, it’s that the right (and particularly Fox News) is trumpeting to the skies that this is somehow some kind of vindication:

By midafternoon Thursday, more than 4,900 comments had been posted on, including many from people who said the media organization was bowing to political correctness and unfairly punishing Williams for expressing his personal opinions.

“In one arrogant move the NPR exposed itself for the leftist thought police they really are,” read one typical post. “After this November elections I hope one of the first things the new Congress does is to defund this poor excuse for public radio.”

Okay, everyone write this down: Having idiots for opponents does not mean you are correct. Don’t get me wrong – it makes the process of demonstrating that your position is correct a hell of a lot easier, but you still have to explain why your ideas have validity. Yes, NPR was stupid, that doesn’t mean that Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin have somehow magically become smarter.

This is how left-wing ideological obstinacy manifests itself – nobody can say anything that even sounds remotely racist. Ignore the point that he was trying to make – he said something that sounded mean, so he’s got to go. I would completely understand if they demanded that Williams clarify his position on air, as it is fraught with potential grounds for misinterpretation. They didn’t do that though, they fired him, driving him into the arms of Fox News and giving conservatives more ammunition to claim that the real racists are liberals.

Racism is a plague on both of our houses, folks. We just show our symptoms differently.

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