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This is the second piece of a 'sometimes I agree with David Sirota, sometimes I don't' line of thinking. I like the passionate perspective, and I think our party would benefit from more of it. I like jumping in when I agree, but I understand things get controversial, so in this piece, I want to make clear I disagree with Sirota sometimes, too. And I want to do that by focusing on the issues, not the personalities.

On July 22, Virginia Senator James Webb penned an Op-Ed piece in the Wall Street Journal with the title Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege.

There has been significant discontent with the piece, to the extent that I want to offer an alternative perspective to what Sirota and others have been writing. I think what Webb actually wrote is quite sensible.

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I would hope that hearing my voice might help you explain yours, whether you agree with Webb or not. Fundamentally, I believe we are much more a country of 300 million (plus) individual voices than we are a country of white/black/brown/yellow/red groups. But like all beliefs, that could be wrong - or incomplete. To succinctly summarize centuries' worth of race relations in our country: racism still exists today. It's pernicious and ugly when it rears its head. And like many things, it's not as simple as black and white.

We should be celebrating race relations today, though, because this kind of open racial hostility has been rendered extremely rare and entirely socially unacceptable. We won - and more accurately, dear elders and forebears and ancestors, you won. When I was a kid, Michael Jordan was winning championships and Ken Griffey Jr. was garnering gold gloves and OJ Simpson's defense was determined by his financial resources. More recently, it was a Republican who appointed our first black Secretary of State and first black National Security Advisor. In true American fashion, this African-American female became most notable for two things having nothing to do with race (or gender) - getting an oil tanker named after her for her Board service to a major transnational corporation, and condoning torture.

You who have fought for racial justice and equality have rendered a generation (plus) of Americans who really, truly, just don't see race as one of the major problems facing our country: in all the energy over fighting the culture wars of a half century ago, the racists forgot to educate the next generations on how to hate. Tiger Woods is the most well-liked athlete in the country. Even after his, uh, youthful indiscretions. And the next guy ain't white, either.

The challenge of our time is quite similar to the challenge of other times: The Powers That Be, The Establishment, The Man, The Plutocracy, whatever, seek out ways to 'divide and conquer' the citizenry so they can help themselves to an over-sized portion of society's wealth and power. Those of us who are Democratic-leaning highly educated folks aren't supposed to associate with or empathize with or spend time around those backward hillbilly redneck teabagging Republican-leaning racists that inhabit every square inch of the country between Manhattan and Orange County. Never mind that the great irony is that the corporatist heart of GOP rule isn't in Boondocks, MO, or Podunk, AR, or Creationist, KS, or Nascar, NC, or Huntersville, MT. It's in New York and LA, Chicago and Cambridge. The oligarchy isn't run by illiterate white supremacist nincompoops. It's run by people with fancy degrees from famous universities - the 'Best and the Brightest', the 'Masters of the Universe', the 'Smartest Guys in the Room' - all of which are supposed to be pejoratives, not compliments. They vacation in the Bahamas, not Branson. They have private jets, not pickups. Their budget for sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll makes tree hugging pinko commie hippies look like church-going grandmas.

In all that's been said about Webb's piece, I thought it might be helpful to look at Webb's piece itself. Here's the case he lays out.

First, the context for the changes in America from the 60s to the present.

Forty years ago, as the United States experienced the civil rights movement, the supposed monolith of White Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance served as the whipping post for almost every debate about power and status in America. After a full generation of such debate, WASP elites have fallen by the wayside and a plethora of government-enforced diversity policies have marginalized many white workers. The time has come to cease the false arguments and allow every American the benefit of a fair chance at the future.
We talk about messaging and narratives sometimes. Every American the benefit of a fair chance at the future. Aren't those the notes we want to be hitting?

Then, discussion about the difference between helping blacks who suffered under the legacy of oppression from slavery and helping anybody who's not white.

The injustices endured by black Americans at the hands of their own government have no parallel in our history, not only during the period of slavery but also in the Jim Crow era that followed. But the extrapolation of this logic to all "people of color"—especially since 1965, when new immigration laws dramatically altered the demographic makeup of the U.S.—moved affirmative action away from remediation and toward discrimination, this time against whites. It has also lessened the focus on assisting African-Americans, who despite a veneer of successful people at the very top still experience high rates of poverty, drug abuse, incarceration and family breakup.

Those who came to this country in recent decades from Asia, Latin America and Africa did not suffer discrimination from our government, and in fact have frequently been the beneficiaries of special government programs. The same cannot be said of many hard-working white Americans, including those whose roots in America go back more than 200 years.

Third, remarking that 'white' is a largely meaningless group.
Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.

The clearest example of today's misguided policies comes from examining the history of the American South.

The old South was a three-tiered society, with blacks and hard-put whites both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power. At the height of slavery, in 1860, less than 5% of whites in the South owned slaves. The eminent black historian John Hope Franklin wrote that "fully three-fourths of the white people in the South had neither slaves nor an immediate economic interest in the maintenance of slavery."

Did you catch that - blacks and hard-put whites both dominated by white elites who manipulated racial tensions in order to retain power

Fourth, citing some specific data to support his claims.

In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt created a national commission to study what he termed "the long and ironic history of the despoiling of this truly American section." At that time, most industries in the South were owned by companies outside the region. Of the South's 1.8 million sharecroppers, 1.2 million were white (a mirror of the population, which was 71% white). The illiteracy rate was five times that of the North-Central states and more than twice that of New England and the Middle Atlantic (despite the waves of European immigrants then flowing to those regions). The total endowments of all the colleges and universities in the South were less than the endowments of Harvard and Yale alone. The average schoolchild in the South had $25 a year spent on his or her education, compared to $141 for children in New York.

Generations of such deficiencies do not disappear overnight, and they affect the momentum of a culture. In 1974, a National Opinion Research Center (NORC) study of white ethnic groups showed that white Baptists nationwide averaged only 10.7 years of education, a level almost identical to blacks' average of 10.6 years, and well below that of most other white groups. A recent NORC Social Survey of white adults born after World War II showed that in the years 1980-2000, only 18.4% of white Baptists and 21.8% of Irish Protestants—the principal ethnic group that settled the South—had obtained college degrees, compared to a national average of 30.1%, a Jewish average of 73.3%, and an average among those of Chinese and Indian descent of 61.9%.

And fifth, he proposes what to do next.
Where should we go from here? Beyond our continuing obligation to assist those African-Americans still in need, government-directed diversity programs should end.

Nondiscrimination laws should be applied equally among all citizens, including those who happen to be white. The need for inclusiveness in our society is undeniable and irreversible, both in our markets and in our communities. Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners. It can do so by ensuring that artificial distinctions such as race do not determine outcomes.

Our government should be in the business of enabling opportunity for all, not in picking winners.

Now, we can certainly debate the finer points Webb is making. But what I hope is clear is that this isn't some hastily-penned racist screed of white victimhood blowing to the dog whistles of teabaggist buffoonery. Webb has outlayed a nuanced, carefully crafted position. He's suggesting that class, not race, is our primary fault line today.

If you disagree with him, you owe him the courtesy of responding in kind. For example, Tim Wise has offered up a much more developed argument about why he feels race is still the defining context, not class. In particular, he comments that

Perhaps the most common way in which folks on the left sometimes perpetuate racism is by a vulgar form of class reductionism, in which they advance the notion that racism is a secondary issue to the class system, and that what leftists and radicals should be doing is spending more time focusing on the fight for dramatic and transformative economic change (whether reformist or revolutionary), rather than engaging in what they derisively term "identity politics." The problem, say these voices, are corporations, the rich, the elite, etc., and to get sidetracked into a discussion of white supremacy is to ignore this fact and weaken the movement for radical change.
with much elaboration. I disagree with this contention, particularly in that it leaves out how the concentration of wealth and power has warped our public policy on everything from healthcare to the drug war to the prison system to public education to the use of the military to affordable housing to decent wages to mass transit options, but I appreciate that Wise makes his case.

What not to do, Sirota and others with similar reactions, is call Webb's (and others') remarks inflammatory without exploration and analysis of what was penned. Perhaps the ultimate irony here is that the particular piece Sirota wrote found the space to quote a passage from Tim Wise, but there apparently wasn't room to discuss what exactly was so inflammatory about Webb's piece.

Crossposted at The Seminal at FDL.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to washunate on Wed Aug 18, 2010 at 06:50 PM PDT.

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