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Monday, May 27, 2024

The more things change

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Larry Smith

As far back as I can remember – which is quite a few decades at this point – I have heard the following lament (framed as a rhetorical question) from white people: “Why is everything about race?” The evil twin sister of that disingenuous interrogative is the following spurious accusation: “Black people are always playing the race card.”

The exceedingly self-evident answer both to the question and to the accusation is that race is inextricably intertwined with the fabric of American society. “Everything is about race” in America because everything has always been about race in this nation – even before it became a nation. Yes, this sounds like circular logic; it isn’t. Race has affected (and infected) virtually every facet of our collective existence. Thus, the question should not be taken seriously because it isn’t a serious question.

From colonial times to today, race has been cynically insinuated into innumerable situations wherein it should have no bearing. Yet, time and again, we see that is not the case. One very recent example concerns last week’s bridge collision and subsequent collapse in Baltimore. Phil Lyman, a state representative in Utah, weighed in on the catastrophe via X (formerly Twitter).

Lyman shared a picture of Karenthia Barber, the first African American woman to serve as a Maryland Port Commissioner, and wrote the following: “This is what happens when you have Governors who prioritize diversity over the wellbeing and security of citizens.” Lyman, a Republican who is running for governor in his state, has made several outrageous statements. Sadly, he is far from alone in his views.

Ms. Barber isn’t the only public official – who is a also person of color – to be verbally attacked. Maryland Governor Wes Moore and Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who are Black men, have been criticized for being “DEI hires” even though both were elected to their positions. Mayor Scott responded to this charge on Joy Reid’s MSNBC show: “We know what they want to say, but they don’t have the courage to say the N-word. And the fact that I don’t believe in their untruthful and wrong ideology … scares them.” 

Not surprisingly, the people who traffic in racist stereotypes about African Americans don’t offer the same critique of the string of white CEOs at Boeing who have presided over public safety disasters at that company. Neither do they cite Elon Musk’s race as a cause of Tesla’s safety woes. According to them, “it’s not about race”. We know better.

Regardless of how one feels about the goal of not making “everything about race”, it is crucial to recognize that Black folks did not create this issue; therefore, it’s not up to us to solve it. Further, it is always interesting that the purveyors of racism tend to get upset with those who call them out. It’s as though being called a racist is worse than actually being a racist. Then again, they’re also the people who think that Donald Trump is “a very stable genius”.

Imagine if there were an epidemic of arson. What would it sound like if people were more upset about the people who stood up against arsonists than they were about the fires that the arsonists caused? That’s essentially the issue at hand. In the wake of the ouster of former Harvard President Claudine Gay, New York Times columnist Charles Blow, recently wrote the following:

“The narrative here is about innate and pervasive inferiority, ineptitude and fraudulence by women and minorities, specifically Black women in this case. And it must be understood that the subtext, the inverse, of minority inferiority is therefore white supremacy.”

The tragedy in Baltimore couldn’t simply be a real-life sad story; the right-wing had to turn it into a morality play, with those who strive for DEI cast as the villains. They have repeated the lie that DEI makes Americans “less safe” because “unqualified” (i.e., Black) people are in charge. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote, in his unceasingly eloquent way, about this phenomenon in his book We Were Eight Years in Power:

“One strain of African American thought holds that it is a violent black recklessness—the black gangster, the black rioter—that strikes the ultimate terror in white America. Perhaps it does, in the most individual sense. But in the collective sense, what this country really fears is black respectability, Good Negro Government. It applauds, even celebrates, Good Negro Government in the unthreatening abstract—The Cosby Show, for instance. But when it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in any way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative-action charges begin, and birtherism emerges.”

Today, Coates could easily add “DEI is the new boogeyman.”

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