Friday, January 28, 2005

On Race

If we can't count on our inconsistencies, we can't count on much of anything at all.
That phrase has been rambling through my mind for some time now, and it jumped into relief this morning as I read the invaluable Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times about President Bush "playing the race card" on Social Security.
I tend to agree with Krugman that any attempt to convince African Americans that Social Security privatization would be to their benefit is a cynical ploy. I think Krugman spells out the argument much better than I could.
I also remember that George W. Bush is someone who hung a Confederate flag in his Yale University dorm room as a provocation to his fellow students, and who worked on his father's campaign, in which the image of Willie Horton was used to scare certain white Americans into voting against Michael Dukakis. Furthermore, this is the man who appointed an esteemed black American, Colin Powell, as his first-term Secretary of State and then proceeded to make a mockery of him by undercutting his authority and contradicting his statements at every turn.
So it would be easy to write off Mr. Bush as an unfeeling, unthinking racist and leave it at that.
But then there is his relationship with Condoleeza Rice, who has been described as his "work wife," to consider. By all accounts -- even those rare ones in which I put some stock -- Rice enjoys an extremely close and mutually respectful relationship with the president. I don't much care for Dr. Rice, but I don't think she is a fool, and I don't believe she would tolerate a working relationship with someone who felt she was a fool. After all, she is someone who rose through the ranks of academia to become provost of Stanford University. She hardly needs George W. Bush to validate her achievements.
So, I think that while it's fair to point out that Bush's attempt to manipulate black Americans into supporting his Social Security plan is cynical and racist, it would be wrong to characterize him as simply a racist. There is something more complex going on there, as there is with most of us.
As a white man who is the parent of a bi-racial child, I have learned to deal with these contradictions on an almost daily basis. After all, I grew up in an extremely racist home -- on more than one occasion I remember my mother telling my sister that she would be disinherited if she ever came home with a "colored" boyfriend, but yet this same woman not only accepted my daughter into our family, but dotes on her, considers her her pride and joy.
Part of that is due simply to the passing of time and changes of attitude throughout society.
But a bigger part of it is, I think, the fact that prejudicial feelings -- whether racism, anti-Semitism, sexism or any other -- are easier to justify in the abstract than in the specific and concrete.
Yes, Bush may feel "entitled" to cynically maneuver African Americans in order to win support for his insidious privatization scheme, but he can nevertheless feel a strong personal regard for Condoleeza Rice.
Just as my mother could rail against the "coloreds" who were moving into her neighborhood and tainting our schools in the mid-1960s, and yet fall helplessly in love with her dark-skinned granddaughter.
If we couldn't count on our inconsistencies, we wouldn't be able to count on much of anything at all.