“I’m not a racist, but…”

Muslims on a plane: Juan Williams gets the shakes? (Photo by Juan E De Cristofaro.)

I once heard a joke third-hand from a friend, a joke I’ve always thought encapsulated so many things about the way underhanded bigotry is expressed in contemporary America:

When someone says, “Look, I’m no racist, but …” what they really mean is, “I’m a racist. Here’s an example.”

Alas, I have not encountered an example yet where this sentence decoding doesn’t hold at least a little bit true. Take Juan Williams’s comments on The O’Reilly Factor, for instance, talking about GWOT, etc.

I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. 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.

That statement and others got the journalist canned from NPR yesterday.

It’s a bit more complicated than the statement, though. Watch the clip. Williams is actually the liberal talking head and appears to have made his “Muslim garb” comment to gain credibility on O’Reilly’s reactionary show — ironcially, in order to make the argument that painting Muslims with a broad brush is undesirable and dangerous.

In other words, he’s effectively saying: Look, Bill, I’m prejudiced  just like you and your viewers. So trust me when I say that there’s still a need to be politically correct.

I take it as a misguided and unwise rhetorical gambit. It failed to make the confusing point Williams was apparently trying for, and legitimized prejudice against Muslims. Take a look.

Update 10/22: Fox has signed Juan Williams for a $2 million, three-year contract.

Asserting citizenship as a Muslim

The founding fathers said it: "President George Washington, who, in a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, declared that the United States, 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.'" - from MoJo piece by Matteen Mokalla.

Make sure you read Matteen Mokalla’s piece from Mother Jones today about the absurdity of the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate and how it shows just how far our attitudes toward Muslims have pulled this country away from many of its ideals. You may remember Mr. Mokalla from past posts on this blog, where he answered questions about Iran’s election, articulated the ridiculousness of not translating “Allah” in news reports, and where I described riding shotty with him as we campaigned  for Obama in southern Ohio.

Which is, incidentally, where the key vignette in his post appears. Continue reading

Obama Is Only the First Step

A professor of mine — a leading star in anthropology with a towering, critical mind — pointed out to us students on Thursday that we should be asking what kind of change Barack Obama will really bring.

Make no mistake: this prof was happy about Obama, and couldn’t hide it. I don’t think he had any intention of dampening the classroom’s euphoria, either (there are like two McCain supporters at SIPA). But it’s his job to think about these things, so I think we’d do well to listen.

What he pointed out was that there’s lots we don’t know about the Obama presidency. Will he deepen the occupation of Afghanistan? Isn’t the United States’ superpower status so predicated on a powerful military that we will need ever more expeditions to stay relevant? Hasn’t Obama worryingly surrounded himself with interventionists like Samantha Power? (In my prof’s view — or what I understand of it from his class — Power’s take on what the U.S. should have done in Rwanda was wrong and didn’t account for the country’s history.) And what of a resurgence of patriotism — even jingoism — that could mean a blank check on dubious policies? (We’ve seen that one before!)

In short, my prof was saying that the president can only be as big as the presidency. I think he’s is right.  And there are far more constraints on Barack Obama than there were on W, for two reasons. One, Obama truly was elected by a grassroots campaign, and so must in some ways be held to the whims of his grassroots. Two, the changes he wants to make — and that progressives hope he makes — are more revolutionary than the kind of changes Bush began 2000.

I had already been thinking about the limits and challenges of an Obama presidency because of some observations I made while canvassing in Ohio. For one thing, there are those in America that hate what Obama stands for. Like it or not, they vote, and we must bring them into the dialogue if we ever want lasting change in our country. Without that, the Christian right will just end up hating Obama as much as progressives hate Bush.

Another thing is that there is certainly not unity among Obama’s supporters on all issues. In the post-euphoria of the election, we shouldn’t shy away from looking at our fellow Obama supporters and asking them what they think about really difficult issues: abortion, gay marriage, immigration, Israel and Palestine. And while we all agree that our current foreign policy is terrible, there is wide disagreement about what the correct one looks like. One Obama supporter told me he thinks Iraqis should pay us back for the cost of the invasion. I totally disagree. The fact that we were able to agree enough on the campaign to drive around in the middle of the night before E-Day planting Obama signs is testament to the power of Obama’s message. But the discussion is not resolved.

We don’t need immediate consensus, but we must have dialogue. We can all crawl back to the rocks we live under — liberal, conservative, coastal or heartland — and wait for Obama to answer all these questions for us. Or we can keep up the amazing hope and dialogue this campaign has started, so we are never surprised by the views our fellow voters come up with, and so that when we hit impasses, we know how to solve them in ways beside shouting at each other, or worse.

Here’s an issue we can start with: Obama’s reported plan to come up with an alternative justice system to replace Guantanamo. Is this what we want? The ACLU has criticized it. On the other hand, it’s a way to get the travesty of Guantanamo off our hands with the quickest consensus possible. I don’t know enough yet to give a strong opinion (though when the ACLU speaks, we should listen). All I can say is: Stay abreast, stay engaged, don’t get passive!

Finally, a shout out to my fellow canvasser and blogger Seth Wessler, who is doing his part to promote this dialogue with his excellent blog posts via Racewire, which is associated with the magazine Colorlines. I love these anecdotes from Ohio (Seth stayed in the same house I did in Lancaster).