Where to begin with the American Prospect’s October 28th piece by Nathalie Baptiste titled “After Ferguson, ‘Dear White People’ Arrives Right On Time?” It is a mess. Let’s start with the article’s subject. There is a new film – fictional – called “Dear White People” that examines the lives of students at Winchester University, which is supposed to be an Ivy League college. I have not seen the film, so I will assume and stipulate that the content contained within it is accurately recounted by Ms. Baptiste. According to Ms. Baptiste, in the film Samantha White (how subtle) runs for head of a dorm which h
as traditionally been all black (the dorms sound more like fraternities and are actually houses in the film). She wins. Samantha also hosts a radio show called “Dear White People.” Apparently, she gives advice regarding race relations on her show, generally aimed at telling white people that they need to change their behavior and attitude.
The film doesn’t sound particularly interesting to me, but what I do find fascinating is Ms. Baptiste’s take on the movie and her linking it to recent events. According to Ms. Baptiste:
But the most important moment in the film is when Samantha White, defines racism: “Black people can’t be racist, she says. “Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a systemic advantage based on race. Black people can’t be racists since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.” The treatment of white rioters and black protesters by the mainstream media is an accurate reflection of this definition. [emphasis in the original]
In the wake of the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, Dear White People is a cultural assessment that arrived right on time. Look at how Ferguson protesters were labeled as “rioters” and “thugs” while white students who rioted at a pumpkin festival for no apparent reason were simply “unruly” kids. That’s but one of many forms of the systemic privilege the Samantha White character is referencing.
This is all, to put it mildly, bunk, starting with the Samantha White character’s absurd definition of racism. It is simply wrong. Merriam-Webster defines racism as:
1: a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race
2: racial prejudice or discrimination
Not only is the White character incorrect, she is as incorrect as it is possible to be – the definition of racism is, in fact, precisely what she claims it is not. Racism, as a definition, has absolutely nothing to do with power – it is a subset of prejudice. If we had a Venn diagram, we could draw a big circle and label it “prejudice.” Inside that circle, we would have smaller circles for racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, etc. The fact that the movie’s writer and director came up with a concept of racism that is inaccurate and that Ms. Baptiste thinks it is worth quoting is baffling, unless understood in the context of a purely ideological motive.
Transitioning from applauding a patently incorrect definition as an important moment in cinema, Ms. Baptiste makes a tendentious case that the riots in Ferguson and the riots at the New Hampshire Pumpkin Festival are reflective of White’s definition. Her argument is that the protestors in Ferguson were labeled one way (as “unruly) and those in New Hampshire another (as “rioters” and “thugs”). It is terrible argument for at least two reasons. First, the labeling of the students as “unruly” kids comes from the President of Keene State College who was commenting on that particular incident. Others have labeled the students who took part in the riots as rioters. The fact that Baptiste can find one person who described the rioters in New Hampshire (and if it make her feel any better, I will call them rioters) as unruly does not in any way reveal some shocking double standard. She has cherry picked her data to make her argument without any evidence that the anecdote she pulls out is truly reflective of a broader sentiment.
Second, it would be absurd to suggest that what happened in New Hampshire and what happened in Ferguson are the same, and thus should be treated the same way, which Baptiste is implicitly arguing. In Ferguson there was an organized movement to protest a perceived injustice that turned violent. Many of the protestors were adults. In New Hampshire, you had a bunch of college kids (and outsiders) who went wild. Although college students are technically adults, we tend to grant them more latitude in their actions because they are still, generally, somewhat immature. In the New Hampshire episode, the riots were basically about having fun. They were always going to be limited in scope by the amount of fun that the rioters were having. I am not excusing them. People in college should know better and should be punished (arrested, prosecuted) for wantonly destroying property and hurting people with reckless behavior. However, to equate what was essentially a wild party caused by drunks with a destructive riot that involved sober actors makes little sense.
The best part of Ms. Baptiste’s piece comes in the antepenultimate paragraph:
One doesn’t need to look any further than the vitriol spewed at President Barack Obama. Conservative pundits never miss a chance to claim that Obama is not a real American (see: white). He’s been called the food-stamp president, the affirmative-action president, and has been accused of giving free stuff to black people. (Six years into his presidency, I am still waiting for my presents.)
I find this to be fascinating because it shows how people with different viewpoints can look at the same set of facts and reach completely opposite conclusions. Ms. Baptiste clearly believes that conservatives’ dislike of Obama stems from a racial animus, yet all of the examples she uses to bolster her claim, to me, seem to do nothing of the start.
A reference to the food stamp president, as she appropriately links, is to the fact that the food stamp rolls have increased dramatically under Obama. Conservatives have a problem with this fact for reasons that have nothing to do with race. They are, generally, of the belief that we (as a society) should want fewer people on welfare and should try to help people find a way to earn a living rather than take government assistance. Furthermore, they believe that liberals like people on food stamps and other forms of welfare because it gives the central government more power, makes people more reliant on government and gives people a financial incentive to vote for liberals who promise them more government largess.
The reference to the “affirmative-action president” is to an article by Thomas Sowell, in which he argues that he just wants the best person to be elected President. He believes “best” is defined by the ability to do the job, not by whether the person is black or female or some other classification that has no bearing on ability. Undoubtedly, and given Ms. Baptiste’s subject matter, ironically, Obama benefited from being black in 2008 when he was first elected. He was in the right place at the right time in American history to find a significant chunk of the population, for various reasons, who wanted to see a black man in the White House. To argue that the color of one’s skin should not be a factor in selecting a politician is not an unreasonable or racist position for Mr. Sowell to have taken.
Finally, the reference to “free stuff” is also factually accurate. Obama, as do many politicians, particularly Democrats, ran for office partly on his ability to deliver pork to his supporters. In the example that Ms. Baptiste refers to, it was to health care. You can certainly argue that giving free health care to some or all of the population is a good idea. You can also argue that politicians of all stripes campaign on bringing home the bacon and that it is a legitimate function of their office – certainly a Thad Cochran or a Chuck Schumer would – however that doesn’t mean that opposing pork politics when Obama uses it is racist. If Romney had been running against a white president with the same policies I am more than confident he would have had exactly the same objection.
Liberals often claim conservatives don’t understand the reality of minorities in America and what they face. It would be a more credible claim if those same liberals did not go out of their way to racialize every issue and produce a narrative of racial intolerance where other explanations explain behavior better.