Racism punching down?

When racism needs a different word

The issue of whether black people can be racist certainly gets people going, as does the idea that, as I phrased it, racism punches down, not up.

And surely the formulation is oversimplified. Equally oversimplified, however, is the idea that prejudice against a race is evil no matter who from and no matter what the circumstances.

Some of the issue is time period. For example, my mother wasn’t crazy about white people. She was trained in psychology and social work and had a doctorate, with the enlightened worldview one would expect of someone with those credentials. However, she grew up in the deep South in the 1940s and 1950s and as a result, on a visceral level she never truly trusted white people and had tart words about them here and there.

I think most readily see that this was perfectly understandable given what she had seen of white people in her time and place. I also think few would be seriously inclined to designate her “a racist.” People who spent their formative years under Jim Crow can be forgiven for being at least to some degree “racist.”

There is also the issue of modern-day life experience. Say a black boy grows up in a neighborhood where practically his only live interactions with whites are with cops, often surly and maybe sometimes violent. That boy often grows up to be someone who doesn’t like white people much. I can imagine someone designating him as harboring the flaw of “racism,” but I find that a little prim. I suspect most do as well. He, like my mother, doesn’t like white people because during his formative years they haven’t liked him.

Where this gets harder is black people in our times who don’t like white people despite not having been injured by them.

What about black teens who make a point of beating up white ones, and not in retaliation against white teens doing it to them? It happens. White kids can get beat up by black kids for being white, as so very many testimonials questioning my last post attest to. And this isn’t new – Norman Podhoretz recounts it from his childhood. Nor is it restricted to boys, as sometimes girls do it.

Or what about black adults who, when whites aren’t around, are given to saying that they just “don’t like white people”? I imagine most black people know a person or two like this, for whom all white women are potential Karens and all white men are potential Darren Wilsons. Many white people know or work with black people with sentiments of this kind and don’t know it.

The term racism is more plausible for this type and the teenagers. It is a contempt that the white recipient has reason to think they don’t deserve. More to the point, it will justifiably seem to be splitting hairs to say that the black kids beating up a white kid are punching “up,” and the black person who asserts that they don’t like white people often leads a life of affluence.

However, I still see this “racism” as different from white racism and yes, I find it lower on the reprehensibility scale.

To be sure, this kind of black racism is founded in an exaggerated sense of whites’ menace, to be sure. Its ultimate attraction is in giving a black person a sense of belonging in a community – it’s always easier to nurture a sense of community against an enemy. I have always wished people like this would find other ways of having a sense of belonging, especially since there’s just a certain plain whackness about lumping all whites together as some forbidding unitary category. It’s parochial, let’s face it.

But this kind of racism is still, in essence, reactive. Maybe it isn’t punching up so much as out. You may not agree with the premise of this prejudice, but that alone does not justify crudely classifying it as the same failing as a white person not liking black people just “because.” To be a member of the Other, and subordinate, group and to not like the majority in power doesn’t deserve the same judgment as the “racism” of whites who judged blacks inferior, and whose descendants saw blacks hobbled by the results of this judgment and deemed them inferior yet again.

By the way – I limit this point to racist sentiment. Some might think the key point here is that white racism is “worse” because of its systemic impact. But this is a different observation and ultimately less interesting, in being so obvious.

The more challenging question is whether, to put it in oversimplified and antiquated terms – which can be useful sometimes – George Jefferson’s racism was the same thing as Archie Bunker’s.

To the extent that most would say no, how about if George Jefferson now has a college-educated grandson who quietly “just doesn’t like white people.” Is that racism subject to the same judgment as the white frat boy this Jefferson scion went to college with, who after a few too many, admits to his friends that he could do without the (insert the relevant word)s?

To me, no. I find it a little simplistic to suppose so. I can imagine an alternate universe, an alternate language, where the word applied to the black person’s sentiment here would be different from the one applied to the white one’s. This would make sense to me.

P.S. Many will ask how this applies to black racism when directed at races other than whites. Here, I consider black people to get no pass whatsoever. If we go out and recapitulate what has defined our very history in such tragic ways, there is no “understanding” necessary. For example, reports of black kids bullying and beating up Asian ones for being Asian demonstrate black people’s sheer humanity – but via one of the more nauseating strains of humanity indeed.