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Minority Death Match
November 19, 2009 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Minority Death Match: Jews, Blacks, And The "Post-Racial" Presidency by By Naomi Klein. An interesting look at the failure of the two United Nations Durban conferences on racism — and a whole lot of other stuff.

A critique of a portion of the essay by Joel Kovel. [The article originally appeared in the September issue of Harpers..]
posted by chunking express (32 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Klein interviewed about the essay: Part 1; Part 2.
posted by chunking express at 7:13 AM on November 19, 2009


Huh. The revival of the argument for reparations for slavery. I thought that debate was dead, because there's a serious problem with it: Do you provide "mass scholarship funds, for instance, or major investments in preventative health care" to all black Americans, or only to the 4.3 million in severe poverty? In either case, why aren't those things being offered to the 3.7 million Hispanics in severe poverty? Or to the 10.3 million whites in severe poverty? Is the goal to make up for slavery by creating a country in which only Hispanics and whites are poor?
posted by shetterly at 7:53 AM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


Is the goal to make up for slavery by creating a country in which only Hispanics and whites are poor?

Yes, i'm pretty sure that must be the goal.
posted by chunking express at 8:02 AM on November 19, 2009 [3 favorites]


The best argument against the Status Quo is the quality of arguments made in favour of it.
posted by srboisvert at 8:07 AM on November 19, 2009 [6 favorites]


For the tl;dr crowd, a salient quote:
The original Durban conference was not all about Israel, as Palmor and so many others have claimed; it was overwhelmingly about Africa, the ongoing legacy of slavery, and the huge unpaid debts that the rich owe the poor. It is a story with which Western governments have never been comfortable, but there is perhaps no administration to which it represents a greater threat than the one headed by Barack Obama. Because the story that was told in Durban is a frontal challenge to the fairy tale Americans have been telling one another of late—the one about having entered a "post-racial" era, with their dashing president cast in the leading role.
posted by lunit at 8:08 AM on November 19, 2009


Has anyone seriously suggested that we've entered a post-racial era? I've only seen that referenced as a joke.
posted by Mavri at 8:11 AM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Yeah, and even if we've entered a post-racial America, we are nowhere near entering a post-class America, which was pointed out in the first few comments. A post-racial America isn't going to settle the 'huge unpaid debts the rich owe the poor'.
posted by spicynuts at 8:17 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


chunking express, then why are the white and Hispanic poor not included? Serious question. Do the Hispanic poor get compensated for the US stealing most of the Southwest? Do poor whites get compensated for prison labor and indenture?
posted by shetterly at 8:19 AM on November 19, 2009


Do white middle management get compensated for having to sit in shitty cubicles all our lives and perform soul crushing useless administrative tasks simply for the privilege of two weeks vacay and a worthless 401k?
posted by spicynuts at 8:28 AM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


The entire thing seems one perfect shitstorm of bad actors and crap politics from beginning to end.
Fat UN bureaucracy creating work for itself with more talking shops; various states with national agendas crow-barring their pet issues into the horrible lash-up that the final statement was; a weird lens of the history of imperialism in Africa that sees it as racist first, rather than racism in the modern sense being one of the consequences; reparations that will at best take the form of a transfer of funds from one set of elites to another, regardless of your views on the correctness of that view of collective moral culpability.
Also, much as I have no time for the criminal behaviour of the Israeli state as regards Palestine, the notion that it is a wrong of such an exceptional order as to merit separate mention is certainly dubious at best. Without discussing the vested interests of those states who objected to that language, it's still a crock of shit.
posted by Abiezer at 8:30 AM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


Fascinating article. Thanks for posting it.
posted by lunit at 8:35 AM on November 19, 2009


The hardest part of selling reparations in the United States has always been the perception that something would have to be taken away from whites in order for it to be given to blacks and other minorities.

A post-racial America isn't going to settle the 'huge unpaid debts the rich owe the poor'.

These are both interesting to me. The first is from the article, the second from the comments.

There does undeniably exist significant overlap among the groups "historically legally-disenfranchised minority" and "poor." But isn't it faulty to assume that deliberately employing the notion of "reparations" will ease racial disparity? Doesn't a problem exist also where these groups do not overlap?

What about the destitute poor whites in Appalachia whose poverty is the product of exploitation in coal mines, just as an example. This is not to imply in any way that first the enslavement of and second the systematic discrimination against blacks in America can be appropriately compared to poverty among whites. But my ancestors came to this country as indentured servants in Virginia tobacco plantations. My grandmother was born in a one-room shack as the daughter of sharecroppers--poor whites who were also systematically disenfranchised for generations.

I think it is important to consider that if a particular group is singled-out for reparations based on a legitimate claim to discrimination, many questions are raised about poverty among other groups. That is not to say that notion should be done, just that any solution is extremely tenuous.

One thought comes to mind immediately: the average net worth of a white American is indeed demonstrably higher than the average net work of a black American. But isn't there a wider set of standard deviations within the set of white Americans? I can't help but imagine that if a portion of tax dollars were set aside expressly for the purpose of reparations, a populist outrage would emerge among poor whites whose own background includes discrimination and who are themselves today barely getting by.

That is not to imply that the discrimination faced by poor whites was the same as the discrimination faced by blacks. And, I suppose a counter-argument might be that I don't carry in my skin a lingering target for discrimination, and my rising from my family's poverty has been an easier endeavor than would be for a given individual black.

I guess I have no substantive comment to make, except to say that these ideas make me very nervous.
posted by jefficator at 8:37 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I sort of heart Naomi Klein, but she's grasping so hard for relevance.
posted by bardic at 8:41 AM on November 19, 2009


Thanks for this. I look forward to reading it.
posted by stinkycheese at 9:07 AM on November 19, 2009


Has anyone seriously suggested that we've entered a post-racial era? I've only seen that referenced as a joke.

I would agree. Since when (well, excepting the breathless histrionics of the media immediately after last year's election) has it been argued seriously that the US is in a state of post-racial anything?

Since even his most modest, Band-Aid measures are going to be greeted as if he is waging race war, Obama has little to lose by using this brief political window to heal a few of the country's racial wounds.

Um, sorry, Naomi Klein, but if you think Obama's ever going to do that, or even anything approaching it, you are hallucinating.
posted by blucevalo at 9:22 AM on November 19, 2009


Has anyone seriously suggested that we've entered a post-racial era?

Bill Bennett said something like that on the night Obama was elected. Other than Bill Bennett, nope.
posted by shetterly at 9:49 AM on November 19, 2009


I always find it fascinating that the people who claim to be the most worried about class issues are also generally the first to argue against redistribution of the wealth for anyone, if they're not also included as recipients.

"No one can step forward unless I step forward first" is the opposite of the mentality you need to build equality in any sense.
posted by yeloson at 10:08 AM on November 19, 2009


Do the Hispanic poor get compensated for the US stealing most of the Southwest?

We annexed most of the Southwest at the end of the Mexican-American War. Do people really think of this as "stealing?" Weren't almost all current and past national borders decided by war? After all, Mexico gained its independence just a few decades earlier, after going to war with Spain.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 10:09 AM on November 19, 2009


Interesting article. I never took the idea of reparations very seriously, but this is worth thinking about (though of course it won't happen):
The hardest part of selling reparations in the United States has always been the perception that something would have to be taken away from whites in order for it to be given to blacks and other minorities. But because of the broad consensus for large stimulus spending (at least for now), there is a staggering amount of new money floating around, money that does not yet belong to any one group. So far Obama's approach to stimulus spending has been rightly criticized for lacking a big idea—the $787 billion package is a messy grab bag, with little ambition to actually fix any one of the problems on which it nibbles. Listening to Wareham, it occurred to me that closing, at long last, the gaps left by slavery and Jim Crow is as good a big stimulus idea as any.
posted by languagehat at 10:11 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


blucevalo: "I would agree. Since when (well, excepting the breathless histrionics of the media immediately after last year's election) has it been argued seriously that the US is in a state of post-racial anything?"

My 7th grade social studies teacher fussed at me for saying there was still racism in the US. That all ended in the 60s, you see. I've run into many people since then who believe the same thing.
posted by brundlefly at 10:20 AM on November 19, 2009


But because of the broad consensus for large stimulus spending (at least for now), there is a staggering amount of new money floating around, money that does not yet belong to any one group.

Of course that money belongs to people! It came from taxes, FFS. It didn't just one day appear in the Treasury.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:21 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I did read both pieces in full, although Kovel's full throated assertion that Zionism is racism made it darned hard to finish his. I guess my perspective is very different from both authors and from many on this thread. I am not sold by Klein's efforts to air brush out the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel aspects of the 2001 Durban conference, which as Kovel points out were actually very interlinked with and central to its other major themes.

So, given the association of the 2001 conference with full throated anti-Zionism, anti-Semitism and anti-Israel themes, where is the surprise that the US and our President aren't interested in attending the latest iteration? Israel, with all its faults, and despite all the just criticism that has been leveled at its policies and behavior, is a US ally and friend. I will point out too that there is no way Israel is going to be brought to the table by the US to agree to a just solution to the Palestinian issue if the US is running off to participate in anti-Israel conferences.

I would just add that I think the issue of reparations is a difficult one, with which I struggle. There is no question that wrong was done, the issue is whether there is really a remedy and what form it should take.
posted by bearwife at 10:30 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Is the goal to make up for slavery by creating a country in which only Hispanics and whites are poor?

Yes, i'm pretty sure that must be the goal.


Of course that isn't the conscious goal of people who support reparations, but I think shetterly's point is pretty clear if we read it charitably/reasonably instead of hyperliterally/snarkily.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:33 AM on November 19, 2009


Google has 76.5 million hits for the search term "post-racial". Browing the top twenty, it seems like most of them are either trying to debunk the adjective or hand-wringing over the lost prospect of a post-racial America. So, while it's not really clear that anyone's arguing that the US is now a post-racial nation, it seems quite clear that a lot of people are arguing that it ought to be, and that a lot of other people are arguing that it can't ever be.
posted by Errant at 11:22 AM on November 19, 2009


I would just add that I think the issue of reparations is a difficult one, with which I struggle. There is no question that wrong was done, the issue is whether there is really a remedy and what form it should take.

It seems to suffer from the same problem of emergence that confronting racism itself does: Though you might get people to agree that it exists in aggregate, it is diffuclt to pinpoint with certainty in the particular.

It's the practical problems that stand out most to me: Suppose people came to agree that reparations should be made. How would you even go about doing that? The fee is meant to atone for injuries caused by slavery; the depth, rootedness and viciousness of contemporary racism against black people in this country has surely been shaped by that institution. But can we therefore state that all black Americans have been equally injured by slavery itself? Even, say, Oprah or Toni Morrison? Or Edwidge Dandicat, who immigrated to the this country from Haiti? What about, say, Djimon Honsou, who grew up in Benin and only became an American citizen several years ago? If we decide that a closer connection is warrented to be deserving of reparation --- say, proving you're descended from slaves --- then how to contend with the fact that a huge swathe of contemporary Americans are descended from people who emigrated here after slavery?

One could approach this by aiming the remedy at black people as a class, but what would the restrictions on this be? If some sort of reparation funded charitable institution is set up in a neighborhood, do we bar people who live in that neighborhood but who aren't African-American from making use of it? Set up a security guard with a selection of paper bags at the door? If not, then at what point does such an effort blur into one aimed at alleviating poverty?
posted by Diablevert at 11:25 AM on November 19, 2009


What about half or quarter black americans? Do they get half or quarter share? The nightmare of trying to partition this out makes the idea ludicrous in the extreme, as opposed to say just redistributing wealth among classes, regardless of race or country of origin. That has it's own nightmares, granted.
posted by spicynuts at 11:45 AM on November 19, 2009


I don't think the people arguing for reparations are hoping for stimulus cheques. One example from the article:
Since the economic crisis hit, John A. Powell and his team at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University have been engaged in a project they call "Fair Recovery." It lays out, in detailed policy papers, exactly what an economic stimulus program would look like if eliminating the barriers to equality were its overarching idea. Powell's plan covers everything from access to technology to community redevelopment. A few examples: Rather than simply rebuilding the road system by emphasizing "shovel ready" projects (as Obama's current plan does), a "fair recovery" approach would include massive investments in public transit, to address the fact that African Americans live farther away from where the jobs are than any other group. Similarly, a plan targeting inequality would focus on energy-efficient home improvements in low-income neighborhoods, and, most importantly, require that contractors hire locally. Combine all of these targeted programs with single-payer health care and a plan to desegregate the school system and you have something like what Randall Robinson called for in The Debt: "a virtual Marshall Plan of federal resources" to close the racial divide.
And another
Most everyone agreed that reparations should include a clear and unequivocal apology for slavery, as well as a commitment to returning stolen artifacts and to educating the public about the scale and impact of the slave trade. Above and beyond these more symbolic acts, there was a great deal of debate. Dudley Thompson, former Jamaican foreign minister and a longtime leader in the Pan-African movement, was opposed to any attempt to assign a number to the debt: "It is impossible to put a figure to killing millions of people, our ancestors," he said. The leading reparations voices instead spoke of a "moral debt" that could be used as leverage to reorder international relations in multiple ways, from canceling Africa's foreign debts to launching a huge development program for Africa on a par with Europe's Marshall Plan. What was emerging was a demand for a radical New Deal for the global South.
On Obama himself, I thought this quote was interesting
The late Latino activist Juan Santos wrote a much-circulated essay during the campaign in which he argued that Obama's unwillingness to talk about race (except when his campaign depended upon it) was a triumph not of post-racialism but of racism, period. Obama's silence, he argued, was the same silence that every person of color in America lives with, understanding that they can be accepted in white society only if they agree not to be angry about racism. "We stay silent, as a rule, on the job. We stay silent, as a rule, in the white world. Barack Obama is the living symbol of our silence. He is our silence writ large. He is our Silence running for president." Santos predicted that "with respect to Black interests, Obama would be a silenced Black ruler: A muzzled Black emperor."
posted by chunking express at 12:25 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Now, about those reparations... one of my great++ grandmothers was a slave, one grandmother was Native American, but the rest were all white people (though Mormon and so had wives instead of slaves). Does that mean I'd get a smaller amount? Or does the white in me cancel out the minority? Would I have to pay reparations to myself?
posted by _paegan_ at 1:28 PM on November 19, 2009


Now, about those reparations... one of my great++ grandmothers was a slave, one grandmother was Native American, but the rest were all white people (though Mormon and so had wives instead of slaves). Does that mean I'd get a smaller amount? Or does the white in me cancel out the minority? Would I have to pay reparations to myself?

I have had fun asking these kinds of questions myself, but one thing i learned from this article is that people i favor of reparations aren't really advocating for individual checks so much as programs. Makes me want to read more on the subject so I don't make myself look ignorant all the time, which I am.
posted by not that girl at 2:03 PM on November 19, 2009


people in favor of reparations aren't really advocating for individual checks so much as programs.

exactly. I took a course from a prominent (for our campus at least) advocate of reparations and he repeated this at least once a week.

I'm not sure how this would work in terms of reparations to African nation though (what Klein seems to be talking about). How would this be different from the foreign aid that goes from the West to Africa yearly? I know Klein would probably say that there's all sorts of strings attached, a lot of it's breaks on debt and not really aid, and that it's poorly administered. Still, is there any chance that reparations wouldn't have all the same problems?
posted by nangua at 4:26 PM on November 19, 2009


Also, Obama is fucking awesome.
posted by chunking express at 11:12 AM on November 20, 2009


I have had fun asking these kinds of questions myself, but one thing i learned from this article is that people i favor of reparations aren't really advocating for individual checks so much as programs.

But there already are government programs designed to assist blacks as a group. If it's just about programs that generally help blacks, why even talk about "reparations" at all instead of debating affirmative action, welfare, etc.?
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:34 AM on November 20, 2009


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