Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Joan Walsh on Race and the Media: Political Analysis in Light of Joe Wilson's Outburst

And a final comment as a gloss to what I wrote Monday about the way in which discussions of racism in American society constantly get sidelined, because we don’t want to discuss the core ideological issues around which many of our political and cultural debates revolve. We don’t intend to discuss these issues openly and frankly, that is.

Joan Walsh has a clear, helpful statement about the problem at Salon yesterday. As she notes, the president has to downplay the issue of race, because if he does otherwise, he will play into the hands of his right-wing opponents who want to play the race game while pretending that no such game exists. If Mr. Obama adverts to race as a significant analytic category for politics and culture, he will instantly be accused of inventing racism that is just not there—except when those charging him with racism want to pull the race card out of their bag of tricks to try to shove right-center voters inclined to the Democrats for economic reasons in the Republican direction for racial reasons.

Walsh also agrees with Darren Hutchinson, who recently noted the diversionary role of race in media analysis of political issues. To the extent that we focus on race (or the manifold other culture war issues of gender and sexual orientation that the right keeps pushing to the forefront), we ignore what’s behind it all: economic injustice whose primary agents benefit when we remain mesmerized by culture-war issues and ignore the rapacity of those who keep enriching themselves as we fight about race, gender, and sexual orientation.

And yet race deserves consideration, because racism is there in our society, and it’s potent—and potently harmful to all of us. Walsh concludes that Obama is right, and Hutchinson is right, as are those who push for open discussion of racial issues. As she notes,

I still believe, however, that we have to call out racism when we see it, and that the media's recent interest in the topic is a good thing, overall, not merely an example of its weakness for sensationalism. If race is now "catnip" for the media, I'd argue that's an improvement over the days when it was a hugely uncomfortable issue for pundits and reporters, routinely handled badly when handled at all.

To see debates on CNN or MSNBC about whether and how race plays a role in the way Obama's opponents demonize and dehumanize him – to see media understand that racial stereotyping and marginalization can occur even without the use of racial slurs or outright discrimination -- is a big step forward. Also: To have white pundits and politicians willing to decry racism, while black scholars and politicians downplay it, seems like racial progress in itself. It's a two-steps-forward, one-step-back march to social justice. I'd say this debate is part of getting there.

And I agree. I’ve pretty much ended up where Walsh ends up here—and that was the point of my posting about these issues on Monday.

The graphic for this posting is from the World Council of Churches's statement on the 2001 UN Conference on Racism (see here). It illustrates the interconnections of racism, misogyny, and economic injustice.