Monday, August 27, 2012

More on Race in U.S. Politics Today: Scott Nakagawa on the "We" Factor

As a gloss on what I posted yesterday re: the dangerous memory of the oppression of people of color in the United States, a memory still alive and kicking in political events right up to 27 August 2012: I find the video of Scot Nakagawa that Laura Flanders embeds in this piece on Romney's lies very helpful (I've embedded the video at the head of the posting, too).  Nakagawa has started a blog called RaceFiles.

In this video, he addresses the "we" factor that causes many white citizens instinctively to back coded we-vs.-them race-based political analysis which sells even themselves short as white folks.  The coded (the lying) race-based political analysis of the American right, which is now normative in the Republican party, plays to a we-vs.-them mentality hinged on race, which leads reactionary, fearful white voters to vote against their own economic and social best interests in order to score points against people of color imagined as the threatening other.

Nakagawa notes, 

Vilifying people of color had the intention of causing African-Americans and native Americans to be viewed as less than human by white people.  But it had the opposite effect. It dehumanized white people in the sense that their understanding of what it means to be human is limited by race. It’s very difficult to see what are human needs, when they are defined in terms of race. We have much more in common than people would like to imagine but we continually limit ourselves when it comes to understanding how we are to serve our society and to see how the various needs of different people in our society are connected.

Their understanding of what it means to be human is limited by race: the ultimate (and intended) effect of race-baiting in American politics is to obscure the fact of human solidarity, which transcends racial boundary lines.  When that basic fact about the human race--we're all in it together--is obscured, and around such a neuralgic issue as race, it's easier to play group against group and to fragment solidarity.  It's easier to prevent groups from recognizing what they have in common and to prevent their working together, across social and cultural divisions, to achieve a common goal, the transformation of an unjust economic system.

As Colleen Baker notes at Enlightened Catholicism today, what is so deeply offensive, in part, to many of us Catholics about the open, unapologetic partisan support of most of the U.S. Catholic bishops and their leader Timothy Dolan for the Republican party is that the bishops appear to be making political decisions on the basis of consolidating their own power and privilege--and not around a vision of building a more humane world for all of us.  Colleen notes that not only are the primary leaders of the GOP all privileged white males; so are the bishops.  And so is the Vatican bureaucracy.

And she concludes, 

They too seem oblivious to the fact they teach what it means to be Catholic strictly from the isolation of their own white male privilege with a good dose of clerical privilege to boot.  They can not teach from any sense of the 'real' world unless those they teach agree that the clerical world view is the way God wants the real world viewed. Except Jesus taught the real world is the world of the marginal and the poor and that's the world His followers should serve.  What we now have is His supposed followers redefining Jesus' mission and actually telling the poor and marginal their status in life is good for them.  Apparently it's so good for us, that Cardinals like Dolan and Bishops like Morlino are quite happy to help other privileged white males create more opportunities for giving more of us a shot at being poor and marginalized. Praise Jesus.

As Fred Clark wisely and pithily notes in a posting this morning about evangelical tribalism, 

Once "one of us" and . . . its more-important corollary "not one of us" become your concern, they quickly become your main concern, and then eventually your only concern.

I very much agree.  And it's because I have long seen the appeal to white working-class Catholic "ethnic" voters on the part of Catholic centrists like Michael Sean Winters as essentially we-vs.-them politics--we Catholics with our values vs. you secularists and liberals with your no values--that I find the politics of Catholic "family values" highly destructive of solidarity.  And of the very goals of pursuing economic justice and protecting the value of life that it claims to cherish.

Winters himself admits in the statement to which I've just linked that abortion functions as a "cultural talisman" for conservative white "ethnic" working-class Catholic voters.  It functions, that is, as a talisman to divide us from them, to separate saints from sinners.

In doing so, it allows many Catholic voters to ignore the coded racism embedded in right-wing religious and political rhetoric, to pretend that this racism has nothing to do with them as Catholics, since the real Catholic objective when Catholics make common cause with other right-wing believers or right-wing political groups is to stop abortion.  And stopping abortion is worth colluding with these groups which, while they may have racist elements, are at least on the side of the angels when it comes to the issue of abortion.

The we-vs.-them politics of Catholic values and identity that have become normative for many American Catholics, including "liberals" like Michael Sean Winters, and which the Catholic bishops have actively nurtured for years now, foreshortens the understanding of human solidarity as something that transcends racial, social, and economic boundaries.  It does so by making a "talisman" of the unborn human being--even of the just-fertilized zygote, about whose human status there has long been a diversity of understandings even in the Catholic tradition itself--and drawing a line in the sand: if this life is not respected, no life can be respected.

A far more compelling ethic in defense of the worth of the unborn would work to build a much stronger sense of human solidarity across the board, one not rooted in a divisive we-vs.-them politics of religious and ethnic identity.  It would demand a much more heightened awareness of--to take one case among many--the maleficent effects of racism in American culture.  And a much stronger intent to combat that racism.

Until the "we" of a Catholic pro-life ethic includes everyone, pro-life politics and the ethic on which they are based will not be persuasive to many thoughtful people for whom the notion of human solidarity is far broader than us-believers-and-the-fetus.  Nor should it be persuasive.  Without a consistent respect for human life across the board--and this includes respect for the lives of women, gay and lesbian persons, racial minorities, the poor--Catholics and other right-wing Christians who have chosen to make a we-vs.-them talisman out of the fetus will continue to fail to convince many people of good will that they are actually and credibly pro-life.

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