Roger L. Simon

Gates and Obama's nostalgia for racism

Change is difficult, even — possibly most of all — for an apostle of “change.” What happened in Cambridge, MA, the other night is quite sad and I have mixed feelings writing about it. But I’m going to go ahead.

We all grew up with the received wisdom, with the donnée, if you will, that the U.S. was a racist country. And it was.

So were most countries. In fact, you might say all were racist. Despite the cliché wallowed in by our self-critics, racism is a global human phenomenon, not even remotely exclusively American.

In fact the United States, of all places I have visited, has done the most to obliterate its racism in a concerted manner. Perhaps it is because we are such a melting pot and have little choice that we have made a great effort. And of course there is the more than justifiable guilt over slavery. So we tried hard. And we’ve done a remarkably good job, considering that deep in the human psyche is distrust of the other. Most of us prefer to live in a comfort zone of our own people, our own ethnic, religious and racial groups. But we know that’s not cool and have, in our culture, worked very hard to combat that. Most of us have, anyway. And we have reached a point, I would say as long as twenty years ago or maybe more, when to be a racist or to exhibit racist tendencies was despised. To put it succinctly, to be a racist was to be a jerk.

But when the rules change, when values change, not everyone can adjust with it — not only the racist, but also those who depended on being victims of racism. For all his brilliance, Henry Lewis Gates is evidently such a man. Otherwise, why cry out about being victimized as a “black man in America” before there is any evidence that that is the case?

This is nostalgia for racism and our president probably suffers from it as well, although perhaps to a lesser degree, considering he clearly plunged into the fray without thinking. The problem is that this nostalgia not only blames people unfairly, it also increases the very thing it pretends to oppose — racism itself. The unfair or inaccurate imputation of racism promotes racism.

Our universities are havens for this form of nostalgia, so it is not amazing that Gates would suffer from it. You don’t get a job in our academic world by saying America has conquered racism, even to a small degree, even after it has elected an African-American president. [Didn’t Sweden do that? Or was it Turkey?-ed. Don’t get me started.] You don’t get a job with an NGO either by making such an “outrageous statement.” Large sectors of our society are dependent on an increasingly non-existent racism, not just obvious parties like Jesse Jackson and Jeremiah Wright. We have a whole fabric of our culture endlessly clamoring for a “diversity” that is already accepted. Every business and social activity I have been involved with has for decades been desperate to enlist people-of-color and yet many insist it is not happening and demand more. There is something self-defeating in that, like a societal jack story. The secret wish of these people, buried not far from the surface, is for things not to have changed. They have a nostalgia for an evil past when they could feel self-righteous and victimized. Self-defeating indeed.

It is this nostalgia we must address, not, as Attorney General Eric Holder insists, our unresolved race problem. That is the moral of the Gates story and of the President’s response — at least so far. Race relations will never be perfect, just as human relations will never be perfect. But we now have civil rights laws that demand equality, as they should. Let’s rely on them and move forward. Without nostalgia.

UPDATE: I would just like to add that as a sixties civil rights worker, I can empathize with the nostalgia. In those days it was very easy to tell right from wrong and feel good about your actions. These days it’s a lot more complicated.