Saturday, 31 July 2010

A Colour-Blind Society?

Rush Limbaugh once listed individual liberty, limited government, capitalism, the rule of law, faith, a colour-blind society and national security as the core tenets of the American conservative movement. Despite the claims that the American Right are "colour-blind" and are proponents of a colour-blind meritocracy - in which those most deserving rise up the ladder and the unworthy remain at the bottom of the heap - race baiting remains a tool of vilification on the Right. The American Right are "colour-blind" until a black person raises the issue of racism or past injustices suffered by African-Americans in the United States. Because in a so-called "colour-blind" society it is racist to even acknowledge black people as African-Americans, as opposed to Americans, and the same method is used to shoot down arguments for affirmative action.

Just as in the case of Reverend Wright, in which the words of a black preacher were taken out of context and used against the Obama administration, liberation theology was turned into racist psychobabble to justify raising the possibility that Obama might be a racist. It was the same right-wing commentariat that were vilifying Wright and Obama as racists, who supposedly adhere to a "colour-blind" vision of America. Of course, it was "colour-blind" conservatives like Ronald Reagan who opposed the Civil Rights act on the grounds that it infringed on the civil rights of businesses and property owners. Reagan went on to be dragged kicking and screaming into voting for a day honouring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. But that did not stop him from putting Nelson Mandela on a list of "terrorists" in 1988.

Last week the issue of race has once again resurfaced in American politics, in a similar manner to the ACORN scandal last year, this time it was Shirley Sherrod who was the target of vilification. Andrew Breitbart, a leading conservative blogger, posted a selected excerpt of a speech by Shirley Sherrod at the NAACP (see here). In the clip it appeared as though Sherrod admitted to discriminating against a white farmer on the basis of his skin colour. Soon after right-wing pundits like Bill O'Reilly leaped on the clip as evidence that Sherrod should resign from her position in the Department of Agriculture. The clip was posted on, the same website where the selectively edited videos that brought down ACORN last year were posted. The American Right had it in for ACORN ever since the organisation endorsed Obama in 2008, the Right has propagated conspiracy theories that the election was stolen by ACORN for Obama.

Even though in the full video Shirley Sherrod tells a story of the way she felt when first worked with a white farmer - back in 1986 when she worked for a non-profit organisation - and how her immediate reaction to him was wrong. The point of the story was that she should help white farmers, because "the struggle is really about poor people" in Sherrod's own words. The fact that Sherrod's initial reaction was down to anger going back to the murder of her father in the 1960s is also ignored by the conservative media. But in the end her reaction to the white farmer, who she perceived as "talking down to her", did not go as far as outright discrimination. Sherrod actually saved the man's farm, because solidarity among poor people should transcend the "boundaries" created by centuries of racism in the US.

Sadly, it's too late as the Obama administration forced Shirley Sherrod to resign. The Democrats could be facing a rebellion by voters in November, and Obama is also looking to secure a second term, so Sherrod had to go to avoid any allegations that the Democrats are racist. Breitbart's video did it's damage and the administration looks even more vulnerable to the Atwater tactics of the Republican smear-machine. Unfortunately, the idea of a "colour-blind" society is still prevalent among white Americans and the conservative movement. This is unfortunate as such a vision would ignore past injustices, instead of compensating for them, and would exacerbate the condition of namelessness experienced by African-Americans - as a direct result of slavery which stripped them of their culture and history.

In this vision of a colourless society in which people rise in accordance with their effort there would be no room for addressing the crimes of the past. This would make this an ignorant society, one which carries no guilt and no desire for redemption to resolve the crimes on which a high standard of living enjoyed today is partly built on. It would be a society in which indifference to minorities, women and the poor as a whole would be nurtured. In a sense, it would be affirmative action for rich-white-men who have not gained their position out of effort. Very few would rise up the ladder, as they already do, and the vast majority of people would remain at the bottom. Tensions along racial, gender and economic lines would be concentrated and would fester for years to come. In short, it wouldn't be much of a society to live in if "colour-blindness" were the chosen method to deal with racism.

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