Thursday, October 22, 2009

Race-baiting in Virginia's first post-racial election

Virginia is electing a new slate of state officials in a couple weeks. I haven't been following it too closely, even though Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate, is from my neck of Virginia and he's trailing badly; I've always focused more on national politics (particularly presidential politics). But this showed up in my Google Alerts:

The final debate of the campaign for attorney general took on racial overtones today.

Democrat Steve Shannon said Republican Ken Cuccinelli favors states' rights, likening it to the agenda that resulted in Virginia's fight for segregated schools. Cuccinelli accused Shannon of "race-baiting."

Shannon, a delegate from Fairfax County, said after the hourlong debate that he does not think Cuccinelli is a racist. But he said Cuccinelli, a state senator from Fairfax, is "an ideological crusader" whose agenda reflects some of the worst aspects of Virginia's past.

Cuccinelli described Shannon as "a backbencher" who is disinclined to pick fights.

The two lawyers debated before a luncheon meeting of the Richmond Bar Association at the Richmond Omni Hotel. It was their fourth debate. [Emphasis mine]

Shannon was making a valid comparison between present and past political strategies - something that people do all the time. Folks are constantly looking to past happenings to explain our political future - politics and the country are changing all the time, and the past is something stable we can look to. Comparing Cuccinelli to Civil War-era supremacist is a strong comparison, but that's the language of politics. Calling Shannon a race-baiter is hurling a special, racialized rebuke for doing exactly what a politician is supposed to do in a campaign: raising issues.

After making said strong comparison, why is Shannon obligated to absolve Cuccinelli of any personal responsibility by saying that he's "not a racist"? Whether or not one white man labels another white man a racist is not relevant. Focusing on the label of racism makes fighting racism a pantomime - it makes actions and contributions superficial, solely focused on titles applied externally. That is what politics is, though, isn't it?

It's not about whether someone is "a racist" or not (though if they've got race privilege, they probably are - myself included) - it's about whether they're anti-racist. In fighting racism, actions and not intentions are what matters. Politicians like Cuccinelli who make noise about race-baiting when a hint of race enters the discussion are concentrating on evading the responsibility of our country's history of racism. This evasion creates an opportunity for them to avoid any discussions of racism, and thus save themselves the trouble of doing anti-racist work while they rest on their privileged laurels.

Our conception of our society as post-racial discourages discussion of race rather than encouraging learning and growth. Post-racial discourse pretends that we don't have issues with race now, and we never did. Because our president is black, see? So obviously none of us have an issue with it now, and there's no use talking about what our ancestors did since they're all dead. Right? Totally!

There's no use talking about slavery - no one has slaves, silly, and no one has for years! There's no purpose to bringing it up. It just stirs up bad memories that no one wants to think about anymore. It's so long ago - it couldn't impact our interactions and society today.

Except that it does exist, and it didn't happen, past tense - it's happening, present tense, an we need to talk about it, today. When a junior high football coach encourages his team to use racial slurs, racism is real and happening. When elected officials brag about belonging to the KKK, racism is real and happening. That's just a fraction, and that's just today.

Anti-racist work is silenced by calls of race-baiting, of insisting that we absolve those who ignore racism of responsibility. As a politician trying to win a race, Shannon couldn't do a lot more. But at least he is raising issues that Cuccinelli insists on pretending aren't an issue. Racism isn't going to stop by ignoring it - such actions only breed ignorance and amplify the issues that plague our laws, our government, and our country.

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